I have zero recollection of talking about race as a child.
I’m sure it happened. I’m sure my mom said something to me, maybe while we were watching Law & Order, about how we shouldn’t assume things about people because of what they look like. But I have no specific memories of being really aware of race except for noting that my grandmother still used the word ‘coloreds’ and that some members of my family were less than thrilled when my cousin started dating a black man.
My childhood was basically colorblind because I grew up in a white community and race was simply not something we had to talk about.
Some assumptions certainly did sneak their way into my mind around the vacuum of stories from POC perspectives. The hardest one to overcome is the one that tells me my safety is more at risk from the black cat-caller than the white one when really, it’s always a toss-up. The internet makes me feel comfortable, but every time my heart speeds up when I see a person of color nearing me on the street, I know I’ve got a lot of work to do.
For a long time, being colorblind made me think that we could talk about cases like Michael Brown’s murder the same way we talk about any other crime. We can talk about it as an isolated case, right? We can say, Oh, but if he assaulted the police officer, of course that officer had to respond with force, that’s what it’s about, and it definitely is not a race thing, and it’s racist of you to make it a race thing.
We can say, The protesters should be peaceful, what are they hoping to accomplish by destroying property? What’s the best way to convince the world that young black men aren’t thugs? Oh, run around acting like thugs! Makes perfect sense!
I’m paraphrasing things I actually read on Facebook last night, from people I’ve been friends with for years and from white strangers.
Let me diverge for a moment. I used to be naively unsympathetic to sexual assault, mostly because I was not sexually active until well into my undergrad years and the act of sex didn’t seem wholly real to me. It wasn’t until I became sexually active and of legal drinking age, and began to find myself in public bars, with strange men, on my third beer, that I realized shit, I am not immune to this. Any of the times someone bought me a drink, or followed me toward the bathroom, or blocked an exit, or left at the same time as me, could have become an assault on me. It’s always a toss-up.
This realization changed the way I think about sexual assault, and it changed my perspective of sexual assault cases. I could see the victim blaming for what it was, because as soon as they said “What was she wearing?” I could imagine my own jeans-and-a-t-shirt wardrobe being scrutinized. Sure it’s just a t-shirt, but was it a tight t-shirt? Did it have a low neckline?
And so I further realized that we can’t talk about rape cases the same way we talk about, say, theft, as much as people want to try. There’s a cultivated atmosphere surrounding sexual assault, one that encourages people to question the victim’s veracity before the assailant’s. And this happens because we have it in our heads (often subconsciously) which story to prioritize, which one to listen to. We don’t listen to those who have experienced sexual assault. Their stories go in one ear and out the other, and we go on thinking about the “facts” of the case and “hearing all sides” without seeing the survivor as a human with rights to safety, or the atmosphere that guides what was she wearing to our lips and tells us that it matters.
Do you see where I’m going with this?
The thing is, we can’t talk about Michael Brown’s murder as if it’s a regular case of, I don’t even know, suspect questioning gone wrong. Because there’s a cultivated atmosphere surrounding the relationship between black men and the police, and a broader one surrounding the humanity of POC. Just like the tarnished futures of the Steubenville rapists tugged people’s heartstrings more than Jane Doe’s trauma, Darren Wilson’s bruised face elicits more sympathy than Michael Brown’s bullet-torn body.
This is probably a good time for my disclaimer. I am not anti-police. My grandfather was a police officer and a judge for decades. I’m proud to do jury duty, I have a lot of respect for the justice system and I understand the limitations faced by those who have to follow the letter of the law. But the system and the law were forged in a society that prioritized the safety and innocence of rich, able, white people, and our modern society really wants to call itself post-racial despite the fact that the majority of people I know would rather talk about how Michael Brown robbed a convenience store than about how Darren Wilson saw Brown as a “demon”.
White friends and family members: every time you dismiss a case of state violence on people of color based on the specific circumstance, the specific facts, you ignore the larger picture of an atmosphere in which POC don’t feel they can trust the justice system. How can they, given how many POC have died at the hands of police this year alone? How can they, given the disproportionate rate of imprisonment for POC? Hell, if I were raped I seriously doubt that I would report it, because I don’t know if I could trust the system to support me (though my odds of being taken seriously, as a married-to-a-man white woman, are higher than for most).
White friends and family members, I would like to request one small thing of you. Instead of arguing or discussing the facts of the Ferguson case (or the next one–because there will be a next one, and a next one, and a next one, until we change this), I want you to fill your colorblind vacuum with POC stories. Get on the Twitter hashtags. Read Ta-Nehisi Coates, Roxane Gay, Melissa Harris-Perry, Laverne Cox, Sesali Bowen. Clear your mind, suspend your reactions–or better yet, when a defensive and/or reactionary thought pops into your head, stop and examine why you thought it and where it comes from.
Most of all, just listen. There is a side to this you can’t see, a perspective you have never had to look through, and you–we–need to be quiet and see it through the eyes of the people who live it every day.
I encourage discussion in the comments–share stories and support each other. I ask that you avoid talking about what police/protesters/etc “should” do–I’d rather you look into ways to improve your own community than talk in broad terms here. Comments will be heavily moderated; trolling will not be tolerated.