I am a white middle class American citizen and I am living the American dream. I have a Master’s degree, a good job, a husband with a good job, two beautiful kids (boy and girl), two dogs, two cars, and I live in a nice middle class neighborhood with well-kept yards and homes. To say that I was handed those things would be a lie. I had to work hard through college and grad school to get my degrees. I put in years of sweat and tears to work my way up to being a department head at the private Christian high school where I currently teach. My husband and I are struggling through our post-housing crisis difficulties when we had to move and were unable to sell our home. We are working through our debt and look forward to the day when money will be going into our savings account instead of to pay off loans. Our kids do have many things that I didn’t have when I was a kid but they hear the word “no” far more than they would like. Yes, there are times I wish for more, but when I look at my life, we have it pretty good and we continue to work to have it that way.
But don’t think for an instant that I don’t realize that my race and socio-economic status doesn’t give me an unintentional advantage over others. I realize it all too well.
When the shooting of Alton Sterling made it across my news feed, I chose to read but not comment. It appeared to be riddled with problems for people on both “sides” of the issue and I wanted to wait to see what information came out in the investigation. But then the news broke about the shooting death of Philandro Castile. And then my husband shared with me the Facebook post of a high school classmate of ours and I needed to comment. And after I commented, I realized that I had even more to say. You see, this particular high school classmate was one of the few black students in our graduating class. A large teddy bear of a guy, this particular former high school football player wouldn’t hurt a fly. And yet today he posted about the fear that he has when he leaves the house. The concern that he has about whether or not he will do something that could be so misinterpreted that it would cause him to not get safely home to his family on any given night. And then the thoughts started to snowball. I thought about my brother-in-law who is also a larger black man who some might see as a threat in the “wrong” neighborhood at the “wrong” time. And I thought about the student who told me this year that he, at 16, didn’t realize that racism was alive and well until he was told by a friend that her father didn’t want them dating because he’s black. And I thought about the female student I had a couple years ago who openly discussed the looks she gets from store clerks when she is out shopping with her white friends. This is a young woman who is currently studying for the medical profession. A young woman who added an intellectual depth to my classroom that was appreciated by teacher and classmates alike. And yet she felt singled out when going to the mall. And then I thought about my young son and realized I was thankful that I don’t have to be afraid that other people will be afraid of him as he gets older because he is a white, middle class kid of Dutch and German descent. I’m not afraid that his clothing, car, choice of music, or even choice of friends, will be seen as a threat to law enforcement or fellow civilians.
To my white, Caucasian friends: I realize that many of you don’t understand the driving forces behind the “Black Lives Matter” movement, and in the world most of us have grown up in, the idea that deep racial hatred, bigotry, and injustice still exists seems foreign. But it’s not foreign to those who still experience it. There are many who are a part of the movement who were part of a civil rights movement that was full of violence. These are individuals who cannot forget being forced away from protests by dogs and firehoses. They can’t forget being arrested and watching their friends and family being arrested because they were fighting for their constitutional rights. They were told stories in their childhoods about family members who were slaves and denied basic human rights. The Civil War (and slavery) ended 151 years ago, but that didn’t end injustice. That didn’t end the killing. That didn’t end the abuse. This past Spring Break my husband and I took our children across the border into Louisiana to see the Cane River Creole National Historic Park. Part of the visit was touring two plantations, one of which housed tenant farmers well into the 1970s. For the first time ever, I truly understood the roots of institutionalized racism and poverty in the Deep South.
In the time that we were there, my husband and I talked to our two young children and tried to help them understand just what life was like for slaves on those plantations. It was a lesson that finally took root when our daughter recently finished reading Meet Addy from the American Girl series. We whites like to believe we live in a “post-racial” society. We’ve grown up more enlightened than our grandparents and great-grandparents. We see interracial couples and wonder why people are making such a fuss about a Cheerios commercial. We have friends of different races and are sure to point it out. We rail against social injustice. We vote for a black president (or just accept him as our president after “our” guy lost) and proclaim it as progress. And yes, we’ve come a LONG way folks. But racism and injustice still exists.
Because friends, systemic racism isn’t about white police officers intentionally going after black men with the purpose of killing them. I do not believe for one minute that any police officer, regardless of their feelings, leaves the police station on a given day and says “today I intend to harm a member of another race.” Systemic racism is about the attitudes and beliefs that drive our every action and reaction. It’s about the fear that people feel when they see men of certain races walking down a well lit street in a middle class neighborhood because somewhere along the way they learned to be afraid of what “that” person could do to them. It’s about a white male college student convicted of rape getting coverage that highlights his swimming stats and a black male shooting victim getting his rap sheet analyzed by the press. It’s about casting popular white actors as other races in films because audiences know who they are and it will certainly draw a bigger audience. It’s about claims that films with primarily white actors are more frequently worthy of Oscars when one glance at the Tonys demonstrates that the entertainment industry is full of every race and color. It’s about not being surprised when we see an Asian student at the head of his or her class (in fact, we expect it, right?) but being violently angry because a Mexican class valedictorian admits to her illegal status in her graduation address. It’s about national news coverage of police shootings of young black men but ignoring similar incidents involving young Latino men. It’s about praising the Cambodian refuge from a Communist country but fearing the Syrian refuge who fled similar tyranny, death, and destruction just because they are Muslim instead of Buddhist. It’s about unfounded claims about a president being secretly Muslim but being ok with a white candidate who’s religious roots promoted a theology of polygamy and blood atonement. It’s about standing with Paris but not with Istanbul. It’s about immediately attacking Islam and all Muslims after the most deadly shooting in US history, but remaining silent about the 200+ Middle Eastern Muslims killed by ISIS in the final days of Ramadan. It’s about insisting that the solution to our nation’s gun violence problem is to arm all Americans but then blaming a police shooting victim for his own death because “he had a gun, what did he expect would happen?” It’s about hearing the horrified voice of a police officer caught on video after he shoots and kills an innocent man, realizing his mistake far too late because even though he had initially followed correct protocol, even though the man in the stopped car was following his instructions, something deep inside convinced him that the man was enough of a danger to him and his partner that he needed to shoot multiple times. Something innate. Something that was planted a long time ago by a society too blinded to really truly see itself in the mirror.
Children see and recognize differences because they are constantly observing the world around them, but they have to be taught to FEAR differences. They have to be taught that those differences are somehow “bad.” My grandmother likes to tell the story of visiting us when we were living in Detroit. One of my best friends was our next door neighbor. Melissa is African American. My grandmother recounts a conversation I was having with her when I was two or three and I told my grandmother that my good friend was “dark,” but that was the end of the discussion. She was my friend, we liked to play together, we had bedroom windows that faced each other, and I enjoyed watching her mother do her hair in all kinds of fun braids, especially since my silky, long blond hair was so boring. Any differences that we may have noticed were as inconsequential as our height.
When I see my students and my children I have hope for the future, hope that our country will heal. But then within an hour of completing the first draft of this post, police officers were being gunned down in Dallas at a Black Lives Matter protest. More loss of life igniting more fear and anger and polarizing an already polarized population. More loss of life highlighting our need to all take a step back and start talking and listening to each other. More loss of life emphasizing a need for empathy and compassion, not misguided assumptions about lives we know nothing about because we are too afraid to step outside of our comfort zones.
The first step to recovery is admitting one has a problem. So when is our country going to wake up and start its own 12-step program before it is too late?