Michael Brown and the Discipline of Seeing

Since first learning about the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO I’ve been thinking about different things I’ve wanted to write.  Parenting a newborn and some travel have kept me from blogging, which is probably not a bad thing: most of my initial thoughts have been articulated far better by others. If you’ve not done so, please check out these articles: The Cross and the Molotov Cocktail by Christena Cleveland; Black Bodies, White Souls by Austin C Brown; Black People are not Ignoring ‘Black on Black’ Crime by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Please leave a comment with additional reflections you’ve found helpful.

With all of the good, insightful, and prophetic things that have been said since Michael Brown’s tragic and completely needless death, there is one small thing I’d like to explore here. I have in mind those white people who were surprised by the slowly revealed details from Ferguson as well as the reactions of grief and rage from that community.

___

It was impossible not to know about Robin Williams’ recent death. The outpouring of support, remembrance, and grief was everywhere. The conversations about depression and suicide that ensued were needed and important, a silver lining to a sad ending.

Credit: velo_city
Credit: velo_city

Williams died the day after the streets of Ferguson erupted in anger and fire, the “language of the unheard” as Rev. Dr. King would have explained to us. On that day and the ensuing days it was common to hear and read a version of this question: Why does the suicide of an actor command so much more of our collective attention than the murder of a young man and the lament of his community?

The question is entirely legitimate and just, though any expectation that the attention to these very different deaths could have played out any differently misses something true and wrong about America. In this country there have always been some lives that matter more than others. A white, male, celebrity like Williams occupies a place within our society that cannot be ignored. You couldn’t remain ignorant of his death even if you wanted to. Michael Brown, on the other hand, occupied a very different, almost invisible place. And yes, it’s true that Williams was a celebrity and so his death within a culture of celebrity-worshippers took on added, almost religious dimensions. But consider that even after Ferguson erupted in protest and even after the ugly facts of Brown’s death began to come to life, most white people had little understanding of the story, if they’d heard of it at all.

There’s nothing right about the death of a white actor taking precedent over the murder of another young, African American man, but there’s also nothing surprising about it. White America exists within a bubble which filters out the abuses and indignities suffered upon black and brown people. In the late 1950’s James Baldwin traveled to Charlotte, NC to document attempts at integration. He wrote, “I was told, several times, by white people, that ‘race relations’ there were excellent. I failed to find a single Negro who agreed with this, which is the usual story of ‘race relations’ in this country.” The same sentiment, with slightly different language, would be expressed by many white people today. Racial injustice is not something we think about because it’s not something we see.

If we’re honest, we’re OK with our blindness. It’s far easier to talk about Robin Williams than Michael Brown. After all, a celebrity’s death asks nothing of us while, were we to take actually see it, the epidemic of  alienation, incarceration, and murder of black men demands nothing short of a total rearrangement of the American way of life. A way of life that has benefitted some of us in tremendous ways. Better to remain blind than to give up our way of life.

Of course, this is not an option for those of us who are Christians. Jesus asked his followers, “Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear?” Well, the answer has too often been yes, but it doesn’t have to remain so. But if white Christians are to begin responding to injustice we must first develop the discipline of seeing.

What is a discipline of seeing? It begins by acknowledging that there is much that we from the majority culture will not naturally see. I recently heard Dr. Carl Ellis point out that much of the marginalization that is experienced by people of color is systemic and by default. It is a marginalization that is so tied to how our society works that it is impossible for some to avoid and almost impossible for others to see. Acknowledging that my experience of America is warped allows me to begin seeing more clearly how others experience this place and its prejudices.

Credit: Light Brigading
Credit: Light Brigading

A discipline of seeing compels me to seek new guides. I begin to understand that Michael Brown’s death doesn’t represent something aberrant but disturbingly normal. This realization, and thousands others like it, make plain the extent of my blindness. If I am to walk the narrow path in this newly-revealed reality I will need those who can point the way. Authors, pastors, and entire neighborhoods become voices I cannot live without if I am to avoid retreating into my former isolation. These women and men of color – all with distinct stories and perspectives, all standing outside the so-called privileges bestowed upon me – become the sources of wisdom I cannot do without.

As I begin to see more truthfully I can properly lament the death of a beloved celebrity while not allowing it to overshadow what is going down in Ferguson. That is, I’m able to grieve what is genuinely worthy of grief and not just what I’m told to feel badly about.

Theres a final thing about learning to see: the death of Michael Brown and the tumult that continues in Ferguson is quickly visible and important to those with eyes to see, but their sight is not limited to a series of events at a distance. A discipline of seeing means, that though my privilege works to blind me, I will notice how the injustices of Ferguson play out in my city and neighborhood. Michael Brown and Ferguson cannot become prominent but ultimately powerless symbols for those with eyes to see. Rather, the prejudices and pressures that are at work there must also be admitted to here.

Learning to see carries this great risk for those content with blindness: seeing leads us to grieve; seeing leads us to act. An enlightened sympathy for injustice at a distances bears no resemblance to Jesus’ expectation that his followers walk with those who suffer. The discipline of seeing allows me to grieve rightly a young man’s death a long ways away while stepping into the path of those same forces of death that even now wreak havoc on my neighbors.