I spend my summers teaching children. It’s my fourth summer working at the same camp. It’s the closest thing to a permanent job that I have in my life.
Almost two years ago, I watched the footage of Michael Brown’s death and the subsequent unrest in Ferguson. August 2014. I sat with my boss and streamed CNN on my laptop. We covered our mouths with our hands in horror as we watched. Then, because it is a summer camp for children, I walked onstage to lead a giant dance party with a bunch of kids to Pharell’s “Happy.”
The following November, I wrote a viral post about beginning to understand white privilege. I admonished my fellow white people to say something. Anything. To recognize that what was happening in Ferguson was happening to all of us.
Since then, here’s what else has happened. Akai Gurley died in Brooklyn while walking into his apartment building. Laquan McDonald was shot in Chicago. John Crawford was shot in a Wal-Mart in Ohio after removing an air rifle from a shelf. Levar Jones was shot in South Carolina after being pulled over for a seat belt violation. Tamir Rice died in Cleveland when police mistook his toy gun for the real thing. Rumain Brisbon died in Phoenix after a pill bottle was mistaken for a weapon. Jerame Reid died after a traffic stop in New Jersey. Walter Scott was shot in the back in Charleston, South Carolina. Freddie Gray died of a spinal cord injury in Baltimore. A fifteen-year-old girl was slammed violently to the ground by a white police officer at a pool party in Texas.
In June of 2015, I watched on my laptop as Dylan Roof was apprehended after murdering nine black churchgoers at a historic African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina in the hopes of igniting a race war. Then I walked onstage to lead a giant dance party with a bunch of kids to Pharell’s “Happy.”
Sandra Bland died in her jail cell a few weeks after that.
There’s a lot more that happened after that, too. I’m going to let you look at the numbers yourself.
This week, Alton Sterling was shot and killed after a confrontation with police officers in Louisiana. A day later, Philando Castile was killed in his car. I watched the video of his fiancee narrating his death, her daughter in the back seat.
He worked with kids at a Minnesota preschool. I listened on the radio as his coworker described him as a man who knew the names of all 500+ kids. The guy that would fist-bump and high-five, the guy who would sneak extra food to the kids who didn’t have anything at home.
He was one of us, I thought, as I drove to work. I know all my kids’ names, too.
And then I walked onstage to lead a giant dance party to Pharell’s “Happy.” They’re somehow not tired of that song yet. It’s like “Free Bird” for nine-year-olds.
This week, I listened to a few of my students compare their respective school’s versions of active shooter drills. Making casual conversation about it while they glued construction paper to cardboard boxes. The next day, a gunman opened fire on a peaceful protest in Dallas, killing five police officers. I learned that news as I was high-fiving my kids after their performance of a play that they wrote. It was about books. It was super cute. I was so proud of them.
Today, it is Saturday, and I don’t have to go to camp.
So I re-read that post I wrote in 2014, and I re-read the section about how as a white person, I needed to say something, and I shuddered as I read it, because I just don’t know what the fuck is left to say. And I’ve only been saying things like “Stop killing black people” for two years, and I’m exhausted from having to say it, and that is also privilege. That is so much privilege. So many others have had to say this their entire lives. That is a long time to sustain anger and outrage. I couldn’t do it. I could’t even make it two years before anger and outrage subsided into detached, empty numbness. I’m no longer shocked. I’m just a different, hollow, sad, lost kind of angry. And I don’t want to pound the keyboard with my anger anymore, and I don’t want to sit down with another white friend to explain what systemic racism is anymore, and I don’t have the patience anymore to explain why “All Lives Matter!” is a stupid thing to say. There is no room inside me right now for the vast amount of patience and empathy that is required in order to explain to my fellow white people that the system is very broken, and that there is nothing to be lost if equality is achieved.
But I’ll do it. I’ll talk, and I’ll write, and I’ll try to explain. Because it’s what I do, it’s what I can do. I’m hollow and empty and lost because it just doesn’t feel like enough. I keep writing the same argument with different words, over and over and over again, and I have absolutely no right to complain about that, that I’m angry about still having to argue that black people are humans. My friends of color are angry about being shot. So I will write. I will talk to my white relatives and friends who will need to be reminded of this fact. I will reaffirm the humanity of people of color, remind those who do not see it that people of color live in fear in a way that white people do not, because it is somehow not the default assumption that this is true.
I’m not happy. But I’ll dance. That is my job. I’ll put on that stupid song and I will dance with a bunch of kids, and they are mostly white kids with some black kids and some hispanic kids and some Asian kids, and they will make friends with one another and they will share the same experiences and play the same games and dance to the same songs and the color of their skin will not matter — except, of course, that it already fucking does, and will matter more in a few years.
I will dance to that stupid song because I have to hope that somehow it will help make things better in my tiny corner of the planet. I will dance even though I do feel like a “room without a roof” — a room that is cold, empty, and missing something important. I will clap along because I know that happiness — or joy, or love, or something equally as clichéd — is the truth, even if it also feels beyond any of us at this moment in time. Since I can’t give anyone justice, I guess all I can give is love.
I don’t feel like dancing this week. Not even a little bit. Too much too big too dark too heavy too many dead too many guns too many wounds too many bullets too much too much too much too much too much to process too much to hold too much to carry.
But I’ll do it. I’ll dance with those kids.
I just wish that I knew how to fix it so that everybody could dance, too.
Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
Clap along if you know what happiness means to you, yeah, yeah
Clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do.