Let’s Face Our White Fear

Former HFP parent and board member, Dana Buhl, posted this piece on Facebook. I sought her permission to share it on HFP’s blog. Dana is currently the Director of Social Justice at First Unitarian Church of Portland. 

I want to talk about white fear.

What I have to say is imperfect and incomplete, but I must get it out. These are not “my” original ideas. I can’t possibly take credit for writing about what has been witnessed, resisted, confronted, written about by countless Black and Indigenous people over the centuries. But I do take responsibility for unburying the truth that lives within my body. I ask my white family, friends, colleagues, peers, neighbors, fellow congregants to consider what I share.

Deep in the white american psyche is fear. Fear that was planted long before our birth. Fear that has been passed down generation to generation and reinforced in almost every corner of our lives whether or not we are aware of it. Fear that is cultivated, groomed, nurtured and that reaches back across oceans and centuries. Fear that has always been manipulated for the purpose of conquest, profit and control.

It is fear of blackness, specifically, of black people.

It is fear based on the lie that human beings can be ranked, assessed, understood, judged simply based on the color of their skin, the curliness of their hair, the shape of their eyes or noses or lips or any physical feature. And it is a fear that deeply distorts the guilt and remorse of white people’s participation in the kidnapping, rape, torture, poisoning, murder and terror of black people.

White fear has been manipulated and weaponized for centuries. Read Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi for a granular history of how this was done. In recent U.S. history, this fear has served as the basis of Stand Your Ground Laws used to justify murder and the core of the 1994 Crime Bill that continues to incarcerate millions. It is the fear that is manipulated to justify the arrest and prosecution of the 5 children in New York known as the Central Park Five (watch When they See Us) and the murder of Emmet Till and… Trayvon Martin, and Eric Garner and Freddie Gray and Michael Brown and Philandro Castille and Matthew Burroughs and Andre Gladen and Keton Otis, and Aaron Campbell and Ahmaud Arbery and Quanice Hayes and Sean Reed and George Floyd and …

It is the cultivation and manipulation of that fear that gave Amy Cooper the reflexive knowledge that she could call 911 on the black man who asked her to put her dog on a leash. (Watch the video) Thank God no harm came to Christian Cooper, the African American man who took a video of her call to 911.

As long as I am in the grips of this unexamined fear, it takes hold of my actions and inactions and keeps me from doing what I know is morally, ethically and spiritually right. My white siblings, it is long passed time to examine our fear, be honest with ourselves and be courageous to decisively act.

It is the manipulation of white fear of black people that makes us more concerned about property damage than outraged at the state sanctioned killing of black people by police. It is the manipulation of fear that keeps pouring more and more and more money into militarizing our communities with rampant gun purchases and open carry laws and police forces armed to the teeth. It is the manipulation of white fear this is literally suffocating black people.

Manipulation of white fear is also the seed of “white fragility” (read Robin DiAngelo’s book by the same name.) Cultivated white fear keeps us so afraid of being called racist for the harm we cause — which we then weaponize by calling black people “angry,” “dangerous,” “thug,” — that we don’t take decisive steps to confront the systems that are quite literally killing Black people. The weapons we wield in our fear range from 911 calls of “suspicious” or “threatening” Black people to complaints at our workplaces that our Black colleagues are “too angry.” We wield our phones, our knees, our guns, our policies, our conversations, our silence, our laws and more to choke the life out of our black siblings.

I’m not asking us to “face our fear” of black people, as that continues to prove deadly. I’m asking us to look and feel ourselves. To be honest. To notice when our own impulses are exactly what Amy Cooper dramatized.

I’m asking us, as Resmaa Menakem does in My Grandmother’s Hands, to learn about the history of white supremacy in this land and put our own white bodies into the shoes of the people who owned, traded, lynched, beat, raped and stood by to watch the terrorizing of black and indigenous people. I want us to know that we would not be where we are today if our ancestors hadn’t participated in every aspect of this horror. I want us to listen to the ways that fear has been passed down to us and what messages we hold about black people and about what it means to confront the racist terrorism we continue to perpetuate and witness. What of our humanity have we sacrificed for a groomed and nourished fear based on lies? We keep admiring the “resilience” of black people in the face of 400 years of white american terror. How about if we get more resilient ourselves and free ourselves from the “bleaching of our souls” (credit Ruby Sales) through centuries of white supremacy?

I’m asking us to be vulnerable in admitting when we are acting out of that fear and learn how to regulate ourselves. To not just apologize when we hurt a black, indigenous or person of color with our racism, but to do better — to stop, to breathe, to notice and again to STOP!

I’m asking us to stop expecting black people to express themselves and their own grief, anger, disappointment in ways that allow us to maintain a distance and avoid confronting and regulating ourselves. I’m asking us to look at our own traumas — most likely passed down through our white families and ancestors or other white people in our lives — and do the hard work of healing so that our unexamined fears are not restimulated and weaponized. Through this healing, we can expand our own capacities for presence and be more equipped to regulate ourselves. And while we do that important work of healing, I am asking us to embrace our white families, friends, neighbors, colleagues with love, with listening and with a firm expectation for them to do the same.

It is heartening so see many more white people willing to look at the depth of internalized white body supremacy and, at minimum, show up in solidarity to say that we do not sanction the murder of black bodies. We do not sanction the use of the unjust laws that have protected police officers who murder people based on “objective reasonable fear” for their life. “Objective reasonable fear” as used to relieve police officers — and vigilantes — of culpability is a construct of white supremacy. (I note, there is no such thing as objective fear.)

However, I suspect that after our current eruption of justified protest nationwide, we white folks will slip back into complacency and expectation that things return to “the way they were.” In particular, I ask us, white progressives, how different is our desire for things to “return to normal” once the Covid-19 crisis is abated, or after the mass disruptions of nationwide protest, from the impulses the fuel the movement of MAGA (make america great again)? We are not different, and certainly not better.

Can I admit that I, too, am Amy Cooper? Can I put myself in her shoes from the moment she took her dog off the leash (I do this all the time), to the moment when she was asked by a black man to follow the rules? Can I notice what my impulses would be? What is the work that I need to do to respond differently so that I don’t even get to the impulse to look for “protection”?

James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed unless it is faced.” Let us face ourselves with courage, with vulnerability, with honesty and with love. The lives of our Black siblings depend on it.

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