How can a white person with chronic illness support Black Lives Matter? When others are suffering, how can you support them when you yourself are barely functioning? What is the right thing to do?
The answer can’t be nothing. Even if, on some days, that’s all you’re capable of. It just can’t be.
Some readers may have noticed I’ve been gone since April. And I’ve been trying to listen. I’ve been educating myself. Reading. Watching. The last thing anybody needs right now is white people trying to co-opt the movement for racial justice.
And the pandemic hit all of us hard, especially Black and Latinx and Indigenous communities. Especially those of us with mental health issues or physical conditions that can be difficult to manage in the best of times.
This isn’t the best of times.
The first time I ventured out during lockdown, a white man followed me through the grocery store. When I entered an empty aisle, he followed me there, too. He strode toward me. Once he was just a few feet away, he spread his feet in the middle of the aisle, so I couldn’t squeeze past him, and crossed his arms. He stared me down. It felt like a dare.
He saw me trying to decide how to respond, and he smirked a little. It was only when I coughed behind my mask that he finally backed off. But it was too late. My PTSD had kicked in hard as any drug. My hands were shaking. Adrenaline pounded, flooding my brain with rage and leaving me insomniac, paranoid, and blind with hate for weeks.
I have survived three decades of violence and abuse, sexual assaults and stalking because I carried with me like a torch the unshakeable belief that most people are nothing like my abusers. Most people, I told myself from kindergarten on, are nothing like my parents or the abusive friends and partners I have known. They care about needless human suffering. They want to prevent it. And this is how I had faced the world.
For me, PTSD is a parallel reality that runs alongside this reality but is not part of it. In this other dimension, I have thoughts that the person whom I believe myself to be would never have. While jotting notes in my day planner, I suddenly picture myself jabbing my pen into the side of my neck with enough force to puncture my carotid artery. Maybe even deep enough that I can leave it there. And I wonder, with clinical interest, what would run down my neck first: blood or ink?
On May 23rd, in one day, over 1,000 people died from COVID in the U.S. A few days later, the sum total of deaths in the United States reached 100,000. A disproportionate number of those deaths were Black and Latinx. And then, on May 25th, two days after my husband’s birthday, George Floyd was murdered by a white police officer.
This is an old story in our country. As old as it gets, unless you’re talking Indigenous stories.
To understand police brutality against Black Americans, we have to go all the way back to the slave patrols, beginning in the 1700s with white landowners. Dependent on free labor for their own wealth, they feared losing slaves through education, rebellion, and civil rights.
The Law Enforcement Museum in Washington, D.C. quotes historian Sally Hadden’s book on slave patrols:
“The history of police work in the South grows out of this early fascination, by white patrollers, with what African American slaves were doing. Most law enforcement was, by definition, white patrolmen watching, catching, or beating black slaves.”
We white people in this country have always been empowered to surveil, assess, judge, and condemn Black lives. Whether it’s a white person calling the police on a “suspicious” Black person or a white Twitter account demanding to know “well, what was he doing” before condemning police violence against a Black person, the norms established by slave patrols continue to echo down the centuries in the United States.
Or we could talk about the 1873 Colfax Massacre, in which white people aligned with the Confederacy and the KKK attempted to overthrow the elected local government, which included both Black and white representatives. When a group of Black men attempted to defend the courthouse, the white terrorists surrounded the building and forced the men to surrender. The surrender achieved nothing, however, as the white militia members murdered some 60 to 150 Black people that day. Only nine white men were charged and, thanks to the racial bias in America’s federal courts, none punished.
These are not isolated facts. They are part of a pattern that has endured for hundreds of years. But we here in white America conveniently forget these things. We think we are innocent of all wrongdoing precisely because we have forgotten, so that we cannot see how this has benefited us economically and politically. We have so much power and privilege today because our ancestors so consistently took every shred of that from Black Americans.
Today in Colfax, the only memorial notes the deaths, not the fact that this massacre effectively ended Reconstruction and plunged the South into the Jim Crow era. With court rulings that left white supremacists reassured they could murder with impunity, Black Americans faced white terrorism on their own, without hope of aid or justice from anyone but themselves, for the next 100 years.
I want to be there, marching. I want to stand beside the people who carry this trauma, to shoulder whatever part of that weight I can. If only to say I see you. I hear you. I know you speak the truth. I am listening. And I will fight alongside you.
But I can’t. My asthma not only puts me at high risk for severe Covid-19, but I doubt my ability to function at a protest. My own demons have become intolerable. Insomnia has returned. I sleep at odd hours, in fragments. Sometimes not at all. Which makes the chronic migraines so much worse. It’s no one’s job to heal this but me, so I keep mostly to myself.
The nightmares have returned. I wake from one where I am locked in a basement. A version of the windowless bathroom where my father locked me when I was a teenager, for no reason I could ever tell. In these nightmares, Black men and women begin to appear beside me, locked into the same prisons invented by the same racist, misogynist man. I cannot protect them from my father. I cannot even save myself.
White people don’t have a good sense of history. We really don’t. We live in a culture of perpetration, so even if we have never personally lynched or jailed or shot or threatened a Black person, we still exist in—and benefit from—a community that has historically facilitated that. We live in historically segregated neighborhoods, attend white schools and white places of worship, shop at white-owned stores, and purchase goods that profit white people. When white liberals demand to know how many Black friends you have, they’re kind of missing the point.
The point is the absence of Black Americans from all but the fringes. The Black absence from the seats of power that determine the nation’s or the city’s or the county’s direction, from neighborhoods that build wealth, and from the sectors that profit most. White America is very good at rendering invisible what unsettles us. And in my experience, perpetrators and the cultures that surround them are invested in forgetting. Men don’t remember assaulting women. Parents don’t remember abusing children. And white people don’t carry the memory of Tulsa or Colfax or the Red Summer of 1919 when white men trained their guns on Black neighborhoods, targeting Black WWI veterans whom white supremacists saw as “uppity,” armed, and a threat to white control. In the end, at least 97 lynchings were recorded across the country, and in one Arkansas city, some 200 men, women, and children were massacred.
But not many white people know these things.
The easiest thing is to forget, and so, if it is at all possible, we do.
In 1942, my grandparents witnessed the roundups of their Japanese-American classmates, neighbors, and friends in eastern Washington. But I never knew this. It took a terminal cancer diagnosis to force their hand, to get them to pull down their high school yearbooks and start telling their stories. When I cracked open my grandfather’s high school yearbook from 1941, I was astonished to find so many Japanese-American names. Not just one or two or three students, but many.
In my lifetime, the Asian-American population in Washington’s Benton and Franklin counties has hovered between 2% and 4%. In comparison, today those identifying as “Hispanic or Latino” make up anywhere from 22% (Benton) to over 50% (Franklin) of the population. Yet here, based on the student portraits, Japanese-Americans were the largest minority in 1940s Kennewick. Indeed, in the nearby town of Wapato, over 1,000 Japanese-Americans had settled decades earlier. Farms owned and worked by Japanese-American families stretched across the Yakima River valley for the first decades of the twentieth century.
Then, I opened his 1942 yearbook.
“My god,” I said. “I had no idea. This happened here?”
“Yep,” my grandfather said, gripping the arms of his recliner. The word was brittle, tight with shame, and final. Both my grandparents stared out their front window onto the street.
They had been teenagers at the time, and I understand their power to take action was negligible to nonexistent. Especially for my grandmother. She came from German stock, and over 10,000 people of German and Italian ancestry were rounded up along with Japanese-Americans. Her silence, with immigrant relatives in living memory, must have felt not only acceptable but imperative.
But what astonished me was that in all the decades since, as the government paid reparations and admitted the internment was a racist violation of basic rights, my grandparents still had never spoken of it. Their silence, for me, had erased that chapter of Tri-Cities history. The Harolds and Marthas, the Gingers and Roys who had been disappeared by our own government truly had disappeared from white memory.
It’s what white people do.
But there was something about George Floyd that woke up a lot of us white people. That made us do what we should have been doing all along. Including me.
Part of the problem is I thought I’d done enough. I’d been working towards anti-racism since I was 17. Still in high school, I attended my first anti-racist workshop. But one workshop isn’t enough to undo racist socialization since birth. So, at 20, I attended a conference on race with a professor of mine who was researching white women’s awareness of race. That jolted me awake, too.
I took classes on the art and literature of cultures that white neighbors and relatives had derided my entire life: Asian literature, Mexican art history, African cultures and history. I studied ibn Battuta, one of history’s greatest explorers, a Muslim, and an African. I wrote papers on Chinese and Japanese women painters. West African pen pals generously mailed me novels, postcards, and clothing in our cultural exchanges, helping me to begin deconstructing my Eurocentric aesthetics. That woke me up, too.
And I’d had Black history and literature teachers who also woke me up. I watched Seattle police bully my Thai in-laws. And at just above minimum wage, I served low-income community college students for 16 years, supporting immigrant, refugee, and BIPOC students so that they could succeed, and voice their experiences, in an environment that was not designed for their success. And that snapped me out of it, too.
But none of it was enough. And this is one of our problems, as white people. We keep falling asleep at the wheel. We have to learn and re-learn, and learn again. It’s no wonder people who live these experiences get tired of us. We are such slow learners.
So we have to keep jolting each other awake, and ourselves. It’s no one else’s job to do it for us. We have to keep our eye on the ball. Privilege lulls us into oblivion, like the white lines on the highway ticking past. And then we don’t see what’s right in front of us.
I will never know what it’s like to be Black in this country. I can spend my life studying race, asking questions, listening, reading, and still, I can never know. There is always more to learn. There is always more racism to deconstruct within myself.
So we white people, we’ve got to help each other stay awake because when Black Americans say they have waited a long time for justice, they don’t mean since Trayvon Martin. They mean centuries. Centuries. And because of our white penchant for forgetting, Black and Indigenous Americans have been left to bear the weight of traumatic memory alone. If we are to splice out the fundamental racism in this country’s roots—and we must—the first step is to remember. To remember collectively, and to witness collectively.
My PTSD is indistinguishable from rage. I know I’m losing my grip on reality when I start to scream at doors I bump into. I throw things. I punch the wall. I tear a bedsheet.
It takes nothing at all. A pen stops working. I trip on an electrical cord. An app crashes. My vertigo makes me teeter.
The moment it begins, I flee. I shut myself in a room. Just as my father locked me away decades ago, laughing outside the door as I screamed in the dark. But this time I choose this. It is to keep my family safe from me.
One afternoon, shut into the bedroom, I scream and weep at the same time. “Why am I still here? Why the FUCK? Why does everything have to be so hard?”
I truly wish myself dead. I have nothing to give but the rage.
I couldn’t have anything less in common with George Floyd. I’m a woman. He’s a man. I’m a white woman. He was a Black man. Police officers have been sweet and tip-their-hat-polite-to-me, chagrined when I look scared. When I’ve told attackers I can’t breathe or they’re hurting me, I get laughed at. A “crazy” woman. Always exaggerating. When Floyd told his attackers he couldn’t breathe, they assumed he was on drugs. My terror is treated as laughable. His was perceived as dangerous.
I’m perfectly aware that I’m still here, after so many assaults, and Floyd isn’t, because of the color of my skin, the appearance of my gender identity (most days), and what people have described as the “sweetness” of my face. My name has the same Latin root as honey.
But there are some things we share. I’m college educated and so was Floyd. We both had a rough time in the past and made some mistakes. What society made us pay for those mistakes, however, differed wildly. Floyd, in spite of everything, reshaped his life and became a volunteer, a support, a pillar of his community.
I am not that strong. And not that wise. Not yet.
But still. Always. There is the privilege. I am still here. When I scream and cry and have a nervous breakdown that my neighbors can hear, no one calls the police on me.
I’m snared in another nightmare. This time I’ve escaped my father. I dash out onto an empty street. I pound on doors. One woman, a white woman from my childhood, finally opens her door to me. “Can I use your phone?” I ask.
She lets me in, and I dial someone’s number.
By the time I’ve finished, I notice she’s watching me. She smiles. “I’ve let your parents know you’re lost,” she says. “They’ll be right over.”
It is the nightmare of the white suburbs where I grew up. People refuse to believe in ugly things. You can tell the truth all you want. You can plead for help. You could even show the bruises, not that it would matter.
They know that sort of thing doesn’t happen here. Abuse. Rape. Assault. Racism. Police brutality. That doesn’t exist here, they’ll say. That happens elsewhere. In big cities. In other countries. But here? And then they smile. I don’t know anyone like that.
Here’s the thing, though. Healing isn’t possible if we can’t, as white people, look ourselves in the face, along with all that means. Our history. Our complicity. Our denial. Our preoccupation with our own comfort and success, at the cost of others’ survival. Healing isn’t possible if we want to pretend our society isn’t racist and we aren’t somehow infected by that. Most of all, healing isn’t possible if we want to think we are good people, that we have arrived in the promised land of “The Good White Person,” and there’s nothing more we need to do. If we are preoccupied with our own goodness, we are blind to the well-being of our Black neighbors. The fact is, we cannot look away. Not just from the truth of their lives but also the truth of our own. No matter how much it hurts. And it does. It hurts. It should.
On this blog, so many people have been generous to me. You have sent me love and well wishes and support as you have learned about the traumas created by misogyny. You have listened. And that act of witnessing, of validating, has helped me lean harder into the work it takes to heal.
It’s true that I still don’t have a lot to give. I’m disabled by chronic illness. I’m having a mental health crisis. I’m struggling to survive. My husband and I donate monthly to Black Lives Matter Seattle. But I still have to do something more. I have to strive towards anti-racism. So I am trying to listen. I am trying to share what I’ve learned. I’m trying to acknowledge. This post is me, marching with you in the best way I can. It’s going to be flawed. It’s going to come up short. But I have to do something. And this is part of what I can do.
The intergenerational trauma of Black Americans deserves the same compassion, the same dignity, the same trust and solidarity as any other trauma. I know it’s complicated for us white people when we are complicit in that trauma, when we have benefited from it for generations. But this is history. These are the facts of the case. And Black Americans have carried this trauma alone long enough.
No one can carry a trauma, unsupported and unheard, forever. So it’s long past time that we start remembering alongside them. It’s time we start standing up for what should have been theirs all along. It’s time we stand shoulder to shoulder with those who have suffered most, those who have been trying to wake our country from its nightmare for centuries. It’s time we guarantee Black Americans an end to the trauma, a beginning to the justice that so many generations have fought for, and an opportunity to truly and fully heal.
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Where to donate:
Color of Change (Also be sure to follow them on Twitter)
For a more comprehensive list of victim funds, bail funds, and organizations that support specific groups within the Black community, click here.
Opening image: Photo by Redrecords ©️ from Pexels
3 thoughts on “The Trauma of Being Here”
You’re back! And back with such a deep and difficult subject. I must read it again to absorb it all, but I wanted to thank you for writing this. I’ve been struggling with the same questions as you this year, and your insights are really helping me see things in perspective. I wish I can say more, but I have to first let this sit for a while. Because it definitely brought new ideas to the fore for me.
I hope you stay safe and feel better, Melanie. I’ve missed your voice.
Thanks so much, Roxana! Any effort I make, being white, is going to fall short. It isn’t enough. I may get criticized for that, and that criticism is fair. But I just got tired of waiting for the migraines to recede “enough,” for the PTSD to be manageable “enough.” If I went on waiting for the stars to align before I added my voice to the millions calling for racial justice and equality, it was just never going to happen. Better to dive in, possibly mess up, take any criticism or feedback as a learning experience, apologize, and keep on trying to do better. What I do, with my physical and mental health limitations, and when I do it, is going to look different, but I still have to try. Thanks for your kind words and encouragement, Roxana. Your own blog remains an inspiration and an example for me.
In the anti-racism classes at my kids’ school, the teachers always tell us to try our best and, if we fail, to try again tomorrow. Don’t waste time on feeling guilty: There’s no perfect way to be in this battle for justice and equality, so we should just get out there and do the best we can today and the best we can tomorrow. I’m glad you’re not letting the mistakes we’re all going to make deter you from engaging. And I thank you for caring, and for trying to make the world a better place. You know, it’s for the kids 🙂