Ferguson: Amplify The Message, Don't Steal The Microphone

In response to the shooting of Michael Brown, white folks are saying "There, but for the grace of color, go I." They may be true stories, but why make the narrative about us?

August 31, 2014 (originally published on Storify)

A few minutes ago I read a great account by white guy Matthew Zoller Seitz about picking a fist fight with a Hispanic man who insulted his clothes. Zoller Seitz explained how the white police officers who arrived on the scene not only gave him the (misguided) benefit-of-the-doubt, but coached him to say the exact words he needed to blame everything on his sparring partner, whom they treated much more harshly.

Since the shooting by a police officer of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown and the responsive uprising in Ferguson, Mississippi, I've noticed a trend of white folks coming out with their tales of privilege. They describe situations where their skin color gives them an unspoken pass to do whatever they happen to be doing in the ordinary course of things without being questioned or harassed, and certainly without fearing for their lives. I was particularly struck by this lovely essay written by a mother of white children, enumerating the many things she doesn't have to worry about when her sons step out in our world to conduct their daily routines.

A Mother's White Privilege

As the ongoing events in Ferguson, Missouri show us, America's racial tensions didn't disappear when George Wallace backed down from the schoolhouse door. Dr. King didn't wave a magic wand, and we never got together to feel all right. White America remembers this at ugly flashpoints: the Rodney King beatings, the OJ Simpson trial, the...

Manic Pixie Dream Mama / More >

I'm often aware I'm experiencing white privilege. There was the day I traveled to Seattle leaving all forms of money and ID two hours behind. In two minutes flat, a Bank of America teller handed me $500 cash in exchange for details about myself that anyone I'd ever paid with a check could have found on the Internet...Things That Only Happen to White People. I might as well have been Reese Witherspoon, whose treatment by the folks in control was starkly different than Michael Brown's.

Keep in mind that Witherspoon's celebrity was probably not the primary buffer between her and deep trouble. Just ask Very Famous Person Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Harvard Professor Jailed; Officer Is Accused of Bias

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - Colleagues of Henry Louis Gates Jr., Harvard 's most prominent scholar of African-American history, are accusing the police here of racism after he was arrested at his home last week by an officer investigating a report of a robbery in progress.

New York Times / More >

And I wonder how much confidence well-known commentator Van Jones has in the notion that a gas mask is all the protection he needs.

Cue the polite tennis applause (and the generous column inches) for white folks' bravery in identifying how privilege shows up. Of course these stories are helpful windows to help us all see into the root conditions that led to Michael Brown's death being reported as a "controversy" and not a "travesty." Yet they're always an inch away from becoming embarrassing selfies, as if we think Our One Big Moment is anything more salient than the default condition of our lives.

In the movie "12 Years a Slave," the featured slave owners and overseers are treated as if they're anomalous monsters, their cruelty depicted as a voyeuristic spectacle rather than as a commonplace perversion that was acted out by thousands of ordinary people on the daily. And when (in a piece of spectacularly bad casting--"Oh look, Brad Pitt!") Samuel Bass showed up in the final quarter to help Solomon Northup, the story immediately pivoted to the white guy's intervention, never mind all Northup had done to survive. Don't even get me started about "Mississippi Burning."

The point is we change the narrative by inserting ourselves into the narrative and, chances are, if we're white the story will quickly become our own. Racism is everyone's story and everyone's problem, and yes, we should talk explicitly about our color privilege. But more often, let's shut up about our lives and leave more room for those to whom the media doesn't extend a built-in platform. The stories of Michael Brown and others who aren't perceived as white are what's most important for people to hear, so let's make them the center of every thing we say.

—written by Keneta Anderson for Quixote Foundation