My family stood at the edge of Bloomington’s Black Lives Matter rally. We’ve purchased sound-dampening earmuffs for both kids, our two-year-old and our two-week-old, but in the minutes before we drove to the courthouse, our two-year-old was experimenting with flexibility. She bent our infant earmuffs backward. The plastic headband snapped. It was a short experiment.
As with many friends’ experiments during graduate school, this one ended in tears.
“It’s okay,” we told her. “It’s just a thing. Things break. You didn’t know. But no one was hurt. We feel sad, and you shouldn’t do it again, but we can fix this. We can get new ones.”
Not right away, though. Which was why we stood at the very edge of the protest, so that the PA system wouldn’t hurt our infant’s ears. Hearing is a fragile thing.
My wife wore our conked-out baby in a rainbow-patterned ring sling, one hand covering his exposed ear. Our toddler was strapped to my chest while I swayed from side to side, hoping she’d stay calm. She did a great job all evening — much better than, say, the gaggle of kids whose parents were letting them play cops and robbers, dashing around, shouting, and holding out sticks as guns.
We were listening to a speaker during the open mic when a young woman, maybe high school or college aged, walked over to talk to me.
“I don’t mean to offend you or anything,” she said, “but I wish you would think about what it means for a white person to come to a Black Lives Matter event with his hair in dreadlocks. Because it’s a rude form of cultural appropriation.”
I gave her a wan smile and said, “Okay.” At which point she walked away.
It’s true that many cultures across the world encourage renunciants to wear their hair in matted locks — Shiva’s avatars have dreadlocks, as do his human worshipers, as did some Israelites and early Christians, with Samson being the most famous of these.
It wouldn’t have helped to say this — that event was not the place for a discussion of the cultural significance of hair.
It’s also true that I devote a significant portion of my time to our broken criminal justice system — sending books to inmates, teaching classes at the local jail, and managing a correspondence writing program for prisoners — and my primary motivation for undertaking this work was a sense of disgust at our nation’s rampant racial injustice. I try to address these issues in my own writing as well.
It wouldn’t have helped to say this — like all people, I could do more. And no matter how much work I do to improve the lot of others, I know that I’ll be safe driving home.
It’s also true that the human tendency toward tribalism — which improved the chances that a bearer’s genes would flourish throughout humanity’s long evolutionary history — is a failing that the Black Lives Matter movement is pushing back against. The wants and needs of our genes are not in our best interest. Men should care for their families, women should be safe from sexual assault, children should be loved from the beginning of their lives. But these strictures jar against our instinctual urges.
We should treat all people fairly, not just those whose appearance reminds us of ourselves. In contemporary society, superficial resemblance doesn’t even correlate with genetic similarity. For most of our evolutionary history, we had no airplanes. But good luck getting your DNA to understand that.
Thousands of years of evolution shaped us into creatures who are reflexively kinder to people who look like us. We are also reflexively kinder to those whose faces are more symmetrical. But this is biology, not morality. We have minds; they give us a choice. We can — and must — push back.
It wouldn’t have helped to say this — even at the edge of the event, it was loud enough that my monologue about evolutionary biology would have come across muddled and incomprehensible.
It’s also true that I hardly wanted to be there, at the rally. I’m nervous around crowds. It’s difficult to get a toddler and a two-week-old out of the house. But our going meant four more people in the square. The high schoolers who organized the event — and all the people who have died — deserved to have as big a crowd as possible. In a town where dreadlocked white people live, we needed dreadlocked white people to be there. We needed everyone who could to be there.
It wouldn’t have helped to say this — it’s not right to castigate someone who’s in pain.
Despite my empathy, her pain is something I cannot fully understand. When I see black lives undervalued — another senseless murder in the news — I hurt because it could be my friends. For her, the young woman who spoke to me, it’s worse. It could be family. She could be next.
I am sorry she felt hurt. I hope she knows I value her.