I have three boys. My neighbor is currently pregnant with her third boy. We live in the same town, in the safe affluent neighborhood, on the same street, two houses from each other. Her boys and my boys come from parents with advanced degrees. They come from loving homes full of opportunity. Her boys are kind, outgoing, and polite. Mine are too…most of the time. Her boys and my boys will go to the same schools. And yet, I know that her experience as a mother, particularly as her boys get older, will be vastly different from mine. Why? Because my boys happen to be white and hers are black.
I will fear for my sons’ safety as they learn to drive and get behind the wheel of a car because of reckless drivers and the poor decisions teens sometimes make. She will have these same fears, but she will also have to fear that her sons’ lives could be in danger for buying a bag of skittles or driving with a broken tail light. I’ll worry that my sweet boys don’t get caught up with a “bad crowd” or that they aren’t picked on or bullied at school. She will worry the same. But she’ll also worry that her sons will be seen as a threat to someone else’s safety if they happen to choose to wear a hooded sweatshirt. She will live in fear of how people will falsely view her children and how they might react when they sense a false threat.
Parenting is a fear-filled endeavor for anyone. But having that fear magnified by 1000 simply because of the color of one’s skin is an unfathomable injustice. I can’t begin to imagine what it is like to live with that fear. I would be angry…I would…Actually, I don’t know how I would feel. And the truth is, I will never know. I was born white and so were my boys. And because of that pure luck, and because I will never know what it’s like to be anything other than white, I have a responsibility to try my absolute best to understand the experience of people of color, like my neighbor, her husband, and their three boys.
The recent killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile have put in pristine focus for me the extreme ways in which other human beings react in a moment of perceived threat. People can believe what they want about Mr. Sterling and whether he did something to attract the attention of the police. But that is a moot point. He was tackled on the ground and clearly overtaken by the police officers. There is no reason he should be dead. As for Mr. Castile, there are no reports anywhere that he did anything other than drive with a broken tail light to attract the attention of the police. He reportedly told the officer involved that he had a permit to carry a concealed weapon, which he disclosed was on his person, and that he was getting his wallet and identification as was asked of him. And now he is dead. Perhaps worst of all, as these men lay dying the officers involved did NOTHING to provide aid or prevent their death. They did not provide first aid. In the case of Mr. Castile, who it seems was shot only in the arm, imagine if instead of pointing the gun at his girlfriend and handcuffing her if the officers had instead placed a tourniquet on his arm. A simple show of humanity could have saved his life.
We have all walked or driven through areas that we perceive, sometimes quite accurately, to be unsafe. But what we have to remind ourselves is that those areas are not unsafe because black people live there. They are unsafe because there is little opportunity in those areas. There are few programs for children and adolescents. The schools and other educational opportunities are limited. In the areas most in need of services and support, even basic needs are more difficult to attain. There are fewer grocery stores and department stores. People have to drive/walk/use public transportation to go further to get less. And when people are desperate, and they lack education, and resources, and support, they react out of fear and desperation, and do things and behave in ways they otherwise would not. Yes, these situations are desperate, and no, there are no easy solutions. Knowing where to begin, and what we can do to help is challenging and sometimes seems so impossible that we freeze. Donating money seems superficial. Volunteering time can be a struggle when we are doing our best to care for our own families. But one place we can all begin is by opening the conversation and committing to better understanding all of our fellow human beings.
I read today an article on race that compared racism to a gigantic societal-sized boot. The author asked, if racism is a boot, then who is “fighting the hardest to avoid being squashed by the boot?” Yes, people of color. And who is it that is wearing the boot? Yes, white people. And who then should be responsible for stopping the boot from squashing anyone? The people who are already fighting against the pressure of the boot or the people wearing it?
I hope you came to the correct answer yourself. But if you didn’t, let me spell it out for you. White people. White people have a responsibility to stop the boot. This author was not saying all white people are racist, and neither am I. I certainly don’t like to consider myself racist, and I hope I have never acted in a way that is. But, I also know that I have not openly acted in a way to challenge the racist beliefs of those I encounter. And as a white person, I am in a unique position to open the dialogue and potentially change the viewpoints of other white people who may be racist; a position that people of color are not in at all. And so, with this post, that is what I am attempting to do.
I also commit to better understanding issues of race in our country. I have already reserved the book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander at my local library. It was on hold and I am 3rd in the queue. This fact in and of itself gave me hope. Maybe other people in my community have had the same idea I did. If you too would like to better understand issues of race, so you can open a dialogue that is not at all open enough, then check out the article I linked to above and check out this article which includes links to a reading list on issues of race.
Now, I started writing this article on Thursday before the horrific shootings in Dallas occurred. And so, I would be remiss to not address that tragedy. Those officers were assassinated. The actions of the people who carried out those killings are not justified…not even a little bit. Those individuals were no doubt angry. But they only made the situation worse. Instead of drawing greater attention to issues of race, injustice, and excessive force by some police officers they have provided fuel to the fire for people who will say, “See? It’s them. They are the problem.” And that will only serve to shut down an already difficult conversation even further.
And I fear that because of the actions of these snipers in Dallas that the overwhelming message will now be “black lives will only matter when police lives matter.” And that is not true. In fact, Dallas was an exemplary example of how the black community and the police community can work together. The police were out in full force making it safe for a Black Lives Matter protest to proceed peacefully and successfully. And yet, so many people seem to believe that you either have to support law enforcement or support people of color; that police lives and black lives can’t matter simultaneously. But they can, and they do. As John Stewart (seriously, when will that man run for office?) so eloquently said today “You can truly grieve for every officer who’s been lost in the line of duty in this country, and still be troubled by cases of police overreach. Those two ideas are not mutually exclusive. You can have great regard for law enforcement and still want them to be held to high standards.”
And so, we will all struggle with what to do and how best to react to the tragic events that have occurred this week. But please join me in my commitment to more conversations, more understanding, and more willingness to see both sides of this issue; an issue that is of utmost importance to the survival and success of our great Nation. It is my hope that I will raise boys who will grow up completely confounded by the idea that someone would ever judge someone differently because of the color of their skin. It is my hope that my three boys and my neighbor’s three boys have life experiences far more similar than I expect they will given the state of things at this time. But I have to believe there is hope that can change.
Together, let’s ask questions. Let’s try to understand. Let’s accept that some people may not use the exact, most politically correct words when trying to better understand and instead of judging, let’s educate. The future truly rests in the hands of our children and it is our responsibility to raise children who will make this world a kinder place than it is now. We can only do that by opening and changing the conversation, by working together to lift the oppressive boot of racism. Start now. Start tonight. Open the conversation at your own dinner table. I know I will be.