If you are White, and you are reading this, I want to ask you a favor.
I want us to talk. I don't mean I want to preach at you, or scream my opinions and then flee - I mean I want to have this conversation as though you were right here at my kitchen table with me, because if you're reading this, chances are, I know you personally and I love you.
If you'll let me, I need to say some things first about where this is coming from.
I am not writing this post because I am an expert on race relations. I'm not writing it because I think I can say anything better or more meaningfully than it has already been said. I am not writing this to blame you or shake my finger at you if the things that we talk about are new ideas for you. I'm not writing it because I have a vast knowledge of criminal justice or police codes of conduct.
I am writing this post because I am a White person who has had lots of hard, tearful, gut-wrenching conversations about race in both structured and unstructured environments, both with people of color and without. I am writing this post because I have been in the unique position to sit in a circle of my Black coworkers and hear them speak about how painful it can be to be Black in America - and that some of their pain was caused unconsciously by things I did or things I left undone. I am writing to share with you some things that I would never have learned had I not sat in those circles. I'm writing this because I am fortunate to have friends that span the political spectrum, and because I believe that when I get it right, I can deliver loving words that ring true across lines of belief.
Mostly, though, I am writing this post because I believe in my bones that to stand silent in the face of brokenness is wrong.
I am writing this post tentatively, intentionally, walking on glass to make sure that every word I write is the word I mean to choose. I will undoubtedly write and re-write this post several times, so please understand: this is being created with care.
I want to talk about Alton Sterling.
Alton Sterling was 37 years old. He was shot to death by police in Baton Rouge yesterday.
If you are White and have not seen this video, I encourage you to watch it. Typically, this is not the kind of thing I would share. I don't see any reason for violent or graphic images or videos - no matter what they feature - to be passed around. But this needs to be seen.
Let's talk about some of the reactions that we can have to this video. Let's just break them down, truly.
1. It's possible that you can't watch this video again because you are Black. It may be that seeing another person of color killed by police is simply too painful to even engage with. You don't want to see it because you or someone you know has been in a similar situation with a police officer, or because you live in fear of being in one in the future.
2. It's possible that you are a person, regardless of race, whose first instinct is to assume that the Mr. Sterling must have done something to warrant the kind of treatment he received from the police officers in the tape. You feel so sad for him and for his family, but you also feel suspicious.
3. You may be a person who sees this video and feel overwhelmed and numb, impotent to do anything about it. What is there to do?
4. You might be a White person who sees this video and puts on proverbial armor. You may think to yourself, "Here we go again. I'm going to have to hear about this for weeks. This guy probably did something to set these cops off, and he's going to get painted as yet another face of the Black Lives Matter movement when he was probably up to no good in the first place."
Maybe you feel more than one of those things. A mixture. It's probable that your reaction has something to do with your race.
As I said earlier - I have no idea what the details of this case will turn out to be. I've read reports that the reason the police were called is because Mr. Sterling had a weapon. I've read reports that say a gun was recovered from his pocket after he'd been killed. I have no idea what will surface in the weeks and months to come, though for the purposes of the points I'm trying to make here, none of that matters.
What I do know is this: there were two grown men sitting on top of him. In my mind, as an un-trained, non-law professional, it is clear that Mr. Sterling was not posting any sort of deadly threat to the police officers on the scene or to others around him. Alton Sterling was shot for, what seems to me to be, no reason. I don't understand it. And not just in a "I don't understand the world! Why do bad things happen??" way - I literally don't understand it. I don't understand why that happened. It is excessive force. It's murder.
If you are White, if you would, I'd like you to do something that will be upsetting for a minute. I want you to imagine a man that you love. Your father, your husband. Your son. Really, I mean it. Hold them in your mind. (I'm doing this exercise right along with you, here.)
Now replace Mr. Sterling with the man you love.
Imagine that man being shot at point blank range and killed. Imagine the video of his murder circulating across the world. Imagine that this is one in a series of people who look like you who have been, for whatever reason, gunned down by a group of people who are supposed to protect you. Imagine having to assume that the person who shot the man you love will not go to jail, because no other police officers who've shot people who look like you have. Imagine that this person you love had some kind of brush with law enforcement in his past (a DUI, a drug possession charge, a public intoxication) and that that incident is being trotted out as a means of justifying his death.
Would you feel safe? Would it be easy to trust that the justice system is always fair? These questions are hypothetical if you are White.
It's enough to make you nauseous that for Black Americans, this isn't a hypothetical. This isn't a mental exercise that will be upsetting for a minute. It's a reality that's upsetting for a lifetime.
If you are White, chances are, you have never worried that you'll be mistreated by police.
Speaking from my own experience, there's never been a moment when I've thought, "I need to make sure both my hands are free as I approach this police officer so he won't think I'm holding a gun." I've never worried about whether what I'm wearing makes me look like a "thug," and therefore worried that I'll be profiled by law enforcement. I've never once feared for my life at the sight of a police officer approaching my driver's side window to give me a ticket. I will never have to teach my children not to run if there's a police officer nearby so that the cops won't think they're running FROM something. I will never have to worry whether my son's hoodie made him a suspect.
This is because I am a White, blonde, 130-pound upper-middle class female. When you look at me, you make a snap judgment that I am non-threatening. If I were shot by police, no matter the circumstances, there would be a NATIONAL UPROAR. Remember Natalee Holloway?
Here's what I really want to say:
If you are White, no matter what your socioeconomic status or how much money you have in the bank, it means you will almost always get the benefit of the doubt in any given situation. If you are Black, it means you probably won't.
The concept of "White privilege" is a tricky one to unpack. When it's done poorly (and it's done poorly a lot) it is explained so that White people feel like their response should be, "I'm sorry for being White."
That's not what White privilege means. When someone says that Black Lives Matter, they don't mean White Lives Don't. They're saying it doesn't even need to be said aloud that White Lives Matter, because just look around! It's obvious. Black Lives Matter means that because of the state of the world, we actually have to say out loud that Black Lives Matter, lest it be forgotten.
Privilege means, in my own life, I know that almost everything I do will be met with relative ease. If my house gets broken into, I feel confident knowing that police will defend me. If I break down on the side of the road, I'm comfortable calling for help. And if I were shot, no one would ask, "What did she do to deserve it?" In a few hours, I'll be at work helping customers and I'm sure there will be a moment in my day when I won't be thinking about race. But that's because I don't have to think about it in order to survive in the world. That's what privilege is.
Alton Sterling was selling CDs and DVDs to make a living. He had the blessing of the store owner. And he was shot. Why?
I'm not asking you to condemn law enforcement. I'm not asking you to stop asking questions or engaging in dialogue. Chances are that if you've had a complicated experience with race, it has nothing to do with hate and everything to do with fear. And I understand that. There have been so many times in my own conversations about race when I was afraid to hear the answers to the questions I was asking. And it was hard. And thank God, because those were the moments when I consider myself to have been educated.
Wherever you are in your journey with issues like this - whether you're someone who tries to live a life of racial consciousness on a daily basis, or you're someone who has historically stayed out of conversations like this one because they're just too intense - there's room for you. Everybody has room to grow. God knows I do.
All it takes is remembering that race isn't something that Black America gets to forget about - they live in it, every day, all day. All it takes is softening your heart to understand what it must be like to live in a country where someone who looks like you is shot down in the street on a far-too-regular basis, and then you have to listen to people debate whether or not that person deserved to die.
If nothing else, what you can do is sit for a second. Consider what it would be like to not be you. How the world could be a very different, scarier, and less safe place. How you have the opportunity to stand up for something here, and say definitively that you are ready to do your part, to learn, to listen. How this is a moment where humility and deep compassion need to drive our response of holy outrage. How this movement has already started, and we as White people need to just get on board.
Any little change you make in the way you talk about and/or perceive situations like this - that will make a difference. Changing your little corner of the world will make a difference. Not allowing people to make racially insensitive jokes just "because this is the South;" not accepting prejudice around you; not jumping to conclusions about who did and deserved what - all of that makes a difference. And a difference is what we need.
Because a human being breathed his last yesterday after being shot to death. In a parking lot. By a cop.
Because we have to find a way to make America everyone's America.
Because now is the moment to lift your voice, if you are White.
Postscript, July 8, 4:30 PM:
Thank you all for your heartfelt and passionate comments. I am so happy that you chose to engage here, even if what you wanted to share was that you wholeheartedly disagree. I'm choosing to close the comments section, as I believe salient points have been made and can be reflected on by reading the thoughts that have already been contributed rather than by adding additional commentary.
Out of dialogue comes a lot of understanding, and even when we don't see eye-to-eye, we're made better for having heard the others' opinions.