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Thinking and Writing About Ferguson as a White Academic

Thomas Whitley

Hands Up, Don't Shoot - HowardAs many have I have been following the news out of Ferguson, Missouri closely. I was and remain deeply saddened by the death of Michael Brown. I was shocked at the utterly inept and Constitution-defying response of the police toward citizens, protestors, and journalists. I also recognize the privilege I have as a white male to simply “follow” the news, the privilege I have as a white male of never having had a negative encounter with police, the privilege I have as a white male to not have to wonder how I would be portrayed by the media #IfTheyGunnedMeDown.

I can follow as closely as possible what residents of Ferguson and St. Louis are saying. I can hear their cries for justice. I can support their protests. I can be dismayed at how cops and some white citizens of St. Louis have talked about the protestors as “animals” and “beasts,” trying to strip them of their humanity. I can share the racial profiling statistics of the Ferguson police. I can talk about the alarming racial disparity in our country’s prison population. I can talk about white flight. I can struggle with the racism that lives inside me.

I can and have done all of this, and continue to. But I’ll never really know what it’s like to be embodied in a black or brown body. I can’t give up my privilege and pass it on to someone else. We have talked a lot about Ferguson in my home over the past week and a half. I have talked about it on Twitter and Facebook. But I’ve been less outspoken than I would like because there are simply so many other people who are smarter than me, more informed than me, and wiser than me doing the talking. I occasionally retweet them, but I also just sit back and try to learn from them. This is the privilege I have.

But I have noticed a trend of “calling out” people for not saying enough. I have seen this happen by numerous people and not just of politicians, but people in education calling out white educators for not speaking out, some calling out certain leaders in black communities and black music artists  and, more close to home, people who study religion calling out others of us who do the same to speak out. I recognize the importance of a multitude of voices on this and how important it is to incorporate things like this into our thinking, our scholarship, and our teaching. Brooke Lester has already written about how he’s trying to do just this. But I am troubled by the apparent need to defend myself - “Look, here are my bona fides as a fighter of racial injustice. I’ve been tweeting about it” - and the utter smallness of that defense. But I cannot help but also think about the normative nature that this “calling out” has taken on and the process of classification that goes on when some think that some others have not done X, Y, or Z enough. It is interesting to watch. But again, all I have to do is watch - and I don’t even have to do that.

Brooke Lester’s question was how non-Black biblical scholars write about Ferguson. This is my first attempt at writing about Ferguson not on Facebook or Twitter and I have a distinct feeling that it’s woefully deficient. I too am curious how other non-Black scholars of religion are writing about Ferguson, though I’ve seen a lot more than the question would suggest. But I am also curious about peoples’ ideas about why and how we should be writing about Ferguson. On Twitter Brooke Lester said, “Don’t Get It Right, Get it Written.” That may be the best advice.