It is the circumstance of my birth. It is who I am and who I have always been. It is what it is. But it brings certain advantages for no reason other than the fact that my whiteness matches the dominant culture in the society of my birth.
I do not know–and cannot know–what it is like to be a person of color in a country where that automatically puts one at a disadvantage in myriad ways. I can try to understand, I can empathize, but I cannot know.
I do not know what it is like to grow up in fear of the police. I think we all have some fear of authority figures in general, but typically as a white man I don’t have to worry that I am going to be stopped and questioned just for walking in my neighborhood. I don’t have to fear that if I make the wrong move at the wrong time I could be shot dead (and that the police will investigate themselves and absolve themselves of any wrongdoing). I do not have to be concerned that I am presumed guilty of something–anything–by virtue of the color of my skin. Yes, it may happen, but it is not likely, unless perhaps I am white and also homeless or very poor.
Yet today, ten days after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri I nearly cried when I heard the reports of yet another young black man shot and killed by police. I could not wrap my head around the idea that ten days later and ten miles away the men in blue could kill another black man, even with a heightened national awareness of the dangers of being a black man in a white society. And later in the day I read about another young man killed in Carolina. Michael Brown’s death was not an anomaly. It was simply the last moment in his reality of living life as a young black man.
Oh, I understand the need for police to protect themselves. I have a nephew who is a cop and I understand that he is trained to defend himself and others if necessary. But I would be a liar if I thought for a moment that the likelihood of him having to shoot some white person in Grant County, Wisconsin would be equal to the likelihood of a policeman anywhere in this country shooting an African-American citizen. It is the nature of living life as a person of color in this country.
White mothers do not teach their children not to draw attention to themselves in any way, even when they are doing nothing wrong. Instead they teach their children how the police are there to protect them. And indeed they are. As a white person if I am threatened or in need of police protection I do not fear calling 9-1-1. I dial and expect that I will be helped. If I were black I might not bother dialing.
All day long I have been bombarded with jumbled thoughts and horrible images. I have been reminded of the images of African-American men and women getting beaten, hosed, and harassed during the Civil Rights struggles of the 60s. It is fifty years later and nothing has changed except that the overtness of racism has been supplanted by an insidious racism simmering beneath the surface of everything in this country. All day long I have felt powerless, wondering what I can do as one white man with little to no access to the corridors of power in this country. The thought brought tears to my eyes every time it came up.
What can I do? I can go to a vigil for Michael Brown as I did last week and feel good about putting out positive energy but if I do not follow that up with action then I am failing myself and my African-American brothers and sisters, not to mention other persons of color. I am not sure what action I need to take, but I know today that I must take action of some sort. I will search until I know what it is that I must do as it is essential for my sanity as a human being. I understand that we are all children in the human family. We are all connected despite the color of our skin and the circumstances of our birth. Those connections have been severed by those who benefit from keeping us separate, so I know I need to work on building those connections, learning and understanding the struggles of others as deeply as I understand my own struggles. I understand that I cannot end all the racism in the world by myself, but I can reach out in my part of the world and work on creating community in my circles. I can reach out and make connections, and I can begin to enlighten myself. That, I believe, is where we all must start.