A White Washington Boy’s Inability to Understand Ferguson
There’s a lot I don’t understand about race in America.
I was doing a little light reading about this whole Fergusen situation. I really don’t know all that much about what’s going on. I haven’t studied it in detail. I don’t really know how to think about any of it anyway. One article in particular left me flummoxed. In it the author talked about how white people are offended by black bodies, by black people doing things that white people don’t like, and how the white church refuses face the challenges that black people face. It got me thinking, but mostly it got me confused. This race stuff is so foreign to me. I don’t know how to process it correctly.
I think the main reason I have trouble with race stuff is that fact that I was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. I lived my whole life up until college in the state of Washington, then went to school in Oregon for four years, and I currently live in Anchorage, Alaska. Many people in the Pacific Northwest would tell you that we aren’t racist up here. Racists, after all, live in the South and are ignorant and intolerant bigots and we’re about as far north as you can get without being Canadian and we’re more enlightened and tolerant than just about any folks you’ll meet. Of course this sentiment is wrong. The Pacific Northwest has its own problem with race (involving Asians mostly) but we’re especially off our game when it comes to African Americans.
The simple fact is we don’t have any idea what black people are about.
In the state of Washington only 4% of the population is black, compared to the national average of 13%. The few blacks we have are mostly concentrated in urban areas. In Lewis County, where I grew up, blacks made up only .8% of the population. Oregon is worse than Washington with only 2%, and Alaska comes in at 3.9%. I can count on my hands the number of black people in my life that I was close enough to learn their name. There were 2 black people at my high school and 2 at my university (and that wasn’t because I went to a “white school” while all the black people went to a “black school: my school district was the only one available for about a dozen little towns in Southeast Pierce county. If you lived between Ashford and the Ohop Valley, that’s where you went). So when people like myself hear news about race riots or teenagers getting shot or any other racial controversy we feel very far removed from it. We don’t know what to think. We don’t know any black people. I mean we’re not racist, right? I mean, sure, I’ll lock my car windows when I see a black teenager walking around, but that doesn’t make me racist. It’s not that we don’t like black people we just find them…different. Strange. Unusual. And what is unknown is often frightening. Ask around and we’ll tell you we’re not racist like those Southerners. We didn’t have anything to do with slavery. Don’t remind us that Oregon made it illegal for black people to live in the state during the 1800s. That was the past. Besides, how many black people are up here anyway? We’ll cop to having a bad history with the Japanese, and the Chinese, and the Filipinos, but what do black people have to do with any of it?
The article I read laid out a series of challenges to white Christians. They are as follows:
“Choose a new church home and sit under the teaching of a black preacher for two years.
Choose a new neighborhood where your fate is intimately tied to the fate of people of color.
Go back to school and take a history class from a black professor where your academic success lies in his/her hands.
Choose to be mentored by a person of color every week. You do what they say, when they say it. No excuses.
Choose to go places where you see the stories behind the statistics, where someone can connect history to the present for you.
Send your kids to a black or brown school.”
And all I could think was that those things are physically impossible for me. Growing up I couldn’t tell you where to find a black church. I still can’t. I don’t know of any “black” neighborhoods. I can tell you that in Lewis County you probably couldn’t rustle up enough black people to fill a bingo hall, much less a single neighborhood. I don’t know any black people, anywhere, especially not well enough for them to mentor me. And a black school? To be honest, though it seems silly when I say this, I thought having all black or all white schools was illegal after Brown v. Board. I guess when you don’t have any black neighborhoods it’s hard to understand the concept of a black school.
So, do you want to know what I think about Fergusen? I think that if the police officer was breaking the law or acted improperly in shooting Michael Brown then he should be convicted and punished. That’s it. I can’t suss out any of this racial stuff. I guess that’s a flaw on my part.