On Charleston & the Twisted “Luxuries” of Ignorance

I’ve been avoiding my inbox for an entire week after hearing news of the hate crime that took place in Charleston, SC. White supremacist, Dylan Roof, walked into Mother Emanuel A.M.E. church and killed 9 Black people who were gathered to worship and study the Bible. A full recap of the events has already been done by others. As I think about the brothers and sisters lost to this violence, I can feel my body tensing up, my breathing becoming more shallow… at the realization that yet & still, Black people in America are targeted with hate, vitriol, and lethal violence in our places of worship.

On the morning that I heard the news, I was on my way into the Black church to celebrate the life of someone very close to me who had passed away. When I returned from services, my inbox was inundated with requests to process what happened in Charleston. I’ve avoided them for a week.

There was no time to grieve or to make sense of the deep tragedy and horror of it.

There was no time to wrap my mind around the fact that the shooter, Dylan Roof, chose the church because he intentionally wanted to kill Black people and intentionally wanted to start a race war. There was no time to wrap my mind around the fact that the Black church has been a place of solidarity and being known for me and for so many others – a sacred space.

I had not yet had time to consider the 5 year old girl, who played dead, in order to live… when the inbox messages started pouring in…Very few of them were from people of color and most of them read to the tunes of, “I don’t understand… what’s going on”,  “Can you explain to me how…” and “But, I don’t see color”.

What they communicated said a lot about of one of the twisted luxuries of privilege: ignorance.

There are a few kinds of ignorance that I’m referring to here (please note this is NOT a comprehensive list): 1) Ignorance about what happened in Charleston, 2) Ignorance about its historical roots and significance, 3) Ignorance about its implications.

1) In regards to ignorance on what happened in Charleston:

Expecting Black America to solely carry the burdens of ignorance on racial & social justice is unfair and tiring. But expecting Black Americans to explain and recount a hate crime against Black Americans in Charleston, SC… falls a bit farther on the ridiculous – and – crass side. It is a thinly veiled communication that even the simple act of searching for information was too inconvenient or too much of a task… even when the very lives of 9 Black people were taken by a White supremacist, during their weekly Bible study gathering.

Conversely, Black people in America absolutely MUST understand the ways in which White supremacy works THEN HOW TO COMBAT IT… in order to survive. I’m not talking about survival in a philosophical sense; I’m talking about our very lives. What Mamie Till expressed upon learning of the brutal murder of her son Emmitt Till still speaks truth: “…that what happens to any of us, anywhere in the world, had better be the business of us all”. This is something that many in Black America know. This is something that has been interwoven into our anecdotes for as long as I can remember.

Quite a number of scholars have talked about this concept, this luxury, and this type of ignorance. Dr. Francis E. Kendall (2002) explains:

“While people of color understand the necessity of being able to read the white system, those of us who are white are able to live out our lives knowing very little of the experiences of people of color. Understanding racism or whiteness is often an intellectual exercise for us, something we can work at for a period of time and then move on, rather than its being central to our survival. Further, we have the luxury of not having to have the tools to deal with racial situations without looking incompetent…”

So when people rely solely on their friends / colleagues of color to recount the (Googleable) events of the hate crime in Charleston, there is the subtle implication: you were not willing to put forth an extra effort to discern what happened for yourself. You were not willing to “make it your business, as well”.

[Note: The Post and Courier published a highly detailed piece on the shooting of the 9 beautiful souls at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. You can find that here]

2) In regards to ignorance on historical roots and significance:

As we grieve what happened at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. the minimal amount of commitment to social justice and reconciliation demands that we search, read, and understand what happened. At the very least, we should work to understand what is going on and why Roof’s actions were motivated and spurred on by White supremacy. If you, white allies and the like, are committed to understanding the plight AND walking with Black Americans at this moment you can read this information from sources that promote justice & equity for Black people in America. You can read articles from people of color that are already written on this subject. And while you’re reading, you can also ask the questions: a) Where is this article posted & what is the significance of this forum / site / format? b) Who wrote this article? What is their lens & expertise? c) When was this article written and how is it relevant to current events? d) What is the main argument of this article? and e) With all of these things in mind, will this reading help me to understand and unpack the lethal, psychological, emotional, and physical implications that White supremacist notions /practices have on Black lives?

Write down further questions that you may have. Go down to the sources cited, refer to the many works in the Charleston syllabus (curated via Dr. Chad Williams) for texts that unpack the history of Black lives in America, click on the hyperlinked texts, see if they answer some of your questions, and do not put the burden solely on people of color to do this work for you.

In regards to ignorance on the implications of this act:

An implication, as defined by dictionary.com, can mean: “the act of implicating or indicating that one or more persons may be involved, as in a crime”. We understand that Dylan Roof was the one who showed up in the church to kill 9 Black lives… but we also need to understand that the systemic killing of Black people has been displayed throughout history. “One or more persons have been involved…” explicitly and implicitly in the brutal murdering of Black lives in America, throughout history, based on racism and White supremacy.

And so… thinking about what happened in Charleston as an isolated incident WITHOUT also thinking about the tangled web of White supremacy that was weaved in America is a lazy and futile thought process. It is not enough to chalk it up to “one bad person who did a very bad thing”. As our nation erupts with hate crime after hate crime, our due diligence and reasonable service is to consider, “How did people LEARN such hate? Where did they learn it? How was this hate affirmed?

As you complete some of the readings on historical roots and significance, much of this will be unpacked [as you will find, violence against Black people in their churches by White supremacists has happened many times before, but that is just the tip of the deep, deep, injustices].

Yet there is also another step to combating the ignorance that hinders systemic change: asking and answering the questions, “Is there ANYWHERE in the system that I have entered and engage in (i.e. healthcare system, justice system, sacred institutions, institutions of higher learning, etc) where I have not challenged or considered where these ideas might have been fostered (in our legacy) and might still BE festering (in our praxis)”?

As we consider how to respond to the hate crime in Charleston, there are some very concrete things we can do. For some, it is continuing to grieve, engage in self care, and strengthening ourselves to call out injustices where and when we find them. For some, it is deliberately choosing to put down the twisted luxuries of ignorance – for ignorance often gives way to apathy. It is choosing to understand, publicly denounce (and by publicly, I mean, not via inboxes or whispered words), and organize against the perniciousness of White supremacy. Our lives, Black lives, are at stake.

Image Credit: commons.wikimedia.org