I admit it. I was uncomfortable with the Black Lives Matter protest at Bernie Sanders’ rally in Seattle. I thought their point was made at the Netroots rally a few weeks before. And I thought Bernie Sanders had taken steps to adjust his campaign to meet Black Lives Matter’s concerns. And I felt uncomfortable when I began seeing posts that stated I should not be questioning the actions of Black Lives Matter–even if my questions were seeking to understand. But I moved forward in my being uncomfortable. I read more posts. I sought out words from the organizers of that rally and began to understand the context of the protest. Context that is oft times lost in the mainstream media.
One of the goals of Black Lives Matter’s, as I currently understand, is to confront the bastions of privilege and racism where ever it may lodge. And white liberals, and I am one, can easily hide behind the rhetoric of racism is a reality in this country and then return to business as usual feeling proud that we recognized that the issue exists, but having done nothing to break racism’s hold on the nation. Black Lives Matter were stating that Seattle’s white progressives have been such people and have done nothing to end the racism that exists in Seattle other than a head nod in their general direction. Head nods do not make a difference when lives are being lost. Such a stance rests in the protection of privilege. If we were to truly respond by doing something, it might mean losing the privilege.
Bernie Sander’s record on civil rights, better than most of our presidential hopefuls, does not mean anything if white progressives/liberals are not willing to step up to follow people of color’s lead to end racism in this nation. Respectability politics is no longer the way to go when people are dying daily to racist policies enforced through our police forces, our city councils, our states and federal government. Black Lives Matter placed white liberals and progressives on notice that knowledge about racism is not what makes an ally. It is a piece towards the making of an ally, but it, and it alone, does not make an ally. It never did. Not today. And not when Bernie Sanders was marching with Dr. King. It is action. It is the willingness to place our lives on the line to prevent one more life from being taken too soon by police or by denied access to Medicaid.
To hear that white progressives are not any better than confederate flag waving white supremacists is a hard pill to swallow. It is uncomfortable. It takes us aback. And we might respond defensively… “but, but…” we begin to say and then add what ever pops into our defensive heads next. ‘I’ve always given money to black causes.’ ‘I’ve always signed petitions.’ ‘I always decry racists whenever I see their confederate flags.’ ‘I’ve got black friends who agree with me.’ Deflections, every one of them. And when those deflections fail, we dismiss the person who stated such things to us and fall back into our white progressive slumber whereas the person of color must always keep their guard up because they are one traffic signal away from being shot.
When I was in seminary, I attended an anti-racist conference hosted by Meadville Lombard. The seminary wanted to work towards becoming an anti-racist institution. At that conference composed of a majority of white people, I stated that we (white folks) needed to develop the skill of comfortability. I then defined the word as having the ability to be willing to embrace the feeling of being uncomfortable in situations. In the context of being confronted on racism, it meant not being defensive in response but able to be held accountable to our complicity with white privilege and white supremacy and then using that skill of comfortability to change our behavior. I was chided for suggesting this. I was told by grammar elitists that comfortability was not a word. Several people openly dismissed this notion and shifted the conversation. Of course, it wasn’t a word, I just made up the portmanteau.
It is indeed a skill that needs to be developed. Gyasi Ross writes in his editorial about the Bernie Sanders protest: “Why shouldn’t the folks in the crowd have to talk about race—they consider themselves “progressives” or “liberals,” right? If they truly wish to be an effective ally, then they should WANT to feel the discomfort that we feel when we’re constantly confronted with questions of race. They should EARNESTLY DESIRE to feel the awkwardness of explaining to our children why our kids have different outcomes than white kids when they interact with law enforcement. [emphasis the author’s]” He is writing about developing the skill comfortability. White liberals, all whites regardless of political stripe, need to develop the ability to sit in discomfort and listen to how the system whites created serves to oppress, demean, and destroy Black Lives and other people of color. We need to recognize how we as white people continue to benefit from this system even when we put on the mantle of being progressive liberals with anti-racist rhetoric. White privilege protects us from these feelings of discomfort.
We need this skill. We need it yesterday. Because if we do not develop the ability to listen with humility no matter how uncomfortable the charge of racism is, then our hearts will harden and we will find our selves siding with the supremacists who want ‘those agitators gone’ by any means necessary. Only we will do it in the white liberal progressive way by becoming increasingly silent and complicit when police kill a child for playing with a toy gun, or when a woman is pulled over for a traffic stop and is publicly finger-raped by police for an unsubstantiated drug search. Silence equals death. Complicity yields to consent. I will no longer remain silent and I will no longer give consent even when I find my skill level in comfortability is lacking.