Hannah Campbell || April/May 2021
I am the friend who lost her husband to brain cancer two years ago, who is now a single mother living far from family support during a pandemic. I know what grief is. I know what it feels like to watch my one true partner, a beautiful, kind, and loving man, die a painful death while his family and small children grieve his slow passing. I know the specifics of a pain that you have done nothing to deserve and have no ability to stop. That changes a person.
I am also a White woman who just read one of my dearest, most beloved, and best friends writing on the layered grief of being a Black, single mother amid White America’s rising consciousness about the nature of grief, morality, and injustice. She has always been an eloquent, outspoken, strong woman; it did not surprise me to see how she adeptly switched between her personal experiences and her view of White Americans’ fickle engagement with anti-Blackness. White Americans are experiencing inconvenience, loss, and grief en masse that is not, by and large, the result of personal bad decisions. As she eloquently writes, “The pandemic squeezed empathy from a stone by thrusting White people into the uncharted territory of unmerited adversity.”
This empathy is a fickle friend, though. We are in a moment in which many White Americans have seen with their own eyes actions taken against Black people that we would not accept for a dog, actions that many thought were from a bygone era. Breai is calling out to us, to me, to think beyond the knee-jerk compassion and fist-clenching sparked by heinous acts caught on film. She sees and has seen, knows and has known, that White Americans have to actively choose to believe that her grief and suffering are worth our time and inconvenience. They — we — have to choose to see her value in our politics, lifestyles, and daily decisions, and we have to do it over and over again, because we have a choice. Others don’t have that luxury. They live every day with the lack of respect, trust, and opportunities that are the legacy of chattel slavery and systemic racism.
I have had over two decades of conversations with Breai, both lighthearted and heavy, and have spent most of my adult life working on environmental and social justice issues. Yet I do not have anywhere near a full understanding of her suffering and vulnerabilities; I am starting from an empathy deficit. If having a close relationship with someone for 30 years and knowing them from childhood into adulthood does not give one the capacity to see and understand their struggles in a holistic way, how much harder to understand the experiences of strangers? But that is my work to do.
Storytellers show us who we are.
They show up for us. Let’s show up for them.
How do I respond to Breai’s call to stand up in the face of discomfort, to “come outside”? I already see her as my equal; more than that. I know the depth of her intellect, creative artistry, passion, and biting wit, her capacity for side-splitting silliness. But I do not know the full extent of the weight she must carry to set one foot in front of the other. I don’t believe I have been fully able to acknowledge or understand the obstacles that I may be complicit in creating that hinder her path — it is challenging to make moral life choices as a White American. I may not have created the system that unjustly gives me privilege, but I live in it and I can choose how much of it I accept and participate in. This is not a life or death choice for me, but it may be for her.
Breai recently told me about a walkout she led in high school to protest the racial makeup of advanced classes — 20% Black in a school that was 85% Black. (The school did place her in the higher classes, but just her.) I don’t remember any of it. I didn’t have to carry any of that weight, and didn’t see the injustice that was right in front of my face. Teenage Breai should have been dancing or working on classwork or anything else she enjoyed, not trying to change an unfair system. At a minimum, she should have had every student, regardless of race, as a co-conspirator in that fight.
I can make better choices. I do not want to be the White, liberal friend that is the worst enemy of the civil rights movement. I do not want to be filled with platitudes, empty-hand wringing, and calls for patience and calm. I don’t want to be an ally; I want to be the co-conspirator that Bettina Love spoke of at the Public Library Association 2020 Conference: “Put something on the line for somebody. Take a risk to see how to use your Whiteness… Whiteness is like a bank. Your ATM card just replenishes itself. So spend it!… Cash out! It’s going to come right back.”
It’s scary to go out on a limb when you feel vulnerable. I am one woman, in my own swirl of grief, raising two small children, with my own deficits… or am I?
This is the thing, we all have our issues, White, Black, Brown, women, men, non-binary, chronically ill or physically healthy, the list goes on. When the weight of our lives is too heavy, most of us have, hopefully, family and community that help to lift it and advocate for us. If you have had that help, you know that it can be the difference between homelessness and shelter, good medical care and poor treatment, a job and unemployment. We also know that not everyone has that help, and we know when we have excess capacity. People with more resources and well-connected networks generally have some. Black communities need us to use some of that excess capacity to play an active role in changing the system that has used them as resources without regard to their humanity since its inception. They need us to take risks and cash out.
White Americans need to be there not just when a tragedy occurs; we need to actively engage and educate those who would trample the lives of others. That requires taking the time to get to know people, to learn our history, and to listen. That requires being uncomfortable, a lot. It requires showing up when there is great music and fantastic food and laughter. It requires showing up when there is risk and pain and loss and injustice. It requires showing up and listening and doing our very best to reduce that empathy deficit over and over again. I have so many friends and family members who supported me emotionally and financially after the loss of my husband. I could be in an entirely different place without them. I might be homeless. I might have lost custody of my children. I might have turned to drugs to dull my pain. I can’t know, because I have never had to be in that place.
There is no way around grief. You must walk through it. We cannot ignore past and present injustices and expect to heal. Healing requires looking grief in the eyes over and over and over. This is our country, our community, and we are missing the joy and strength of so many people who are being asked to support more than they can bear. We cannot hide from this and we cannot give up. People are carrying the weight of centuries of injustice. We cannot just open a door and expect them to come in. We have to go outside and carry some of the burden.
Hannah Campbell is a California-based environmental policy expert who can’t wait until she can visit Breai again and share some Peruvian food, side-splitting laughter, and a hike in a beautiful Maryland forest.