When I was a little girl, somewhere between the ages of 4 and 7, I had this friend named Katrina. I don’t remember much more about her except that she lived in the apartment above mine and she was black. I do remember getting into mischief with her; like the time we took a bottle of shampoo and poured it all over her parents bathtub so that we could “skate” in the tub. I also remember the time we decided to go to the pool to “just stick our feet in the water on the steps.” I don’t remember exactly what our parents said to us when they came upon us walking back to our apartments fully clothed and soaking wet; but I do remember this wall of angry parents blocking our way on the sidewalk. My child’s memory remembers the anger, but my adult, mommy mind now understands that we were really facing a wall of fear. I just remember getting busted soaking wet in my cloths.
My strongest memory of Katrina is of one afternoon running around our complex, probably doing something we shouldn’t, and having a conversation about the n-word. I’m not being politically correct here, it’s my personal ethics and beliefs that keeps me from speaking or writing that word. I have never felt comfortable using that word even when discussing something someone else said. I was taught at a very young age it was a bad word; that was the conversation Katrina and I were having that day. I don’t remember what started the discussion, my 44-year-old mind no longer retains all the details, but I do remember we were talking about what that word meant and who it could and could not refer. My part of the discussion reflected what my parents had taught me about that word- it was a nasty and vile term white people used towards black people and I should never say it. Calling people names was wrong. Katrina’s part of the discussion reflected what her parents had taught her about the word-any person could be called the n-word because it referred to how you conduct yourself in your life and not how you look on the outside.
Last night the husband and I went out to dinner. It was supposed to be a date night for us, but the activity we had scheduled for Buzzsaw got cancelled, so we all ending up going out to Applebee’s. Towards the end of our meal Buzzsaw started talking about skin color; he kept mentioning that he was light peach and his father and I were dark peach. I was pretty sure what he was talking about even though he hadn’t specifically said the word skin yet, but I still asked what he was talking about to be sure. Then he started asking why some people were black. . .
Conversations with a 6-year-old are rarely quiet and there was a tiny part of my brain that was concerned what our racially diverse dining neighbors were thinking of this conversation. But seriously, how the hell do you explain genetics to a 6-year-old!? I did my best to use the menu advertisements on the table to explain that genes were like the letters in the words, and depending on how you put them together determined what the word/genetic trait would look like. He eventually got bored with the conversation and we moved to rockets and how they worked . . . daddy took that topic.
What really sticks with me about these two conversations is how differently I felt in each conversation. As a 6-year-old I could easily and unabashedly discuss the meaning of a vile word with my black friend. No anger, no discomfort, no political-correctness, just a healthy and civil discussion about the meaning of a word. As an adult, attempting to explain genetics and DNA to my 6-year-old, I was concerned what others might think of a little white boy asking why some people are black. I have no idea if any of our dining neighbors even heard, let alone cared what we were talking about; but it is a reflection of how I feel all of them time, do all black people (who don’t know me) see me as racist just because I am white?
I’m tired of having these thoughts. I’m tired of worrying about innocent moments in my daily life being misunderstood. I’m tired of having to prove that my life wasn’t better because I am white. I’m tired of defending the fact that I am white. I’m tired of black people thinking I can’t empathize or understand being treated differently because of how I look; I’m short, fat, and female, I’ve had my share of being treated certain ways because of how I look. I know it’s not the same thing, but I am intelligent and empathetic enough to be able to comprehend how it must feel to be black. But more than anything I am tired of blacks and whites not talking to each other, or listening to each other.
The Michael Brown story and the subsequent chaos that is now Ferguson MO just makes me want to scream. At everybody!!! Black, white, civilian, law enforcement, rich person, poor person, leaders, and community members; there is enough blame to go around to every group that can be listed. So I’m going to break it down into some categories and pretend I’m that 6-year-old little white girl and say what I want without worrying what others might think:
Michael Brown Michael Brown committed a crime. There is video evidence of him robbing a store and assaulting the store clerk. Moments later he is seen, by Officer Darren Wilson, walking down the middle of the street and impeding traffic. When confronted by Officer Wilson and told to get out of the road he becomes belligerent and confrontational instead of complying and going on his merry way. We will never know if he would have gotten away with robbing the store of a handful of cigars; his actions and reactions to Officer Wilson set in motion the outcome of that afternoon.
As a parent, my heart breaks for his parents. Regardless of his past and regardless of his actions that day, two people lost their son. If it had been my child I don’t think I would be able to resist the denial that my child had done anything to cause his death that day. And if I was a black parent who had been raised, and was raising someone in an environment where people were treated differently because of skin color, I have to admit I would have a difficult time looking past the color of the officer who shot my son. If I lived in a town where 95% of the police force was another color and there was a history of different treatment based on race, it would be easy for me to gloss over what my child had done that day.
As an outsider of Ferguson MO, and as a white person I want to ask, if the majority of the community is black doesn’t that mean that the majority of arrests are going to be of black people? Unless the demographics show it as 50/50 and more black people are getting arrested, then I don’t think it can be completely blamed on the police. Don’t worry, I will get to my blame for law enforcement in a few moments.
We can all armchair-referee the actions of Officer Wilson that day. We can all sit in the safety of our homes, without fear of a 6ft+ person coming at us in the middle of a neighborhood full of people hostile to our very presence, and decide what Officer Wilson should or should not have done. What we cannot do is discount the fact that if Michael Brown had just gotten out of the street when he was told to do so, he would be alive now. He may or may not be in jail, but he would be alive, and the streets of Ferguson would not be burning.
Law Enforcement A 95% white police force in a town whose population is predominately black? Really? Come on now. And you think race isn’t going to be an issue? How exactly are you going to build the trust of the community and take it back from the criminal element? This is an ongoing issue across the nation and law enforcement communities need to take responsibility for their actions contributing to the mistrust of the people. The crazy myriad of pieces that would have had to fit together to prove a police conspiracy in the OJ Simpson trial show just how deep this mistrust goes in black communities. They live it every. single. day. It made perfect sense because they live with the abuse of power every moment of their lives. It doesn’t matter that Michael Brown committed a crime, it really doesn’t. In their eyes, and from their daily experience, being black is what caused his death. Being black is why Officer Wilson confronted Michael Brown that day. Every day, across the country black people are stopped and confronted by the police for no other reason than the color of their skin.
If law enforcement wants things to change then they have to change. To quote Michael Jackson, they need to “start with the man in the mirror.” Law Enforcement needs to accept their contribution to the current environment and admit not all police officers are good people. The leaders in law enforcement need to stop saying one thing in public and saying another thing behind closed doors. Just because someone is “on the job” doesn’t mean they are above the law. The police are rightly held to a higher standard. Their actions and inactions have far-reaching consequences, and the only way they will ever be able to take back their communities from the criminal element is to start working on gaining the trust of the people. And that’s going to take a very long time, one person at a time. But it needs to be done. We can’t keep watching communities burn. We are better than that.
And you know what? Leaving Michael Brown’s body lying in the middle of the street for 4 hours was a bad move. Can you truly justify every moment his dead body was left lying in the middle of the street? Did it not occur to you how that would look to everyone watching your every move? Did you even care?
We need to stop thinking about “us” and “them”.
White People Racism is real. Everyday black people are looked at differently, avoided on the sidewalk, watched just a little more closely when they walk into a store, and pulled over because they are driving a really nice car, for no other reason than they are black. I think my life experience is similar to many white people; we have friends and coworkers, even a neighbor or two that are black. But we don’t live in communities that are predominantly of a different race; we don’t go to jobs or schools where we are the “token” white person. For the majority of us, even those of us who live and work in poverty-stricken neighborhoods, we don’t live or work in communities where the criminal element rules. We don’t worry about gang-bangers luring our children into their world. We don’t worry about being shot if we report a crime to police. We don’t wonder if someone is going to think we are shoplifting when we walk into a store. Just because these things don’t happen in our environments, doesn’t mean they don’t happen. We need to be tired of this stuff still happening. We need to be tired of the racism. We need to be tired of black people being treated differently because of their skin color. We need to stop thinking every black person in baggy jeans hanging around their ass and a hoodie jacket flipping gang signs on Facebook is a gang-banger ready to rob and rape us. They are just poorly dressed with bad social etiquette like all the white people who do the same thing, in the same clothes.
We need to stop thinking about “us” and “them”.
Black People Not all white people are racist. Not all white people judge you by your skin color. Not all white people are bad people. And not all black people are innocent. This is what a lot of us don’t understand; why is Michael Brown the “poster child” for the crap you endure at the hands of law enforcement? He robbed a store, assaulted a store clerk, and then defiantly strolled down the middle of the street daring someone to confront him. He did scuffle with Officer Wilson, there was a confrontation between the two, his actions and choices did contribute to the outcome of the situation. WHY is he your rallying point? Because it should matter what he did. It matters to every single black person who has done nothing wrong and still is wrongly confronted by the police.
WHY do you destroy your own community? Why burn down the businesses in your own town? What do you hope is accomplished by such rioting? WHY are the peaceful protestors not calling out and speaking up against the riffraff causing the mayhem? Why protect those that are harming your community? Because they are black? How does that help anyone?
Can a white person, police or civilian, ever shoot or assault a black person without it being racist? There are black criminals and there are white criminals. If a black person commits a crime against a white person, are we supposed to just take it? Are we not allowed to defend ourselves without being labeled something we are not? Are we only allowed to defend ourselves against white criminals?
Has it occurred to anyone that the police had no choice but to leave Michael Brown’s body in the middle of the street for 4 hours? They had an investigation to conduct; pictures to take, measurements to make, and evidence to collect. A black man had just been shot and killed by a white cop, they needed to get all the evidence they could. I don’t disagree that 4 hours sounds like a very long time, but maybe, just maybe, some of those white cops aren’t racist and were just trying to do a thorough job. And maybe, just maybe, they were concerned about the reactions of the neighborhood and fearing for their own safety.
We need to stop thinking about “us” and “them”.
White Leaders You need to do a better job of thinking of the communities you are leading and protecting. You cannot adequately protect and lead communities if they don’t trust you. And if you have leadership and law enforcement that is predominately white in black communities, you are never going to gain that trust. Should it be that way, should it matter the color of your skin? No. It shouldn’t matter the color of anyone’s skin, but it does. That’s the reality. Until you make changes in your leadership and interaction with these communities it will always matter. Contain the peaceful crowds, don’t fire upon them. When the original protests in Ferguson happened you didn’t need to strong-arm it so fast. It just escalated everything. From the viewpoint of the community, bringing in such force so quickly just said to the community that you automatically assume the worst of black people. As long as nothing violent was happening then there was no reason to come on so strong. The release of the grand jury decision didn’t go so well either. Maybe you were in a lose-lose situation, I don’t know. But maybe you should have had town-hall style meetings with the residents and business owners in the area for the months before the decision. Having some conversations and communicating with the community would have least given them the dignity of knowing that you truly gave a shit about the outcome. It probably would not have stopped the riffraff, they were determined to cause chaos no matter what; but at least the community at large would have seen you try. It would have been a first step on your part, in the right direction.
You need to stop thinking of “us” and “them”.
Black Leaders Where are you?? Where are your voices? Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Don Lemon, Jay-Z, Kayne West, Colin Powell, Condalezza Rice, Eric Holder, Michael Jordan, Lebron James, Charles Barkley, Denzel Washington, Robert Griffen III, Martin Luther King III, Samuel Jackson, Oprah Winfrey ; why are you not screaming in outrage at the actions of those burning down Ferguson? Why are not speaking up and saying that this is not acceptable? You are all so very successful. You have all proven that your skin color does not have to decide your path in life. Some of you have come from these communities, all of you have had to overcome the mistreatment and racism that these communities still face. Why are not publicly angry at the actions of some in this community? I truly do not understand. Because in my white little mind, these “bad apples” reflect poorly on black communities . They contribute to the negative thoughts and stereo types white people still tag on black people.
Stop thinking of “us” and “them”.
The Community at Large We all need to stop thinking of “us” and “them”. We need to start looking at ourselves and how we are or are not contributing to the environment we live in. We need to start talking to each other, and listening to each other. We need to stop being afraid of being different from each other. Just because someone is black doesn’t make them a gang-banging criminal. Just because someone is white doesn’t make them a racist wishing the south had won the war. I work in our nations capital. I walk the streets around my office everyday and interact with people of all colors, nationalities, religions, and genders; all I see is people going about their lives trying to do their job and take care of themselves and their families. I see black and white coworkers having conversations as they walk to lunch or their place of employment. I don’t see anything that indicates they are aware of the difference in their skin color. When I ride the metro (DC’s subway system), it is often packed “butt-to-nut” as my husband puts it, and nobody cares what color you are if there is an empty seat next to you. Yesterday, black friday, I had to go out and buy a suitcase. As I was trying to get my things out of the buggy I dropped my keys but couldn’t see where they landed. A really nice man picked them up and handed them to me. He was black. I didn’t care, I just was glad to see there are still nice and helpful people in the world. He didn’t care that I was white, he saw someone who needed assistance and he took 5 secs out of his day to help. Color had nothing to do with our exchange.
Until we can stop treating each other as “us” and “them” nothing is going to change. Until white people start holding white racists accountable for their words and actions, nothing is going to change. Until black people start holding black racists accountable for their words and actions, nothing is going to change. We don’t all look the same and that’s okay, we aren’t supposed to look alike. It’s called diversity.