White Woman Witnessing

It’s been a deep journey of grief for me since George Floyd was murdered by police officers in Minneapolis on May 25. You might wonder why this is newsworthy, the feelings of a white woman of late life, product of privilege, in the face of global unrest about the systemic anti-Black culture of the US. The answer is that everyone’s grief, introspection, and witnessing is important to bring change.

George Floyd’s death by choking when he was pinned by Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis police officer, kneeling on his neck, and the video of his cries “I can’t breathe” was painfully reminiscent of the choking death of Eric Garner in New York in 2014. Watching the video in horror, there was an almost unbearable sense of déjà vu, a deep body memory of watching that earlier video, six years ago, and the incomprehension that it was happening, had happened again.

Watching the various videos of George Floyd’s murder put me into a kind of psychic shock. Something inside of me shut down. As the days progressed, I felt numb, dumb, and inert. Out there in the world, protests were happening, but inside of me, there was a hard, deeply contracted hurt that robbed me of response beyond living the daily, exhausting, uncomfortable mire of mute grief. Nature helped, and poetry, but it’s been a long process to find my way, a way that continues to unfold.

My life has been shaped by Black people in many ways. I grew up in an integrated town in southern New Jersey where my classmates were both Black and white. Many of them lived in segregation from the rest of us, in places outside of town, and I knew that as a fact as a child, but not as a feeling. We went to the same schools, played on the same teams, but we rarely visited each other’s homes. My parents were liberal by the standards of the times, but also held to the unquestioned racism of their upbringings—my mother’s under Hitler in Bavaria before and during WWII. My father grew up in a heavily racially mixed neighborhood in Camden, NJ where people were connected by their poverty. Between them, they sent intricate mixed messages about race: everyone is the same; so and so knows her place. Racial axioms, none of which I would write here, were common parlance. When riots broke out in our town in the late 60s—it was a Sunday night during Bonanza when I was in high school—a police officer told my father that if he shot anyone (he did have an old service revolver) to just drag him over the threshold into the house.

Growing up as a child of the late sixties and seventies attending a racially mixed school, I was surrounded by Black peers whose language, dress, dance moves, and music influenced my own. By college, I came to know something about race, racial history, and the Black Arts movement, which was prevalent in my literature studies as an undergraduate reading Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, and Sonya Sanchez. In my 30s I immersed myself in Black authors: Baldwin, Wright, Hurston, Hooks, Walker, Morrison, and historians such as W.E.B. DuBois for the past and Henry Louis Gates and Cornell West for the future.

Hi-Life, pop music from Nigeria and Ghana in the 1980’s led to a curiosity about those places. I started reading poets of Ghana, Kofi Awoonor and Ama Ata Aidoo. This interest in pop music and poetry from west Africa eventually led to my first trip to Ghana on an NEH independent study of Ghanaian poetry written in English. I spent a month traveling throughout Ghana buying books from street markets and stores, walking through slaving ports, visiting the Ashanti Kingdom, and countless villages along deep red roads where I drank palm wine and talked, talked, talked to people who wanted to know first off if I was American or English. Learning that I was American, they opened their doors and welcomed me.

It was an eye-opening experience to be a minority, the only white person I saw for days at a time. Children asked to touch my skin and my cropped blonde hair—things Blacks put up with regularly. Americans at home asked before I left, “aren’t you afraid” to go to Africa? But why would I be afraid? The violent crime rates were significantly lower in Ghana than the US, but their message was clear: Wasn’t I afraid to be with all those Black people?

My second trip to Ghana was twenty years later as a volunteer with an arts organization to offer art programs and faculty development at a small private school in Kpando Torkor in the beautiful Volta region. We were there for two weeks, and I met and fell in love with a young man who has been family to me since then. He was then the young assistant principal, himself only recently out of secondary school, Isaac Fomevor. The organization sponsored Isaac to come to the US for college, but a series of personal conflicts found him without sponsorship or support and facing a forced return to Ghana. He’s a very responsible young man, and the ex-pat African community is strong and tightly woven, so with their help, we got him settled and through his AA degree graduating at the top of his class. Today, he has citizenship and is working to form an asset management firm for Ghanaians living in the US.

One of the most transformative experiences of my adult life as a white woman was joining the faculty of the Community College of Philadelphia, where I taught for the seven years before I moved to WA. Both the City of Philadelphia and CCP are predominantly Black. Roughly 40% in each case. It was both enlivening and challenging to be a racial minority in most aspects of my daily life. I lived in heavily Black neighborhoods for most of that time–two years in a neighborhood where my housemate and I were the only white residents for many miles. Our neighbors were kind and wary in equal measures. They both helped us shovel the mountains of snow that came one winter—no place for the plows to put it—and slashed the tires of an overnight guest who parked in the wrong place. The boys on the block used to laugh at my Tibetan Terrier calling her “Cousin It.” My neighbor on one side was a Jaguar driving accounting prof at CCP, and on the other a woman who worked in registration. At night sometimes, helicopters would hover seeking someone on the run. Mr. Softie came in the summers, apples fell from my neighbors’ trees, and up the block, there was a patio with string lights and laughter after dark every season of the year.

Teaching composition gave me the opportunity to both learn and teach about racial injustice. For many years, I have been actively involved in studying and advocating for prison reform, particularly the mass incarceration of men of color. For three years, I taught Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking expose, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in a Time of Colorblindness.  Her detailed unraveling of the history of racism in the US and how it intersects with both the War on Drugs and the “School-to-Prison Pipeline” was all too familiar to a number of my students whose fathers, uncles, brothers had been or were currently incarcerated. In a country that has privatized prisons such that the incarcerated become “product” on which profit is based, it’s no wonder that our prison population, in which the percentage of African Americans is nearly 3 times the national population, is the largest in the industrialized world. More than once, I had young male students, rounded up by police seeking a Black perpetrator, who then showed up at my office door with the pink slips they got when they were released from jail the next day to explain why they hadn’t done their homework. Regardless of their family background, social class, or exposure to the justice system, they all had stories to tell about how anti-Black sentiments had impacted their lives. 

My grief about the vulnerability of Black Lives in contemporary America is also deeply personal. There are Black people in my family. My great niece’s father is Black as is the wife of my nephew’s brother in law. There are young Black uncles navigating life after prison. And one singer/songwriter whose sweet voice is seeking an audience. The two youngest members of our family are bi-racial.

In my lifetime I’ve grieved the deaths by cops and vigilantes of Black men: Amadou Diallo, Rodney King, Eric Garner, Travvon Martin, and the list of those whose names and stories I didn’t know, or God forgive me, have forgotten, nag and haunt my heart.

I’m tired of this story. I tell it only to show how tired I am of the larger story. The history of American racism painstakingly detailed in Alexander’s New Jim Crow provides a map of where we’ve been and where we need to go. In a post Obama America—no, I won’t even write his name—we are devolving into something neo-racist, so anti-Black that some white people think it funny to act out George Floyd’s murder, and a local official here in rural Washington where I live posted on Facebook the image of a semi-truck splattered with blood, and the caption: “Drove through Minneapolis. Didn’t see any protestors.”

I tell this story to give witness to what I have seen through my privileged white woman’s life. For the Black people I’ve known, loved, taught, lived and worked with. For the places where race has been a discomfort for me and for them. I pray for change, and I grieve those who are lost. This–and these words–is my activism. I both trust and support in every way I can the wave of anger and grief that’s rising up now to lift us all to a higher ground.

Similar Posts