When the Dam Breaks (A Love Letter to Black and Brown Lives)

When the Dam Breaks (A Love Letter to Black and Brown Lives)

A year and a half ago I wrote the words below. As I laid awake in the middle of last night and now again tonight, gobsmacked by the carnage of racism, these words and the pain that birthed them feel as raw and relevant now as they did to me that day.

They remind me, and maybe — hopefully — other white people, that our silence really is violence. That violence begets more of the same. That while acknowledging injustice may be meaningful as a step or otherwise, as in all aspects of life, our truest love must be a verb.

It is too late for actions that could have prevented the gut-wrenching deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and four officers slain in Dallas tonight. I tossed and turned for hours in my grief for these families, and tried desperately to wrap my head around the unfathomable luxury that is never once having worried that I would lose my life at the hands of police.

Equipped with what I now understand about the world, it’s not hard when reflecting back on my 34 years to identify a whole barrel of memories wherein a privilege, tool or distinction afforded to me at birth made a difference to where I am today. The countless memories wherein some factor of whiteness that I did not earn played a role in whether I’m not only thriving, but in some cases breathing, today.

When I was 16, I got pulled over for reckless driving, without a license. I was hysterical; hardly consolable in my mistakes and my fear. I was taken, gently, to the precinct, where a very nice group of officers comforted me until my parents arrived. They listened to me and they gave me chocolate chip cookies and lemonade. Literally. One of them asked if I was playing the part of the angel when I talked about my school play.

I remember how they actually pleaded with my parents to go easy on me when they arrived. I remember equally vividly the first time I shared this memory with strangers, in a white privilege workshop in law school, to a room of predominantly black students. It followed a barrage of Driving While Black stories not surprising yet so jaw-droppingly offensive and so utterly unrecognizable from my life.

By the time I said the word “cookies,” the shame, guilt and embarrassment that seemed to be seeping from my pores and in my stomach was so hot that I thought it might melt me from the inside out.

In some ways that seems like an asinine example, low stakes in the scheme of this incomprehensible mess of killing we’re in. But to me it’s so real to help understand why so many well-meaning allies don’t do a fraction as much as they could — when it counts the most — to turn their love into a verb.

Because the very litmus test for when it counts the most is precisely when it’s hard. When it involves looking inward. It’s what stepping out of whiteness in order to create even a semblance of understanding that there’s an alternate reality takes. It’s the difference between coasting along, intellectualizing or even rebuking racism, versus being willing to recon with your part in it; to truly grapple with what it means.

What it means is a heinous, excruciating, utter pile of shit that when you get close enough to it will put a level of heat in your stomach so real you could throw up right then and there. That makes you question what you thought you knew around you. Then I multiply that by 1000 and maybe I'm getting closer to the experience of racism wherein I legitimately think I or my child could die every time that he leaves the house.

This is a helpful example for me because I remember so precisely what my feelings of guilt, discomfort, and disconnect did. How they enticed me into wishing I hadn’t shown up; hadn’t opened my mouth. How they invited me to a dangerous place of rationalizing that surely there were about a hundred other ways to contribute to the fight against racism and dismantling structural inequality than describing how easy it had been to be white.

How the path of least resistance was to internally point to the number of these other ways which I was showing up for already (i.e., my career choice, or speaking what felt like far more effectively to the inequities and traumas I have faced as a woman), all of which work me to my core.

But at the end of the day they were and still are a completely different kind of hard. A way to put off the heavy lifting of what undoing racial violence takes.

As we mourn the unspeakably graphic deaths of two more black lives; as we continue to see in plain sight the devastation of their children and the destruction of their bodies, I send my love to each and every person who is aching.

As we mourn the horrific loss of four public servants; as we bear witness to a cycle of violence and fracture that will continue to worsen in the absence of our hardest work, I promise to never be silent or complacent. When it comes to the work of healing the gaping wounds of race in this country, I double down on my love as a verb.

To my black and brown brothers and sisters, I am with you always, I will show up when it’s uncomfortable, and inexplicably sorry for what you have endured. To my dear friend Ayoola: You are my forever comrade in this struggle; a part of my heart; my real talk express. Thank you Soul Sister for always pushing me, and for urging me to dust off these words.

Photo credit: Photographer Geoff King


I didn’t plan or anticipate coming face to face with riot-geared police officers last night. But here I am. Scared and balling until I could barely breathe.

At some point yesterday, between the news of the grand jury’s decision, viewing the video of Eric Garner’s police encounter and final moments of life once again, and locking eyes with my dear, brave and committed friend Edwin standing in a giant circle shutting down Market Street last night, the dam broke.

It was not the first time, and considering how deeply fractured this country, it will not be the last. My criminal justice policy reform work and research, particularly on underserved victims and communities impacted by violence, has brought me up close and personal with more stories of injustice, indignity, and pain than I could ever recount.

Nearly every single one under the radar, buried, not on camera or sending shockwaves outward, far and wide. Just sending them devastatingly inward. Into disenfranchised hearts, families, communities. Eroding the hope, faith, and trust in the very systems and principles this country so boastfully purports to be about.

Mirroring much of what I’ve seen on #alivewhileblack: moms, dads, brothers, sisters, best friends, YOUNG PEOPLE recounting what it’s like to feel that in the perceptions of their fellow citizens — or worse yet, those sworn and tasked to protect you — that you are not deserving of respect, compassion, or protection. You are incapable of being a victim. You are a perpetual “offender.” You are on your own. You are less than. You are other. You don’t matter. Your needs, your suffering, your humanity — are invisible.

Absorbing these realities… the depth of their roots… the breadth of their exacerbations… especially when I overlay them with a lifetime of experiences mirroring #crimingwhilewhite, has at times been more than I can take.

I’d buckle under their suffocating weight of the parallel existence of these two different worlds without the dam-breaks. But I believe also that the relevance of this to my life does not derive from its relationship to my work, my whiteness, the people I love, or even my principles, as much as it derives simply from my status as a human being living in this society. As someone whose own humanity is for better or worse yoked to all of this; whose humanity is tied up in everyone else’s.

I believe that my, and my baby nephews, and my own kids should I be lucky enough to have them someday, and every single person I see when I walk down the streets’ futures are at stake. That this can and will hurt worse if we let it. That when the dam breaks, every single last ounce of apathy or excuse for why I’m not doing more, i.e., inaction, is gone.

I have seen in posts frustration regarding how the conversation picks up around these events then burns off like the fog. The forecast that people will forget. That it will “go away.” Whether we headline about it or not, it never goes away without action. It goes deeper. Grows real and new implications for our systems buckling, our communities unresting. It marches more dangerously toward hopelessness and irrevocability, even with headlines unaccompanied by action, everyday.

As my friend Jack said, “if you feel like a spectator, step off the sidewalk and get in the street.” Civic participation is indeed a muscle. One with the ability as I was reminded last night to pump blood into tired, broken hearts.

The next thing I knew the circle I joined into on Market Street was disjoining, as people called out names of so many black and brown lives lost. Travon Martins. Eric Garners. Michael Browns. Tamir Rices. Oscar Grants. Ones that have become household names and many you’ve never heard.

Then everyone started laying down. Already spouting uncontrollable tears, I hesitated. I wondered if I had what it took to lay in a cold, wet, dirty street. If I wanted to. If it mattered.

I felt a strong urge to get on my bike and flea. To sob in private. But my apprehension was met by the kind reassurance of a man next to me, homeless, older, of color, who said gently and entirely earnestly, “It’s OK. You’ll be OK. I lay in this street all the time.”

In that moment of shared humanity, of a thousand pounds of we’re more alike than different, I knew it most definitely did matter and I dropped. As I laid in the middle of a main thoroughfare in a city I love in a country I am struggling to but so desperately want to believe in, I was comforted by the words of Adrienne Rich and my dear friend Colleen who so recently sent them to me from NY, “there must be those among whom we can sit down and weep, and still be counted as warriors.”

This country, desperate for truth and reconciliation, wrestling with inhumanity and savagery that go centuries deeper than any recent wave of particular injustices, is weeping. This country, where more and more are waking up to the reality that race and wealth — not culpability — are more likely to shape outcomes, is weeping. But so strangely last night tears felt like oxygen. Because weeping is so much better than ignoring, or pretending it’s not our problem, or from a bubble a privilege, tagging out of the truth that this indeed our collective weight to bear.

Because as a human being therefore fully reliant on dignity and empathy from others as we all have been since birth, it is. The stopped traffic, the #enoughs, the flexing muscles of civic participation, the strengthening through excruciating conversations about our profoundly broken systems; they all feel like steps in the right direction to a future better than the one we’re headed toward.

I’m so grateful to the astounding group of brave and compassionate souls from all walks of life last night willing to lay down their bodies and double down on their #enoughs. To double down on each other. Willing to look a far outnumbering army of police (also human beings I know didn’t arrive on this earth hoping to harm others or be militarized), masks down, in the face while chanting peacefully, singing beautifully.

I’m so grateful to every one of the human beings there willing to take an action (and if they were, anything like me, terrified), hoping mightily that somebody anybody could hear and feel their pleas for something better than we’ve got.

Speak up. Get out there. Especially if you have found any give-a-shits within you, do even more tomorrow than you are doing today. Say out loud that there is a different reality for black and brown people in this country, and exercise the many options you have to fight that until it isn’t so.

Because as stated best by my hero Bryan Stevenson, “I believe that, despite the fact that it is so dramatic and so beautiful and inspiring and stimulating, we will ultimately not be judged by our technology. We won’t be judged by our design. We won’t be judged by our intellect and reason. Ultimately, you judge the character of a society not by how they treat their rich and the powerful and the privileged, but by how they treat the poor, the condemned, the incarcerated. Because it’s in that nexus that we actually begin to understand truly profound things about who we are.”