By Amy Renee Wasney
There are plenty of things in the world I don’t understand. I was never all that interested in physics, or calculus, or automobiles. There are various topics that I just am not that interested in, or I never took any classes in, or I had a bad teacher or a bad textbook and I just never really figured it out. If the interest struck me, I’m sure I could find a class or information on the internet and be able to learn that topic and then would understand. In fact, there’s no real reason I couldn’t become an expert on any one of a number of topics if I devoted enough time and effort to it.
Then there are things I cannot understand and never will. There are topics that I will spend my entire life trying to learn and understand and no matter how much time I dedicate to the subject, I’ll always be learning and listening to others who know better than I do.
I will never understand how it feels to be a black person in a systemically racist society.
…to be pulled over by the police and not know for sure if I’ll survive the experience.
…to send my black son out into the world, terrified that he may not make it home each and every day.
…to stand up for what’s right or to stand up for my family and be dismissed as just another angry black woman.
…to know that every single thing I do is seen as a representation of my entire race.
…to stand before a grand jury and know that they don’t care that my son has been murdered just because he doesn’t look like them.
I can watch the dashcam videos, listen to personal testimonies, read the stories from history, look at the statistics of how many people of color are killed while their killer walks free—but that doesn’t mean I understand. I can watch “Strong Island” (2017), look into the eyes of William Ford Jr.’s family members, listen to their stories, and hear the emotion in their voice—and I won’t understand.
I will never know how it feels to be LGBTQ+ in a society that is filled with so much hatred, bigotry, and misunderstanding.
…how it feels to know that my sex doesn’t match my gender.
…how it feels holding a phone call with my late brother so dearly because that conversation felt like the first time he saw me for who I truly am.
…how it feels not knowing if it’s OK to hold my loved one’s hand because I don’t know who’s watching.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not upset that I don’t understand these things. I am lucky to have the privileges that I do in life. I grew up as a white, cis person in a middle-class family. There are so many struggles I was fortunate enough to not have to understand and difficulties I was lucky enough that I could turn a blind eye to for far too long.
What I am upset about is that other people do understand these things. There are people who understand these feelings and experiences so deeply that it’s a part of who they are. I do not envy them. But I do need to listen to them.
“If you’re uncomfortable with me asking these questions, you should probably get up and go.” These are the last words before the opening title appears on the screen. In that one sentence, Yance Ford makes it clear he’s not making this film for us—he’s making it for himself, for his family, for William. In saying that, Yance tells us that he’s not responsible for whether or not we watch the film, whether we listen to what’s being said, whether we take anything away from it.
And he’s right; it’s not his responsibility, it’s ours. It is our responsibility to watch this movie, to listen to every word, to see what the Ford family went through. It is the responsibility of everyone who cannot understand to sit down, be quiet, and listen to what someone who knows is telling us.
Both willingly and unwillingly, Yance and so many others have done so much emotional labor to tell us their stories and relive their trauma, all to reveal to us the racism, sexism, bigotry, homophobia, and overall hatred that still exists and causes unfathomable pain, and it’s our job and responsibility to pay attention.
It’s not the easy thing to do.
The easy thing to do?
Shrug our shoulders and declare that since we don’t see it and it’s not happening to us, then it must not be there.
The easy thing to do?
Turn off “Strong Island” after Yance Ford says we can walk away.
It’s much harder to open our eyes.
It’s hard to hear the stories of hatred and violence and injustice and see the world clearly for what it really is, to not cloak ourselves in our lifetime of privilege, refusing to accept and acknowledge what’s happening.
It’s hard to call other people out on their role in the systemic oppression.
It’s hard to call ourselves out on our own role in the systemic oppression. Comparatively, though, we have the easy job.
Compared to the people who truly understand what it’s like to be oppressed, to be hated for who they are, to be quieted and dismissed, to be murdered and have their killer walk free, our job feels like the easiest thing in the world.
And sure, we’ll still make mistakes. Unlearning a lifetime of being an oppressor, unlearning everything we think we know about the world, it’s a process. But that doesn’t mean that we can excuse it, say it’s just the way things have always been, “nobody’s perfect.” That just means that we need to keep listening. We need to listen to everybody who is willing to talk. We need to listen to everyone who has a story of how systemic oppression has hurt them, from the heartbreaking tragedies like that in “Strong Island” to the seemingly mundane, everyday occurrences that plague our society. It’s impossible for us to understand, so it’s vital that we continue to listen and learn.
We can’t get up and walk away. We can’t close our eyes. We need to listen.
Amy Renee Wasney is a passionate writer and feminist living in the south suburbs of Chicago and an annual participant in National Novel Writing Month. Her favorite films include “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962), “The Princess Bride” (1987), and “Big Fish” (2003), and her personal heroes are Fred Rogers and Hermione Granger. She tries to live up to their example each and every day.