Like so many people, I’ve been deeply affected by events in the world and our country that have unfolded over the past three months. And, like many, I’ve been struggling to gather my thoughts and add my voice to the fray.
Speaking specifically to the tragic deaths of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks, Black men who were unjustly killed at the hands of White police officers, I am shocked and dismayed. It seems to me that the protests and outcry that Floyd’s death spawned need first and foremost to be acknowledged.
As I thought about all that was unfolding, the phrase “Can I get a witness?” kept replaying in my mind. I knew the phrase from a former boyfriend, Bill. He is Black and I am White and I always assumed the phrase was part of the Black vernacular. Bill would pose the question when something startling happened. It might be something startling in a funny way or something startling in a disturbing way. Often he would say it about some racist affront as if to say, “Did you see what I saw? Can you legitimize my experience by telling me that you saw it too?”
It is a deeply human desire: to be seen, to have our experiences legitimized by the witnessing presence of another. And it seems to me that it is one of the best ways that I can be present, as a White woman, during these times of great grief, anguish and bitter disappointment for those in the Black community (and all who are similarly disgusted by what we have seen). I can’t ever know the depth of experience that a Black person must be going through.
Not just because George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks join a seemingly endless list of intolerable injustices.
Let’s remember that this incident was set in the context of another gross racial inequity: the way that COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted the Black community. There are a myriad of reasons for that tragedy, including the high representation of Blacks in the ranks of health care workers and other jobs that have been deemed essential. Blacks have stood on the frontlines of the coronavirus war and they’ve taken far more than their share of losses. So, the devastation of this virus and all its rippling aftershocks set the context, pouring fuel on the kindling. The killing of George Floyd struck the match.
What can I add to all the voices that have weighed in on these matters? I will start by being a witness. I will acknowledge “Yes, I see that too.” What is happening is not right and it has woken me up. I admit it, I wasn’t paying attention. But I am now. I ignored matters of racial inequity. But now I’m becoming aware, reading and listening and seeking to understand.
I will be a witness.
But here’s the thing: I’m not sure how best to be a witness. I did a little searching to find out what it means to be a witness. I found one helpful account by Claudia J. Sterling on Quora. The post seems authoritative and well-thought-out, but I can’t really vouch for its accuracy.
According to Sterling, the term “Can I get a witness” originates from church services, particularly in Black churches. As Sterling tells it, “When the preacher is done preaching, he will call for a “witness.” “Can I get a Witness?” That means he (or she) is calling on the congregation for a member to come up to the altar and “testify” or “witness” about what God or Jesus has done for them in their lives. A member with the Spirit will come forward and testify, “preaching” to his or her fellow church members, as a “Witness” -someone who has personally experienced the blessings of the Lord.”
She goes on to talk about how the phrase is used socially. She describes much the same scenario as I outlined above. To ask the question “Can I get a witness?” is to make a request for acknowledgment of an experience, as in “Do you know what I mean? Have you experienced it?”
So, yes, I see what is happening. I will be a witness. And I would cultivate my capacity to witness by getting educated. My first step is to read the book “How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi. Then I’m going to work toward becoming an antiracist. In a future post, I’ll report back on what I’m learning.
There is a beautiful greeting used by the Zulu people: sawubona. It means “I see you.” Such a sweet acknowledgment of the other person. The response is “sakhona” which means, “I am here.”
So, my friends, I say, sawubona.
I’m a mindset coach for aspiring writers. I help writers master their mental game so that they can focus on what they love: writing. I help my clients to tap their inner source of motivation and inspiration, create the time to write, and quash the self-doubt that plagues so many creatives so that they can finally finish their first draft.
If you’re ready to get serious about your writing, please visit me online at kiraswanson.com or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to chat.