I am a proud Saint Louisan. Or at least I thought I was until August 2014, when I learned there were pockets of St. Louis that I knew close to nothing about. Sure, I had a basic understanding of my hometown. I’m technically from St. Louis County and growing up, there were only a few places in the city my parents allowed me to go to. The ‘city’ was really only worth going to for a baseball game, Soulard for the farmer’s market, and University City was okay if I was home before dark. I knew some of my high school classmates were bussed in from the city, but I had no idea where from and it never crossed my mind to ask.
In 2008, when I was a sophomore, Charles “Cookie” Thornton shot and killed five people in a town hall meeting, before being fatally shot himself. I woke up to the news that among others, a classmate of mine lost her mother, an officer I worked with in the past was killed outside the building and our mayor was in critical condition. I went to school, but quickly realized there would be no academic education that day. I did learn, however, that racial tensions run deep in our quaint little town of Kirkwood and the surrounding area. It was the first time I realized that my town needed to hear that Black lives matter.
I traveled south for college where it was easy to point out racist comments, ideology and practices. I boasted that I was from a much more diverse city. I majored African and African American Studies to make sure no one could call me ignorant to our country’s history. I felt like I could be a part of tough conversations surrounding race, and knew these conversations were not something to shy away from. If we were going to improve as a country, we had to have these conversations. I was looking at the big picture, but hadn’t applied this to my hometown. I was still a proud St. Louisan.
August 9, 2014 was the first time I was scared to tell people I was from St. Louis, not because of the shooting, but because I had no idea where Ferguson was on the map. For the first time I felt like I knew nothing about my city. Two weeks later, I left for a volunteer year in Philadelphia. I left the 24-hour news coverage on channel five. I left the nightly vigils and confusion. I was able to leave.
When I landed in Philadelphia I felt both relief and anxiety. Stepping off the plane, I watched the news that the rest of the country saw, not the local news. I saw what was being included and knew what was being left out. All of a sudden, I became the spokesperson for St. Louis for the 30 people I worked with. I tried my hardest to sell them on the idea that despite what was going on, St. Louis was still a great place. I made sure to mention that Ferguson is a fraction of the larger St. Louis area. I still wanted to be proud of the city that I just left.
Then I came back. I came back after the jury chose not to indict Darren Wilson. I came back after the Black Lives Matter Movement arrived in St. Louis. I was home to recognize the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death and I happen to be in a racial justice training at the time. It was a hard homecoming. I was coming back to a city that I wasn’t truly proud of, but I didn’t want to admit it. I wanted so badly to erase the racist history of St. Louis, at the same time jump on board with the Black Lives Matter Movement. I wanted to take what I learned in my undergraduate classes and explain to people that not all racism is overt, but I was frozen. I was frozen with the fear of not having a place in the Movement. I still am.
In that same racial justice training, I was confronted with my Whiteness. I understand that People of Color and Native People face both explicit racism and systematic oppression that I will never have to experience. I understand that changes need to be made not just on the personal level, but at the policy level as well. What I could not grasp during that training, and what I have been working on for the last year, is how to both own my Whiteness and contribute to the Movement.
The Black Lives Matter Movement existed before Michael Brown’s death and grew larger after the jury’s decision not to indict. It exists beyond St. Louis City and County limits. I know this, however, St. Louis is the lens through which I see the Movement. It is where I can reasonably participate, more than just the discussions in an academic setting. Yet, I admit, I haven’t done much.
I am frozen because I don’t know what my role is. I left St. Louis at one of the most crucial times to stay, to raise awareness and fight for change. I was able to leave, not just geographically, but because of my Whiteness. I am able to turn off the news and I don’t have to fear for my life when I am pulled over for speeding or a stalled car. I have stood in solidarity for pictures and posted on Facebook that Black Lives Matter and that we need to stop killing our neighbors, but it does not feel like enough. At the end of the day, I go home and choose what news I want to see or read, while my Black peers are not able to get away from it. It is their reality, not mine.
In another racial justice training, the facilitator used a metaphor. She said the fight for social change is like rowing a boat. Often, White people stand at the shore and yell commands or provide ‘encouragement’ to the Black people in the boat doing the work. Instead, we need to swim out to the boat, climb on board and start rowing. I struggle with this metaphor because, on one hand, it makes perfect sense. On the other, I wonder how I can get on board without taking someone else’s seat. I know that White people have a place in fighting for racial justice, but I am deathly afraid of looking like the White Savior. This may be my own insecurity or an excuse for my lack of involvement, but it is where I currently stand in the Movement. I want to figure out how to use my voice, my privilege, to amplify the voice of others.
Hope is not lost, though. In trying to move from my frozen state, I’m realizing I do not have to write a law or make a speech to have an impact. Being a White person involved in the Black Lives Matter Movement does not automatically make me a White Savior. Actions of a White Savior are ones that highlight their own hard work and sacrifice. I have never enjoyed the spotlight and that won’t change now. Moving forward, I am starting to see the impact of simple conversations with neighbors, or what it means to share a post on Facebook. Sure, these are small steps, but they are steps nonetheless.
It is an interesting time to be a St. Louisan right now. More than two years after the killing of Michael Brown it feels like we’ve made little progress. The media has moved on from Ferguson to the next terrible killing, the next poor family, the next victim. The Department of Justice has performed an investigation but significant changes are not yet apparent. I cannot say I’m a proud St. Louisan at this point, but I’m not giving up on my city either. The only way St. Louis can improve its history of terrible race relations is if we bring it up from under the rug and start talking, which is why I plan to stay here for a while. My contributions may not be officially related to the Black Lives Matter Movement, but they are keeping the conversation going. Through my education at Washington University, personal reflection, and discussions with friends and colleagues, I am finally thawing from my frozen state, and ready to do more.