Not knowing Ferguson


How repetitious our history is. How predictable. Unarmed black teenager gets shot, big flurry of cameras and interviews and even some occasional outrage on the part of the news media. Then come the soothers, the ones who want to calm everyone down. Editorials are written, our black president acknowledges the pain of those who have lost a son or daughter and we all tip toe away, lose interest, start pouring water on our heads for ALS. I am not disparaging water pouring or tip toeing here. I am only saying that those who leave the scene after the fires smolder and the store fronts are rebuilt, and the long, tortuous process of the investigation continues, leave the scene. We, who do not live the life of black Americans, can turn our backs and not feel the consequences. Yet those who return to live in places like Ferguson, or Montgomery, or Chicago, or any small town or suburb in this country, cannot tip toe away or ignore the signs of repression that will surely come when the world is no longer watching: when Brian Williams or Anderson Cooper have left the scene.

We live in enclaves in the United States. We live in the enclaves of our minds more than anything else. I was recently invited to speak at a Vang family event to celebrate Vang high school graduates of St. Paul. Members of the Vang clan came from as far away as Fresno to be at the celebration while researchers from China arrived from their studies in an American university to observe the rituals and music, the culture and food, the family interaction at this large gathering. As I sat, waiting to speak, the male elders were at one table, the children played tag in front of the stage and fruit sculpted into intricate patterns sat on a long table in the back of the room. I understood then, in a way I have not understood before, that all around us are the lives and cultures and struggles and events that we, as white people, will never comprehend. At first I felt utterly incompetent, sure I would make a wrong move, or say something offensive or make a false assumption. My part of the event had already been pushed back hours. I knew I would have to leave immediately after I spoke to help make dinner for people at our home, a dinner planned long before the invitation to speak had been extended to me by a young man named Pao Vang. I was aware this early departure would be noticed and not happily.

I finally relaxed, focusing on the visual. I interacted with the kids and the young women who came to see how I was doing. What I felt finally was not a need to know but a need to accept not knowing. And with that acceptance I gave up judgment, assumption, and fear along with any sense of my own expertise. I enjoyed myself.

This was just one enclave, one group in the city and one culture whose children I had taught. Yet in this submersion for four hours, I realized that all that I knew before about Hmong people, was on the surface, was a wisp of explanation or even instruction in Hmong culture. The information I had been given did not capture any of the complexity, the struggle, the generational differences, the ways of being of elder Hmong people; some of whom I thought I knew. Of course I socialize with Hmong and black friends, with Latino colleagues, with Native American men and women. Yet the language, cadence, music, perspective of those whom I love and those whom I respect, is not mine: will never be mine.

Which gets me back to Ferguson. There were moments when I watched what was going on, night after night in the streets when I felt I understood the frustration and the anger,–even feeling it myself. Ultimately, however, what I ended up feeling was a great deal of admiration for the restraint of those who lived in Ferguson. Not many news organizations have done a piece on the restraint in Ferguson. Not many white folks are talking about how hard it must have been to stand in front of a store to protect it from looting as many Africa Americans did over this past week and a half. What I can’t know intimately, at that gritty level of the day to day, is whether, if I lived the reality of bigotry there, I would have such strength, such self control.

So I come back to the acceptance of not knowing, yet now coupled with the need to know more, to read again James Baldwin, WEB Dubois, Toni Morrisson. I come back to humility: the recognition that we live, not diametrically opposed lives, but lives experienced in skins that present an ease or disturbance in a white dominated country. And no matter how much empathy, how much I read, how many friends I love who are not white, no matter all the things we have in common, work for, laugh about, I cannot attain the deepest understanding of many I count as allies.

At the same time, acceptance of not knowing, cannot interfere with speaking for equity in the city where I live, Minneapolis, where there is astonishing segregation still. Doing the work of trying to view events without the white lens carefully cultivated by my parents, my school and society does not guarantee I will be able to put myself in the place of a mother in Ferguson who just lost her son to a bullet. Yet I am not absolved from working to cross the boundary that separates me from her. My fear, at three a.m. unable to sleep, is that we will never, as a country tear the surface, the gloss, the carefully honed images off the long buried truths of slavery, kidnapping and murder that make up our story as a nation. As a consequence we will not begin the process of truth, reconciliation and reparations.

The cameras will be packed up into their vans, the lights will disappear from downtown or the latest place of injustice, and we, especially as white people, will assume we know what cannot be known. We will assume we have learned the story when we have no idea of the multiple perspectives that make up the truth of what just happened, of what is happening in our cities and towns. We will move on: some of us, that is. Others will walk out on a summer night to get skittles, to stop at a bodega or decide to visit their grandmother. Some of us may come back to our mothers, our grandmas, our fathers. Some may not, and so, again, the sound and flash and sight of what goes for journalism in the white media will pay attention. Just. For. A. Moment.

Read more TC Daily Planet coverage of the killing of Michael Brown and related protests.