Having “the Talk” – as White People
David R. Weiss – April 26, 2021
I’ve chatted with a number of my white friends over the past several weeks, but it only struck me today that we’ve actually been having our own version of “the Talk.” Probably some of you have, too.
You know, “the Talk” that happens as soon as another black person (usually a man) is killed by police. From our elected officials to our neighborhoods we start to worry. Will there be riots? Will buildings be damaged? Will there be looting? Will fires be set? How do we keep our community (our buildings, our businesses, our homes, our bodies) safe?
Prior to the murder of George Floyd, the Talk was surprisingly muted. There was certainly discontent after the 2016 killing of Jamar Clark: an uncomfortably long encampment outside the 4th Precinct. Less than a year later, the killing of Philando Castille sparked more protests and even a violent confrontation with police. But, prior to George Floyd, our most pressing question was usually, Will streets be blocked—again? Or, Will protesters make a scene at the Mall of America?
I don’t mean to downplay the significance of these earlier instances of “civil unrest,” but, if we’re honest, these instances were mostly about feeling uneasy, inconvenienced, maybe some anger over being disrupted from the normalcy of our lives. But “the Talk,” it’s about fear.
It’s about the dawning recognition that it (maybe) isn’t safe to kill black people anymore. Shit—who saw that coming?
Sure, for the most part, the worst confrontations—the rioting and the looting and the arson—have taken place at the police stations or at businesses that happened to be located in areas that served minority communities anyway. But sometimes those locations were frightfully close to our own locations as white people. Sometimes they overlapped: absent strict segregation these days, the economic and residential lines where unrest has played out don’t really respect race.
And, I suspect, that’s the nub of our fear. We can always hope—but we can never be sure, not anymore, it seems—that the unrest, the civic violence that is really the echo of police violence which is itself the exclamation point on systemic violence, will stay where it “belongs.” Elsewhere than our communities. Elsewhere than our residential streets. Elsewhere than our bodies. Elsewhere than our white lives.
Now, since George Floyd, the Talk is becoming a nagging reminder that every damn time another black body falls—especially if it falls right here in the Twin Cities—we need to court fear. And that sucks.
Operation Safety Net was a coordinated governmental response to that fear. Because we know now how unruly black people (and their allies) are willing to get over a death they find unjustified. From the Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis to the Western District Police Station just blocks from my home in St. Paul, to multiple business neighborhoods in Minneapolis, Operation Safety Net did its best to tell us, in clear Minnesota Nice: “no matter what, we’ll make sure order is kept.”
But the only reason we needed Operation Safety Net—the only reason the police station near my home turned itself into a concrete-and-fence-and-razor-wire fortress during the Derek Chauvin trial—was because we now live with the fear of unbridled black anger at police killings. That’s why we have the Talk.
Unbridled. That was probably a poor choice of words. We bridle horses to control them, to make them work for us. It used to be we metaphorically bridled black people. Slavery, Jim Crow, segregation—all bridles. The KKK and its more recent reincarnations, the War on Drugs and mass incarceration, voter suppression —and, yes, racist policing—all bridles. All designed to keep black labor at our beck and call while keeping black anger … well, bridled.
If black anger is unbridled, can you imagine its intensity? No wonder we’re having the Talk these days.
Still, I can’t help but wonder if it wouldn’t be easier (and wiser!) to entertain actual justice rather than live in these cycles of fear. Unless, for the moment at least, we find the notion of justice even scarier than the Talk.
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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at email@example.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community SupportedTheology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.