Talking #BlackLivesMatter Offline and Outside of the Classrooms and Lecture Halls

By Imagining America | January 19, 2015

lautry2By La Tanya S. Autry, PAGE Co-director

As a PhD candidate in art history at the University of Delaware, I’ve centered my studies on objects, images, and practices of memory, public space, race, and collective action. My dissertation The Crossroads of Commemoration: Lynching Landscapes in America analyzes how communities and individuals memorialize the history of lynching violence in the built environment through sculptural monuments, historical markers, and performances. The killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and other black men over the past several months continually remind me of the legacy of America’s lynching culture.

While protests against police brutality have spread across the country, I haven’t witnessed much public discussion on the topic outside of social media. The dearth in actual conversation has prompted me to reflect on my recent experiences and the troubling instances friends have shared with me regarding talking about the Black Lives Matter movement. I’m re- examining my engagement methods as I look for ways to foster public dialogue. The main challenges I find entail finding productive modes for informal discussions with strangers, acquaintances, and colleagues as well as discovering respectful ways to disagree with loved ones who endorse apathetic or even racist perspectives.

Is it possible to have a productive talk about Ferguson at the proverbial water cooler?

Autry-books-image1Sometimes when I introduce my dissertation topic to people, they want me to address complex issues of race in just a couple of sentences. Frequently their question or statement contains an assumption. I typically answer that it’s impossible to unravel social patterns of inequality in less than one minute and, if I can sustain interest, I highlight the assumption. I point out that I’m open to talking about the subject with them when we can dedicate some time to exploring the network of issues. But those folks almost never take me up on the offer. I think most of them desire easy answers or simply want to hear their position confirmed. Sometimes I suspect that they harbor racist sentiments. Even though these situations are frustrating, I appreciate that at least these people are talking. These moments may be the first steps to participating in real conversations.

About a month ago this scenario played out in relation to the protests in Ferguson. As I stopped to greet an African-American co-worker who I passed in the hallway, he inquired about my education. After I mentioned my graduate studies, he seemed proud to hear that I, a black woman, am pursuing my doctoral work. Then he asked me to affirm his belief that African- American people are to blame for their marginalized position in the U.S. The loaded supposition stunned me. Just as I began to respond that the issue was very complicated, he interrupted and repeated his stance. Then I realized that he wasn’t interested in a dialogue or hearing about the interplay of various social factors that I surely wouldn’t have time to indicate in a couple of minutes. I decided to let the moment fizzle out. But I haven’t forgotten this incident. I plan to invite this person to campus and community events centered on topics of race.

I can’t provide the tidy, sound bite answers that some people seek. I know that most of these folks won’t meet me for coffee, come to my research presentations, read the essays I have suggested, or attend the events that I feel could be illuminating. But I can emphasize that racial issues are difficult and intertwined. I can highlight avenues to enlightened discussion and relieve myself of the unreasonable task of reducing racial history to a phrase uttered in less than one minute. If I find the circumstance particularly antagonistic, I simply can say, “I don’t agree.”

Although some of the lack of actual conversations probably stems from fear of talking about sensitive political issues in public, I believe apathy also dampens discourse on the Black Lives Matter movement. I think that folks who can’t comprehend the urgency of the moment may interpret the killings as unrelated, singular incidents. They may not recognize the larger structural character of racism and the nation’s history of racialized violence. But it’s unfeasible and undesirable to launch into a lecture during a passing interaction. I believe my recourse here is similar to the strategies I’m employing when confronted with impatience.

Autry-water cooler-b-image2Having loved ones who profess hostility to the movement can be far more disconcerting than an uncomfortable casual meeting with an acquaintance; yet these situations can arise just as easily. Even though I haven’t confronted this problem directly, I’ve been reflecting on it because some of my white colleagues have expressed the pain they feel when their family members espouse racist attitudes. Many find their relatives unwilling to listen. In turn, my friends opt for silence. Hearing of these occasions makes me wonder about the meaning of silence. Does the ensuing quiet indicate peace? Or is it a diseased mask? Does the silence erode the relationship and the individuals? Here I also consider the signs that some Black Lives Matter activists carry that argue “white silence = white consent.” While I appreciate the complexity and tense nature of this predicament, I wonder how far all of us have to go to fight racism. If we can’t tackle offensive remarks from our families, is it possible just to state that we disagree? Can that moment of opposition engender change and empower the dissenter?

Actual cross-cultural dialogic interchanges about racial power are important paths to the social restructuring that we all must do. My experiences suggest that I probably won’t have many enriching conversations about racial history and social inequities in our justice system at the water cooler or during my short bus ride to work. Yet I don’t want to ignore these informal, interpersonal instances. Dismantling systems of oppression involves working on both institutional and interpersonal levels. Those one or two minutes of encounter are more than just times to share information. They are also opportunities to cultivate empathy and identify interdependence. I’m reminded of Cornel West’s warning, “Either we learn a new language of empathy and compassion, or the fire this time will consume us all.”*


*Cornel West, “Learning to Talk of Race,” Reading Rodney King: Reading Urban Uprising, edited by Robert Gooding-Williams, New York: Routledge, 1993, 260.