White Apathy and its Cure

          Jasen Frelot, Curator of Conversation and Community 

          Jasen Frelot, Curator of Conversation and Community 

In 2008, I saw a woman hitting and yelling at her child on a public bus. The woman looked absolutely exhausted. She was carrying grocery bags and her child was being loud and unsafe. I could imagine that she most likely was a single mother, probably working class, without the emotional and spiritual support she needed to raise her child.

I saw her raising her hand to hit the child again. The bus was about a quarter full of onlookers. I stood up and walked to the end of the bus. I told her to never touch her child like that again. I threatened to call child protective services and told her that they would come and take her son away if they knew that she was treating him that way.

She grabbed the boy and held him close. I told her that I worked as a behaviorist in Southern California with children and that I would be happy to give her any support she needed. I gave her my information and returned to my seat.

I have worked in Seattle on the problem of continued racial inequality since George Zimmerman was released for the murder of Trayvon Martin. The blatant disregard for that poor boy’s life made it too difficult for me to continue to ignore the suffering of my black brothers and sisters. I vowed before God that I would do everything in my power to bring about racial equality.

Since starting on this journey I have been able to teach directly and indirectly on the problems of racial inequality in our city, state and country. As a result, I have experienced hostile and destructive work environments at past jobs, been threatened, called names, and all too frequently misrepresented.

My experience is not unique. Black people across the country have to deal with living with the feeling that they are going crazy. We frequently have to work for and with people and institutions that seemingly have no knowledge of, or care for the suffering we as a people are experiencing.

We are often belittled and unacknowledged. We have ideas that are attributed to others and listened to only when they come out of a white person's mouth.

We live in a strange world where our talents are valued but our personhood is not. We are made to feel less than human in this white world. Our voices are of value only if they are attached to white organizations and faces, organizations and faces that at best seem apathetic and at worse seem to actively try to keep us under constant submission. We are inescapably wedded to the constant need for white approval compelling us to often snuff out something important and vital in ourselves.

I write this not as a plea for white sympathy but as an indictment of white apathy.

Black people are not only victimized by our continually racist system but we are also told how we must react to being victimized.Our reactions and responses are debated and dissected in the media, on comment boards, and in white meetings held by and for white people. We are intimidated and threatened with the loss of our freedom, our livelihoods, or our safety for daring to speak up and out about the wrongs we as a community still face.

All of this and white people­­ - well meaning white people­­ - look on while we are constantly abused, locked up, and murdered by a system bent on our continued humiliation and surrender.

"Progressive" white people, too afraid to upset the system, argue for the virtues and the rights of the perpetrators of abuse and harm as a reason to stand by and do nothing as their fellow citizens continue to suffer. They applaud themselves for the smallest gestures of supporting the black cause and shamelessly wave around “model” Black people as proof that their actions have been successful. They seek out Black people only as faces to approve and stand by plans that they already set in motion.

Yes, they will claim that they stand with Black people but they stand only to the point that they do not need to assume any personal, financial, or professional risk. At the first sign of pressure from other people in power, they fall silent, if they ever bothered to speak up at all.

They trick themselves into believing the lie that everything is okay. They frantically try to justify lifestyles that deep down they know are built upon our backs with feeble claims of “I’m not racist.”

When I confronted the woman who was hitting her child on the bus, I did not do it out of fear of being labeled a child abuse supporter if I did nothing. I did not allow my concerns about the rights of the mother stop me from saying something. Nor did I allow the difficult situation I knew she was in to be a justification for her behavior. I did not assume that others would intervene. I acted.

I acted out of my innate love and concern for the child. I saw that the child was suffering. I knew that if I didn’t say something, the child would continue to suffer. 

Black people are not children, but we are suffering. We cannot and should not be the only ones taking risks, losing sanity and sleep fighting for our rights.

White people must act not out of fear of being labeled a racist nor out of paternalistic concern but out of a deep love for their fellow human. I hope that that love exists.

If you are white you may be asking yourself, “How do I know if I’m fighting hard enough for racial equality?” You will know you are doing enough when they start treating you like they do us.