Words for Violence

I ran into three of my students while walking across the quad this afternoon. We stopped to talk. I planned to wave and nod, but they wanted to talk. All three are African-American.
 
They wanted to talk – or sound off, as much as anything – about “yet another” murder of an unarmed Black person who’d done nothing wrong. The question was what you’d expect: what are we supposed to do? Could have been asking anyone, really, but it was them asking me. I don’t know. It’s not like we grown ups are hoarding the obvious answer.
 
But while the truth is that I have no words, no words that measure up to the terrifying losses in each of these cases, and these murders are so catastrophically awful and just repeat and repeat, I also think no words isn’t always (if ever) the right response to have in these moments – especially as a white person.
 
Questions are words. I asked a question. Then more. I trusted that we know one another well enough to have questions, for them to know I wanted their inner selves, not my theories of or guesses at what they are feeling and thinking. I wanted them, not my presumptions.
 
They told me things worth putting here.
 
They are scared for their own lives and the lives of friends and family, no matter where they live.
 
They are enraged and it is slowly eating away at their love for life and being wherever (and whomever) they are.
 
They are frustrated that their white friends are completely oblivious to these realities.
 
They are frustrated that it seems special or amazing whenever a white person says even just one thing.
 
The obliviousness feeds senses of isolation.
 
The white silence feeds suspicion that, for all the partying and conversation and camaraderie on campus and in the dorm, their specifically Black lives don’t matter.
 
They don’t want to be seen as just humans because their fear and sadness and rage and anxiety is coming from being Black, not from being seen as human.
 
They want killing with impunity to stop.
 
In the meantime, they want to be seen and heard.
 
Being seen and heard is important because being oblivious is a form of “passive gaslighting” – making them doubt that they are living in reality. (That was a student’s phrase.)
 
And they don’t want to feel like being seen is a huge burden for white friends, but instead want it to feel like that’s just getting to know each other.
 
They also want white students to take Black Studies courses. And they were serious about that. “Our lives hang in the balance but these motherfuckers are taking another class about more dead white guys.”
 
It was amazing to hear them say it straight out: we could breathe better if everyone wasn’t always doubting our experience and explaining away our fears.
 
I have no words except please stop, how is this possible. Those are my words. I am passing along these words from my students today, though, because when they said it all to me, their words became words I now have. Not all words for something need to be my own. And they spoke truthfully. They said to share (I asked).
 
I hope white friends hear that truthfulness in this small report in my tiny corner of the world of social media.