As a white woman, I know we white women are the town criers of white supremacy. When we holler, people listen. When others see our tears, they move mountains to save us. When we call the police, unarmed Black people are all too often hurt or killed.
So, I was alarmed last Tuesday morning when I saw my Facebook timeline filled with expressions of outrage by white people directed at the Black Lives Matter movement.
The night before, graffiti had been spray-painted on three locations in Memphis — the wall in front of Graceland, the I Love Memphis sign in the Cooper-Young neighborhood and the Levitt Shell in Overton Park. The messages included “#BLM,” “Defund the Police,” “Eat the Rich,” “Save the Children,” “No Justice, No Peace; and some profanity-laced statements.
The wall outside @VisitGraceland in #Memphis where #Elvis fans write their names and tributes to The King was vandalized overnite. #BlackLivesMatter #DefundMPD #AbolishIce & #BreonnaTaylor were spray painted all over the wall.
📸: @BriseidaHolguin pic.twitter.com/xT9gcyQz82
— Joyce Peterson (@MemphoNewsLady) September 1, 2020
The messages were mixed, and could have come from anyone, but were assumed by some to be the work of Black Lives Matter.
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In response, there was a noteworthy missive on the Shell’s Facebook page by a white, female sound engineer for the Shell who declared that whoever put graffiti on the outdoor performance space should “burn in hell.”
Then there was Natalie Wilson, a white woman and executive director of the Shell, who told The Daily Memphian: “I could not breathe when I saw it.”
George Floyd could not breathe. Eric Garner could not breathe. Daniel Prude could not breathe. All of these Black men are dead after being suffocated by police.
Wilson, a white woman in a position of power, viewed some graffiti, which could be easily removed with a pressure washer and paint, and said she could not breathe. Really?
Surely, we can agree human life is more valuable than some paint on a wall. Are there statements that could have been made that did not stoke race-based outrage and division?
News outlets quickly picked up the story, and quoted a police report in which Wilson estimated it would cost $150,000 to clean up the graffiti. Posted, then deleted, from the Shell’s Facebook page was a request for donations to defray the costs.
However, the graffiti was eliminated by the end of the day and the Facebook post was taken down after public outcry at the outrageousness of such blatant hypocrisy. The Shell, by officials’ own admission, had been tagged by graffiti six times previously this year alone, with no fuss or fundraising needed to remove it.
Graffiti already covered the walls in front of Elvis’s home. If these written words were not a problem in all the years previous to Sept. 1, 2020, but stating Black Lives Matter was such a profound insult, then the idea that Black lives should be valued is what has upset people.
What white people who are so angry are missing is this essential truth: If you believe in the Divine, God is always on the side of those oppressed. We are the ones in power who are not listening to the pain and misery of those we have collectively held in bondage, and are still oppressing. God is speaking through those demanding change, as we who are white are hardening our own hearts.
If only Wilson or the sound engineer had considered their privileged position as white women, perhaps they could have used it to declare their solidarity with the people who expressed such pain in a very public way. Centering themselves and their outrage did further harm, instead of agreeing that Black Lives Matter. Period.
So, to my fellow white people who have been upset about graffiti, I ask you, what is your priority? Is it paint on property or the sanctity of human life? Because unarmed Black people are being killed by police with an alarming frequency, and I don’t see the same level of concern expressed in social media that I have seen over graffiti.
Perhaps, before we express outrage over how our fellow human beings challenge the unjust racist system, we should take a look inward and discover how we are a part of that same system, how we benefit from it, and learn to be part of the positive change instead of bemoaning these tactics.
Maybe we could join a protest ourselves. Maybe we could fight for policy change toward more equity on a local, regional and national level. Maybe, we can look at our own family history, and see how whiteness and white privilege played a role in our own lives.
And maybe, if your own son or daughter or sister or cousin was killed in a horrific way, like Aiyana Jones, John Crawford III, or Ahmaud Arbery, you and I might have a tiny bit of empathy for the rage and sadness and frustration of other Memphians who happen to inhabit darker hued skin. We might realize property damage is a paltry price to pay compared to the countless suffering, for which we as white people owe reparations.
Every single human life is precious. We who are white know our lives matter. Black people see every day that their lives don’t.
It is time for us as white people to rethink our priorities. Do we believe in justice for all or for only a few?
The Rev. Edith Love is a Unitarian Universalist minister who feels her calling is to work toward love and justice. She is the founder of the Church of Resistance, a deliberately inclusive community of seekers. She believes all people are her people, the streets are her parish, and everywhere we are, we are standing on holy ground.
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