Originally, I intended to add an expression of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement to my monthly end notes, over on my photography site, but the more I thought about it, and learned, the longer it grew, and as I wrote, the more I felt that I should give these thoughts and words their own dedicated article instead, and that my personal blog is, at least for the moment, a better place for them.
I Support Black Lives Matter
I’m putting this here for two reasons: 1. because June was a month that raised the question “where do I stand?” for me – not that I have to question myself about where I’d stand with regards to racism – but how much of it is part of my story and 2. as I said, simply as a sign of solidarity.
As a white male, I am benefiting, to what degree I don’t fully understand, from a system that is skewed in my favor – this is no different in Germany, where I grew up. But I openly admit that I have been ignorant and blind really to the United States’ systemic racism.
This has to do with the fact that I lived in Germany for the first 40 years of my life (Germany has its own problems, as everyone knows, and not just in the past, but more recently also, with a general uptick and more open display of xenophobia and the neo-nazi movement, for example), and also with the somewhat sheltered lives that we’re living in our suburban single family home in Southern California, of course.
But, I can honestly say that nowadays, I feel way more comfortable in a diverse environment. When we visited Germany in 2014, the momentary silence when we entered a restaurant in some small town in the Black Forest region and people looked up and stared at Shuwen was really uncomfortable and embarrassing to me (“this is my country?! is an Asian person really that unusual to you, still?!”), and I felt at ease again only while we were back in Frankfurt, at the airport, in a diverse crowd of travelers from all over the world.
Personally, I think we all are racist and/or xenophobic to a certain degree – to me, racism and xenophobia are just some archaic bullshit programming that has survived in us, for whatever reason, and it doesn’t take much to ignite them. But if we just get a chance to actually know people and other cultures and connect with them, then we don’t even have to “open our hearts” in a deliberate effort – I know that we humans are compassionate beings, by nature, and connections across cultures and races comes naturally to us.
There would be no way that some populist buffoon could stoke racist flames with incendiary lies if we just tap in to our compassion, but well, this is not how America is right now, unfortunately.*
I tried to educate myself on the difficult history and situation of people of color in America, reading some articles and following some (polite and well-conducted) discussions online. Here are a few links to resources that I found helpful in gaining an understanding:
- Letter from a Region in My Mind (James Baldwin, The New Yorker, November 1962, will take ~90 minutes to read)
- Reflections From a Token Black Friend (Ramesh Nagarajah, June 2020, will take ~20 minutes to read)
- Punishment by Pandemic (Rachel Avid, The New Yorker, June 2020, will take ~50 minutes to read; at the time of writing this it’s also available for listening)
- Rules for the Black Birdwatcher (video)
- Reconstruction in America (multimedia report on the time after the Civil War)
- Letter from the Desert: Anti-Racism
- You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body is a Confederate Monument (Caroline Randall Williams, The New York Times)
I’m against any form of racism, discrimination, xenophobia. After the reading I’ve done, it is clear to me that black people in America are at a systemic disadvantage – and this disadvantage is then used to stereotype them. It is a vicious circle. Add racist policing and police brutality on top of it, and it’s a mixture that has people ready to explode. And that is what happened, as we all know.
It’s difficult to watch the rioting, burning and looting. But is the George Floyd video not difficult to watch? Some looters loot not because they are in need, but just because they can. Some rioters just riot for the rioting, and the cause doesn’t matter to them. Growing up in Germany has taught me that, through soccer with its hooligans, the often violent and destructive May 1st protests, and the like.
But, in the context of the Black Lives Matter protests, I understand the impulse to destroy something that stands as an expression for wealth achieved through black exploitation, to loot in order to take away some part of this wealth.
It’s unfortunate to witness it and I don’t condone it, but I can understand how violence and aggression could seem to some as the only way to have an outlet for all the anger and unfairness; how it could appear to be the only choice to make one’s suffering heard and seen in a system that has been tuned literally over centuries to suppress those voices, effectively and actually killing them. And here’s why.
When I was a kid, we lived in South Tyrol for a few years. That’s a region of northern Italy nowadays, it fell to Italy with the end of World War II. As a result, the people there are xenophobes with a strong dislike for Italians and, even though their language is a German dialect, Germans alike. And I was “the German”. The amount of teasing and taunting in school (I was 12, 13 years old) seemed to never end. I had two friends, one Italian boy (the misfits like to band together!), and one local boy, Wilfried.
The problem wasn’t just that I was a foreigner, of course: my grades were good. With extra tutoring in addition to the regular classroom lessons, I was able to catch up with the local kids’ level of Italian (much to my own surprise I guess, but my advantage in languages came at the price of being a dolt in math and physics). Then in 5th grade, I won the school’s art contest. When my name was announced as the winner and I walked to the podium, I heard the whispers in the audience, from my fellow classmates: “the German, the German.”
The worst day-to-day teasing actually came from some girls. One day during recess, I couldn’t take it anymore, and punched the most horrible one of the teasing girls in the stomach when she just wouldn’t stop. I didn’t know how else to help myself. The verbal cruelty that I had been subjected to manifested itself in my physical violence. It was shameful, of course, because well, for starters, as a boy you’re not supposed to hit girls…
Naturally, the teacher responsible for our class questioned me after the incident. I broke out in tears over how I had been teased and taunted, how excluded I felt, how unfair this treatment was. She saw what was going on, and let me sit next to the local boy who had become my friend in class, for the remainder of the year.
My altercation on the school’s recess yard remained without consequences. Mind you, I had been driven into a violent response within less than two years. I think about the centuries of abuse that black people had to suffer when I quickly want to judge the rioting and looting as “unjustified” or “uncalled for”.
Black people in the United States have endured centuries of exploitation, oppression, brutality and discrimination. What I read about lynching and the brutality of white people in their hatred is simply horrifying. White people have done unspeakable cruelties to black people. And black people in America, to this day, live in fear, and raise their children so that they learn how to not draw white people’s suspicions and attention.
I cannot even begin to imagine what it must feel like to accept FEAR as a part of your LIFE. And this is the part that the “All Lives Matter” people and the “I don’t see race or color” folks, as well intended as those stances might be, don’t seem to understand. In this society, this system, black people are still not equals, at all – and that needs to change.
Knowing that we are racist and/or xenophobic, the question is then how we act, and whether we support it or close our eyes. We also must be honest to ourselves, and critically ask whether we benefit from this system (if the answer is “I don’t know” and “maybe”, it probably means “yes”, I guess…).
Being there and accepting that leads to the question: what do I do now? And I don’t have an answer. A lot of thoughts and ideas are out there. And I’m not the kind of person to jump in and “just try something outside of your comfort zone”. But here are some starting points, just scratching the surface:
- A criminal justice expert’s guide to donating effectively right now
- WeBuyBlack (marketplace for black owned businesses & movement for social & economic justice)
And this is where I’m at. Some of this may be wrong. It’s an incomplete picture and a work in progress. Every thinking, breathing human is always incomplete and a work in progress, and so am I. I’m working on it, but I don’t know yet how to transport a message of inclusiveness to others, in our photo club where I’m president, or in my photography business, without it coming across as a fake or token gesture that’s just born out of the necessity of the moment. It’s a risk I’m going to have to take, because it’s better than keeping my eyes closed, and doing nothing at all.
*) just look at how many people are, in the current situation of the COVID-19 pandemic, capable of grasping and embracing the concept that they’re not wearing nose and mouth coverings for their own protection, but for others.