On Choosing a New Normal (Amsterdam, pt. 1)
Track 2: Where the Streets Have No Name (U2):
Within the my first 24 hours of being in Europe, I found myself on a street corner in Amsterdam asking myself a question: Why do black people choose to stay in America?
But let me tell you how I got there.
It seems that America crossed a threshold in regard to race issues--with the rise of organizations like Black Lives Matter and The Movement for Black Lives, risky acts of protest like Bree Newsome's removing a confederate flag from a state capital building, and Michelle Alexander's decision to join the faculty at Union Theological Seminary. There is new energy behind a human rights movement in America that is making it more difficult for white Americans to remain complicit and unaware of America's continuing racist traditions. Though this new civil rights movement is exciting, it is not without it's challenges.
The fact that a man like Donald Trump can be taken seriously as a presidential candidate is indicative that the cliche is a fact: old habits--like America's racist tradition--die very hard.
Many have said, mostly in jest, that they'd consider becoming a Canadian resident if Trump actually wins the election. My running half-joke has been that I'd like to leave before they start building internment camps for people of color. The truth is that I actually find the comparisons between Trump and Hitler's rise to prominence compelling and scary; and, there is a part of me that isn't so sure something like that couldn't happen in America (always remember: Germany was also a "democratic" society). I had this conversation with a good friend of mine, a pastor in downtown LA. Her response was, "Why are you not already considering the prison system an internment camp?" And we talked about the option of seriously considering moving abroad.
It is certainly not a new idea. Black thinkers throughout history have considered, encouraged, and/or done it including Nina Simone, Marcus Garvey, Bob Marley, James Baldwin, and most recently Ta-Nehisi Coates. It seems that most Americans I speak with automatically think of integration as the only legitimate solution for American race issues. Thinkers like Garvey and Malcolm X are written off as extremists for proposing a different solution: seperatism. Yet, the more that I invest myself in conversations about race issues, and in activity to fight against racism, the more I come to understand the seperatist.
To be frank and concise: trying to fight for equity in society in an integrative way is exhausting: primarily because many white people are hesitant to listen to their black neighbors, in regard to the ways American society is structurally uncongenial to black progress and flourishing. I have personally gone to extreme lengths to convey the pain of black people to my white neighbors; and I am constantly met with suspicion, doubt, rebuttals, and devil's advocates. At a certain point, you have to wonder if these white Americans simply don't want to know what their neighbors have to go through.
On top of that: You get the constant stories of police violence. You have people defending the Confederate flag. You have white Christians saying that God isn't concerned with the way racism effects people of color. All of this is normative for American life and that is problematic, but so many do not want to hear that. There are also solutions to the problems we are having, but many seem uninterested in that conversation as well.
I'm for integration, but at the same time, I can't be mad at the person who is ready to give up on having these conversations. It's a lot to ask of someone: to stay engaged when their painful experiences with historically-proven societal issues are constantly being disregarded. It is at least worth considering that the American system just wasn't built for black prosperity, and that maybe there are other places in the world that would be more conducive for the advancement of people of color (or at the very least less violent toward us). Maybe, the idea of asking America to craft a new normal is too much to ask or wait for--even if it were to happen, it would be a long obedience in the same direction. Perhaps it would be better to take up residence somewhere where with a different normal. Which brings me to my first day in Amsterdam.
There is no perfect society on the planet, but the normal in Amsterdam--at an admittedly cursory glance--seemed like something I may be able to get used to. It's a culture that is environmentally conscious, socially progressive, artistically inclined, and ethnically diverse. People are biking most places, there's not a ton of trash everywhere, and cannabis is legal. Rivers run through the city, alongside its roads, where people float by on boats enjoying picnics and conversations. There is public healthcare and gun ownership is considered a privilege instead of a right. There are people from all over the place: Nigeria, Ethiopia, the Phillipines, New York City, Brazil, France, etc.
It's not just about racism. It's about deciding what kind of society you want to live in--even choosing to deal with its short-comings. It's one thing to choose to stay in America; It's another thing to feel like you have no other option. We do. That's how my eyes were opened in Amsterdam: that I could choose a different normal. Not necessarily Amsterdam's normal. There are so many other normals to choose from.
Maybe you want to be in a place where you're a part of the privileged unpersecuted group? Maybe you can be an ally to those who are down-and-out there.
Maybe you want to be in a place that deals honestly with it's shameful history and is making noticeable changes to never repeat that history again.
Maybe you want to be someplace where police killings are not normal.
Maybe you can.
Please feel free to share any thoughts below. I'd love to discuss.
You can view some of the things I saw in Amsterdam in the gallery below. For pics and videos of my travels as they are happening, follow me on Instagram.