What Marrying a Black Man Taught Me about Race and Why Ferguson Matters

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Editor’s Note: Today’s guest blogger is Dennae Pierre. Dennae is wife to Vermon Pierre, lead pastor of Roosevelt Community Church in Phoenix, AZ, a mother, and adoption advocate. 

250 years of slavery. 90 years of Jim Crow. 60 years of separate but equal. 35 years of racist housing policies. Does that explain everything? No. Does it mean something? Yes.

The Back Seat Passenger:

A close friend and dear brother of ours, Dr. Patrick T. Smith, is a professor at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. He gives his students the following example to help them understand how to hear from different world views:

Imagine that you are driving down a busy highway and you put your blinker on and prepare to merge into the left lane. All of a sudden, someone in the backseat yells, “Stop! You’re going to hit a car!” but you are confident that you checked your rearview mirror and feel certain there is no car in the lane next to you. What do you do?

The answer all comes down to how much you trust the person in that seat behind you. Is it a foolish, goofy middle school boy who likes to blurt random things out? If so, then you will likely ignore the voice and get into the next lane.

Or is it a trusted friend? Your peer? Your equal? If so, then you will instantly put on your breaks without thinking or question.

Patrick goes on to explain the issues related to understanding the complexities of race are similar. Whether or not you are willing to listen to another voice bring light to an issue that you may have a blind spot on all comes down to how much you trust the other person.

My Story:

My husband, Vermon, and I instantly connected on every subject under the sun. Our early dates included endless discussions on theology, politics, and race. But we didn’t (and still don’t) agree on everything. Passionate debates and differing views of a few subjects have only worked to draw us closer and help us grow in our perspectives and faith. But looking back, I can honestly say that I had this pride in the area of race. I thought because I agreed and resonated with Vermon on his thoughts about being black in American that it meant I “got it.” It wasn’t until we had our first real argument in this area that I realized how much I didn’t understand…

I was 23, prideful, and very confident in every single opinion. We had been married a few months.

We were brushing our teeth when Vermon mentioned some excited feelings about the thought of Obama becoming our first black president. I failed to realize that Vermon’s statement wasn’t about agreeing or disagreeing with political positions. It wasn’t about being a democrat or republican nor was it a statement on who he thought would be better for our country. He was simply excited, given the history of our country, that America finally had the potential to elect a non-white president.

But I missed the emotion he was expressing and went straight to my “facts.” I didn’t ask questions or trying to understand what he meant. I just got into some logical, factual argument about why I preferred another candidate to win the primary and twenty minutes later my husband was mad at me. We were still holding our toothbrushes, jabbing our opinions back and forth, getting no closer to agree and quickly dividing our hearts while wounding the other.

At some point Vermon got quiet, and I saw a look on his face that I instantly knew I never wanted to cause in my husband again. It was exhaustion, tiredness, and frustration at trying to explain his 30-years of racial experience to his confident and prideful partner.

That began a journey of realizing that I didn’t “get it.” I may have been able to have deep discussions with my husband about race, but I hadn’t lived THAT intimately side by side with someone who was African American and really given them permission to give me all their unfiltered thoughts with no threat of judgment, just a desire to really understand. It occurred to me in that moment that my other black friends likely filtered their experiences and true feelings from me in order to prevent that same “tired” reaction I saw in my husband’s face.

After many tears and a deeply broken apology, I decided that I was not understanding the emotion Vermon was trying to communicate to me, but I needed to try.

Vermon then gave me one of the greatest gifts of this life and brought me into the inner circles of his dearest friends and let me participate in conversations where I didn’t have to prove I “got it” or that I could relate based on my own experiences of injustice, pain, or suffering. I simply had an opportunity to love and be loved without having to prove my own knowledge on a topic or relate in some way. I got to ask a lot of questions and hear a lot of stories.

I also had the ability to see black men relax and breathe a little lighter because they didn’t have to filter themselves in order to not offend people or get accused of playing the race card. I began to notice that when we leave our multi-ethnic community in Phoenix to spend time with Vermon’s dear brothers who are black that he had the freedom to joke, lament, dream, and discuss life as a black man in America in a way that differs from when he’s here.

I will never fully understand the deep hurt and pain my husband and his brothers share over different incidents. But now that I am 8 years down the road, have black sons and daughters, have dear friends who have shared their experiences of unspeakable horror and constitutional violations in America’s ghettos, have seen my husband racially profiled & white friends question the reality of his experience…after that, this is now an issue that goes beyond “facts” but also resonates emotionally with me.

Why Ferguson Matters:

Here is what I believe it comes down to. We can disagree about facts. Some post articles sharing one perspective, and certain “facts.” Others post different eye witness accounts and different “facts.” I see some feeling more for the police officer and others feeling for Michael Brown’s family.

A healthy discussion allows us to look at it all, read it all, listen to it all and ask, “can this all fit together as one story?” I believe it can. It does not have to be innocent vs. guilty, right vs. wrong, or a self defense killing vs. a murder.

If you took some time to really listen to what many (not all) African Americans are saying you may hear something like this:

“Let’s just assume, for argument sake that Michael Brown was guilty & and that was the police officer’s only option…

we are still broken.” (this, friend….is where you ask…why?)

Why?

(the answer to this why is long and complex…most especially in the south…so ask the question to multiple people who are wrestling with this right now…)

Or perhaps you would hear this…

“We don’t trust the police. The same police force that pepper sprayed our peaceful protest last week, fire hosed my grandfather (who is still alive by the way) and turned a blind eye when his brother was lynched. We repeatedly experience search and seizures without warrants. Our community is 67% African American and yet our police force of 53 only has 3 African-Americans on it. It is hard to trust facts when you have directly seen grandmas, sisters, and friends disrespected for no reason by the police.”

Or perhaps you would hear…

“I’m tired of never being heard. I’m tired of not being able to share my experience or opinion without being called a race baiter. Or an angry black man. Yes, I’m angry. Angry and tired. I’m broken that the minority that looted take away from the majority that have protested peacefully. I’m broken that death is an everyday occurrence in this community, that our kids aren’t being taught to read in our failing public school systems while the white suburban and country schools are thriving and receiving all the money.”

This is what I have heard from my friends who have experienced Ferguson first hand. My backseat voice telling me to brake is not the media, CNN, Fox News, Facebook, but trusted friends, brothers, sisters…my husband. When these people yell “brake” I am going to slam on my brakes, regardless of what others say.

You can “yeah, but” or you can just listen and observe. Observe a community weeping and ask … Why? Observe a community rioting and ask why? Observe people thousands of miles away deeply impacted, maybe even depressed over it and ask why?

I want someone to remind me to think and pray for that police officer and his family. Unless he truly is evil, he is likely broken and afraid. Even if he feels justified in the shooting, he has to live with the reality that he killed someone. That is never easy.

But unless we sit down, together, and converse face to face and listen to each other, that perspective won’t get added to the conversation.

I have read all the articles I can find on both sides of the position and my conclusion is that it is ugly, messy, and complex. I am not calling the police officer a murderer, but I dare not say Michael Brown deserved death either. Who am I to make that judgment on either person? But what I will do is stand in solidarity with my African American brothers and sisters who are broken and mourning. I will talk on the phone, pray with, and say, “I’m sorry you are tired.” I will give the benefit of the doubt to the community who has little reason to trust the police.

I will always mourn the brokenness of the most marginalized and poor in our community. I will lament at watching a city full of impoverished people steal and loot and the complex reasons that happened. I will stand proud of those who protested peacefully. I will grieve and pray for those who were violent.

What heals?

Some believe that uncovering the “facts” will heal the wounds. But they aren’t your wounds-so perhaps you should ask instead of tell what will heal those wounds. And dear brother or sister, you have your own wounds…and there will be a time and place to bring those things to the table too. But I assure you the “facts” will not heal them either. I know this because they are emotional wounds. They have context in each person’s own narrative and story. Healing happens as we sit, side by side, and wrestle with each and every individual story and the history that preceded that incident. And that can only happen through deep relationship.

Ferguson matters because it has brought up wounds that are deep. Wounds that have never been healed. It is a reminder that this is a topic we cannot ignore. Division does not come because you believe there is a racial divide or systemic injustice. Healing does not come by reporting “facts.” History and the scriptures tell us what heals:

Humility. Listening. Weeping with those who weep. Comforting those who mourn. Humility. Listening. Say, “explain,” “tell me your story.” Humility. Making room for different perspectives. Humility. Humility like that of our wonderful Savior:

“Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross”

Philippians 2: 4-8

 

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