White Skin

[I’ve wondered if i should write anything at all. Do i actually have anything to say that hasn’t already been said? I doubt it. But i am somehow compelled to write anyway. Should i post this half-baked, stream-of-consciousness, working-it-out-as-i-go thing? I don’t know. But i apparently am anyway.]

White skin. One of the greatest privileges on earth. I have it, and it follows me everywhere. I cannot imagine what my life would be like without it. Or, rather, i can only imagine – and what i imagine isn’t pretty. Substandard housing. Underfunded and underperforming schools. Poor health. Bad healthcare. Terror of law enforcement. Friends, family, loved ones arrested, charged, convicted, jailed, and possibly executed. Seeing the police so frequently in my community that they are as much a part of the landscape as trees and grass. An early death from poor health or murder.

Not that i think that being a person of color in a white supremacist system is all about horrifying victimhood; far from it. But in the context at hand, that oppression, that marginalization, that life-endingness are what is most on my mind.

I carry this unearned race and class privilege with me wherever i go. I was raised in an upper-middle class white household in white neighborhoods surrounded by white teachers, white administrators, and white classmates. We read about white people in textbooks. I turned on the TV or watched movies and saw whites as heroes and presented as attractive. Characters in the books that i read could always be assumed to be white unless expressly described otherwise. The plays i was in were dominated by white actors playing white characters to white audiences. I went into stores managed by white people who never looked askance at me while i was browsing their aisles.

I have never feared the police while driving – heck, i’ve never even been stopped for “driving while short.” The one time i did get a traffic ticket, about a year ago, it never needed to occur to me that my interaction with the police officer would be anything other than civil. Today, i walked into a 99% African American elementary school for a work site visit, said who i was there to see, and was immediately sent unaccompanied and with no further questions to the gym to find the group that i was looking for – a courtesy a person of color, especially a man, would have been extremely unlikely to have received.

I cannot imagine what it would be like to experience the world as a person of color. Especially after the most recent miscarriages of justice in the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Truly. I can’t imagine how i would be feeling.

I know how i do feel, as a white person who tries to be justice-oriented. Angry. Furious. Ashamed. Shocked but not shocked. Horrified but not shocked. Irate but not shocked. The continued miscarriages of justice are no surprise: they have happened over and over again in US history – and recently, not just “back in the day.”

When, i wonder, will this end? When will Black lives really matter? I hope against hope that this is a moment that will be seized to make change – real change – come about. Because let’s be clear: this is about way, way more than Michael Brown or Eric Garner. May this be a defining moment in US history. May we use the anger spurred by these two most recent decisions to do something.

I look back at the Montgomery Bus Boycott – 381 days of folks refusing to take the bus to work. In a day and in a group where cars were not nearly as common as they are today. 381 days of walking mile upon mile to & from work, where you might have cleaned house for your white employers. 381 days of inconvenient and long carpools and shared gas purchases with funds that you really couldn’t spare. 381 days of heat and rain and humidity through the miles. 381 days of shoes worn down, worn out, worn through with no money to buy another pair.

Am i willing to do something like that today, whatever the 2014 equivalent in that moment would be? How much inconvenience am i willing to put up with for a principle? For a cause? Because let’s also be clear about this point: my life does not rest on this much-needed, long-overdue, much hoped-for movement. I have the choice to walk away. I can choose solidarity – and i can choose not to stand in solidarity. What am i willing to give up? What am i willing to contribute to ending white supremacy?

These are the questions that have been rolling around in my head over the last week. I don’t know the answers. I only hope that the right moment has finally arrived for some serious change to be demanded. And for those changes to be realized. And i hope that i will be on the right side, the side of action and agitation and solidarity and sacrifice, as this movement for racial and ethnic justice takes another giant step forward. We have let the system go on too, too long as it is. Posting on Facebook is not enough; reading books is not enough. The time has come – has long since come. Change is long overdue.

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

Statement in support of allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in Hyattsville elections

December 1, 2014

[In absentia, in front of the City Council Meeting; City Building, 4310 Gallatin Street]

Good evening. First, i would like to thank Edouard Haba for reading this statement since I am stuck home with the flu.

My name is Shannon Wyss. I’m a homeowner in Ward 4 and would like to speak strongly in favor of extending the vote to sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds in Hyattsville. As a forty-two-year-old who would have dearly loved to vote at that age, I’m excited by the possibility of extending the franchise to younger residents.

Youth have opinions and views on the world that we adults rarely take seriously. Allowing them to vote would be a way of remedying one of the instances of adultism that permeates our world. And as others have said, getting individuals involved at younger ages will help establish a lifetime of civic engagement, from which we will all benefit for generations.

For those who are concerned that teenagers are “too immature”to vote, I would like to posit that we adults don’t exactly have a great track record. In deciding whom to support at the polls, some adults make decisions based upon any number of ill-informed factors:

  • how many yard signs we see,
  • whether we believe those horrible ads on TV and the radio,
  • because our parents always voted for a particular party,
  • because our religious leaders told us to support a certain person or issue, or
  • who has the easiest-to-pronounce name.

Surely teenagers cannot do any worse than that! And, indeed, with the idealism that so often accompanies youth, sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds may make more informed and more passionate choices than many of their elders.

Until we adults clean up our act, we have no room to criticize young people for the ill-informed votes that they may make at some hypothetical point in the future. And if that ends up happening, there is one easy way for adults to counteract such votes: make sure that you vote yourself!

Our democracy will only benefit from having the franchise extended by two years. I look forward to the City Council passing this important measure and to seeing an increase in voter turnout and voter engagement in upcoming city elections. I welcome the voices of sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds at the polls.

Thank you for your time and attention to this important issue.