Last week my son and I went to Minnesota for 36 hours to tour colleges, one in St. Paul and two in Northfield. We added on a quick stop at the Mall of America to hit up the biggest Lego store in the United States. And I forced Luke to eat gluten free with me, trying out a bakery for cinnamon donuts, as well as a popular restaurant that served gourmet arepas. Early Thursday evening as we were driving back from our last college tour in Northfield, we discussed what we should do with the remaining couple hours we had in Minneapolis. I suggested we visit the George Floyd Memorial. Luke agreed it was imperative.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the experience. George Floyd’s murder woke me. While I had been sleepily aware of innumerable murders of black men and boys by white police officers, I had never considered my inaction a form of passive racism. Watching the footage of Officer Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck, knowing that Floyd was pleading for his life and yet the officers refused to relent to save him, made me sick. This was not a knee-jerk murder committed out of an impulsive act of self-defense, to which I could give the law officer some benefit of the doubt in my white naïveté. This was intentional. It was obvious to me. It was obvious to many white people whose eyes hadn’t been opened before. It was impossible to unsee what we had seen. There was no going back. My complicity in racism existed through my sheer inability to comprehend I could have been doing something proactive to speak out against these injustices, yet I remained silent because it wasn’t my father, brother, or son being targeted. I hadn’t been paying enough attention. I had to face what I didn’t want to face. As an upper-middle-class white woman, I had always been in a position to speak out, to get involved, to do more. I just hadn’t. I was racist for believing these problems didn’t belong to me when they did.
Luke and I parked a couple blocks away from the intersection where the memorial had been erected and walked through the neighborhood. The houses were small and well kept. Many yards had Black Lives Matter signs or pictures of George Floyd. The closer we got to the memorial, the more evidence we saw of the strife the neighborhood has witnessed since May of 2020. A block off the memorial, sprayed on the street, are a list of asks, boxes that need to be checked in order for all black Americans to begin to feel heard and seen. We read them slowly, considering each name listed and feeling the weight of the problems facing minorities in this country today.
When we reached the Cup Foods store outside which Floyd had been forced to the ground and knelt on for far too long as he gasped for breath and called for his mother, I was overcome by emotion and stood in awe. So many people had contributed to the memorial. There were banners and poems, candles, artwork, and a plethora of stuffed animals now dirty and threadbare from sitting out in the elements for a year. This small neighborhood store, still operating, people wandering in and out around the cordoned off area directly in front of the store, is something bigger now. After taking in the thoughtful tokens left by mourners, I moved to the spray-painted mural of Floyd. I stood in front of him and studied his face and I cried. I thought about how ridiculous it is to be murdered over a disputed $20 bill. I thought about how that would never happen to a white man. I cried for George. I cried for young Darnella Frazier who had taken the video that changed my heart. I thought about how her life changed that day. I thought about how helpless she must have felt. I thought about how she will never see the world the same way again. I wept for innocence lost and eyes now opened. I wept for George’s eyes forever closed.
In the spot where Floyd took his last breath under Chauvin’s knee, an artist painted a blue image of a man, face down, hands bound behind his back. Wings arise not from his back, but from his neck. Underneath him are the final words he had air for in his collapsing lungs.
Standing in George Floyd Square will forever be same to me as standing at the 9/11 Memorial in New York City. Heartbreaking and nauseating. Surreal and yet completely real. There aren’t words enough to explain the emotions. And I don’t know the way right way forward to begin to change the vestiges of systemic racism, but I know change must happen. I know I have to be part of that change in whatever way I am able to contribute for the rest of my fortunate life.
I’m glad I took Luke to that intersection last Thursday. I’m grateful we shared tears and hugs and silent reverence. I’m grateful my son is alive and I acknowledge how gifted I have been not to have to worry about him when he goes out in the same way a mother of a black boy worries. Every white person in this country should visit the intersection of East 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis. Go see if you can stand there and not feel your heart change. Go see if you can stand there and not understand what a privilege it is to be white and to know that no police officer will ever snuff your life out for allegedly passing a counterfeit bill with white Andrew Jackson on it, or maybe even someday soon black Harriet Tubman. Go take a minute to stand and feel the lightness of your whiteness. Go stand for minute with the heaviness of being black in America.