Through the years, as I’ve listened to various friends talk about growing up in abusive homes, often with alcoholics or addicts, I’ve heard several themes emerge.
As young children, these folks adapted to their environments with hyper-vigilance. They observed every nuance of home life and walked painstakingly on eggshells, always bracing for the slightest crack that would set their parent off. In a context where they were supposed to feel safe and nurtured, they were instead defensive and guarded. Survival skills.
They paid attention to every detail, internally charting patterns of response. Avoiding every known trigger of violence.
The thing is, you could never know them all.
No matter how diligently they watched the signs, how quietly they whispered, how carefully they tiptoed around the landmines, there was always something they didn’t see. The explosions still happened.
No home is perfect, but the childhood security that many of us took for granted was never theirs.
As I’ve listened to various black friends talk about their lives in America, it sounds remarkably similar.
Somewhere along the way, they learned to adapt to white America with hyper-vigilance. They observe every nuance of white behavior and walk painstakingly on eggshells, always bracing for the slightest crack that will set us off. In a context where they should feel free to go about the business of their lives in peace, they are instead defensive and guarded. Survival skills.
It doesn’t matter much that I, a white woman, would never call the police because a black teen is hanging out across the street and I don’t think they belong there. They never know what white person will make that call. It doesn’t matter much that my friend who is a police officer works hard to understand the community, counter his implicit bias, and deescalate confrontations. They never know what police officer will pull their gun. Will shoot. Each white person is a mood, a moment, of the whole, and how can you trust the kindness when you never know when the blows will come? And the blows never fail to come. The system ensures it if the individuals don’t.
Like those children in abusive homes who learned to observe their parents closely in order to survive, these black friends know us (white America) and the systems we have built in ways better than we know ourselves. They’ve had to see what we haven’t – their survival depends on it. Ours doesn’t.
Theirs shouldn’t have to.
And like too many abusive relationships, there is no satisfying white America. “If only you wouldn’t misbehave, then we could hear your message as valid!” “But you’re doing so well! What could possibly be wrong?!?!? Don’t be ridiculous!” “It’s all in your head.” “Take responsibility for yourselves!”
A riot is the self-defense of the systemically and systematically abused. The breaking open of those who have been told in so many ways again and again that what they experience is not real, not oppressive, not killing them.
With every police shooting of a black man who is running away, every report of a white person calling in someone who looks “suspicious,” my respect for black Americans grows alongside my grief. The patience they give that we do not deserve. The strength that endures in the face of our ignorance and denial.
We have a lot to learn from people who are under no obligation to teach us.
But first we have to be willing to see ourselves, not as we want to be, but as we are.
Kids in abusive contexts respond in different ways – some hide, some escape, some try to please, some fight back. All ways to try to survive until your old enough to get out (which doesn’t mean you’ll ever stop trying to survive and using the same ways to do it).
Black Americans don’t have that kind of hope. The hope they can have is a hope that things can and will change, and that they can survive until they do.
May God help them. May God help us all.