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I can’t stop myself from briefly stepping back from our regularly-scheduled posts to add my wholehearted support for the people who are facing police brutality and oppression in Ferguson. It dismays me that so little has changed from decades past. There’s been a lot of ink spilled of late about it, but this post here really solidified a lot of things for me. I was shocked reading it–but grateful, too, that the person who wrote it did so.

I couldn’t help but remember something that happened to me a long time ago, as I read that post. You see, in 1992 or so, I was working in Houston at a print shop. I was still very Pentecostal. I still remember I was wearing my favorite plaid jumper that day (for the Brits reading this, I mean a skirt-with-sleeveless-blouse-attached sort of dress that you’re meant to wear a shirt under)–it was one I’d sewn myself, Black Watch plaid, and a white mock-turtleneck that I wore with pretty much everything like it was the fundie Garanimals.

That afternoon a gangly young African-American man about my age came in to buy stamps. Though I didn’t normally handle register stuff, I happened to be waiting for a big print job to finish, so I grabbed him a book of them out of the drawer.

He accepted them from me, but then he looked at the book of stamps and an expression of unmitigated hatred and disgust came over his face. It was the most palpable expression of emotion I think I’d ever seen, an honest and completely genuine, unprovoked response. He wasn’t doing this reaction to get a rise out of me. He really hated that book of stamps.

“Is everything okay?” I asked, suddenly very concerned.

He startled as if suddenly becoming aware again that another person was standing nearby. He flashed me the book of stamps and shrugged and shook his head. “That’s a white man’s flag,” he said under his breath.

That’s when I noticed that the stamps depicted the United States flag.

A lot of things went through me right then.

I was hurt he’d say that. Angry. Offended. I grew up military and there ain’t much that unites most military folks–brats and servicepeople alike–as much as respect for the flag. I didn’t know what to say.

In retrospect, I’m touched that he felt comfortable telling me such a thing. I’m about as white as it gets–light-blue eyes, blonde hair, freckles, paler than milk most of the time, and wearing a plaid jumper that day, for chrissakes. Maybe he felt bold because I’m a woman so maybe facing oppression just like he was, or maybe because I was close to his age, or because I didn’t come across like a managerial type (I was the manager of my little corner of the shop; I just didn’t dress like it because this was a college shop and fancy clothes were considered too corporate for the market). But at the time, I didn’t have any idea how to respond. I was young, and I’d never encountered anything like this situation.

Finally I said, as gently as I could, “It’s your flag too, you know. People of all races have died for that flag. It’s every American’s flag.”

He just shrugged. I don’t think he believed me. I wanted to put my hand on his shoulder but I sensed that wouldn’t be welcome. I wanted to tell him I was so very sorry that he felt that way, but I didn’t know how to say it without coming off like a jackass. I could tell he was trying to find some way to put into words how he felt as well. We were both struggling to find some way to meet across a gigantic divide. We both spoke English, but the words of that language seemed so inadequate right then. We were both Americans, but our worlds were totally different.

We stood there together like that, heads awkwardly bent over the book of stamps, till my printer screeched at me and I had to run to fetch my print job before paper went everywhere. The regular cashier showed up and that was that.

I still have no idea what the “right” response would have been–if there’d even been one. Maybe there wasn’t and that was the whole problem.

Over time I would learn that why yes, it’s not that unreasonable for someone like that young man to feel that way about the American flag–about nationalistic American ideals themselves–that seem like they belong to and encompass everybody but him. That’s why I’m bringing up the incident now: to tell you that sometimes it takes something startling like that to wake someone up to what’s happening. That’s what woke me up.

And white America does definitely need an awakening.

Oh, we talk a big damn game about equality and liberty for all, but we live in a country where many Black mothers have to teach their children how not to get shot by cops when (not if, when!) they get profiled. I don’t know about y’all, but I missed that lecture. Maybe it was between the ones about my first period and how to correctly load a dishwasher.

I also missed how to accept mistreatment from the police and how to best abase myself before oppressive white people so they wouldn’t see me as a threat. I never learned that police could hurt me worse than any citizen or that the justice system would always see me as less than human so I had to step extra-careful and doubly-gently as other races do. I never saw people want to kill me for my race, or had to learn how to bottle up my rage and anger to react nonviolently; as a white person, nonviolence is just part of how I handle things, and as angry as misogynists and forced-birthers make me, I have never even once thought about reacting to them with violence. I’ve never had to suppress that urge on a systemic level; I can’t tell you how horrified I am that anybody in this country actually has to do so.

What’s happening in Ferguson this week is nothing less than an atrocity–the inevitable boiling-up of decades of a simply sickening, dehumanizing level of pandering and race-baiting and fearmongering against an oppressed group that has been kicked every single which way but Sunday and have finally had it up to here.

As for that young man I met so long ago, I still remember his face and the sullen tone of his voice–like he’d been daring me to say something, like maybe I was the first white person he’d ever said that sort of thing to and he was testing the idea. When I hear about racism, I think about him and about what he said that hot late-summer afternoon. A week previously I’d heard some church friends complain about the Black Student Union and wonder aloud why we didn’t have a White Student Union (and this was in the early-90s, let me reiterate–though I read the same thoughtless, blithe bit of privilege-blindness not even a week ago online). Now I was suddenly realizing why we needed the one but not the other. I don’t know who that man was or where he is now, but his words have always stayed with me.

I don’t want that kind of statement to be true. I don’t want my flag to be a white man’s flag. I don’t want it to be a symbol of oppression. I hate thinking that it certainly seems to be that way sometimes. Here we are. This injustice simply can’t stand. It can’t go on like this. We need a real change, not just posturing, not just gestures. This racism and endemic injustice simply cannot be just the accepted way of things. Mothers and fathers should never have to teach their children how to endure injustice in the name of keeping them alive a little longer. Children should never fear their own police. Citizens should not ever fear their own criminal justice system.

And nobody should be pushed so fucking hard that violence becomes the last resort, the last scream, the last gasp, the last blazing flame of humanity’s spirit before it dies, the last attempt to gain a single inch against a system that has been set against someone his or her whole fucking life.

You see this flag? This is everybody’s flag. This is that young man’s flag, and mine, and every other American’s. This flag means justice for all. It means equality of all citizens. It means liberty. It means us, together, united, for all, holding hands, making a better country.

It is obscene to talk about “good things coming out of” something like what’s happening in Ferguson. Obscene. Cruel. Unthinkable. Inhuman. We shouldn’t have had to get this far before a real discussion about racism emerged in this country. We’re here now, though. What will we do about it? If we finally get to the point where those in the dominant group are willing to take a serious look at what’s going on, then at least we’ll have salvaged something out of this stinking pile of festering evil. White people have had the luxury of ignoring that evil. It didn’t impact us. We could afford to allow this shadow-America to happen. But Black people have had to navigate around it their every waking day. Now we know, collectively, what’s happening. We can’t just ignore it anymore. This injustice, this shadow-America, it can’t stand. It can’t stand, do you hear me?

Not under this flag.

Flag of the United States of America
Flag of the United States of America (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...