The other day, I saw a Facebook update from Kristen Howerton of Rage Against the Minivan. She’d shared a screenshot of a video she’d taken of a black man getting arrested. She described how the police acted kindly and respectfully toward the man, but she kept filming anyway. She explained why she filmed and will continue to do so. “Until our country’s issues with unnecessary police violence against black men is a thing of the distant past, I will film. […] I will hope that, like today, it’s uneventful footage that never makes the news.”
As I read it, I had mixed feelings. Part of me was nodding along, acknowledging the need for good people to keep their eyes open, alert to any possibility of wrong-doing and ready to snap into action when injustice is witnessed. But another part of me was secretly thinking that she might be overreacting.
The idea of police brutality toward black people is so far removed from my reality that I often have to stop myself from making insensitive and ignorant remarks. I absolutely believe that there have been major injustices done – Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray – Buzzfeed published a whole list of them if you’re in need of a refresher. But while I was appalled by the stories that I saw, I admit that I did not say or do much about it.
I am a white, 34 year old woman with a white 37 year old husband and three white, blond-haired, blue-eyed boys. I grew up in a VERY small, all-white town. My parents were both ex-military, my father was first a cop and then a federal officer. My influences growing up were extremely closed-minded, and racism was prevalent in my community, as well as my family. While I rejected that state of mind pretty quickly, I will say that I was taught from a very young age that policemen could NEVER do wrong. Law enforcement was there to serve and protect, and some of them had to do terrible things for the sake of the “greater good.” I was indoctrinated to films that showed the good cops planting evidence in order to make sure the bad guys went away. I could not imagine a scenario in which a police officer would hurt or kill someone unless he was 150% convinced that it was the only choice. A younger version of myself would have seen the news about Alton Sterling and immediately jumped to the conclusion that he must have done something wrong. Even a few years ago, I would have been someone who said, “Let’s just wait and gather all the facts and hear all sides of the story before pointing fingers, here.”
In my life, I have had very few black friends. You could easily count them on one hand and have fingers left over. This is not through some conscious choice I made – but through circumstances. Whether it be where I lived or the agoraphobia that kept me captive at home for so many years or health issues that mean I don’t get out as much as I’d like to, I have simply not been exposed to very many black folk.
I remember back in 2002 when I was working as a flight attendant out of North Carolina. My then-boyfriend flew in from London to stay with me a couple weeks, and I introduced him to my friend, Mia, from Atlanta. Mia was a beautiful black woman with the most amazing smile. My boyfriend was very pleasant toward her and the rest of our gang, but I noticed he kept referring to her and to black people in general as “colored.” I had very little knowledge of the world at that point, as I was 20 years old and very sheltered, so while I had thought that that word was outdated, I just assumed that he knew better than I did. Only later did Mia take me aside and ask me to speak to him about his use of the word. She explained that while she thought it was funny and possibly just a British phrase, there were others that would not take kindly to it. I was mortified. It was the first time I’d been called out on being complicit in racist behavior, and I was truly embarrassed.
A few years later, I was visiting a friend in California when this very large, muscular, bald black man pulled up in a bright yellow sports car directly in front of where we were having lunch. He looked like every stereotype of an LA thug I’d ever seen depicted on television and movies. He had on a white tank top (the kind referred to as a “wife beater”) and baggy jeans that showed the top of his boxer shorts. He moved toward us, unsmiling, and I tensed up. He reached into his pocket and pulled something out, and I held my breath, eyes wide with fear. In the blink of an eye, he threw a small green wallet on the table in front of my friend and then bent down and kissed her full on the mouth. It suddenly clicked that this was the boyfriend she’d been telling me about. The Ivy League-educated boyfriend who had just driven twenty minutes out of his way to bring her her wallet when he noticed she’d left it behind. I felt like a world-class idiot. Later that night, we were trying to figure out something to do when I suggested a particular club I’d heard about. She immediately went quiet and said she’d rather stay in. I was only in town for a couple of days, and I reminded her of this. She was clearly uneasy, but I kept pushing. “Come on… just get Trev to come with us. No one’s gonna mess with him,” I joked. Her eyes welled up as she explained that they don’t really go to that side of town because the police are known for starting trouble with black men. While Trev wasn’t afraid, SHE was. She was terrified of something happening to him. I told her she was being an idiot, but I agreed to stay in that night.
Nowadays, like everyone else, I see the stories coming in from across the country of black men and women being harassed, assaulted and killed by those who are supposed to be protecting them. I’ve seen cops literally getting away with murder, and I’ve stayed quiet because even though I think it’s heinous, it doesn’t actively affect me. I have seen commentary from people online suggesting anyone who speaks out has a “white savior complex.” I’ve stayed quiet because I didn’t want to be accused of jumping on some bandwagon to try and generate page clicks or to make myself famous. I’ve stayed quiet because I was afraid to offend my family and my friends – those who, like me a few years ago, are ignorant and misinformed. I’ve been afraid to offend those whose opinions differ from mine – who think that all these men and women “had it coming.”
But I can’t stay quiet now. And while my voice is only one among many, and others say it better and more articulately, I am standing up right now to say that this cannot go on. I refuse to stay silent on an issue that impacts such a huge portion of our population.
A friend shared this article from SemiProper about how to be an ally to the black community, and I am going to do my best to #SpeakUp from now on. When you don’t know what to say, say it anyway. Because even though I may not have the right words to speak about this with authority, I do have a platform from which to try.
Val Curtis over at BonBon Break has collected some of the videos posted by some amazing voices who are adding to the commentary. Check them out.
One final thing that I want to make clear – I know that I have a long way to go in understanding – TRULY understanding – the plight of the black community in this country. It has been fairly easy for me to ignore the #BlackLivesMatter movement because, as I said, I don’t have anyone outside of the internet who is talking about it. I still live a fairly sheltered life. But I WANT to understand and be an advocate for real change in this world. I don’t want to be the person who focuses on an “All Lives Matter” philosophy when it’s not ALL lives that are in constant danger from authority. Of course I believe that we are all equal. We all matter. We all have something to contribute. But right now, those of us who are lucky enough to fit some strange vision of an ideal America should be working to change that vision so that IDEAL is not based on skin color or economic status but on who we are as people.
Yesterday, my facebook and twitter feed were overwhelmed with people asking for each of us to Speak Up. And while I am nervous about how this will be received, I know that it is right for me to say that the murder of Alton Sterling was wrong on every single level. And his is only the latest in a long line of progressively worse murders of black people in this country by those whose jobs should be to protect EVERY life to the best of their abilities. Do not let this stand. Do not sit quietly by side-eyeing the situation and hoping that if you ignore it, it will go away. It will NEVER go away until and unless everyone rises up to stop it.