Beyond a Momentary Movement

Photo by Joel Shaffer

This is the moment we hoped wasn’t coming. This is the moment we knew was coming. This is the moment that never really left.

For months I’ve been present on panel after webinar after phone call after socially distanced hangout with people optimistically asking if this time it was different. Breonna is trending and on the cover of a magazine. George Floyd’s face and name are etched into the thoughts and prayers of everyone you know.

Your favorite company and your least favorite company have both released statements saying they care for their Black employees, they care for the Black community, are hiring a new diversity Black, and that they care about Black Lives. Shit, we even have a Blasian woman reppin a Divine Nine sorority trailblazing a path to the White House.

Many people wanted to believe this time was different. Many people wanted to believe we reached a tipping point. I have had countless Black colleagues exclaim that FINALLY, white people had seen what it is to be Black in this country.

Did they? Did it matter?

I’m not sure white people really saw it. I know many saw a video. But they didn’t see the pain, sorrow, and the agony we had before, during and after the video — even Black people like me who refused to watch. I don’t need to see a video to believe that pain. I certainly don’t need a video to feel it. My pain lasts longer than the 8 minutes and 46 seconds it took to extinguish George Floyd’s last breath. My pain has more endurance than it requires to run 2.23 miles in support of Ahmaud Arbery. My pain spans longer than the 162 days since Breonna Taylor’s killers murdered her as she slept.

Photo by Joel Shaffer

My pain is less fleeting than the mention of Tony McDade’s murder by mainstream media. My pain is deeper than the thought process that results in one believing that shooting a man 7 times in the back could ever be justified. My ancestors built this country with that pain. My mom navigated a segregated childhood in South Carolina with that pain. Blocks from Malcolm X’s birth site, my dad navigated drugs, guns, and violence protecting his family in the projects with that pain.

Did white people see that? Or did they just see “everything going on” and hope to get back to a world where we did not have to think or talk about race as much. Really, a world where they didn’t have to think or talk about race as much. Really a world where they didn’t have to think or talk about Black people so much — or our pain. I’m not sure white people saw it or fully wanted to because “how are you doing…you know…with everything going on?” is just a rhetorical question that they politely ask at the beginning of a Zoom call or text exchange. Often, it’s something uttered before the request they have for a Black person to put it all aside and focus on the work that they need and expect from you. I get that. Remember, it’s etched into my very being. My ancestors put in that work. We built this. We have learned how to get on with it.

So, let’s get on with it. Let’s tell the truth. I am not sure that seeing a video, any video, matters to non-Black folks. In fact, I’m sure my life doesn’t matter more to them than before they watched. I am honestly too exhausted to tell you why or how I know. Plus, I don’t have the energy to dig up the data from some academic journal to prove it, just my lived experience. We already know who won’t believe it: those who never believe what Black people tell them because they themselves don’t experience it.

I am exhausted because being Black is hard. No. I’m exhausted because white people make being Black hard because of their own insecurities and fears. Not just at my job, not just in my relationships, not just in this country, and certainly not just as a concept in my mind. Literally everywhere. I can’t escape the fact that while the color of my skin makes me breathlessly beautiful, it also makes others want to take my last breath. It makes others afraid, makes me a target, makes having just one bad day or making one bad decision impossible, and makes it impossible to ever believe that simply reforming something built to destroy me will save me.

So, did the George Floyd video matter? It mattered to me. His life matters to me. But I didn’t need a video for that. And the people who did; did it matter to them? By now we all know what happened to Jacob Blake a few days ago. By now we all know what Kyle Rittenhouse did a few days later. By now we know how Black athletes — men and women — went on strike and spoke out when too few of our colleagues, neighbors, and leaders uttered a word.

Photo by Joel Shaffer

But now what?

In the past few months when people asked how I was feeling or if I had hope or what was different as a pandemic and a genocide of Black people ravaged our country, I said the same thing repeatedly: everything and nothing.

Everything is different. Forced inside by COVID-19, protected by their privilege and skin color and with nothing to do but consume current events, non-Black people have seen us hunted. They cared. They were in the streets. They were reading books. They were checking on the Black people they knew. They were making donations. They were posting black boxes. They were posting statements. They were kneeling. They were crying. They were angry. They were with us.

Yet my chest was tight. It was heavy. I never could release the tension I was feeling.

I knew that I was supposed to have this feeling of hope that as BIPOC people, united with our white accomplices, we could envision a different reality for our children, fight for justice, and force a country to see the humanity in the Black lives that have been normalized to mean less than nothing. As a genderqueer Black woman I was surrounded by people telling me that now was the time, that I needed to support a ticket that did not fully reflect my values for dismantling the status quo and uplifting my life, that the lack of acknowledgment of Black trans lives and the overwhelming and exhausting reliance on Black women were all worth it. Because this time everything was different. Now that white people were doing all these things: kneeling, crying, being angry, being in the streets…now they’d be okay with us doing it. Everything was different.

But how?

I have asked myself that question repeatedly the last few months and days. Because honestly, a lot feels the same. When we kneel, cry, get angry, or take to the streets all of a sudden we deserve whatever we get. We’re animals. Nothing has changed. This last week I’ve laid awake each night thinking of the 3-year-old in a car seeing their father shot and wondering how I would unravel if my 2-year-old, sleeping down the hall, ever had to witness such brutality. I wrestled with needing to find Black joy through the sorrow, but feeling guilty about those moments of joy.

I know that I want Kamala to go harder on race. I know that I want basketball players to keep striking. I know that I want Black people to keep resisting and fighting. But who am I to define what that resistance looks like? Who am I to ignore the challenges of being the first or only Black woman to do something and prescribing what that should look like? Who am I to determine if striking for justice is more important than seeking joy in one’s work? Who am I to think that Black people have to be responsible for fixing the racism, anti-Blackness, and white supremacy that we didn’t create?

White people will always strive to define us. They are taking our lives or standing by and letting it happen. Systematically. Deliberately. Genocidally. So how is everything different this time? It feels the same. What’s different? Nothing.

This is the moment we hoped wasn’t coming. This is the moment we knew was coming. This is the moment that never really left.

This is the moment that feels worse. Allowing myself to believe, even just for a second, that it was different this time hurts. Letting that heavy, tense tightness in my chest go was a mistake. Because when you have no expectations and someone lets you down, you teach yourself over time to feel nothing. But when you take a chance and believe in someone or something only to have it be revealed that the last few months were all an elaborate performance — that hurts. When you realize that many folks just performatively marched, read, and allied for the moment, but not the movement — that is crushing.

It’s not defeating. I’ve always been Black. I knew this moment was coming despite my hopes. I knew this moment never really left. This white momentary movement won’t stop the movement and fight for black freedom.

But I would be lying if I didn’t say it was weighing on me. It is.

It is hard for people who are not Black to truly understand the trauma we carry. It does not just go away. Non-Black people don’t believe it if they can’t see it. They stand by and cheer us on and lament that they wish they could do more, but then don’t. We are in a world where our lives and our trauma and our pain is real. It’s valid. It matters.

Photo by Joel Shaffer

We need space for that to be true. We need space to create joy within those realities, and if all you have to offer is performative support, then please step down and get out of the way. Because you say you’ll be there, but when something pops off, too many people disappear. How many statements made months ago were revisited this week? How many companies made commitments to their Black staff that were met this week? How many new diversity hires were left to handle it on their own while putting aside their own pain? How many people put into practice anything they read in those books? What burden are you carrying? What work are you doing? Where are you?

Here we are as Black people. We sit with the knowledge that a 17-year-old boy is dead, called dangerous, suspicious, and on drugs because of skittles, a hoodie, and Black skin. But another 17-year-old boy is alive, hailed as a hero, a savior, and a future President because of an assault rifle, a love for police, and white skin. We sit with the knowledge that non-Black folks see our main purpose as continuously serving them, entertaining them, and fighting against social injustices as the moral and coolness compasses of society. But non-Black folks get to self-define their purpose, ignore things that are too hard, and rely on others to fix things. We sit with the knowledge that every aspect of our lives will be policed — where and how we move, how we emote, and how we fight to live. But non-Black folks get to live in a reality where policing is there to protect, serve, and keep them safe.

Why don’t I get to be safe? Why doesn’t my black son get to be safe? Why don’t I get to sit on Twitter all day sending out fun memes, commenting on threads about things that don’t matter, and pretending that saying I care about something is enough even if I don’t do anything?

This is the part where I am supposed to wrap it up and offer something about how we move forward. My life and my existence are at stake. My son’s life and his existence are at stake. But I am tired. I am broken.

I am not defeated.

But I need a nap. I need to restore. I need to fortify. There is a long fight ahead. I know some of you who are new to this are already exhausted. I can only imagine awakening to this horror of anti-Black racism after a lifetime of not seeing it. I feel for you. But I will not center you. I will not put your growth and fragility above my future or my survival. I will not put whiteness or white comfort before my liberation.

What does that mean for non-Black folks? What should you do now? Do what you would do if your life and existence were at stake.

Photo by Joel Shaffer

Don’t do it performatively. Do it intentionally. Do it with purpose. Black people have been lifting others up, leading us through darkness, and uprooting injustice for centuries. We hoped it would be different this time. It will be different at some point. But until then, stop talking about what you would do if you could and just fucking do it. Black people already are. We’re dragging society towards justice and light kicking and screaming. You may not like how that looks. You may not like how that feels. But buck up. You know what I don’t like? That to do this work, we’re out here getting killed. We’re going to get free or die trying. With or without you. You choose. Take your moment. We’re in a movement.

We won’t wait.

Tamika L. Butler, Esq. is a land use, equity, environmental and social and racial justice advocate. She is the Principal at Tamika L. Butler Consulting.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store