About seven years ago, I worked for the Department of Corrections in Sacramento. One of my coworkers was a black blogger with a great sense of humor. He didn’t get along with upper management and neither did I, and looking back, he was probably my best friend at that job.
Well, yesterday he sent me a private message on Facebook asking my my opinion about a great number of things, including how I feel about sitting down during the national anthem and the Black Lives Matter movement. We don’t always agree, but I’m guessing he asked me because he knows I’ll talk to him honestly.
And maybe that’s what we need. Because I’ve noticed black friends (and black people in general) posting and commenting a lot about how confused and angry they are about white hostility to the movement. Then I read an article someone posted on Facebook about how black people should stop engaging white people altogether, because presenting all the facts hasn’t worked so far…
Let me explain. Yes, some white people hostile to the movement are bonafide racists. But some of us aren’t. Some of us are just coming to grips with a new worldview and need engagement now more than ever.
You see, growing up white means not having the same experiences as black people. I’m sure black people know that far better than us, but I’m asking you to consider this before making any judgements.
I’ve been pulled over three times by the cops: once for a speeding ticket, once for not wearing my seatbelt, and once to help me push my car off the road because I’d run out of gas.
During these times, the cops were sometimes self-important, but always reasonable. I’ve never been afraid that a cop would shoot me and have never had one of my black friends tell me they did.
Like most people, I grew up watching movies where cops were the good guys, bravely putting their lives on the line to keep everyone safe. Maybe sadistic control-freak cops exist, but they seemed like exceptions to the rule that no one could’ve known about. Like the serial killer that everyone said was quiet and kept to himself.
And all of a sudden, we’re hearing about cops gunning down innocent black people. I’m sure it’s gone on for a long time, but we’re only really hearing about it now from the major media outlets.
This isn’t part of our experience and represents a huge break from what we expect to be true.
This analogy isn’t perfect, but let me give it a try: imagine a minority group, let’s say the Japanese, started claiming doctors were systematically killing them in hospitals behind closed doors because of racism.
This would be a huge shock. Hating on doctors automatically feels wrong, because you think of doctors as good guys who help people. You’d try to find a reasonable explanation for it, like wondering if the people who died were already going to. Because they were in a hospital in the first place, after all.
But no, says a bunch of Japanese people, the doctors killed them because they hate Asians and you should know that because racism against Asians has been going on for a long time. What about the internment camps during World War II? The fact you aren’t angry about doctors always killing Japanese people is proof that you kinda hate Japanese people yourself.
Okay, you might think, history provides evidence of issues with Japanese people, especially during the 1940’s, but would doctors in 2016 literally KILL Japanese people on purpose? There’s a big difference between feeling awkward around Japanese people and killing them. It makes more sense for the Japanese people to be already sick, or for the doctors to have unintentionally made the wrong treatment choice in a complicated medical situation.
And if killing Japanese people on purpose was happening, you’d expect it to be the work of a lone nut job, not par for the course.
You’re being asked to accept not only that doctors regularly kill Japanese people, but all the hospitals know about it and brush it under the rug. That it’s systematic and happens all the time, even though you’ve never heard about it before.
It sounds crazy. It would take a lot of evidence to convince you. Then imagine that Japanese people seemed to be accusing YOU of being racist and part of the problem because you haven’t already put a stop to it. You know you’d never kill a Japanese person just for being Japanese, so you can’t help wondering if Japanese people are just getting a persecution complex. The idea you’d support shooting a Japanese kid instantly puts you on the defensive.
Well, that’s where a lot of white people are right now. My own response to the Treyvon Martin case was a mixture of horror and also wondering if the cops were somehow justified in taking the steps that they took.
But as each case appears in the news, one after the other, and as The Daily Show with Trevor Noah talks about how the justice system doesn’t compile its data, judges problem cops internally, tells cops to erase their histories and moves problem cops from district to district, I’m finally starting to understand.
I’m starting to imagine my own kids wearing a hoodie sweatshirt and getting gunned down by the cops. It’s too horrible to fully picture. I’m trying to make myself, because it’s a reality for other people.
It’s like when altar boys started speaking out against the Catholic church. At first you want to believe pedophile priests just are bad apples, but after reading about case after case… how the church knew about it but covered it up… you eventually accept that it’s a systematic problem.
I hope you don’t think I’m trying to justify white hostility to the Black Lives Matter movement. I’m not trying to do that, just explain why some otherwise decent white people are struggling with it right now. This hasn’t been part of our world experience but I think we’ll accept it in time, just as we all eventually recognized problems within the Catholic church.
Please show us, please keep your voices strong and tell us what’s happening in our country and I know that a great number of white people will eventually have your back.