Michelle Obama - Listen to those whose lives are different from our own

‘A heartbreak that never seems to stop’: Michelle Obama expresses anguish over the death of George Floyd

Michelle Obama

Since the death of George Floyd last Monday, Black Lives Matter and other banners for racial support across the virtual ecosphere have exploded.

Protests have erupted across America, stirring previously demurred cities alive into fiery cauldrons of anger, despair and anguish. Protesters have congregated in their thousands across Los Angeles, New York, London and Minneapolis in fresh demonstrations on the back of a global pandemic that continues to kill thousands of people each day.

Though I am naturally drawn to marginalised voices, and consistently seek out their views, perspectives and writing, as they are often much more cognisant of the things I am blind to, when injustice and crimes against innocent people erupt, I am especially keen to foreground their voices and respectfully withdraw my own.

As much as we’d like to think the situation in the US is catastrophic in unimaginable new ways, I want to resound the words of academic writer Roxane Gay and what she said in her latest Op Ed in the New York Times, that while “the rest of the world yearns to get back to normal, for black people, normal is the very thing from which we yearn to be free.”

This ‘chaos’ that the mainstream media has espoused is a magnified expression of the anger and fear to which, for many black people, remains a quotidian occurrence.

“Looting, Fires, Violence, Chaos in Major American Cities” flash as headlines on major broadcasting streams in the US. The history of race riots and protests in America is long and complicated, and it’s important we take a step back as citizens of a country with our own racial problems, and conscientiously interrogate the media we are consuming.

What many networks in the US don’t show are the peaceful protests, which some journalists are posting on Twitter.

Over the weekend, Michelle Obama took to social media to express her grievance over the death of George Floyd, the protests, and reiterate the importance of calling out racism. “If we ever hope to move past it, it can’t just be on people of colour to deal with it. It’s up to all of us—Black, white, everyone.”

The work is uncomfortable, Obama says. “It starts with self-examination and listening to those whose lives are different from our own.”

“Right now it’s George, Breonna and Ahmaud,” Obama wrote, referring to a black woman who was shot dead by police in her home and a black man who was killed while out jogging.

Roxane Gay also highlighted the recent deaths of black individuals by police in her Op Ed; “Breonna Taylor was killed in her Louisville, Ky., home by police officers looking for a man who did not even live in her building. She was 26 years old,” Gay wrote.

“Ahmaud Arbery was jogging in South Georgia when he was chased down by two armed white men who suspected him of robbery and claimed they were trying perform a citizen’s arrest,” she continued. “One shot and killed Mr. Arbery while a third person videotaped the encounter. No charges were filed until the video was leaked and public outrage demanded action. Mr. Arbery was 25 years old.”

Gay expressed her exhaustion over the “comfortable lies” many citizens unaffected by racism tell themselves, and of being “frustrated and angry”.

“Even during a pandemic, racism is as pernicious as ever,” she wrote. “COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting the black community, but we can hardly take the time to sit with that horror as we are reminded, every single day, that there is no context in which black lives matter.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, Nikole Hannah-Jones took to Twitter to express her views on the protests and riots, saying, “There’s a lot of consternation on here about the uprising in Minneapolis & how the only means protestors can be effective is through non-violence. I hurt for the destruction like everyone else. But the fact of history is non-violent protest has not been successful for black Americans.”

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Like so many of you, I’m pained by these recent tragedies. And I’m exhausted by a heartbreak that never seems to stop. Right now it’s George, Breonna, and Ahmaud. Before that it was Eric, Sandra, and Michael. It just goes on, and on, and on. Race and racism is a reality that so many of us grow up learning to just deal with. But if we ever hope to move past it, it can’t just be on people of color to deal with it. It’s up to all of us—Black, white, everyone—no matter how well-meaning we think we might be, to do the honest, uncomfortable work of rooting it out. It starts with self-examination and listening to those whose lives are different from our own. It ends with justice, compassion, and empathy that manifests in our lives and on our streets. I pray we all have the strength for that journey, just as I pray for the souls and the families of those who were taken from us. Artwork: @nikkolas_smith

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George Floyd died last Monday after police officer Derek Chauvin immobilised the 46-year old on the ground with his knee on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes as he cried out, “I can’t breathe.”

Over the weekend, high profile celebrities including Ariana Grande, Lizzo, Nina Dobrev and Anna Kendrick posted images of themselves at riots and protests. On Twitter, CNN Anchor Don Lemon called out Ellen and Oprah to use their “visibility to help speak out for these young kids, and these people. I want to see you Tyler Perry. I want to see you Drake. I want to see you out there, doing things and fighting for these kids.” 

It’s an ordinary task we have to support and raise the voices of those whose lives and voices are consistently marginated, but it’s also important to understand that retweeting a celebrities’ post of an aesthetically immaculate quote from Martin Luther King, or rows of hashtags of BLACKLIVESMATTER only goes so far.

As writer Alexander Chee recently wrote, “Read your history, as much as you can,” because virtual signalling on social media does not make you a supporter. It does not show that you genuinely care. Reading about our country’s history, listening to the voices of those whose lives have been defined by such injustices; this is what real support looks like.

Jan Fran worded it spectacularly on her Instagram post.

“Pick up a f**** book mate and make it one by an Indigenous author. If you care about racism against black people in America, maybe check out what’s happening in your own backyard.”

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Big LOL at folks sharing Martin Luther King quotes when they haven’t read a goddam book in their lives, don’t know shit about the US civil rights movement and didn’t even bother to find out because they don’t actually give a shit. I really hate the way we allow ourselves to flatten history, to make it glossy and palatable, the way we re-remember, the way we claim ownership over victories that aren’t – and never were – ours to claim. And I particularly hate that we pat ourselves on the back for it. Hooray, you’re not a racist, you shared a Martin Luther King quote. Huzzah, you evoked the memory of a man whose work you only know from a quote someone posted on Facebook once that made you feel good about your choices. Pick up a fucken book mate and make it one by an Indigenous author. If you care about racism against black people in America, maybe check out what’s happening in your own backyard. Maybe read up on the numbers of Indigenous people who are incarcerated and killed at the hand of police. Read the writings of women and men who’ve been talking about race in the colony and who we’ve ignored for decades – nay – centuries!!! And then tell your friends and your family to read them too. And if you’re going to share an MLK quote then at least read the rest of the writing around it. Via @berniceaking on Twitter.

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