Zoom out to my hometown-- the quiet, cookie-cutter suburb of Thousand Oaks, California. A largely conservative city with no original culture to speak of, punctuated by chain restaurants and car dealerships. To help give you an idea of what we were up against, Thousand Oaks is 80.3% white people. The percentage of black people in Thousand Oaks? 1.3%.
I remember no more than 20 black people, in any grade, at any time, attending La Reina High School. I do not remember specifically thinking about racism during high school-- the most I can remember is learning about the Civil Rights Movement in 10th grade U.S. history, in that passive, apathetic way you'd learn about something that happened as long ago as John Smith founding the colonies. I was consumed with thoughts of sex and gender, because they felt personal. But regardless of whether you are white or black, racism is personal. I apologize for arriving late to the conversation. I'm here now, and I'll try to talk the best I can.
If there were any safe spaces for black students at La Reina High School, I do not remember them. I do not remember any discussions of contemporary racist issues. La Reina has, for a long time, failed to address that not all of their students are white, heterosexual, Christian women. I remember, specifically, taking Morality class in 10th grade. This was part of the religious studies requirement we had to complete each year.
I will never forget the chapter in that Morality book that stated that homosexual people should be accepted for who they are, but homosexual acts could not be tolerated. I remember thinking my teacher spoke about homosexuality as if there could not possibly be any lesbian young girls in her class-- that here and now, homosexual people and their problems didn't exist. I cannot help but relate this to the invisibility black people must feel when they attend La Reina High School, or live in Thousand Oaks. If racism was discussed at school, it was not concretely related to the present, or as if racism was not still an issue. Until I got to college and lived in an actual city (Seattle is largely white but it's a huge step up from Thousand Oaks), I did not feel pressed to connect the issues of racism we learned about in school to present instances of racism. This is both my failing, and the failing of the people around me growing up.
However, I'm not writing this as a specific call to La Reina High School as an institution, though I will say every high school should engage in urgent dialogue about specific ways to combat racism, to create safe spaces for black students, to remind students that racism clearly still exists today. This is an open letter to the students and former students of La Reina High School. If you're reading this, we probably know each other, and I'm asking you to join the national conversation about race that's been sparked by Michael Brown's death.
I've noticed some of you have joined the conversation already, at least on Facebook. I want to say to those individual La Reina students that if you have, I'm proud of you. La Reina had a tenuous connection with the outside world, and I'm relieved we both found a way out of it and are now functioning as more conscientious adults.
I have also noticed a lot of you have not spoken up about the Michael Brown case through social media. I recognize that social media is not the only vehicle you can use to contribute to ending racism. However, I paraphrase this brilliant article about 12 things white people can do to combat racism in light of Ferguson, when I say that a lack of education on the subject of race or the fear of speaking out is not a valid excuse to remain on the sidelines of this conversation. I am fucking terrified of saying the wrong thing when it comes to race, because I am white and come from a place of privilege. But I know that I have a moral responsibility to speak out about racism-- as a white person, I am part of a 238 year tradition of black genocide, and I am called to enlighten other white people to their own privilege, and to challenge myself to combat racism in my everyday life.
Black people do not need to be told how fucked up racism is. They have been living in a racist country since the day they were born. We, as white people, are the ones who have to talk to each other about racism. We are the majority in this country. We can only alleviate racism if black and white people unify together, to work for black equality. And we are a long fucking ways away. If you still don't believe we are, let's take an example of racism a lot of people are talking about right now: please educate yourself about police brutality specifically perpetrated against black Americans. A black man is killed in the U.S. every 28 hours by police. Michael Brown was unarmed when he was killed. He was 18 years old.
Several teachers of Michael Brown described the young man as a "gentle giant." He was a teenage boy, with a big life ahead of him, and he did not deserve to die. In the New York Times profile of Michael Brown after his death, Michael Brown was referred to as "no angel."
I write this for young women who the world considers angels-- I'm writing this to white La Reina students, and any other white people reading this, who are given every resource from this nation to achieve their dreams and live the lives they want to.
If you were killed in such a fashion-- no, wait. You would never be killed in such a fashion. This kind of tragedy would never happen to a La Reina girl. And for that reason, it is you, floating high above the fear of becoming a victim of racism, who needs to speak out about why racism is wrong. You don't have to talk about it on Facebook if you don't want to, though I would encourage you to, because the more people you can reach, the better. But simply talking about racism with the people around you is a huge step in the right direction. Explain to your friends and family what's going on in Ferguson (remember that these are protests, not riots). That is your first step. Please consider doing it. It won't be comfortable immediately, but if there's one thing I've learned since my time at La Reina, there are more important things in this life than feeling comfortable. Discomfort is where growth happens.
Okay, so I've convinced you with my superior writing ability and adherence to basic logic regarding how fucked up racism is to take action. What can you do to help, angels?
--Look for ways you can help combat racism in your community. Racism exists everywhere, not just in Ferguson.
--Sign this petition to bring the Michael Brown case to the Missouri Supreme Court, with Darren Wilson as the accused.
--Learn about the seemingly infinite number of microaggressions that happen for people that aren't white every single day. Anyone in a minority group experiences microaggressions. Learn what they are and do not let them become a part of your life. Get brave and call other people out when you catch them doing it.
--If you didn't go out and protest last night, protest today. National responses are being planned throughout the country. Your presence at these protests would speak volumes.
--If you don't want to protest, donate to the legal support fund for those arrested in Ferguson protests standing for Justice for Mike Brown. You may not have time to spare, but I know you have money. Use it.
These are just a few ways you can help. I encourage you to do research on your own about a way you can gain entry into the conversation about racism. What will get you to care? Do you need to know the specifics of Michael Brown's case? Do you need to read more about our history of racism? Do you need to consume more media with black voices? Figure it out, and get back to me. Talk to me about how you can get involved if it helps. I don't know as much as I could-- I feel like an infant in terms of how well-versed I am in talking about racism and working to fight it. But I promise I am working. I think you should too.
In Thousand Oaks, there are less than 2,000 black people. This painfully mainstream suburb of ours does not reflect our nation. In 2013, the US Census Bureau estimated 45,003,665 African Americans. And for 238 years, our system has failed to protect them. In 2014, that system continues to fail. And it can't change without your help.
Note: If you are black and reading this, and feel like I am incorrect in any way in my thinking or discussion of this issue, please speak with me directly and point out to me where I'm wrong and how I can fix it. I cannot imagine what it is like to be black in America, and I only want to help. You know better than I do how I can help.