(TLDR: Read it anyway. It’s that important.)
I feel alone right now. Perhaps more alone than I have ever felt. Or at least in a way I have never experienced. As I have sat in tearful contemplation today, I learned a little bit more about humanity – a difficult little piece of humanity that is sometimes hard for many of my fellow citizens who look like me to relate to because we’ve never had to worry about experiencing anything like what we have seen in the news this week.
It is horrific enough to imagine being suffocated by the heavy knee of a police officer, relentlessly pushing down on your neck. It is even harder to watch the entire thing playing out on television. It is even more horrific to think about the reaction of the protesters, who lost control and destroyed a neighborhood because of it.
I was fortunate. I grew up in a diverse area, and as kids, all different shapes, sizes and colors, we saw each other as being the same – just kids. Yeah, we all look a little different, and our talents, abilities and resources varied, but we were just kids, and we didn’t think otherwise. This attitude stuck with me through adulthood. Now living in a not-very-diverse place, I miss the cornucopia of languages, colors, cultures that made my former home such a vibrant place, and which sadly, has had the opposite effect on many other former neighbors who miss the way it “used to be.”
Past generations, even my grandparents, saw the world through different eyes, in some cases because they were subject to a different kind of persecution based on their religious beliefs or what country they immigrated from. But for the most part, they blended in because they looked like most everyone else in their neighborhoods. One set of grandparents contributed to “white flight” – fear of the black folks moving into the neighborhood – by moving from the city to the suburbs. My other grandparents and their pale-skinned peers were presumed to be “superior,” and people of color stepped aside when they walked by. Yes, one could argue that it was simply the culture back then, but it makes it no less foreign, strange or inappropriate to me. My parents, maybe because of their observations, chose not to be that way, and taught us to appreciate people for the people they are, not what they look like. I was lucky that way.
Among the friends I had, I never knew anyone who was visibly treated differently. Maybe it happened and they hid it. Maybe I was just too disillusioned to believe that it could happen. Or just too happy-go-luck to notice that others didn’t experience life the way I did. Maybe that’s where a lot of us are in our privilege. It obviously happens – way too much, but it when folks don’t have to worry about such things, it’s easy to pretend it isn’t real, or worse, to not care that it is happening because it doesn’t affect them directly.
In my contemplation today, I was reminded of an episode in my life some 30 years ago. It was one of the first examples of racial profiling I had observed personally. Pretty tame compared to some of our modern examples, but no less upsetting. I remember it like it was yesterday. A friend and I were shopping at Woodward & Lothrop, a higher-end DC area department store that has long since closed. This is something we did regularly. It was wintertime, so we were wearing cold-weather coats, and we were browsing through the housewares section.
We had wandered to different areas of the department when I looked up and noticed two men following my friend (who happened to have darker skin than I) everywhere he went. He was totally absorbed in what he was doing, and had no idea he was being followed. As we walked through another department, the store detectives continued in their silent pursuit. I told him, in a voice loud enough that the two men could hear me, “Do you realize those men are following you around the store?” He was clueless. In disbelief, he stopped, turned around, saw them and asked, “Are you following me?” They simply said yes, like it was a completely normal and appropriate thing to do, explaining that it was just their job. I wasn’t quite so polite – not to the point of getting kicked out of the store, but I made it clear in no uncertain terms that it wasn’t acceptable. At least they apologized.
Here we were at a store where he spent WAY too much money on a regular basis, yet he was deemed to need special observation because of his appearance. They couldn’t have cared less about me. They had pegged the black guy. I was infuriated. If I hadn’t had my wits about me, it wouldn’t have taken much to push me over the edge and start knocking things over and smashing them.
What triggered this memory was some comments I saw today on social media about how horrible the people were to riot and burn down stores, and how “those people” have been “waiting for years” for the opportunity to do that. And that’s when the contemplation started. Yes we are human, and we think of ourselves as being too sophisticated to stoop to that level, but are we? We are animals, born with “fight or flight” instincts that drive us to do extreme things when our adrenaline starts to rush. No, they weren’t “waiting” to pillage a retail business. They were caught up in a tense, angry moment that got out of control.
Think about the incident at the department store. Yes, I was mad enough to start quickly expediting merchandise toward the floor. But, I didn’t. I wasn’t angry enough to boil over. But what if I had spent my whole life living under a microscope of suspicion and doubt? My reaction might have been a little more pronounced, maybe not justified, but at least understandable. It’s not that I really wanted to harm anything, but sometimes when you are overwhelmed by a circumstance, something “clicks” and any sense of caution gets tossed aside.
When you are already upset about something, and then you find yourself around thousands of people who are as passionate as you are, it doesn’t take much for something even more passion-inducing (like feeling threatened or duped) to push one person over the edge, then another, until the whole crowd is doing irrational things they would never dream of doing under normal circumstances. Before anyone can react to it, a peaceful protest becomes a riot.
That is what is called “mob mentality.” It’s the same thing that makes an entire flock of birds take off at the same time when one bird decides it’s time to leave, or that causes people to not want to get involved when something bad happens. No one wants to be the “bad guy” unless everyone else is being bad, then they don’t want to be the “odd man out.” There is psychological comfort and safety of sorts when you stay with the pack and follow it, because you don’t know what threat may lie beyond it. It is wired into our DNA. It’s not okay, but it’s who we are.
I can hear you thinking, “I could never do something like that. I’m far too mature and level-headed to ever get pulled into that kind of chaos.” The truth is, you have no way of knowing how you will react until you are there. Based on typical patterns of human behavior, we are far more likely to get pulled into the energy of a crowd than to be scared off by it. Think of how hard it is to be the only person to skip that one piece of cake when you are trying to lose weight. Or to turn down that juicy hamburger at a cookout when you know your cholesterol is through the roof. You convince yourself it’s okay “just this once,” even though it’s completely contradictory to your goals, especially if everyone else is enjoying it. As frustrating and simple as that is, the same principle applies to resisting a crowd of people who are just as upset as you are. Some maybe more. You have a common bond – they are your brethren, and brothers and sisters stick together, right? You surely would be surprised at what you are capable of doing when your time comes to snap.
The good news is this dynamic can also be used in a positive way. The more love and compassion we put into a situation, the more peace we will find in it, even if it isn’t ideal. Look at how the world came together in a rare moment of kindness after the 9/11 attacks. It is possible.
If you have never been subjected to mistreatment or injustice, you should be thankful. There are so many others who live with these things, or at least the threat of them, every single day of their lives. It’s not just one incident – it is the accumulation of lifetimes and generations of being treated as “less than.” If you had experienced this kind of life, your perspective would be a lot different. You would be all the more affected every single time something bad happens…again…today.
As I thought about this, the lesson really sank in. If I get tired of seeing stuff like this on the news, I can turn off the TV and my life is perfectly safe. There are people in our country who live this every day. It is their life. Every. Single. Day. They can’t “turn it off” because there is nothing to turn to. No, they don’t like it or want it any more than you would, but they have lost hope. Most of us have never had to worry about losing hope, because our circumstances haven’t been bad enough to need to worry about having hope, much less losing it. If that doesn’t help you understand what “white privilege” is, you need to think on it a lot more. Now.
As the old newspaper slogan used to say, “If you don’t get it, you don’t get it.” Well, this week, I got it more than I ever thought I had “gotten it” before. I can’t turn it off. It’s in my consciousness and there is no escape from its truth. Injustice is still injustice, whether it happens to me, or whether I see it, or not.
And here’s where we have a chance to make a difference.
Just like what I alone observed in that department store, sometimes an observer might have a point of view that reveals things that no one else realizes is happening until it’s too late. Someone knew those police officers had a tendency to use brutality, and chose to ignore it. Someone saw George Floyd being reported to the police, and chose to say nothing. Someone saw him being treated unfairly, and just watched. Someone saw the police pinning him down with excessive force, and said nothing. Someone heard his cries to breathe, and no one came to his rescue. There were people standing all around watching, yet still he died. Someone knew the community was angry about what happened, but didn’t offer enough encouragement for them to find hope for justice. These people have been disappointed too many times to believe much of anything anymore. So that’s where they – and as part of the same family, we – are.
I feel the isolation of George Floyd. I feel the helplessness of knowing there isn’t a damn thing he could do without someone else coming to the rescue. I feel his suffocation as he gasped for breath. I feel the darkness as life was crushed out of his body by the cruelty around him. Alone.
If you see a wrong, you have an opportunity to act – to do what you can to correct it. Every effort, no matter how small, makes a difference. As easy as it has become for people not to “get involved,” mistreatment of humans, or any living creature, is never “someone else’s problem.” It is our problem, because we are humanity. No life is so expendable that it justifies what has happened this week and so many times before. No, you can’t solve all the world’s problems, but you can work on the ones you see.
As Malcolm X said, and I repeat it often, “If you aren’t part of the solution, you are part of the problem.” It doesn’t matter what color skin you have, or what neighborhood you live in, or how much money you may or may not have. It is your problem, too.
Will you hide behind your privilege, in whatever form that comes, or will you be a part of the solution? As the saying goes, be the change we want (and need) to see.
I close by sharing something else I saw on social media today, which brought me to tears after my day of reckoning. I won’t comment, because it speaks volumes I could never find the words for, except: God bless the person who took time to write it, and the angel who shared it so I could see it:
I have privilege as a white person because I can do all of these things without thinking twice about it…
I can go birding (#ChristianCooper).
I can go jogging (#AmaudArbery).
I can relax in the comfort of my own home (#BothemSean and #AtatianaJefferson).
I can ask for help after being in a car crash (#JonathanFerrell and #RenishaMcBride).
I can have a cellphone (#StephonClark).
I can leave a party to get to safety (#JordanEdwards).
I can play loud music (#JordanDavis).
I can sell CD’s (#AltonSterling).
I can sleep (#AiyanaJones)
I can walk from the corner store (#MikeBrown).
I can play cops and robbers (#TamirRice).
I can go to church (#Charleston9).
I can walk home with Skittles (#TrayvonMartin).
I can hold a hair brush while leaving my own bachelor party (#SeanBell).
I can party on New Years (#OscarGrant).
I can get a normal traffic ticket (#SandraBland).
I can lawfully carry a weapon (#PhilandoCastile).
I can break down on a public road with car problems (#CoreyJones).
I can shop at Walmart (#JohnCrawford) .
I can have a disabled vehicle (#TerrenceCrutcher).
I can read a book in my own car (#KeithScott).
I can be a 10-year-old walking with our grandfather (#CliffordGlover).
I can decorate for a party (#ClaudeReese).
I can ask a cop a question (#RandyEvans).
I can cash a check in peace (#YvonneSmallwood).
I can take out my wallet (#AmadouDiallo).
I can run (#WalterScott).
I can breathe (#EricGarner).
I can live (#FreddieGray).
I can be arrested without the fear of being murdered. (#GeorgeFloyd)
White privilege is real. Take a minute to consider a black person’s experience today.
Many blessings of peace and comfort, not only to you, but to all of the families who have been affected by mistreatment, violence and injustice of any kind, this week, or throughout eternity. May I never have to write about something like this again.