“If they aren’t doing anything unlawful, then they shouldn’t have anything to worry about.”
It’s a common refrain used by defensive white people who would like to pretend that minorities, specifically black people, are not targeted by law enforcement. I’m sorry to say there was an ignorant time in my life when I believed this too.
For much of my teens and twenties, even as I consumed black culture, co-opted and appropriated it because it was “oh-so-cool-and-different,” I bought in to boot-strapping black respectability politics. I thought if black people would just “act right” then they wouldn’t get into trouble. I thought that being “colorblind” meant not being racist; that if we willed the differences away, they’d slink to the furthest reaches of the earth, never to be seen again.
I am embarrassed about my past ignorance (and am still learning), but it also makes sense. I was privileged, grew up in a nearly all-white town, and came up in an age of “colorblind” racial politics, which really just translated into never talking about race. It all made perfect sense to me: “we’re all the same underneath it all! Sure, slavery was terrible and it’s pretty fucked up that segregation was only undone a few decades ago, but what’s past is past, amirite? All that is behind us now! Besides, I’ve been persecuted, too! My grandfather escaped Nazi Germany and one time a guy painted a swastika on my locker at school, so racism and oppression can happen to anyone! I totally get everything!”
Sigh. Back then, I never really examined how insidious racism can be, or how complexly its woven into the fabric of our society. It wasn’t really until I became a law student and a feminist that I started to open my eyes (by the way, my former misogyny was just as ignorant and laughable as my former racism, but more on that another time). With critical examination, I started to become more aware of all of the ways both large and small that women are discriminated against. I could see how sexism colored many of my interactions, and I was furious. Once I held that same introspective lens up to racial issues, my colorblind politics suddenly couldn’t hold water anymore.
On top of that introspection, I was seeing first hand how racism was affecting my own black friends. My college and law school classmates were fighting back against stop-and-frisks, workplace discrimination, and everyday microaggressions that I could only understand and empathize with in a very limited way. I started to see the injustices in plain day. If my black friends who, for all intents and purposes were both educated and “acting right,” were still having these awful experiences, how could I turn a blind eye?
I started reading up on racial politics, and learning as much as I could. I “liked” other peoples’ Facebook shares, and commented here and there to show my solidarity and support, but, until this week, I could not convince myself to speak out. I was afraid of being shouted down by fellow white people who are quite comfortable with the status quo, and even more fearful of offending black people. I didn’t want to speak over them, co-opt the conversation, or pretend like I’m so enlightened that of course my thoughts must be heard. Frankly, my inaction was two-fold: I was afraid, and had no idea how to properly engage.
That was, until this week. I was scrolling NextDoor.com checking the goings-on in my community. And then I saw a post under “Crime and Safety” that put my heart right in my throat:
“About 20 minutes ago, we had a strange knock on the door. I answered to find a younger black gentleman standing in front of me. He seemed kind of lost and spoke quietly. He was looking for the “Smith” house to “return a hat”. He was holding a dark cap. He mentioned he forgot to give it back and his friend mentioned he lived down around these houses.He seemed maybe in his younger 20s, maybe 5′ 8″ or so, black sleeveless shirt, black basketball shorts, a little on the slender side. He parked his black Toyota Camry at the end of our neighbor’s driveway. Looked very new, 2013 or newer for sure, 4 door.He left apologizing, then turned left, heading north. Seemed really odd and was a little unsettling. Just a warning in case someone has the same experience. Figured better safe to mention it than shrug it off.”**
I felt really uncomfortable, and couldn’t figure out anything that could be deemed strange or unsettling about this exchange. It sounded like he just had the wrong house to me. And worse were the responses — folks telling the original poster to go to the police, saying the interaction was “not normal.” All I could think was, what is abnormal about this? And why on earth would anyone call the police on someone who just had the wrong house?! I commented on the thread in that vein, but felt cowardly for not calling out the undercurrent of racism I was sure I was seeing. I was sick over the way it was all couched in neighborly politeness and assurances of “just to be safe.” I was disgusted.
A few more people responded for the original poster to go to the police. At this point, I was shaking with frustration. “Say something! Don’t be afraid. Do the right thing,” I told myself. I looked up “Smith” in the White Pages, and sure enough — there they were, right around the corner from the original poster.
We, as a society, bark at black people to stop saying “black lives matter” and tell them that if they just act lawfully, the police will leave them alone; that if they’re respectful and apologetic for their existence, they won’t find themselves in trouble. But here was a black man who had done absolutely nothing wrong and had played by all the “rules.” He’d been respectful, polite and apologetic and he was still suspect, not to mention one phone call away from having a run-in with law enforcement.
I summoned up all my courage (shows how “courageous” I am) and responded: “A quick White Pages search found that there is in fact a Smith household at 123 4th Ave, right around the corner from the original poster. I don’t want to sling mud here, but I’m very uncomfortable with the assumptions being made on this thread — that a young man coming to the door looking for his friend is up to no good. I’m sorry, but I just can’t help but think we wouldn’t even be having this conversation if he had been white…”
A flood of responses came in; many were supportive, and many were downright offended. Some accused me of “pulling the race card” (it’s not a “card.” Institutionalized racism is a real, demonstrable thing. Next.), some were defensive that they’d been “accused” of racism (which is obviously worse than actually being oppressed. Next.) and of course, one guy yelled about America being a free country for anyone to not trust anyone else (yes, sir, and I’m also free to be uncomfortable with the undercurrent of racism happening here. NEXT). The term “extreme political correctness” (AKA, social media has finally given the oppressed an avenue to organize and call people on their shit) came up and made me laugh out loud.
But something else happened: a really productive dialogue about the racial divide in our community, the way we talk about race, and the ways in which the words we choose matter. Many in the community chimed in, and some folks even said the entire discussion had gotten them thinking more about racial politics and the way they choose their own words. Mostly everyone was respectful and neighborly, and we even discussed the possibility of fundraising and organizing for Crossroads Antiracism and Training to come do a workshop in the community to get the ball rolling on these issues.
Further, the fact that my response had by far the highest number of “thanks” (the NextDoor equivalent of “likes”) in the thread makes me think that many people were feeling the same sense of injustice that I was, but sitting on their hands . . . probably for many of the same reasons I usually don’t say anything.
I’m not going to claim I’m some hero for writing a few words. I’m not. I’ve sat in silence far too often as people said ignorant, racist things around me. And other times, I’ve been one of them.
But I realize now that my silence and inaction was hurting the cause. I was being complicit in this racist system that frankly benefits me every day, all while claiming to be an ally. The truth is, I can read articles and retweet black thinkers until the cows come home, but I’m not doing shit if I’m not speaking up when I see injustice. I’m going to stop being afraid and change that in myself.
So my call to action to my fellow white people is: speak up! Your words have more power to effect change than you know. If something doesn’t feel right to you, address it. Be respectful and understanding, but draw the line. Be a true ally and stand up for what is right — we can help turn the tide.
White people, it’s time for US to start acting right.
**All descriptive details and names have been changed to protect the identity of those involved.