What happened in Jena, as big as it is, is even bigger than what it is. What happened represents all that must change in this country, what we none of us can get away from, what forms our lives and our thoughts and our ways of being, whether we are Black or white or Latino or Hispanic or Asian, this founding concept of justice for all against a reality of white status and privilege so deeply embedded that most white people will not, cannot afford to admit that it is there and that the accident of birth confers freedom from having to ever deal with the complexities of interactions tainted by perceptions of race.
Recently I read "The White Anti-Racist Is an Oxymoron: An Open Letter to White Anti-Racists" by Kil Ja Kim. She makes points that need to be heard, in particular that whites who wish to engage in the struggle cannot expect--although it seems they do--to lead the charge, but
. . . must be committed to either picking up arms for other people (and only firing when the people tell them so), dying for other people, or just getting out of the way. In short, they must be willing to do what the people most affected and marginalized by a situation tell them to do.All of us are so very self-centered. It is the human condition. But salvation is not to be found in looking at ourselves, and especially not in looking at other people look at us, which is probably even more tempting.
Without constant vigilance to keep our monstrous egos in check, we are always demanding center stage and demanding to be heard. Without close supervision, of course the thoughts come running back to Me and All of Me and the Greatness of Me and How I Am Affected and How Good I Am and Look at Me, I Am a Good Person Doing a Good Thing. In this place, how can those who truly are affected not feel rage when faced with the effrontery of a white person even daring to say that he or she has been affected in any way by the plague of racism? Even worse, white people want to go to the Black people around whom they feel safe, and complain. Or confess. When you are heavily burdened and another complains of carrying a feather, you are justified in having some feelings about it.
I can imagine the questions:
Have you ever seen someone's face close up when you spoke because of your race?
Have you ever been denied a job, a home, hell, even a ride because of your race?
Have you ever been followed in a store because the color of your skin makes the employees assume you are a thief?
Has anyone ever made assumptions about you and your manner of living and your education level and your family because of your race?
The only proper thing to do, in the immortal words of my friend K., is shut up and listen. Shut up and listen. Shut up and listen.
Then, when it seems right, the only proper thing to say is, "How can I help?"