“I can’t breathe!” breaks my heart.
But it’s the “Mama!” that haunts me.
George Floyd, lying face down in the street, his windpipe crushed under the weight of a police officer’s knee, gasping for breath, begging for life.
“Mama!”, he groaned. “Mama!”, again.
So many pleas in that single word.
“Mama!” I need you.
“Mama!” I’m dying.
“Mama! … Mama!” I love you, Mama.
Once you’re a parent, that’s the only lens through which you see the world.
An officer steps up to her house. She answers the door. And freezes.
An officer calls. She picks up the phone. And crumbles.
This is the moment.
This — this second in time that changes all things — is the one she’s feared since her little boy’s birth, since someone first placed him in her arms, she smiled, kissed him and whispered, “I love you. Mama loves you.” Then she held him close and silently implored, “Please, world, don’t hurt him.”
Black mamas live with a dread, a despair, that white mamas will never know. I won’t dishonor them by trying to use my words to describe their experience.
But mama love is a universal language.
So, dear white mamas, I’m speaking to you: We cannot know a black mama’s fear, but we do for certain know her love. That love — our shared experience — is the key to sustaining an anti-racism movement that generates true change in our policies and culture.
Mamas’ boys are being slaughtered in our streets.
This isn’t a “black problem.”
Neutrality isn’t an option in racial inequality. We’re either actively resisting the system that perpetuates racism or we’re benefiting from injustices at the expense of others.
If you don’t pick a side, you already have.
Most of us are firmly on the side of racial justice.
If you’re like me, however, your first instinct is to say, “Yes, we must do something! We must organize! We must protest! Call our senators!”
Here, I’m urging you to resist.
For the past three years, I have been volunteering for Justified Anger, a coalition that addresses racial disparities in Madison. And in that time, thanks to people who are far wiser than me, I have learned this: White people need to talk less, listen more, lead less, serve more.
This goes against our white-bred instincts.
It is, however, a crucial difference between stepping up as a white ally versus stepping in as a white savior.
As much as we love black members of our community, we are not part of the black community. We can try to share their pain, but we cannot feel it to our core.
In the face of tragedy — when, for example, a friend’s child dies — we don’t barge in with answers.
We also don’t barge in with questions.
We don’t expect our friend to speak about her trauma. We don’t quiz her on how we should respond, or ask her what steps we should take.
We just show up with love.
“I love you, and I am so sorry.”
That’s the approach we need right now.
African Americans are in the middle of a trauma that, thus far, has lasted 400 years. Our job as white allies is to watch, read and listen, so that we can learn to appropriately combat racism in our own hearts, homes and communities. When called upon by members of the black community, we can use the privileges of our whiteness to access power and implement change.
It’s hard to sit in the backseat when you’ve been driving the car your whole life. But that’s where we’re needed: In the car, going where we’re taken, actively engaged, but doing what we’re asked.
Here are a few voices we can listen to along the way:
Dr. Alex Gee’s “Black Like Me” podcast — Gee is the senior pastor at Fountain of Life Covenant Church and is the founder and president of Nehemiah, which supports and serves African Americans in Madison.
Ally Henny — Henny is a writer and speaker whose words gut me every day, as uncomfortable truths often do.
Madison365.com — Madison365 is a news organization that specifically highlights race-related issues and people of color in the Madison area.
George Floyd’s “Mama!” haunts me.
I’ve placed myself on that street a hundred times.
I imagine my son, lying on the ground, slowly dying, and pleading, “I can’t breathe! Mama! Mama!”
I run to him. Lie beside him in the street. Hold his face in my hands, look in his eyes, and speak.
“Mama’s here. Mama’s here! Baby, I’m here. Breathe with me, baby. Breathe … Breathe … Breathe.”
We couldn’t lie down alongside George Floyd.
We can, however, stand up for him now. And for so many others.