When White People Tell Each Other to be Safe During an Uprising
This may appear to be a small point in the grand scheme of the conversations sparked by the Baltimore uprising. But the number of times I have seen fears being spread on Facebook that are unconnected to reality over the past few days (and time and time again before that) is too many to count.
I lived in Maryland growing up, so I have a good number of friends on social media who live somewhere in that state. As a result, my Facebook feed is littered with statuses by wealthy, non-black folks who live nowhere close to West Baltimore telling me that they “got home fine” and comments by their friends urging them to “be safe.” It reminds me of WashU parents and its administration telling students to be “safe and secure” during the protests in Ferguson. It reminds me of expat Americans posting about their “safety” every time protests break out in Tahrir. And it reveals a lot about what we mean by “safety” and whose and what kinds of safety take priority.
I recognize that when friends and family check in, they do so out of genuine concern for loved ones living in a city all over the news cycle—be it due to a natural disaster, a mass shooting, or an uprising—as well as a lack of knowledge about a city’s geography. And they may not know that WashU is 10 miles away from Ferguson; that Americans abroad often live in expat neighborhoods, heavily policed and inaccessible to local populations. They certainly don’t know that Howard County is not Baltimore City. And the overwhelming number of “stay safe” posts directed at women seems to be an almost understandable form of hyper-protectionism based on the knowledge that being a woman makes you particularly vulnerable in any city.
But responding to this concern by just saying “I’m okay,” erases the real disparities in who is and who is not victim to police violence. It seems to be a disturbing way of suggesting that you had a chance of being hurt by this form of violence in the first place. It claims you survived, even when you were never under attack. Talking about how we, as non-black people, are “safe” strangely centers ourselves in stories of violence that specifically target black people. It continues to claim the status of our safety as relevant and a priority in a conversation where it shouldn’t be.
Just saying “I’m okay,” not only erases disparities in who is victim, but in how police brutality operates as perpetrator of violence. Some people raise an interesting point: that they asked about white friends’ safety in Baltimore, just as they would have had Baltimore faced a natural disaster, or a mass shooting. But police violence is not a hurricane. The police brutality that killed Freddie Gray does not kill everyone within an X-mile radius;- it does lead to indiscriminate death. The victims of police violence, unlike the other violence described, are bounded by their race.
Others have pointed out that while they know white loved ones will not be targets of a racist police state, they worry about a friend living near a protest being accidently caught in the fray. This is a real concern, and I recognize that for many it can be a debilitating one. Some of us will have a loved one working or living in a neighborhood participating in protest. And that personal connection will make it difficult to look at much beyond that individual’s safety.
We as a nation, and with the help of our media, looping footage of one burning car on repeat, have a policy of focusing on individual casualties. But this individual-centered approach dangerously distracts ourselves from systemic trends and violent epidemics. In order to understand systemic oppression, we have to focus on systemic insafety. And while riots may cause insafety, it is temporary. Insafety by riots is bounded by a period of time. Non-black people will be “safe” again after a protest ends. Insafety by riots is bounded by an area of land. Non-black people are and will be “safe” in other neighborhoods.
But police violence is not like riots. There is no “opt out” of insafety by police violence for black bodies. Black bodies, regardless of their class, their gender, their location, cannot (and will not until our language conveys this) escape state-sanctioned violence in any part of this country.
So let’s be a bit more responsible and comprehensive in how we respond to white concern for safety, instead of just saying, “I’m safe.” Convey to friends and family that if their concern is driven by fear of violent “thugs” rioting, it is heavily shaped by biased news or racism or a combination of the two. Provide them with alternate sources that actually convey what is happening in Baltimore (or Ferguson or elsewhere). If you are a woman, share with them the history of the threat of “dangerous” brown and black men being used to justify centuries of race-based oppression. Share sources that show protest spaces as created by and for women. Highlight those black female organizers who have been at the forefront of each and every one of these protests, contrary to popular portrayals.
Above all, convey to them that their concern is misplaced, because the protests are not the systemic threat—the police are. And explain to them that police violence is discriminate and affects neighborhoods and communities that our race and class remove us from. Convey to them that not only is it black people in Baltimore City whose safety is threatened right now but that this is nothing new — that the whole point of these uprisings is that their safety always has been and continues to be at risk. Again, there is no option for “staying safe” from the police for black people in America by just steering clear of the protests.
Convey to them the ways in which we have long guaranteed all forms of white safety, from the police, economically, by the gated doors to our communities, by the way we’ve been taught to value broken windows over broken spines. Explain to them that the protection accorded to white safety is so powerful that placing white bodies between black protesters and the police is seen by many as a method to deter police violence against protesters. Read with them bell hooks' writing on the many ways in which whiteness is protected, a passage that was widely circulated after the killing of Trayvon Martin:
The person who is really the threat here is the [white male] homeowner who has been so well socialized by the thinking of white supremacy, of capitalism, of patriarchy that he can no longer respond rationally.
White supremacy has taught him that all people of color are threats irrespective of their behavior. Capitalism has taught him that, at all costs, his property can and must be protected. Patriarchy has taught him that his masculinity has to be proved by the willingness to conquer fear through aggression; that it would be unmanly to ask questions before taking action. Mass media then brings us the news of this in a newspeak manner that sounds almost jocular and celebratory, as though no tragedy has happened, as though the sacrifice of a young life was necessary to uphold property values and white patriarchal honor. Viewers are encouraged to feel sympathy for the white male home owner who made a mistake. The fact that this mistake led to the violent death of an innocent young man does not register; the narrative is worded in a manner that encourages viewers to identify with the one who made the mistake by doing what we are led to feel we might all do to “protect our property at all costs from any sense of perceived threat.” This is what the worship of death looks like.
Don’t just tell them you’re okay; explain to them that white safety is and always has been nothing but.
A version of this piece first appeared in Feministing.