I haven’t written because, Ferguson.

Ferguson Vigil

I haven’t written here in 12 days. I’m fairly sure that’s the longest stretch since I started the blog in 2006. While posting has become lighter over the past year as responsibilities change, children grow up, social media beckons, it still makes me twitchy to step away from Mom-101. And yet, I couldn’t write. Not about some glorious family vacation memories, not about the funny things Sage is saying, not about the most perfect NYC weather in the history of all Augusts ever, and not about anything.

Because, Ferguson.

[top image via]

I learned about Michael Brown and the subsequent events in Ferguson, Missouri a little later than most. That’s what happens when you’re semi-unplugged in a vacation home with spotty WiFi. When I did catch the first eye-opening this-can’t-be-happening tweet, I couldn’t stop reading.

Squinting into my tiny iPhone screen when that one teeny little dot of a bar appeared in my signal icon, I scrolled through Twitter’s live stream. And scrolled. And clicked. And favorited. And scrolled.

I cried.

I knew the next thing I had to write about was Ferguson. I couldn’t do anything else here until I addressed it somehow. Like Trayvon Martin, I knew it was my problem. All of our problems. It was big, and important, and felt like next in line to inherit the thorny throne held by historic National tragedies like Montgomery and Kent State. Ferguson was happening now, live on the internet, punctuated by the sound of rubber bullets firing and tear gas canisters exploding and peaceful protestors crying, and countless members of the press risking their own safety to bring it all to us.

Other people wrote about it immediately, of course: What it meant. How it felt. Why it mattered.

They wrote must-read personal stories about being Black in America. They wrote riveting on-the-ground analysis. They uncovered facts. They shared the best journalists to follow on the ground in Ferguson.They shared the best links. They coordinated volunteers. They raised money to feed school children who ordinarily received free lunch and were going hungry.

They protested in their own waysThey got angry.  They got specific.  They got political. They got emotional. They offered observations I never would have thought of myself.


I love Ferguson by jasari_x on Instgram

Photo by @jasari_x on Instagram

But the more that dozens–hundreds–of prolific writers said what they had to, the more I felt I had nothing to add. I stuck with retweets and link shares and favorites on Twitter. I posted briefly on Facebook, but nothing of real substance.

Like a friend you haven’t called back for weeks which becomes months which astoundingly becomes years because no one dares to make the next move, I simply didn’t write. I wanted to say the right thing about Ferguson. I had no right thing to say.

Then I realized that my silence, though not intended as silence, is not benign. It hurts.

Silence says more than it doesn’t.

White people who give a shit about race need to talk about race. However awkwardly, however imperfectly, at whatever risk of getting it wrong. We have to start somewhere.

My own readers schooled me years ago, after I wrote about “wonderfully innocent colorblindness of children” by replying no, we are not colorblind, nor should we be. You were all, FAIL, Liz. It was hard, but I heard you. I internalized your constructive suggestions. And you forever changed how I approach discussions about race and inequality of all sorts with my children.

You made me a better parent because I wrote — with the very best of intentions — a very stupid thing.

We can’t be afraid to fail. Not trying at all is far worse.

Here’s another one: All week, my instinct has been to shout, “how can this be happening? How is this my America in 2014?”

But then I realized, only the white people are saying that.

Let’s talk. Let’s listen, too. Good things come of it.


27 thoughts on “I haven’t written because, Ferguson.”

  1. I have learned some hard lessons by writing stupid things. I’m grateful to people who’ve pointed out my stupidity and loved me anyway. And in that, I’ve learned not only was I stupid sometimes, but my stupidity and that of other white people, requires people of color to exercise great patience and restraint.

    (White people act a bit like toddlers sometimes, in our view of the world and how it works for us, myself included.)

    “How can this be happening?” was Oliver’s reaction as he watched me watching the news. I gave him a very basic explanation, acknowledging that things still aren’t right. He knows about MLK Jr., civil rights, and President Obama. He should also know that in spite of all of these steps forward, problems still exist.

    1. Oh my gosh, how clever is that: White people act like toddlers. We don’t mean badly, we just don’t know any better than to see what happens if we lick the light socket and someone has to teach us. That’s hard to say out loud.

      Your kids are so worldly and inquisitive and amazing. As are you and Kyle. Hm, wonder where they get it from.

  2. I found myself watching CNN at breakfast in a hotel on the other side of the country with my children yesterday, trying to explain Ferguson to them. I tried to explain how even though I tell them they can trust the police if they are in trouble, that it’s not true for everyone in this country. That they have friends who just because the color of their skin is different, they are not treated the same. It’s hard for them to wrap their minds around. It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around. I don’t know if I explained anything in any way that will help them think about these issues constructively, but I hope so. We will keep having these conversations, I expect, as newer and equally sad incidents arise in the future, because they never seem to end.

    These discussion are hard to have, but so important. And you are right that we have to be brave about exposing our ignorance because it’s the only way to learn. I appreciate your thoughts in this space very much.

    1. Thank you so much Korinthia, I always appreciate your thoughts here (and everywhere) too. I’ve used analogies, like “imagine if your friend so-and-so couldn’t even go to the diner with you to get an ice cream and had to sit in a separate section.” It’s unfathomable to them because it just seems so unfair. Thalia is getting ready to be able to handle more nuanced discussions, and like you. it’s hard for me to figure out how to do it all the time. I hope I can use their questions to lead, and if I don’t have the answers, I can say that I don’t, and then look for them. (Yay for the Internet of All Things.)

  3. I got so angry at my husband when he asked if my post (http://bit.ly/1sTnuat) was adding to the conversation. It’s a CONVERSATION all of us participating is the point. My concern is always speaking of which I do not know which in the end is partly what my post was about.

    It’s hard but the most important things always are.

    1. That’s a fantastic post Sarah. and I hope it got a lot of traction. Of course it’s adding to the conversation! How could it not be? Let’s have a beer with your husband sometime…

  4. After Hurrican Katrina, I can’t watch CNN or really any news. I read online, but I can’t watch. I watched for days on end after Hurricane Katrina, and was ready to drive with my newborn to pick up strangers. I was deeply depressed…post partum didn’t do me any favors either.

    I find it a constant struggle about how much to share with my children. My daughters have friends of many races and ethnic backgrounds. I don’t want their love for their friends to be tainted by stereotypes and bigoted words. But sheltering them from those things is not the right answer either. At the very least, I want them to have a safe place (our home) to really think about how they feel about what’s right and wrong…and how in our little part of the world we can learn from mistakes (our own and others) and do better.

    1. Our kids must be the same age. I heard about Katrina on vacation (why do these things always happen when I’m away?) when Thalia was 3 months old. We have to work so hard to push through our feelings of inadequacy or ineffectiveness. One person can make a difference. Here’s what illustrator Mary Engelbreit just did: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=805637889469504 She’s up to $25,000 in donations.

      My favorite picture of Sage and her friends is what in advertising we’d call a “one of each photo.” It seems like central casting, but it’s the reality of our world–or at least my community–at this time. I understand your feelings. But our kids are growing up so perfectly able to make things better, the same way The Gen Y-ers grew up on Will and Grace and don’t think twice about same-sex marriage. Our kids are inclined to be sensitive and just. They need to tools to do something with it. At least that’s the way I see it.

      Thanks so much for your honesty Heather.

    2. Think of it this way, do your child’s multi-colored friends get a reprieve from the racism THEY experience simply because they’re children? I bet the answer is no. So why should YOUR children be considered more innocent, worthy of care and protection and delicate than THOSE children?

      1. You obviously have a lot of passion for this. I can’t speak for Heather, but I think I read her comment differently than you did. What I got is a concern that introducing the concepts of bigotry and racism will plant a seed that her children hadn’t considered or experienced; they don’t see their friends as “other” at this point.

        So my question to you would be, if a child of color has yet to experience racism or discrimination personally, at what point do parents introduce the idea? Is it something to talk about preemptively at a young age, or wait until it’s something that has to be addressed because of personal experiences or stories like this one?

        1. ” if a child of color has yet to experience racism or discrimination personally,” And how would a parent know that unless their kids told them about each and every instance of racism that they’ve experienced? I was actually a Black child once. I know many kids of color may not confide in their parents about the racist aggressions, both micro and macro they experience because they simply don’t have the words. Micro-aggressions can be really tricky for even adults to suss out at the time they’re dealt out. All you know is you end up feeling bad or iffy after they happen and may not be able to know why.

          My personal philosophy is to forewarn is to forearm. You wouldn’t put off Stranger Danger talks until your kid was accosted, would you? I’d want my children to know what was up and especially that mess is not their fault nor is it a reflection on them.

          1. I can only compare it to bullying or anti-semitism, both of which my children have reported to varying degrees (sadly) but you’re right, I don’t know every incident. I wonder though if kids are likely to report the first one since it’s new and strange. More of a rhetorical question. I appreciate your perspective on forearming. Terrific point.

  5. I remember Richard Pryor’s amazing quote on the Johnny Carson show many years ago. He said, “Johnny, there isn’t a day that goes by that you think about being White and there isn’t a day that goes by that I’m not reminded that I am Black.”

    1. That’s always stuck with me too. It’s so succinct and profound. Thanks for reminding me of it.

  6. As a black mom I too have struggled to find the words to write about this situation much because I am tired or the necessity and much because I have been pleasantly pleased by the number of white moms standing up and speaking out.

    To the point about when to talk to your kids about race/racism/prejudice I liken it to the “sex talk” in some ways. The question is who do you want to be driving the message you or someone else (their friends/media/teachers). I want my child to hear my version of the truth first and foremost and it will not be as strong if it’s in response to something else.

    1. Thanks so much for addressing the question Tiffany. I think that’s an awesome analogy and I love the idea of hearing your truth before someone else’s. Although I can’t anticipate everything; some of our best discussions have come after my kids came home asking why a kid said something unusual/awful/offensive about all kinds of stuff.

      (I’m looking at you, second grade boy who talked about “kissing a weenie.” You know who you are.)

  7. A while back, I decided I needed my Twitter stream to be more diverse across a lot of different dimensions: race, sexuality, even politics (I specifically went out and found a couple of people whose politics are opposite of mine to follow). I don’t want to live in a bubble where everyone thinks like me and experiences the world like me. It is hard to change that in real life (although I’m trying!) but so easy to change it on social media.

    Anyway, since I now follow many black people on Twitter, I am very aware of how painful white silence on these issues is, and also how it isn’t really white silence- it is white people letting the worst of us be the only ones speaking. Because believe me, the unrepentant racists are out in force in a lot of black people’s mentions. It is sickening.

    So I wrote a post after Michael Brown was shot, just expressing my sadness and acknowledging the fact that Black mothers have worries I do not, and that is wrong and unfair and we should work to change it.

    Then I saw the Pew poll that said only 37% of white people think that the shooting of Michael Brown raises issues about race. I struggle to understand that. I wonder where our white leaders are on this. Why aren’t white politicians speaking up and leading us to better understanding? Their overwhelming silence made me angry, so I wrote another post.

    I may not always get things “right” on issues of racism, but I’ll be damned if I am going to be silent in the face of such a large problem. We will only make progress on racism when white people are willing to speak up and call it out as wrong. So I try to speak up. If I get it wrong, the worst that happens to me is that I am embarrassed when I am called out on it. I’ll survive that.

    1. I feel the same, Cloud, about Twitter. I’m glad to hear you bring that up. I follow a lot of diverse perspectives – people and publishers I don’t necessarily know but seem to have a lot of interesting things to say – and it’s really broadened me. As for the politics…you’re a better woman than I. It’s hard enough seeing an ironic #tcot retweet in my feed from time to time.

      I saw that Pew Poll too – Sarah’s post above mentions it. I can’t even fathom how 63% of anyone following this story AT ALL can’t see how race plays a part. I can only think that saying “it’s not about race” is really a way of justifying racism and profiling without having to say it out loud.

      Your perspective is fantastic and I always love when you weigh in here.

  8. I have felt sad, hopeless, disillusioned, hurt.
    Who will listen? How can you make people listen? Seems like Ferguson has magnified and brought to the surface all the hate there is, and the haters? They still don’t see it.

    1. It does feel that way sometimes, doesn’t it. But I’ve also seen people who never thought twice about racism now opening their eyes. Let’s hope the love outweighs the hate. Keep speaking your truth.

  9. Before Ferguson I thought my shame in this country was confined to a political party and the stragglers beyond that party that were anti-marriage equality. It was an incredibly narrow view. Yesterday I looked up at an American flag billowing gracefully in the wind against to backdrop of a blue sky and endless fields of farmland. The red, white, and blue were the same as they’ve always been, and they took my breath away, but I felt genuine shame.

    We are not a united country.
    We are not colorblind.
    I think we’ve become, or have maybe always been, very much divided by color and hate. I hope that the roar of calling out the injustice will deafen all but the resolve to change and be a country that honors all its people. If it doesn’t, I think the hate may swallow us all whole.

    I am committed to adding to the chorus of No More.

  10. I don’t know what to add here other than to say thank you for this sincere post and for being a place where I want to read the comments. As you know I’m in New York, too, and my toddler has friends of a few different stripes, you might say. I wonder how much he notices, but I agree with the commenter above that I’m not going to push it on him. I’d rather wait for him to ask. In the absence of that, the best I can do is model the behavior I wish him to emulate.

    I took two weeks off from social media and I have to say it has been really rejuvenating. Maybe I just need to pare down my Twitter faves and FB friend lists to weed out the vomiting-halfbaked-ideas-into-the-ether phenomenon.

  11. Thanks for this beautiful and sincere article. I don’t think I’m able to add anything clever to the discussion, but I read all the comments and thanks for that.

  12. Before Ferguson, I happened on this video of Neil deGrasse Tyson addressing a (ridiculous) question that was posed to the panel he was sitting on. http://youtu.be/inz1sdhsMCU

    What he said struck me in the core. How many people, how much potential for the world has been wasted because kids like Michael Brown ended up NOT able to overcome the systemic, societal forces set up against him? It’s heartbreaking. So many in America see our fellow citizens as “them,” separate – grouped. It makes it easy to categorize Michael Brown and others as “them.” It distances them from the stacked system that they are a part of. I wish desperately we could shake it off.

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