by Rhea St Julien
After the non-indictment of Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown . . . I didn’t sleep well. . . I had nightmares about my husband getting stopped by police, and not coming home. I had nightmares about our daughter being shoved in the streets, being taken from me by the authorities, being gone. Then the second verdict came: no indictment of Daniel Pantaleo for killing Eric Garner. I couldn’t sleep at all.
“Sure, what was it?” I poured coffee grounds into the filter.
“You. . . joined the KKK. It was terrible. You were marching with them, you decided to leave me.”
I stopped cold. “That is horrifying.”
“I can’t hear this right now. I need to get our daughter ready for school.” I buzzed past him, setting down our four year old’s Cheerios at her little table.
I left him standing there in the kitchen. I left him with his fear and grief.
It was the morning after the non-indictment of Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown. I felt like a terrible ally. My husband had just had a nightmare that the person he is closest to in the world had joined a hate group against him, and I couldn’t be there for him. I didn’t have it in me that morning to face the reality of the hatred that people who look like me harbor for people who look like him–my partner of fourteen years.
I didn’t sleep well myself, all that week. I had nightmares about my husband getting stopped by police and not coming home. I had nightmares about our daughter being shoved in the streets, being taken from me by the authorities, being gone. Then the second verdict came: no indictment of Daniel Pantaleo for killing Eric Garner. I couldn’t sleep at all.
I woke up countless times at night just to look at them. We share a one-bedroom apartment, and though our daughter has her own bed, she usually crawls into ours a little after midnight. Just by turning my head I could see them, safe there, snuggled up with me. I could take in this image of vast safety and comfort: my husband’s strong, tattooed arm wrapped lovingly around our four year old, her cheek against his bicep.
Here, they are safe. Out there? Who knows.
The population of the city we live in, San Francisco, is only six percent black. I, a white woman, am married to one of the few black residents left in San Francisco, after decades of systematic displacement. If my husband is stopped on the street by the police for something, the chances of that being a black police officer are very slim.
When the Darren Wilson non-indictment verdict was delivered, there was a meme going around the internet. It had a photo of characters of the show How To Get Away with Murder in bed together: Viola Davis, who plays Anneliese Keating, is looking suspiciously at Tom Verica, who plays Sam Keating, her husband. The meme generator had written at the bottom of the photo “When the verdict came in, and you’re in an interracial relationship.” It was painfully true on several levels–the name of the show alone is what the issue is, and this verdict did put a lot of strain on interracial relationships, particularly black and white ones.
When I was in a better place, we repaired what had happened that morning. But being in an interracial relationship means more than writing eloquent posts on Facebook when you are fully composed, with the power of backspace at your fingertips. It means showing up when shit gets uncomfortable, and staying there with your partner. This was a failure on my part.
Fellow white people, we have to acknowledge that black Americans are grieving right now, for the lives lost, but also for the culmination of so many microaggressions over time. For all the slight ways black Americans are told “you are not safe here, and you don’t really belong.” Then they are subject to gaslighting, to scores of people telling them, “it’s not about race.” These verdicts are a terrifying testament to the underlying aggression in all that tone policing. “You better get in line, be a good black, or see what happens.” It doesn’t matter. You can get killed anyway. There really is no protection, for being black in America. There is no accountability. We the people feel powerless and unprotected.
The most powerful piece I have read these past two weeks was by Kiese Laymon, about his time as a professor at Vassar. It is a powerful telling of the ways just being black in America can beat a person down over time, and why events like these verdicts bring up so much more than unjust rulings. Give it a read, because firsthand stories of black Americans must be at the forefront of this movement.
Maybe you’re reading my piece because I’m white. Because you can count on me to police my tone into something palatable. Because you are eager to agree, or disagree. But if you have been silent about all of this over the past week and a half, it is time to speak up. I have had people call me, ask me if we could talk one-on-one about race sometime soon, show signs of advocacy and support for my family. This makes me feel more safe. When you post something about #BlackLivesMatter, it makes me feel like you would care if this happened to my family.
There is certainly risk to it. After a week and a half of posting on social media about the non-indictment verdicts, and fervent conversations with my family and community about race in America, I received an unsolicited email from a white friend I had not heard from in months.
The subject was “ok enough” and the message was to the point: “okay rhea st julien you want to be black. got it.”
This was from a person I had brought into my home out of kindness. Someone who I had trusted to watch my child. A friend I had found jobs for repeatedly when she was out of work. When I did all of these things, I did not know I was asserting my “whiteness.” I didn’t realize it was only when I spoke out about injustice that I’d be thought of as not part of her special “good white people” club.
I considered my options.
I could ignore her obvious baiting and block her from ever contacting me. I took a step in that direction by unfriending her on Facebook. No more cute photos of my family for her to exoticize.
I could write a “killing her with kindness” response that wished her well. I got as far as “It sounds like you are really hurting. I am hurting too. I don’t want to be contacted by your particular kind of hurt anymore, but I wish you well” until it spiraled into “Actually I can’t say I wish you well with a clear conscience. What I’m wishing right now is that you fall in a fucking ditch and ask for help from everyone going past and no one helps you and you have to limp home by yourself and when you get there you’re locked out and the people there don’t recognize you and you’re told your name ain’t shit in that town anymore and your only consolation is your own garbage perspective.” So I suppose kindness is not going to be the way I go here.
I could say something snide like “How’s that job at defining who is white and who is not working out for you? Is ‘I’m White And You’re Not Anymore LLC’ hiring?” I turned on Rage Against the Machine and tried to take some deep breaths.
In the end I took the advice of my writer friends and just started writing.
Attempts to silence and shame me are not going to work. People who come for my family are only fueling my words. If you are in my life only because I am a bridge to your First Black Family, the friendship is not going to work out. Eventually I am going to say something that upsets the white supremacist culture we live in and we’re going to face some hard truths about whether you can show up for my family or not.
This lady was trying to take things I have said publicly on social media, and privately, personally attack me where she would have no one calling her out on it. Well, the personal is political, now more than ever, and I’m bringing it out into the open.
I am fully aware that the trolling that black Americans are experiencing right now is way worse than this email I received. I’m sharing this to let white folks know that if you think your friend group is tolerant, just start writing about race and don’t stop, don’t stop when they are uncomfortable, don’t stop when they keep posting cat photos, don’t stop when they ask for “some positivity, PLEASE” and just see who comes out of the woodwork. You’ll be crossing people off the Christmas card list real quick.
I’m left feeling extremely protective of my family, suspicious of some of my friendships, and totally enraged that someone would speak into my life in this way. The perspective that they’d had “enough” with my posting about race, and that the only reason I’d be doing it is because I’m trying to be something I’m not is trash floating in the wind. It is irrelevant to my life and the life of my family. We have enough to deal with right now. If you are a white-supremacy-apologist and you deem me as no longer “one of you,” I’m doing something right.
As I write this, my husband is getting my daughter ready for school. They are singing songs from The Sound of Music, having attended the sing-a-long showing at the Castro together this past weekend. I’m smiling at the sounds of their voices weaving in and out, singing about their favorite things. I’m smiling because they are home with me, and for just this one moment, they are safe.
Rhea St. Julien is a writer, arts-based psychotherapist, and mother living in San Francisco. www.rheastjulien.com