Listening While White: Sorrow and Rage Over Ferguson



My family sat around the dinner table Monday night, waiting and listening for the grand jury decision on whether Officer Darren Wilson would be indicted in the shooting death, the murder, of Michael Brown. We listened as Prosecutor Robert McCulloch began his statement, and we listened as he went on and on, outlining the supposed impartial process that led the jury of nine White people and three Black people to conclude that no criminal charges would be brought against Officer Wilson.

As I sat there listening to McCulloch’s statement with his careful, so-called rational, and seemingly thorough detailing of the grand jury’s process, I found myself pulled into a part of my brain, a part of my system, a part that I’d like to deny still exists but that nonetheless kicked into action in response to the measured analysis on the radio – it was the part of me that was Listening While White. And of that crime I was nearly guilty.

As a White woman, raised in a White neighborhood with mostly White schools, educated in White institutions of higher learning, with essentially a White degree, I found that it was all too easy for me to be lulled into complacence and almost-but-not-really acceptance of McCulloch’s words. It was a language I know, one that was instilled in my childhood, in my schools, and the culture that made me. It was the language of whiteness, and even after many years of conscious work to undo that programming, I found myself nearly drawn into that space and discourse that, as much as I’d like to deny it, remains a part of me.

What do I mean by the language of whiteness? Here are words from just the first ten minutes of McCulloch’s statement: unprecedented cooperation between local and federal authorities, follow the facts, all available evidence to make an informed decision, all evidence shared, evidence presented in an organized and orderly manner, grand jury worked tirelessly, 25 separate days, 70 hours, 60 witnesses, hours and hours of recordings, experts on blood, DNA, toxicology, firearms, drug analysis, examined hundreds of photographs, instructed on the law, exhaustive review, full, impartial, and critical examination of all the evidence in the law… the accurate and tragic story of what happened.

This language of supposed impartiality, neutrality and apparent reason was deftly juxtaposed with the language of random gunfire, unfounded concern, non-stop rumors, witnesses making inconsistent statements, underlying tension, speculation, and fiction.

Luckily, before my White brain could slip any further into its default, preprogrammed mode, my 73-year old (White) mother slammed the table and exclaimed with disgust: “Talk about a whitewash!” And with that I woke up from my brief whiteness induced coma.

In this moment, in the juxtaposition of images and language, rational vs. inconsistent, accuracy vs. fiction, I could see the legacy of institutional racism laid bare, of Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, of the historical and persistent criminalization of young Black boys and men, of injustice. I could see the role that our schools, our legal system, our institutions which have been built on a legacy of oppression and subjugation, play in perpetuating this legacy, and how language operates to make it all run smoothly (exhaustively, fully, tirelessly). And, I could see my role in this history, the part I play by simply turning off critical analysis and slipping unquestioningly into my conditioning.

I have both sorrow and rage about the Ferguson decision, but moving forward from tonight I also am looking more deeply within myself, at my unexamined assumptions, default modes, and the language that undergirds the structures in our society that killed Michael Brown, yet use carefully measured words to justify no probable cause for indictment.