thoughts on ferguson as a white woman

hese past couple weeks have felt especially heavy.  With Ferguson, Gaza,  Robin Williams' passing, and the continuing conversation on rape culture that feels like it hits closer to home every day, the world has felt dark.  And as much as I love this online sanctuary as a place to escape all that, to hide from the horrifying comment sections on Facebook posts and news articles among pretty photos, in a way it feels disingenuous to keep posting cute outfits and recipes and DIYs while the world feels like it's crumbling right outside the walls of this safe, happy place.  I'm heartbroken by what is happening to my fellow humans in what feels like my backyard, right here in the United States where we're led to believe we're protected and safe.  As a white person, it often feels like I don't have a place in the conversation on race, and even if I did, what would I say? And if I did say something, what would it even mean?  I have privilege.  The other day one of my Facebook friends wrote this, and perfectly encapsulated so many thoughts I'd been having:
Tired of people commenting on posts about Ferguson, racism, etc and trying to say white privilege isn't a fair thing to say, I didn't ask for this skin color, I'm not rich, etc. White privilege isn't about that - we as white people do not have to worry about the things that black or brown people do. It's messed up and no you didn't ask for it but it's still a privilege. If we women say we are sick of living in a misogynistic world, no one gets to tell us we can't feel that way. Native Americans want the Redskins name changed because it is offensive to them - we need to change the fucking name and stop telling them they don't get to be offended. If black people are telling us they are scared of police and to let their kids out of their sight, we need to LISTEN. Stop telling them why they're wrong, or that everyone is making this about race, etc. LISTEN. Open your eyes. This is unfair and if you're saying anything less than "what can I do to help change it?" then you're consenting. Silence is worse.

I just can't believe in 2014 if people say to us, "I'm scared. I'm hurting. That offends me deeply." that you are going to argue that. We are all human beings. Come ON.
It made a connection that's been mulling around in my mind for a while.  There are so many similarities between how people respond to claims of misogyny and of racism.  When a woman is sexually abused, harassed, or raped, our culture asks, "Was she wearing revealing clothing?  Where was she walking?  Was she drunk?   Well, she was asking for it."  When a person of color is harassed, attacked (or worse, killed), or imprisoned, our culture asks, "Did he look suspicious?  Where was he walking?  Was he on drugs?  Well, he was asking for it."   And I think to myself that maybe she was drunk, in a mini skirt, walking in a dark alley, but she didn't deserve to be assaulted.  And maybe he was wearing a hoodie in the middle of the street, selling drugs, but he didn't deserve to die.

I know a lot of people are asking to "wait for the facts" in this case, but this is so much more than just one case of what may or may not have been an officer acting defensively.  It's not an isolated incident, just the straw that broke the camel's back in the struggle that so many people live with on a daily basis.

As a white person who has lived primarily among other white people her entire life, it's hard to know intimately the struggles of someone who experiences a radically different reality in the same community.  In the past six months I've tried explaining to some men what it's like to live as a woman.  I've noticed that it's almost painfully difficult for them to comprehend that, as women, we walk down the same streets, in the same cities, experiencing them in a completely different way.  And that's hard to understand.  You think you're experiencing the same thing, because technically you are living in the same space, but simply because of your gender, the reality is drastically different.

Another Facebook friend of mine recently shared a story of some frightening experiences with street harassment and posted:
Dear Men, it needs to stop. I have been minding my own business and been followed/cornered by men twice in the last two days and I'm pissed. It is unacceptable to stop a woman on a bike with a car and tell her, in more words, you want sex with her. It is unacceptable to stop, reverse, and drive down a different road to follow a woman on foot in your car. THIS BEHAVIOR IS SCARY. I am so sick of feeling like a prey animal. I'm tired of having to duck back into my home, lock the door, turn out the lights, and hide until some man has decided to stop stalking something he feels entitled to because he wants it.

In the comments, a guy both of us have known for years replied saying,
I agree, I'm tired of either sex being assholes. Believe me, it happens the other direction too and its very uncomfortable, especially when you are married!
This is a man who weighs probably near 200 lbs and is over 6 ft tall.  He works out daily, is a personal trainer, and is a very muscular.  I couldn't help but almost scream at my computer screen, "YOU ARE NOT IN FEAR FOR YOUR LIFE when girls ogle you at the gym.  Oh, it's 'very uncomfortable'? Really? really? You know what's 'very uncomfortable'?  Walking down the street, constantly making sure I'm not being followed because I'm afraid of being raped or attacked. Not because I'm married and it's awkward, but because I literally fear for my bodily safety."

It's hard for men, especially men who are good, not-all-of-us-are-like-that men, to understand what it's like to walk through the world possessing a vagina.  And why it's so painful when they tell us that sexism or misogyny doesn't exist.  Because we feel the weight of this unequal world and we've paid for it with our lives.  I want men to understand because I want them to advocate for women and stand up for us when they see sexism or harassment.  Because as men, they are in a position of power, and they can help change the world that is off balance.  And I want to be that advocate for people of color.  I can't tell them that racism doesn't exist because I walk through the world as a white person who doesn't have to experience it.  Of course I don't see racism, why would I?  It's not happening to me.  But as a woman I know that living in the same place doesn't mean experiencing the same reality.  Where I see a dangerous street with potential for a harassment or rape situation, men see a quiet sidewalk.  Where I see a cop pulling me over for a broken taillight, people of color may see a potentially vastly different scenario.

When I see my black Facebook friends who are mothers share their despair over teaching their sons to never walk in a store with their hands in their pockets for fear of being accused of stealing, or to avoid wearing hoodies, or to never argue with a police officer for fear of the situation escalating to the point of something fatal, I hear the same despair of mothers with daughters sharing the heartbreak of having to teach their girls how to avoid getting raped, how to diffuse situations with harassers, how to give fake numbers instead of just turning a man down for fear of it ending in violence.  And I know that I have to stand with my fellow humans who experience racism, because we're fighting the same battle.  We're fighting for equality, and maybe even more-so, to be heard and believed.  For the opportunity to walk through the world without fear.  For our stories to be legitimized and not discounted.  For our lives to matter.

So for now, I'm taking the time to listen.  I'm putting in the effort to hear the voices that desperately want to be heard and believed.  I know that I will never know what to do to help our world heal and balance without knowing the stories of real humans.  Instead of reading the he-said, she-said, wait-for-the-facts, arrest-the-officer, he's wrong, he's right articles flying around the internet and clogging my Facebook feed, I've been trying my best to listen to the stories of people sharing their truth.  I've been trying to step across the lines of color and stand beside a person of color to see the world from where they stand.  I've been listening to friends sharing their stories, reading articles from people of color describing their real experiences, and watching documentaries that expose how imbalanced and unjust our world truly is, especially here in the US.

When talking about issues like race or gender I often hear people say, "I can't believe XYZ is still happening in 2014!" and it reminds me of C.S. Lewis' term Chronological Snobbery, what he calls "the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited."  We think that because we've got iPhones and the internet and can fly to the moon and cure diseases that we're the pinnacle of humanity.  We think that our government is the best one that ever existed, that we're the smartest people that have ever walked the earth.  And maybe we're some of those things, but we can't expect justice to ride on the shirt tails of our technological advances.  It's a constant battle, and one that we can't stop fighting just because we've made leaps in so many other areas.  Human lives are always the most important thing worth fighting for.

I believe that everyone should read M. Scott Peck's book The Road Less Traveled at least once, and in that book Peck talks about our worldview as being the map with which we travel through our world
...the biggest challenge of map-making is not that we have to start from scratch, but that if our maps are to be accurate we have to continually revise them. The world itself is constantly changing. Glaciers come, glaciers go. Cultures come, cultures go. There is too little technology, there is too much technology. Even more dramatically, the vantage point from which we view the world is constantly and quite rapidly changing. When we are children we are dependent, powerless. As adults we may be powerful. Yet in illness or an infirm old age we may become powerless and dependent again. When we have children to care for, the world looks different from when we have none; when we are raising infants, the world seems different from when we are raising adolescents. When we are poor, the world looks different from when we are rich. We are daily bombarded with new information as to the nature of reality. If we are to incorporate this information, we must continually revise our maps, and sometimes when enough new information has accumulated, we must make very major revisions. The process of making revisions, particularly major revisions, is painful, sometimes excruciatingly painful. And herein lies the major source of many of the ills of mankind. 
What happens when one has striven long and hard to develop a working view of the world, a seemingly useful, workable map, and then is confronted with new information suggesting that the view is wrong and the map needs to be largely redrawn? The painful effort seems frightening, almost overwhelming. What we do more often than not, and usually unconsciously, is to ignore the new information. Often this act of ignoring is much more than passive. We may denounce the new information as false, dangerous, heretical, the work of the devil. We may actually crusade against it, and even attempt to manipulate the world so as to make it conform to our view of reality. Rather than try to change the map, an individual may try to destroy the new reality. Sadly, such a person may expend much more energy ultimately in defending an outmoded view of the world than would have been required to revise and correct it in the first place.
I find that whenever I truly listen to the real life stories of other people, I'm required to revise my map.  Usually the changes are minor, here and there, but sometimes they are larger and take time to truly rewrite.  It takes effort and sometimes it's messy and painful.

I don't really care what you think about what's happening in Ferguson.  But if you do one thing, I ask that you listen.  Listen, not to find a pause when you can respond, refute, or agree.  Just listen.  Let the stories sink in and recognize that these stories are someone else's truth.  Someone else's life.  Someone else's sidewalk that maybe you walk down without a care in the world, but they walk down fearing for their safety or their children's safety.  Do your best to listen without judgement or preconceived beliefs.  Absorb their stories and allow them to challenge your worldview, and if necessary, change it.

Here are a few stories I've listened to recently, and if you have more stories to add, please list or link to them in the comments.  The more stories we listen to, the more complete and accurate our maps become, and the better able we are to advocate for people who need justice.

Dark Girls
The House I Live In
Reel Injun
The Loving Story
The Central Park Five
The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975
On Recognizing my White Privilege as a Parent in the Face of Ferguson
On Race, the Benefit of the Doubt, and Complicity
Pay Attention to #Ferguson: Some Resources
In Which I Have a Few Things to Tell You About #Ferguson
12 Things White People Can Do
Reflections on #Ferguson

Photos by Scott Olson/Getty :: Charlie Riedel/AP