Quarantine Diary Day 80: Every Black Life Matters

Last week, like a lot of white people I know, I dipped my toes into the murky pools of clicktavism, posting content and engaging people on social media as a means of showing that I support the Black Lives Matter movement and am anti-racist. Back in my progressive Mormon days, the internet was the primary locus of my activism, at least in regards to the church. As a woman, I didn’t have any real power to change the church, and as a feminist living far outside the Mormon corridor, the internet was critical to finding like-minded people. After leaving the church and especially after getting sober, I largely stopped acting like an activist online. I didn’t know how to engage political causes on social media without triggering a cascade of character defects–self-centeredness, self-importance, insincerity, intolerance, and anger–so I stopped, stayed silent, and told myself I was protecting my sobriety. Of course, my silence was ego-driven, too, insofar as it shielded me from guilt and criticism over saying the wrong thing, and served to calcify my perfectionism apathy.

Last week, like a lot of white people I know, I cracked. That’s when I did all the things I’d sworn off in sobriety. I shared articles on Facebook and got all lit up when I saw my notification count go up. I talked about race and politics with family. I debated and disagreed. It didn’t feel like an emotional relapse. It felt like freedom from the bondage of self, that thing I plead for every morning with the third-step prayer. I didn’t get sober that I could languish in the land of self-help and healing and surface-level spirituality. I got sober so I could suit up and show up and live life on life’s terms.

Living life on life’s terms is a messy business it turns out. The demonstration in Evanston this weekend wasn’t messy–it was as impressively-organized an event as I’ve ever been too–but the world is. When I was in law school, I participated in a clinic that represented juveniles–kids–facing criminal charges. Our first client was young–fifteen I think, with a bag of skittles in his pocket–and facing charges of assault and attempted homicide of a police officer, though nobody was hurt. It was a hard case, with no witnesses except the police, and no evidence except the gun that the police claimed to have recovered while chasing our client down. The charges were trumped up and there was heaps of reasonable doubt but I remember hating that there had been a gun. It would just be so much easier if there wasn’t a gun. My client went on to get a sentence that would see him turning sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, and twenty-one in detention. I went on to graduate from law school and accept an offer from a prestigious law firm, where I learned that all the cases–civil, criminal, family, immigration–are hard. The easy cases settle out, often before lawyers even get involved.

The reason I want my cases to be easy is not because I can’t handle the legal issues. I like the challenge of a complicated set of facts and a nuanced body of law. I want my cases to be straightforward because it’s easier to defend people that are above reproach. I don’t mean it’s easier to sleep at night; I sleep fine. I mean, literally, it’s easier to tell stories about perfect people than it is to tell stories about people who are flawed. It’s harder to talk about people who are real.

But we are not saints. I’ve been writing publicly about my mess for a decade and it only makes people love me more. Maybe that’s because I write about it in a way that makes me seem reformed. I’m not. I scream at my daughter. I seethe with jealousy at my neighbors and friends. The other white people I got sober with have been liars, cheats, thieves, abusers, manipulators, and criminals. Rapists and racists. White people did those things and no one thinks we deserve to die. Our lives matter, flawed and fucked up as they are.

Black lives matter, too. I’m talking about real Black lives and Black lives as they really are. Black people deserve to be as complicated and complicit and bad as your favorite white anti-hero and still be fundamentally worthy, valued, and good. They deserve to be seen as mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, children, friends, neighbors, artists, leaders, business owners, enthusiasts, gardners, comedians, smart alecks, intellectuals, church goers, strivers, do-gooders, and change-makers. I believe, and some of the people who read by writing probably believe that Black people are children of God.

As the eminent Roxane Gay pleaded on Sunday, white people “demand perfection as the price for black existence while harboring no such standards for anyone else.”

Perfection doesn’t exist. Black people are flawed and fully human, just like you. Stop demanding perfection before they deserve your empathy and regard.

Quarantine Diary Day 79: Two Viruses

Yesterday I left the house armed with a ventilated mask and blue rubber gloves and two neon signs that I made with my daughter to march for Black lives and protest police brutality. It was my first time gathering with people outside my household since mid-March and there were a few thousand more than the ten of us now permitted to gather under Illinois’ phased reopening plan. The event was peaceful, family-friendly even, though I’d be lying if I said it didn’t feel dangerous to be gathered en masse while the coronavirus is still ravaging the country, if I didn’t admit that I wrestled with whether or not to go after abiding by the stay at home order so strictly for so long, that I figured I’d leave if there were too many people to remain socially distanced throughout.

I went because the fight for black lives is the first truly essential thing I’ve had to do since this started.

I stayed, even though it was immediately clear that I could not stay six feet clear in any direction, because every time I felt a jolt of fear–when somebody bumped up against me or cleared a throat after chanting–I knew that my fear was nothing compared to what Black people feel living under the threat of white supremacy on any given day in America, nothing to the constant fear Black moms carry every single day they have to send their kids out into a racist world.

I stayed because the odds are higher I have the virus today than yesterday, but the odds of my family’s survival are higher than the odds of my Black neighbors with or without the virus.

When I got home I stripped my mask off and scrubbed my hands and threw my clothes in the laundry. My scientist neighbor says coronavirus is easy to kill (“just some RNA, proteins, and lipids that fall apart in soapy water”), so I went back to my family confident I’d done all I could to keep them safe. Have I done everything I can to wash off the blood on my white hands, the racism baked into my beliefs, the after effects of breathing in and benefitting from white supremacy all my life? Have I done everything I can to keep my Black friends safe? My neighbors? My community? Not even close, but I’m going to do better.