I am sitting behind the steering wheel of my Toyota highlander, sweat dripping down the flacid skin of my shrinking milk boobs, the air conditioner humming and the digital clock reads 2:27, temperature 91 degree Fahrenheit. I am watching the clock as my two free hours are ticking slowly away and soon I return to the all consuming wonder and tedium of mothering my one year old daughter.
The murder of George Floyd and the unleashing of COVID 19 cracked through the center of our shallow and fragile American social and economic “system.” (System feels likes to strong a word to describe the chaotic, dysfunctional patchwork of bureaucratic, underfunded programs that we call a “social safety net.”) The myth of American exceptionalism died with the portable morgues, macabrely repurposed grocery trucks, on the streets of New York. George called out for his mother, urinated on himself and uttered what has become a refrain of Black men as they are lynched by the police, “I can’t breathe.” Nonprofits and think tanks and corporations are all marketing their commitment to black lives. White folks are showing up, getting “woke,” scribbling idealistic sentiments on pieces of worn out card board and promising to do better.
This is all happening and the weeks and months unfold, time stretches out for an eternity in front of us obliterating the distinctions between a Tuesday and Sunday, between 10:00am and 3:00pm. We are unequally crushed by the falling of the giant and nonsense of daily Zoom meetings. Together, we watch the monolithic death tolls tick slowly upward as we sip coffee. The number is incomprehensibly large and monochromatic. The number represents bodies, lives, souls, disproportionately black and brown and poor. The number ticking upward doesn’t remind us of that. It just keeps growing.
There is a refrain that is hopeful in times of disaster. As things fall apart, we remind ourselves that we must build new systems, give life to new inclusive and equitable ideas. There is no going back to the way things were (who the hell would want that anyways?), only opportunity to build from the rubble. I wonder about this idea constantly, about hope and the prospect of building things anew, about this dull and tedious moment swollen with possibility.
My delicate hope has a darker underside. I am skeptical about the attention span of us white folks and our ability to care in ways that have any sort of cost. So much of white, middle class progressive culture, of the yard signs and bummer sticker on hybrid cars, seeks to create an image of wokeness and equality that appeals to our political and moral sensibilities, but does so little to engage in any sustained effort to create a more just world for black and brown children. We start book clubs and listen podcasts. We show up and post photos from the protest on the internet, and the headlines fade and our calendars fill with Zoom meetings and socially distant play dates. It’s August and the malaise, the sameness, the distance has set in again.
I am writing this, because this is who I am. This getting swept up in the inertia of daily living happens to me and it scares me, the way the time fills, the way the memory of the video fades, my engagement becomes more selective and conditional, the way I (and we) preserve the sameness.
I am bargaining with myself as I drive to the protest the city manager’s house. The desire to break through the sameness, to build the new system, paralyzed by the neurotic pull of my own white, middle class sensibilities.
Will there is social distancing at the protest? I’m so tired. I have been chasing my toddler around the park, trying to pry micro plastic pieces of trash from her curious grip, for what feels like eternity. Isn’t that enough for a day? Can I protect the vulnerable who live in my house while still supporting the movement? I’m not sure. It’s just too damn hot and too risky. I don’t like the organizers of our local Black Lives Matter chapter. I don’t like pink pussy hats. I’ll go to the die in, but only stay for an hour. I have to be home by bed time.
This is what it feels like inside of my white, middle class mom brain– a privileged and slightly neurotic thought cycle animated by a deep sense of shame that is baked into my DNA.
I have shown up to 3 protests since the video of George. I stayed mostly in the back, tucked away from the crowds listening to AA meetings over Zoom as I marched down empty streets.
I feel at times an overwhelming sense of guilt (white guilt) for not doing more. I feel defensive and want to create a billboard or maybe a cardboard sign listing all my social justice credentials, so I can feel like one of the “good white folks.” Not those other white folks—the bad ones who never know how to say the right thing at the right time. Not the the 53% of white women who voted for Trump.
Because I know, in my core, that people like me, the progressive, white, liberal folks, are the reason why the system is the way it is. We are why things have been the same for so long.
A question we don’t ask enough is: Are we serious this time? Or will we continue to ask black and brown bodies to pay the cost for our conditional engagement, our fleeting attention spans, our lack of willingness to give anything that has an actual cost? How often do we have these sorts of polite conversations where we understand, rationalize and defend our own conditional engagement to each other, because we are all overwhelmed with Zoom meetings and juggling childcare right now?
We white folks want it to have it both ways—to stay safe and to engage in change when it’s convenient for us. It’s the cowardly and invisible force, a virus of a different sort, that keeps the black and brown children over there, across the street, and our kids over here, in the bubble where they are “safe” and can learn French and get into a good college.
Some of this, I hope, is starting to shift THIS time, but I struggle more and more to believe this. Because we can’t deny that for whatever reason, this time a Black man was lynched and everyone seems to care. For me, it’s shifting in ways I am still trying to understand. It’s a shift that started before George and COVID and is now shaped by both.
For me, the way I care about children, my child and other people’s children, has changed on a spiritual, political and cellular level since giving birth on June 5, 2019. Primary caregivers of infants have an enlarged amygdala that constantly scans the environment looking for threats. There is a momma bear that lives inside me and will murder you if I perceive you as a threat to my child. And this momma bear wants to protect other people’s children too.
I read a headline about a 5 year old drowning and something primal grumbles in my stomach. I can feel a small fraction of the wild, animalistic sadness and grief that mother feels leaving a memorial day barbecue without her baby. The sense of connection I feel to that pain scares me, because now I can imagine it in a new way. This same primal urge grumbles when I think about all those kids shut in right now, shut in their homes with alcoholic fathers, mentally ill mothers, without anyone there to pull back the curtain and say “are you OK?” These thoughts and feelings are scary and I decide to push down the beast with an episode of the “Tiger King” on Netflix.
This seems to be a superpower that Mom’s possess, a primal urge that emerges when you are a caregiver for a baby. Yet, it also feels like an evolutionary double edged sword. On the one hand, the pain of other mother’s ignites within us a powerful compassion and connection that we can chose to embrace. On the other hand, we are always overly concerned with the well being of our own children, scanning the environment for threats, stuffing plastic into outlets, buying too much shit on Amazon and propping up all the systems that keep black and brown kids out of “good” white schools. Our minds create a sense of scarcity, we fear for our children’s future, so we horde the opportunities and resources to make sure our own white children are safe and protected and enrolled in a sufficient number of extra curricular activities and speciality high school programs.
Our constant preoccupation with our own children feels like a biological necessity, a hardwiring that comes from our reptilian past and innate “thing” that we Momma bears just do, because it’s what we do. Yet, our obsession with our own children costs other people’s children so much. We till the soil for our own, black out our social media for one day to show the world that we think black lives matter and through our own inaction we become segregations constant gardeners.
How do we acknowledge this complicity, to each other and other white folks? How do we, white women, white mothers, change the tide? How do we push back against ourselves, against each other? How do we override these the tides of history that is written on our bodies, baked into our DNA?
The antidote to the malaise, to conditional engagement, to the forgetting about black people’s pain, to the opportunity hoarding, requires us white folks to build a different culture and conversation around our relationship to our own Whiteness. The bedrock of this new, albeit fledgling, white culture has to be cultivating the emotional and spiritual ability to tolerate discomfort. It will require a restructuring of our white DNA. It also has to include ways we, white folks, hold each other accountable to sustaining our caring and engaging in actions that actually create change. How real and honest will we be with each other, with our white, liberal, friend and colleagues? How do we build a different white culture together?
My daughter is one year old. I know someday I will have a conversation with her about the year 2020. What will I tell her about this moment? What will I tell her about us, white folks, about what we did and didn’t do when so many lost so much?