Say What?: On Speechlessness, Racism and Respectability in #Ferguson

“I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood. That the speaking profits me, beyond any other effect.

My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.”

(excerpt from The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action, by Audre Lorde)


As I prepare the syllabi and lesson plans for my fall classes I am dealing with uncertainty about how to teach about Ferguson and the merciless assault on black bodies and minds that is happening even as I write.  I don’t know what to say.  As I watch footage on  television, follow developments on newsfeeds, and watch news clips on social media I find myself amazed at how our foremothers and ancestors lived through the fear, anger, anguish and devastation of having their lives diminished and disrespected, their children murdered in broad daylight with no consequences, and their attempts at justice, both peaceful and passionate, met with armed guards, guard dogs, and constant threats with their own vanquished lives vanishing at a pace similar to their sons and loved ones.  I don’t know how to make sense of the possibility of Ferguson, the inevitability of Ferguson, the reality of Ferguson existing in the twenty-first century.  We are living with retrograde racism the likes of which our parents and (great-) grandparents hoped to never experience again and prayed we would never experience.   And I am struggling for words.

Every other day I learn another name I wish I didn’t know (Eric Garner, John Crawford, Ezell Ford) and add it to an ever-expanding list of black victims of police and vigilante violence (Jordan Davis, Tarika Wilson, Amadou Diallo, Rekia Boyd, Sean Bell, Yvette Smith, Trayvon Martin) because “truth is, we are all one bullet away from being a hashtag” (black women included). And that reality, and fruitless attempts to try to make sense of senselessness, means that Ferguson is not necessarily unique as a crime scene holding the dead body of an unarmed black teen, but it is a breaking point.  Ferguson is our breaking point.  The death of Michael Brown, emblematic of countless others, and the collective loss, grief and justified anger of people (of color and allies) who are tired of being terrorized and victimized by injustice requires that we say something.  But I don’t know what to say.  I don’t know where to begin.

Photo from Twitter

Photo from Twitter


I do know, as (the) Audre Lorde reminds us, that our silence will not protect us.  Saying nothing is not an option or a remedy.  I will not be a bystander or silent witness to injustice, murder, discrimination, character assassination, misappropriation, unchecked privilege and what amounts to state sanctioned terrorism of poor black and brown folk.  Silence will not do, but what do you say?  Words feel inadequate and inelegant even when attached to personal accounts or lived experience.

In the five years I have been teaching as a university professor I have not had a lack of current and present examples, both far and near, that the concept of post-racialism is a myth.  Whether it was the segregation of sororities and fraternities, racial slurs being slung at black passersby, or racial epithets being chalked on sidewalks on the campus where I teach (not to mention racial slurs on social media by students), I have experienced racism ephemerally and incessantly.  I have explained that a black president is not a panacea for racism, that listening to hip hop does not an ally make, and that assumptions and stereotypes of blackness constantly put people of color at risk.

Still, every semester students question the legitimacy (and existence) of racism, the relevance of discussions about race, and whether or not is warrants class discussion at all.  Others misconstrue racism as the mere mention (acknowledgment of the existence) of race, white privilege, and/or discrimination. Some of the problem is ignorance, a refusal to wrestle with race as a factor in how folk are seen, treated and remembered in this country.  Some of the problem is with the narrative that often blames black victims and shifts the focus of unprovoked murder away from the crime and perpetrator and onto the victims, disseminating irrelevant facts intended to make them appear suspicious.  As Jesse Williams said over the weekend, it is important that we discuss the narrative and start at the beginning.  Williams said, “You’ll find that the people doing the oppressing always want to start the narrative at a convenient part, or always want to start the story in the middle.”  Word. We can’t talk about the insidiousness of racism by ignoring its history, we can’t talk about the irrationality of white fear, the policing of black bodies, the attempts to dismantle peaceful protests without acknowledging the long and storied history of racism in America, and in Ferguson.

And we can’t talk/think about Mike Brown without talking/thinking about Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant and Emmett Till.  The story about and around Ferguson is not the story of looters or riots, it’s not a story of hot-headed, irrational, felonious mobs wreaking havoc on their community, or heroic law enforcement officers protecting and serving.  The true narrative of Ferguson existed before Michael Brown walked to the store with his friend on Saturday.  It existed long before Michael Brown did.  And the narrative requires an acknowledgment that being black, poor, uneducated, intoxicated or belligerent is not an offense punishable by death–neither is being dark-skinned, big-bodied, working-class, on your way to college, sober and minding your own damn business.  But innocence doesn’t protect black people.  And racism and politics of respectability insist that black victims only deserve the benefit of the doubt under particular circumstances, wearing collar shirts and not hoodies, carrying bibles and not cigarellos, putting up peace signs and not middle fingers– but if black lives matter, and they do, then ALL black lives matter!

“The media chooses to portray black kids in the most menacing way possible in order to influence the way the world receives them. Posing and posturing has LONG been a defense mechanism used by Black people to defend ourselves, our bodies, and our communities because we don’t receive the defense or support of our government, our ‘leaders’, law enforcement, and even the law itself. #iftheygunnedmedown”                            –Terrence Merkerson


The irrationality of racism seeks to justify the death of an unarmed teenager.  Racism says that if “Mike Mike” Brown walked out of the store with a box of cigars, bucked at store owner on his way out the door, was walking in the street instead of the sidewalk, was walking in the street instead of the sidewalk with his homeboy, was walking in the street instead of the sidewalk with his homeboy (who had dreads and visible tattoos) with a handful of swisher sweets in his pocket and weed in his system and popped shit back at a cop that was popping shit at him that he deserved what he got.  Racism is a cotdamn lie!

The illogicality of respectability politics insist that black people resist rage in the face of injustice and sit quietly in the corner with their legs crossed and their pearls clutched.  Respectability says that Michael Brown (not “Mike Mike” as he was affectionately called by friends) should not have been at the store in the first place, should have shown more reverence to his elders, should have never been walking in the middle of the road, should have complied with the police officer’s demand without comment and without looking up, should have been wearing his Sunday best on Saturday, should have not been hanging around with other boys his age, who look like him, who are from where he’s from.  Respectability believes that this generation needs to have more discipline, more respect for authority, more personal accountability.  Respectability thinks rule following, wardrobe, education, class standing, “traditional families,” and political progress can save you, and that Michael’s self presentation and demeanor made him culpable in his own demise.  Respectability is wrong!

We have been force fed lies and untruths about who the victim/s are in Ferguson.  Some folk have been deceived into thinking that it was Michael Brown’s choices and not those of his murderer that led to his brutal death.  Some folk are thinking that any time a group of black folk gather together they create a mob, instead of creating a community.  Some folk have a lot to say but ain’t saying nothing (you did see/hear about the POTUS’ two press conferences, right?).  Some folk ain’t saying nothing because they don’t know what to say.

At the end of the day I don’t know if words will come as easily as tears when I stand in my classroom to talk about Michael Brown, and others like him, who look like me and have lost their lives in the last thirty days.  I don’t know what I will say when a student claims that race has nothing to do with it, when a commenter challenges Brown’s innocence or celebrates the murderer’s freedom, when a troll maintains that it is an isolated incident not worthy of discussion or media coverage, or when any one of the dozens of black men I love ask me how they can stay alive.  I may still be at a loss of words because they are caught in my throat between helplessness and hope.

I leave with another excerpt from Lorde’s essay, “What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?”

I’m still struggling for words but I am finding a way to articulate my pain, my frustration, my rage, my fear, my sadness, my emotional exhaustion and my disappointment.  Even when I can’t speak I understand that silence in the face of social injustice and inequity is always insufficient.  Sometimes it’s not about what you say (or do), but the fact that you say (or do) something!

No justice, no peace.

Know justice. Know peace.

The CFC is partnering with #BlackLivesMatter to “bring Black folks and anti-racist allies from across the country into Ferguson, Missouri, as part of a national call to end state violence against Black people.” If you are interested in joining the Black Life Matters Ride to Ferguson on Labor Day weekend, please complete this form and visit the Black Life Matters Ride Facebook page for more information.  You can also donate to the crowdfunding campaign.


21 thoughts on “Say What?: On Speechlessness, Racism and Respectability in #Ferguson

  1. America’s impoverished citizens have been insidiously persuaded that voting and the political process will never do anything to help them climb out of the hole the powers that be have dug for them and shoved them into. As communities change those who have long profited by the graft available remain in charge because they are loathe to forego the money and can easily dissaude new residents from becoming involved in a process of ordering their lives within the community. As such the majority are disenfranchised and their needs are ignored because it would diminish the cash flow stream going into pockets that in no way enhance and build a vital communal force. The power structure then fosters a police force that is rewarded for keeping the poor and disadvantaged down and out.

    It may sound preachy but the communities need to organize, collectivise and unionize in order to rid themselves of those who treat them as an exploitable resource to be squeezed for more money. By no means is this easy. The new power structure may well be as bad as the old one. It may take several iterations of kicking the bums out till some real reform occurs.

    • Well said, Kal. But I’m not so sure the voting process as we know it truly can change anything. The grim reality is our political process has been bought and well protected from the masses desperate for change. The new boss answers to the same corporate taskmasters as the old boss. And as the chasm between the have’s and have not’s widens, we will continue to see the inequality defended by a murderous, vicious police force and tanks in the streets. Organization and collective action is needed, but where we go from here is anyone’s guess.

      • I no longer ever vote for either the GOP or the Dems. I am sure that whoever replaces them will be easily and quickly corrupted but maybe we’ll be lucky

      • I used to vote Dem, but they have nothing good to offer at this point. I think they’re already corrupted before they even get on the ballot. It’s a depressing state of affairs

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  3. PREACH IT! You have said something that was yearning to be known. It is always great to bring the voices of our elders into the present moment and your dialogue with Lorde in a truly beautiful way. I appreciate the voice of conflict, unrest, anger matched with a serenity of knowing, of knowing that this is the truth. And please continue to speak and share your truth because it echoes with many truths of many people.

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  5. I agree with so much of what’s in this piece, but I feel it’s blinkered to the legitimate objections that many people will have to what you’ve written. Incidents like the killing of Michael Brown are never simple stories of good and evil. Is the fact that Michael robbed a convenience store immediately before the incident just a coincidence? Would you expect a juror to believe that someone who had just assaulted a store owner wouldn’t then go on to assault a police officer? Of course we don’t yet know the facts of the case, and it’s hard to imagine a version of the story in which the officer’s actions would be justified, but when I read this article I felt you were deliberately avoiding issues that would muddy your case and slow you down, and that’s not honest.

    • If Mike Brown was white, the fact that he had just stolen cigars from a convenience store would not be a justification to shoot and kill him. In fact, successfully assaulting a police officer (with no weapon other than bare hands) wouldn’t be a justification to shoot and kill him. She does acknowledge the things that “muddy the case” in paragraph 7. Her point is that these things “justify” shooting down a teenager in the middle of a street because he was black. If he was white, we’d all be horrified no matter how many “sins” that white boy may have committed. Police officers are trained to deal with violent criminals with non-lethal methods. One would think their training would prepare them to handle a teenager with an attitude.

      • Were we aware of any tales of a Caucasian teen stealing something and being gunned down by an African American officer who was unaware of the theft, there might be a smidgen of an argument to be discussed.

        When a 16 year old caucasian Texas youth stole a case of beer and then proceeded to drunkenly kill 4 people with his vehicle, he was not imprisoned because he had grown up wealthy and unaware that his actions could and should have consequences. The judge used “affluenza” as an excuse to send this person to a rehab clinic rather than a prison. That same judge sent a 14 year old African American kid to prison for several years because he brandished a gun.

        We live in a post racial country only by assuming we live on a humanity free planet.

      • If Mike Brown was a 6′ 6″ belligerent white boy, the result might have been similar. Imputing “racism” to this encounter may be jumping the gun. There certainly is structural racism in places like Ferguson. Substandard schools, unemployment, and the like. Those are the deeply racist factors that deserve our work.

      • Brown’s size has nothing at all to do with his being murdered, yes murdered, by a police officer. Since no incident report has yet been filed by the killer nor by the second officer to appear on the scene and the body was allowed to lie out in the street for more than 4 hours, one must concluded that this was in no way a righteous shooting. One is fascinated by the police department scrubbing the officers internet presence and by their effort to find a mitigating and extenuating circumstance that might allow the department to besmirch Brown’s reputation.

  6. I have not yet read this in its entirety, will get back to it later. But as I sit in the break room on my lunch I am filled with tears and my own fears, for my cousins and my nephews.

    I had a conversation a few nights ago with my 20 year old niece who stated how fed up she is, how hurt she is, and how confused she is to KNOW that racism does in fact STILL exist. I had to regretfully tell her, that it never really went anywhere, they just tried very hard to put a bow on and call it by another name.

    I have no answers for her, nor for her sister and brother and three male cousins. Or her cousin who has sat in prison for 5 years for a crime is has been damn near fully proven innocent of. Anyway, I will share more once my heart settles.

    Right now I am full of a rage I never asked for. Right now it wants revenge. Another sad sad think to express. It scares me.

  7. First, well said/felt/thought out Robin! Second, Affluenza! if this wasn’t so tragic it would be funny. But it’s an excellent example of how white privilege and its father power operate. Did anyone besides the person who posted the comment and me, notice that there was little to nothing said in the media about this travesty of just-us? Second, while we desperately need to start at the beginning of racism in this country and carefully educate, question, reflect, deconstruct, etc. ending with a systemic change in mindset in this country, that will be impossible until more of us actually ‘know’ a lot more about the history (which is made more difficult by the fact that it’s not taught in k-12 and most people in this country don’t go beyond high school) and even then as was mentioned by someone on the passing of the late, warrior Nelson Mandela–he had no idea the lengths the powerful will go to maintain power and control. Richard Nixon once said (paraphrasing here) the key to the Negro problem is to give the appearance of helping while doing nothing.

    Last, there are not enough people in this country speaking out, voting, organizing, writing, performing, screaming articulately and etc. about the rampant racism not only in this country but the world. Instead too many of us are living in the Matrix with the white boy willing to eat anything as long as it ‘tastes’ like steak. Too many of us are spending more time swallowing racism whole, assimilating to keep the job/contract/gig, etc. while benefitting from the protest-work of ancestors and current folks who put their behinds/careers on the line to keep it real. As long as these numbers remain few, I don’t see the kind of change we need coming any time soon, but that doesn’t mean I won’t continue to work for it until I’m dead and hopefully my work will continue to speak for me after that:

    “I sit on a Man’s Back
    choking him and making
    him carry me, and
    yet assure myself
    and others that
    I am very, very
    sorry for him and
    wish to lighten
    his load by all possible
    means—except by
    getting off his


    “Who no know go know”

    Fela Kuti

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