Thinking About Ferguson
When I was in middle school, my best friend was an amazing and fun girl named K. And her skin happened to be black. We both grew up in Southern California together and her home was like a second home to me. It was my favorite place to be.
We grew up singing the songs of El Debarge in her living room with wooden spoons for microphones. Our two favorite movies were Purple Rain and Footloose, you could find us singing to the soundtracks to both in our front yard. We watched soap operas during the summer and went swimming and we spent a lot of nights together. Her family was my family and her home was my second home.
And then my family moved away and we lost touch for a while. But we have reconnected on Facebook. I have two beautiful daughters (and I say that with no bias whatsoever), and she has a very handsome son. She posts pictures of her beautiful family: on vacation, going to school, celebrating milestones. I have never met her family in person, but I love seeing her happy and doing well in life.
After Trayvon Martin, she posted a picture of her son wearing a hoodie. It’s a hoodie he wears all the time, much like my hoodie that I basically live in during the fall and winter months. She said no words but her point was simple: he is simply a boy wearing a hoodie, it tells us nothing about him. Just as my hoodie tells you nothing about me, except maybe that I should probably buy a new hoodie because the cuffs around my wrists are frayed and there is a scorch mark where I got too close to the stove one day. And she posts often about what it is like for her trying to raise a son whose skin is black in this world that often sees black boys as a threat without knowing a single thing about that boy except for the color of his skin.
So while I spend my time trying to talk to my girls about sexual violence, she spends her time trying to talk to her boy – also a Tween – about how to respond if he is harassed by the police so that it doesn’t escalate. She talks to her son about how to dress, how to talk and to act in a way in which he will walk through this world safer. And the truth is, just as it is an issue when we tell our young women not to drink or to wear longer skirts, this too is a form of victim blaming. For many of our tweens and teens, no matter how “properly” they dress or how polite they are, the system is stacked against them in many ways simply by the color of their skin or the neighborhood they were born into.
A few months ago, my friend told me the story of her cousin. He is a black man from the Middle East living here in Texas. A respected doctor, a father, a family man. Recently there was a death in the family and he and his wife and son went to pick up another friend to attend the calling hours. The wife went into the house quickly to get the young man but then she apparently got to talking and it took a little longer than they thought she would be. But as he sat outside in the car in his suit and tie, neighbors called the police. The police soon came tapping on his car window, telling him that he was making the neighbors nervous and he needed to move along. I have sat in my car outside a home several times waiting for the Tween to drop something off or pick up a friend and I have never experienced anything like this. Not once.
And just a few weeks after that, my husband told me about an incident that had occurred at the end of our driveway that day. The police stopped a black man driving a pick-up truck right at the end of our driveway. Soon, three additional patrol cars came and blocked him in. The man tried to ask what he was being stopped for, but never really got an answer. The police officers eventually told him that he needed to go to his own neighborhood as his kind was not welcomed here (I live in a small not very diverse town in Texas). As my husband sat working in the garage, he overheard the whole conversation. He called later that day and reported the incident to the chief of police.
One of my best teen volunteers is a boy named E. He has volunteered over 200 hours at my library. He has a heart of gold. He works hard in school and outside to try and make his life a good one. And yet, because of the color of his skin, he is frequently followed by clerks in stores, cruel things have occasionally been said to him, and those people who know nothing about his character make assumptions that are way off target. He has spoken to me a couple of times about what it is like growing up in this world and it has angered me that this boy, the kindest most selfless and pleasant teenage boy I have ever met, is judged as unworthy by many that he meets casually because of the color of his skin.
I can’t tell you really what is or isn’t happening in Ferguson. I wasn’t there, I didn’t see. And as a white woman I obviously can’t really speak much to the experience of racism in America. But I can bear witness to the things that I have seen, to the things that I have heard, and say that yes, I have every reason to believe that racism – like sexism – is very much alive today and negatively affecting people’s lives. I don’t believe that every cop or every white person is racist any more than I think that every man is a rapist. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t have conversations about racism in America, because we can – it’s very real – and we should. We also need to be having conversations about systemic poverty, political disenfranchisement, under-representation and more.
Throughout this whole week I have been thinking a lot about A Mad, Wicked Folly by Sharon Biggs Waller. The situation is in many ways different, but in some ways the same. In Folly, women were fighting for the right to vote, they were seeking equality and a voice. And those who were threatened by this desire sought to suppress it, so the women had no choice but to protest. Those in power and the police took a wide variety of means to try and stop those protests, including arresting the protesters. They wanted to quell their voices. The situation was different, but the elements of this story, so fresh in my mind, make me think about what is happening right now in Ferguson. History has shown us time and time again that when we try to silence the voices of those who are asking to be heard, they must find ways to speak more loudly. Our country was in fact founded on that very belief. In fact, the American story begins not with a peaceful protest but a revolution. And of course we need look no further than the Civil Rights movement to see example after example of those fighting to be heard in the fight for equal rights.
When news broke out about protests and rioting in Ferguson, I wasn’t surprised at all. The only thing that surprised me is that it hasn’t happened sooner and that it isn’t happening more frequently. The truth is, we have set up a system where a large portion of the people living in the U.S., those living in poverty or those who don’t come from a place of privilege, feel like they don’t have a voice. They are aching to be heard. So since we don’t listen when they try to have a normal conversation with those in power, they have decided to raise their voice. Now maybe we’ll listen and be willing to enter into conversation about difficult subjects. I work with Tweens and Teens every day who just want you to listen to their stories and recognize that their experience is often different than others. Maybe if we take a moment to listen, they wouldn’t have to raise their voices so loud just to be heard.
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About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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