In April of 2015 I went out into the streets of Baltimore with the thousands who rose up around the death of Freddie Gray. I’d never experienced a more physical political reflex than I did at that time—the need to bring my body to places the movement needed bodies to be. I marched through different neighborhoods, rallied outside of public buildings and never second-guessed myself. Not until one day when two groups from Baltimore’s rivaling east and west sides met up in a truce march. This rally had a nervous energy to it. It wasn’t led by practiced activists, just a couple of guys with rough voices taking turns with a megaphone, repeating familiar chants. I went along, certain that these calls for justice were right. As I was marching one of the few other white people there, a pale girl in glasses, approached and quietly told me that I shouldn’t hold my fist in the air—it was a Black Power appropriation, she said, wrong for a white person to use.
Her words unbalanced me. I wanted to tell her that it was about solidarity. But then it dawned on me that I might in fact be offending everyone. Perhaps the others were all versed in the history of Black Power, inheritors of that legacy. Perhaps they all knew their place within it—and mine outside of it: white, not from Baltimore, not even from the United States.
As I begin to reflect on this moment of seemingly inconsequential insecurity, I feel myself entering thorny territory. In writing this, I encounter areas that feel taboo. It’s hard to admit that I didn’t and still don’t fully understand the extent of my privilege. That there was a recklessness to my confidence, and that on some conscious level I knew it. It’s hard to find the terms to represent my problematic color blindness. But I will try: when I put my fist in the air I did so with a boldness that I had carried with me from the place where I was raised.
I come from the wilderness. The Kootenays, a mountain region on the northern edge of an unguarded section of the Canada-U.S. border, is a place of immense forest and immense idealism. In the 1950s a group of pacifist American Quakers fleeing the militarism and materialism of the McCarthy era converged there. They were attempting, in their own words, to live closer to their democratic values. Later other civil rights activists arrived. One of them, Betty Polster, had been a personal friend of Coretta and Martin Luther King, Jr. During the civil rights movement, Polster ferried people around the country and delivered leaflets and supplies. She moved to the Kootenays after King was shot, hoping, as she would later remark, to get away from the “unpleasant” politics of the U.S. She helped build the small gardening hamlet called Argenta. It was through her pacifist network that many other American war resisters converged in the area. By the Seventies the Slocan Valley, in the heart of the Kootenays, had the largest concentration of Vietnam draft dodgers in the world. Meanwhile the region began attracting partisans of the back-to-the-land movement, young people who rejected the consumerism, violence and racism of urban life.
No doubt this place of glacier-fed lakes and old-growth forests seemed like a promised land. And yet the society-building project would’ve looked much different had the indigenous people who’d once hunted and fished those valleys not been cleared out. A conspicuous absence of Ktanaxa (Kootenay) people throughout most of the region that bears their name is therefore an uncomfortable irony of the idealistic culture where I was raised.
My father, from Dublin, agreed with my mother, a Berkeley graduate and People’s Park protester, that the United States was no place to live. They built a log house in the middle of the woods and constructed the walls as bookshelves. We had no television, but there were regular living room meetings about human rights and struggles for justice and democracy in distant countries. From an early age my understanding of the outside world was that it was a place to be intensely concerned about. In the 1980s, when the Reagan administration was backing coups and breaking up grassroots collectivist movements in Latin America, the Kootenays became one end point of an underground railroad of sorts. Guatemalan and Nicaraguan refugees made their way through the U.S. and were hosted in our town. A family of six lived with my family of six. There were live music benefits to fundraise for the Sandinistas. There wasn’t a lot of civic infrastructure to shut down, but we rallied for different causes nonetheless. In gumboots and ponchos we tromped along rainy highways behind a bedsheet banner, singing “Give Peace a Chance” to an audience of patient trees.
Amid the meetings and the marches, racism remained an abstraction—just one feature in a distant constellation of cruelty. I could hardly imagine the impacts of racism because I could hardly imagine race. Everyone around me was white. It had been a privilege of white people to ditch America, to leave family behind and risk venturing into an unknown region in hopes of building a utopia. In many ways I was like a kid from the suburbs: I had ideas about people who were different but was suspended from contact with them.
Baltimore wasn’t my first encounter with segregation. When I was a child my mother took us to Oakland to see the house where she grew up. It was in a neighborhood whose transformation epitomizes the white flight story: once a white, middle-class part of East Oakland, the area was now poor and black. My grandparents had left the inner city for the suburbs, which my mother had then fled for the woods. Later I spent time in my husband’s hometown of Detroit, a city that imploded from a perfect storm of industry collapse and interracial tension that was the result of decades of housing and employment segregation. Then on and off for four years I stayed in Hyde Park, the hyper-policed university neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago where my husband was studying. Oakland and Detroit were like museums to me, places I stared at as a spectator. It was in Chicago that I first properly faced the ethical challenge of being white in a space marked by racist economics and policing.
An invisible presence can be felt in parts of Chicago’s South Side, in neighborhoods where buildings have boards for windows, where the roads are winter-bleached and the pavement is pitted with potholes. There might seem to be no logic in having vast areas with so few grocery stores, with so many vacant homes and so many homeless people. But there is logic: racist logic, manifest in school closures, in the lack of adequate health-care facilities and in the glaring evidence of redlining and civic disinvestment.
In the heart of the South Side is the aberration of Hyde Park and the University of Chicago, with its campus of neo-Gothic, ivy-clad architecture, tranquil green quads and the great glass-domed Mansueto reading room where the privilege of higher learning is simultaneously on display for the world and safely enclosed from it. It’s well documented how throughout the twentieth century the university helped sanitize Hyde Park and seal it off from its surrounding communities. The state of the university’s current relationship with its neighbors can be deduced from the size of its campus security: the UCPD is one of the largest private police forces in the world.
One summer morning during my first visit there, I sat in a house looking through an open window at the corner of Ingleside and 51st, then at the edges of UCPD jurisdiction. A group of black teenagers—four guys and a girl—were one story below me, joking around outside of a small bodega. An SUV rolled up and the next thing I knew the kids were all standing with legs spread and hands on the roof of the vehicle. Armed and thickly vested officers fished in the kids’ pockets and groped their bodies while the kids rested their heads and joked, chatting to each other and to the cops. The police made a few calls and kept them there with their hands on the cruiser for at least twenty minutes.
I had thought that privilege meant receiving something, like wealth or opportunity. But one of my privileges in Hyde Park—a privilege I had been even less aware of, I could now see, when I was in the Kootenays—was having something not happen: not ever having to worry about being shaken down arbitrarily by a roaming team of undercover authorities.
I arrived in Baltimore two years before the uprising. On my first night, I drove up Greenmount Avenue on the east side of town, looking for groceries. It was beyond hot out, one of the city’s midsummer nights when the Chesapeake swamp-heat gets trapped between earth and firmament and the temperature seems only to amplify itself. On Greenmount, in one of the city’s largest African-American neighborhoods, everyone was out. I passed a group of older men practicing some steps under a streetlight. The men bent low and turned and clapped then stamped in unison. They were dressed in old-fashioned clothing with their sleeves rolled up. My windows were rolled down and I caught a slip of their singing. I drove the length of the crowded street, forgetting what I was looking for and feeling confused by something I kept seeing. At almost every block, a police car idled in the middle of the intersection. Again and again, between streams of flowing traffic, a BPD cruiser sat, bleeding its red and blue liquid light over the pavement and over the people passing by, who didn’t seem to notice. Black people were outside on a hot night and police were treating it like an emergency.
Michael A. Wood, Jr. is a former Baltimore Police sergeant and whistleblower on police brutality who began tweeting last June about the abusive practices that he witnessed and participated in during the decade in which he wore a badge. Wood had his own epiphany about white immunity while on the drug squad. Wood says that as an inner-city officer he’d been programmed to see certain people as the enemy: black people, particularly young males. As the enemy, he explains, these people were liable to be arrested for bouncing a basketball in the street; they were forced to open their pants and show officers their genitals; frequently they were punched and beaten while in handcuffs. One Baltimore narcotics unit was known in the department for breaking into suspects’ homes and defecating on their beds. Police lied about suspects dropping drugs and falsely testified in court to make sure they were sent to prison. Eventually, while Wood was sitting and surveilling homes for long hours, he began to realize that he was actually just looking at people trying to live their lives. Only his whiteness had exempted him from the kinds of punishments that he and his colleagues regularly inflicted on black people.
An unsettling sensation of my own immunity was simmering in me by the time I moved to Baltimore. I was taking up the American citizenship I’d inherited from my mother and reversing her migration. I was going to teach writing at Johns Hopkins—another elite institution with underserved neighbors. But this time I was laying down roots: I was going to have to learn—or fail to learn—how to live permanently in segregated conditions that had evolved out of racist policy-making.
Baltimore was the first U.S. city to enact a housing apartheid law—the Residential Segregation Ordinance of 1910—which made it illegal for people of color to move into a block where 50 percent of residents were white, and vice versa. When the law was struck down in 1917, private developers mimicked the practice by way of restrictive covenants prohibiting sales to black buyers in neighborhoods that to this day remain Baltimore’s wealthiest. Thurgood Marshall, who grew up in segregated Baltimore, won a Supreme Court case against racially restrictive deeds in 1948. But apartheid practices and consequent fears of blackness had become entrenched. Capitalizing directly on such fears, real-estate investors took up blockbusting—intentionally selling homes in white neighborhoods to African-American buyers in order to trigger white flight and cause homeowners to sell at a loss. Blockbusting went hand-in-hand with redlining policies that effectively killed business development. With the economies of these communities depending on black-market trade, increased crime rates stigmatized blackness and became the justification for the extrajudicial policing that Sergeant Wood partook in.
The apartheid that began with an official ordinance in Baltimore no longer needs to be upheld by laws. The divisions are now impossible to miss: Mount Vernon, the area of brownstones and boutique wine bars, couldn’t be more different from neighboring Seton Hill, where the large majority is black and life-expectancy is lower than in North Korea. The pleasant parks and fountains of Bolton Hill are an easy twenty-minute walk from Sandtown-Winchester, where Ta-Nehisi Coates was raised to fear police and where Freddie Gray was arrested and taken on the “rough ride” that snapped the cervical vertebrae of his spine.
Baltimore’s glaring divisions haunted me during my first two years here. I found myself becoming obsessed with race as I tried to find my place beside people who were subject to abuses from which I knew I was exempt. I had the feeling that black people must have been insulted by my white presence. This hyper-awareness of race made me wonder if I was becoming racist. I studied white people, trying to sense what tricks they had to help them cope with their position as beneficiaries of apartheid. I talked about racist economics to white friends who would nod gravely, as though ashamed in front of a Canadian. But the border I’d grown up behind had only been another layer of my privilege, shielding me from hard questions about my position in the world.
After Freddie Gray’s funeral, the governor imposed a citywide curfew aimed at curbing protests and rioting. During the week of the curfew I talked with a lot of people on the streets. At the counter of my corner store, a youth counselor from West Baltimore expressed anger with the people who’d lit up the CVS. I said I thought their frustration was understandable but he disagreed. He said he’d spent his life learning to make use of his anger after his mother died and his father went to jail. Another man called through his open window at a red light to ask if I thought this uprising needed to happen. He thought so. Later I met with a payroll administrator who needed to verify my American citizenship. She told me that she wanted to pack up her family and flee to Canada, saying that although she was born in Baltimore it wasn’t feeling like home. Another time, in the heat of the summer, I sat on the edge of a swimming pool beside an eighty-year-old man who told me that he’d been waiting for this movement since ’68. This one, he said, needs to happen. This one, he said, is only beginning. Then in the fall, at crowded outdoor bar in Station North, I met a man named J.C. Faulk.
One of the first things J.C. asked me was if there had been a particular moment in my life when I realized I was white. I told him about the incident in the spring when the girl said that I shouldn’t raise my fist. How could I have possibly only realized I was white last spring, he wanted to know. It wasn’t as simple as realizing what color my skin was, I explained. It was something else that I became aware of that day, something about the full spectrum of what my whiteness might mean. Shame is what I’d felt at that rally, shame and discomfort at the thought that my presence might be causing additional suffering. But I said to J.C. that I thought my being white in a movement about black suffering ought to trouble me. It was this particular potential to cause discomfort that I faced that day.
Conversations about race and racism, it turns out, are J.C.’s life work. For years, he was a racial integration consultant. Having grown up in a poor African-American neighborhood in Washington D.C., J.C. had immediately identified a need for race dialogue in Baltimore, where he had moved not long before the uprising. In the wake of the Freddie Gray protests, the workshops he held in his house grew, and he moved them into community centers and church halls and gave them a name: “Circles of Voices.” Within the safe space that J.C. establishes, people of various ethnicities and backgrounds are invited to voice difficult questions and thoughts about what holds them apart from one another.
There are many reasons why dialogue about race needs clear parameters. For people of color it can trigger race-based trauma. For white people, acknowledging their privileged status brings with it an existential challenge. But one of the most important reasons why racial dialogue is not easy is because one half of the dyad—the white half—remains largely submerged.
There is a palpable difficulty in even beginning to describe what whiteness is, no less in trying to collectively surmount it. In Between the World and Me, Coates replaces the category of white people with “those who believe they are white,” a phrase that emphasizes the extent to which the concept of whiteness itself might be connected to a lack of self-examination. After the Charleston church shooting, Nell Irvin Painter, a historian of whiteness and professor emerita at Princeton, penned an article in the New York Times titled “What is Whiteness?” in which she both decried and contextualized our “monolithic definition of whiteness.” In mainstream discussions of race, Painter writes, “everyone loves to talk about blackness” while whiteness remains either too banal (“bland nothingness”) or too brutal (“racist hatred”) to make for compelling dialogue. More recently, in a New York Times Magazine piece entitled “White Debt,” Eula Biss tried to explore whiteness by way of a meditation on a key term commonly associated with it: guilt. But while Biss gestures in her essay toward one power she possesses—to educate her son—she ultimately concludes near to where she begins: debt and guilt remain inextricable from whiteness.
When J.C. asked me about the moment I realized I was white, I referred to a moment of disempowerment, when I felt an urge to retreat, to hide, to let this protest belong to the people I imagined it was most about. The moment I said I realized I was white was a moment when I doubted my place to call out injustice because I felt myself, my flesh, to be a cause of it.
Thanks to J.C.’s workshops, I’ve been able to learn firsthand about some of the effects of that injustice. I’ve heard people speak about racial division as a burden that has buried them for years in depression. I’ve heard people speak about it as something corrosive, that eats away at them. But people also talk about the immense relief they experience from simply voicing these thoughts. And at every workshop I’ve been at, someone has spoken about the therapeutic effect of simply sitting among others who want to talk honestly about race. At the most recent workshop a black participant, Davon Neverdon, said that years of trauma counseling had nothing on the revelation he was having that evening, that white people also want to bridge the divide.
On the afternoon of April 25th we walked for fifteen minutes to the corner where Freddie Gray was last seen alive and well. Hundreds of people converged there and then marched around the corner to the Western District Police Station, where Michael Wood used to work. Shielded cops stood ready. If only the media had a way of covering the words that were called that day. The high charge of that proximity. The reversed order of power.
We marched all the way through Sandtown and Seton Hill. People were on every front stoop, elderly people and small children, people hanging out of open windows as the swelling masses embraced their homes. I had my eyes on the mothers, so many middle-aged women in that crowd, and on the kids, so many children, who were being initiated that day into a long tradition of marching. My own childhood memories of marching for a cause were indelible. But I could not imagine what it felt like to march for the cause of your own life. At Pennsylvania and North I saw a woman who must have just come up from the metro station. She was in a crowd of bystanders who held their fists up high, and she was sobbing. The crowd, which had grown by then into something like a sea, roared with one deafening voice that black lives matter.
In the ensuing days we thronged City Hall, held hands to shut down the highway, fed families at open-air cookouts and met up for emergency community meetings. One day at Penn and North beside the burned-out CVS, amid the drumming and chanting of a vast crowd, I came across a strange scene. A circle had formed around a middle-aged white man who stood with his eyes closed and his arms thrown open. A young black woman was dousing him with smoke from a burning bundle of sage. In waving strokes, she washed his body with this musky smudge. I recognized this as a purification ritual meant to rid a person of bad spirits.
While the man was cleansed, other white people waited in line. It was as though they believed their whiteness was something that needed to be purged, healed. I saw the troubling possibility that white participation in the movement might be about self-exoneration. But there was also the possibility that people were resorting to any means possible to communicate what they had repressed. I stood by, watching and wondering if symbolic cleansing was something I too would want after decades of pent-up silence in a center of racial division like Baltimore. And what of the healer herself, I’ve since wondered, washing the empty arms of this white man. Did she believe that white participation required an exorcism? Or was this all just a spectacle, something to cause observers like me to think harder about the many possible meanings of whiteness?
At a student-led rally at Penn Station, I listened to spoken-word artist Lady Brion address a crowd of thousands. Before beginning her poem, she shouted a preface. “It doesn’t matter what role you play,” she said, “so long as you’re a part of this movement. If you are an artist, be an artist! If you are a lawyer, be a lawyer! If you are a fighter, be a fighter!” I think about her words still. Contribute to the movement with whatever means you have, she says. I have this means of language. I have this body.
Every Wednesday night at 6:30 I go to a different location in Baltimore to stand with Tawanda Jones, the sister of Tyrone West, a 44-year-old black man who was pulled over for not wearing his seatbelt and, as witnesses have stated, beaten to death. The incident, which happened in the Greenmount region during the same summer I moved here, was not caught on camera and none of the twelve officers involved in Tyrone’s killing were ever indicted. Tawanda, now one of the voices of the Baltimore Black Lives Matter movement, has been going out every Wednesday for 126 weeks now, demanding justice for her brother and for all victims of police brutality.
Tawanda says that before her brother was killed, she thought the police went after criminals. “I had my eyes opened,” she says. “We know that if he was white, he’d still be here.” Tawanda asks us to think of someone we love dearly, and to imagine them being brutally beaten to death.
I think about the place I come from, a distant enclave where it’s easy to fight for justice because the fight for justice is safe. Tawanda’s tires have been slashed on multiple occasions, usually on Wednesday night before she goes out. She has received death threats. A police helicopter often hovers over the small crowd as we rally in front of City Hall. Along with her family and others, I stand for the hour that she stands, calling in response to different speakers. I hold up a sign against apartheid. Sometimes I hold up my fist.
Photo credits: Patrick Joust