By Mimi Jennings, St. Anthony Park
An open letter to Anna Gambucci: Thanks for bringing up for scrutiny the special advantages due to being white in America. Just your talking about this is moving toward its end. We need words; we need to assume the best of intentions of everybody who engages in the conversation; we need to understand that it can get messy. Our comfort may be at stake, but that’s certainly preferable to the status quo. The rewards can be brilliant. This is progress!
White, it could be easy for you and me to pass over this, after all, we know we’re mostly kind, good and well intentioned. We don’t mean any harm, aren’t at fault. I often feel frustration that I was handed this struggle without asking for it, without tools and without knowing how to fight it or with whom.
I do know that there’s inequality in society that’s undeserved and hurtful— dangerous, brutal, mortal—and it’s been around unabated since this country was formed. The sense of separation that this brings breaks my heart, brings urgency to the work. I do try to enrich my understanding and broaden my choice of actions—to be an ally to those who are targeted in any way, really. #BlackLivesMatter is a resource here.
True story: In the early 1990s I invited, through the Amity Program, a young man from La Cote d’Ivoire, West Africa, to assist in my St. Paul Central High School French classroom. Several St. Anthony Park families hosted him and he’s become a friend. My husband, Len, gave him use of a car and not long afterward he was driving it south on Highway 100 when a police car slid in behind him in traffic and changed lanes as he did. After this happened a couple of times our guy exited and pulled over to the curb, and so did the policeman. He got out of the cruiser and came up to our friend, asking, “Why did you stop?(!)”
“I thought we might just as well get this over with,” was my friend’s answer.
A check of license, registration and insurance (all in order), and the peace officer told him he was free to go. There was no mention of any violation or suspicious activity. One thing that struck me about this incident was our friend’s measured response. The fact that he had been brought up in Africa, where the police are the same color as the citizens, likely contributed to his confidence in how this would turn out: He wasn’t afraid, merely deeply annoyed. I’ve also considered the many ways that his confidence was unwarranted—the situation delicate—the incident subject to escalation: Len’s documents could have been out of date; the policeman might have had a hair trigger.
I am still grateful for the way it felt personal to me. On hearing it, I myself felt fear, anger, vulnerability, relief. There’s a lived knowledge in me now, a better understanding of the fragility of black people’s lives. I have more words.
Let’s keep going on this. Let’s try to understand how gentrification hurts, how subtle and subliminal cues (dress, tone of voice, background noise) include or estrange other people.
Let’s stand up, show up, get informed. Let’s continue to work to reach real comfort with differences of all kinds, especially the ones that carry a huge social price—real solidarity in the face of oppression. Let’s invite the neighborhood—oh, right, you already have! Thanks very much.