The Damage That White Onlookers Inflict

After what felt like forever, an adult finally pulled me to safety, and I coughed and sputtered and cried. My sister, who in her memory was sitting on the shore, didn’t tell me until we were adults that after Kelly came out of the water, having left me behind, she laughed and called me the N-word.

In my memory, my sister was in the water with me, about five feet away from where this was happening. She was not a great swimmer herself and always kept to the shallow part, never venturing much past where the water hit her thighs. My sister and I were close when we were little, but this seemingly small disparity in our recounting of this story is telling.

I grew up the only black person in an all-white town, adopted into an otherwise all-white family. Many people at the lake must have seen what happened, but only one stepped up to save my life. In my memory, my sister was one of the onlookers. Had something already been ingrained in my sister’s 11-year-old mind, through school or TV or who knows where, that betrayed her instinct to save me? Did a similar something make her block out that she’d been physically close enough to have the instinct to begin with?

I shared this story on a recent episode of my podcast, Come Through. We were talking about the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, and why it was important to call Arbery’s death what it was: a lynching—vigilantism when the crime is being black.

The spectacle of a black person terrorized by a white person, struggling to breathe and stay alive while other white people look on, is not new; in fact, it’s foundational to America. During slavery, lynchings were used to subjugate the black population and entertain the white population; black people were hanged from trees in front of raucous, smiling white crowds. We know this because many of these events were captured in photos, which were then printed in newspapers.

Before the national discourse around Arbery’s death even had a chance to wane, new video footage spread, this time of a white Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, a black man, until he died. Floyd told the officer he couldn’t breathe before he breathed his last. And now Minneapolis and other cities have erupted in protests, echoing the summer of 2014, when black activists took to the streets following the killing of Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, which also prompted the hashtag and organized collective Black Lives Matter. What’s happening now also echoes so many other protests in the fight against police brutality and violence toward black people over the course of American history.

I want white people to stop killing us, but I also want white people to stop watching us get killed—to disarm their emotional paralysis in the face of dehumanization or worse. And that will require something more than tweets and hashtags from well-meaning white people, and more than even traditional activism coupled with appeals for concrete policy change. It will demand intervention. If not a physical intervention, like the adult who pulled me out of the water at Lake Winnepocket, then a moral one.