It seems to me that the outpouring of emotion on the death of Robin Williams was not only for a beloved celebrity, although goodness knows he was that and more. His struggle with mental illness and addiction became an opportunity for the rest of us to talk about our struggles—with our own illness, or the illness of those we love, with our thoughts of suicide or our experiences of the aftermath when someone we love has taken their life. It all hits so close to home, and there are so few opportunities to talk about the pain that so often remains hidden.
Which makes me think about how we respond to the horrors going on in Ferguson, MO. Now, I certainly live nowhere near Missouri—I’m culturally and geographically thousands of miles away, in the liberal, integrated, diverse San Francisco Bay. A handful of BART stops away from where Oscar Grant was killed not so long ago. So close to home.
Now, you may think that “those people” are asking for police in riot gear—they’re rioting, aren’t they? But if the phrase “those people” has floated through your brain, then it is time to sit down and think. Because it is entirely possible that you have never personally experienced the police as a threat to your safety, rather than the essence of those who create safety. It’s possible that you have never been followed in a store or pulled over while driving because of the color of your skin. It’s possible that you have never considered your skin color to be a factor in getting a job or hailing a cab or renting a house. And if, like me, you have lived in the world of that privileged possibility, then the rage of “those people” in Ferguson, MO might seem very distant.
One of the common threads that I have noticed in the discussions of depression in the wake of Robin Williams’s suicide has been people who are or have been clinically depressed explaining that if you haven’t been there, you don’t know. You don’t know what it is like to have the disordered thoughts, the black hole sucking you down. And so you might be tempted to cheer the depressed person up, or blame them for giving in when they have so much to live for. Because you haven’t been there, and you don’t know.
And if, like me, you live within the comfortable bounds of white privilege, you might be tempted to think that the folks in Ferguson, or the growing number of people who are supporting their protest, should move on, should behave better, should treat the police as the friends and community supporters that you know them to be. Because you haven’t been there, and you don’t know.
But, as with mental illness, the fact that you might not suffer from it personally doesn’t mean that it dwells only in some distant land. Of course, it is possible that you have no family members of color, no friends, no co-workers—although I would find it hard to imagine. Certainly, in any case, you belong to this human family that we are all called to love and care for.
If it doesn’t feel close to home—the assumption that Black men are armed and dangerous, the notion that Black people need to be controlled and subdued, the premise that police in riot gear are here to “keep the peace”—if the reality of racism feels like someone else’s problem, or even a “race card” that people of color use to cover up their own inadequacies, well then it might be time to sit down for a moment. It might be time to remember that what you personally have experienced is not all that there is. It might be time to listen. It might be time to remember that in a world that we all build together, every struggle for justice is close to home.