Since I started this website in order to give voice to my social conscience, it feels like I should say something following the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. But I am not sure I have anything to offer in the way of commentary that has not already been said, or will not be said, by others in the coming days and months. So I think that one of the most useful things I can do is to question myself sincerely about issues of race, in a public forum.
This will be uncomfortable. That’s okay. I think discomfort is part of the process for a person like me, who is white and who wants to be part of the solution. I want to turn my focus inward and explore for unconscious biases, for how I am part of the current system that has allowed these tragedies to occur. Every one of us is part of it. We are here. We are part of American society. Whether we have committed acts of overt racism or simply witnessed them, directly or indirectly—and we all have—that makes us part of the system, intentionally or not. And I do not intend to ask the black community to be my teachers. That is not their responsibility. So I will do my best on my own. Discomfort will arise, but it will bring the opportunity for learning with it.
Here I go.
My first feelings when I decided to write this piece were waves of anxiety. How will it be received? Will I be judged by my friends, or strangers, who are on “the other side?” God, how I hate the notion of sides. Will liberal readers feel I haven’t gone far enough? What if I say the wrong thing? Maybe all of that will happen. And that’s okay too. Putting ourselves out there is part of making things better. Maybe I will be able to learn something from the responses of others.
Next: what are my first reactions after these incidents? My heart, my grief, go immediately to the victims. I believe in the Black Lives Matter movement and find myself shaking my head when I hear “all lives matter” in response. The simplest way I can think of to explain this is to say that if there were two neighboring houses and only one caught fire, it would be nonsensical to call the fire department to both. The water must follow the flames. At the same time, am I ignoring, either by choice or by instinct, something important in the perspective of police officers? I don’t know. That question makes me uncomfortable, but I should ask.
Another thought I have noticed myself having is: I wasn’t there; I don’t have all of the facts. True. But how hard have I tried to get them? There has always been information available to me that I have chosen not to consume. For example, the videos of Mr. Sterling’s and Mr. Castile’s deaths, which for better or for worse, are on the Internet. Am I afraid to watch? Yes. Why? Do I simply not want to see something graphic, or am I afraid that if I witness these deaths, I will no longer be able to sit in silence and inaction? There are rallies, protests, vigils that I could take part in. I’m not sure I’m willing to do that. It doesn’t mean I don’t recoil inwardly, but does it mean that I am not doing enough? Maybe, and I don’t like the way that makes me feel. I believe that solving societal problems is a collective endeavor, so I must face the fact that there may be more indifference in my heart that I realized. I consider myself a liberal and a progressive, so that is a disheartening window into how I might be a part of the institution of systemic racism.
Another question: how have my personal experiences with the police influenced my perspectives? I believe this influence is unconscious, but it’s time to make it conscious. My experiences with the police have been only positive. When my parents were involved in an incident of domestic violence, I called the police, and they intervened to protect my mother. They may very well have saved her life. When I worked in local government as a department head, the City’s police chief was in some ways my professional equal. We sat in meetings together, and I was able to hear him describe, in the aftermaths of Ferguson and Baltimore, the policies and training he intended to implement to try to prevent the same type of tragedy from happening in our town. Those experiences were real and valid. But am I projecting them onto all police officers to the point that I can’t see clearly when they have done wrong? I am not sure.
So there they are: my first wave of questions. I know they are not comprehensive, and that one blog piece is a mere teaspoon-sized contribution to the healing of an ocean-sized wound. I also do not wish to judge anyone else’s responses or how they express themselves, on social media or otherwise. I don’t know where I will go from here. What I know is that just for me—though I do believe there are people who could benefit themselves and others by doing the same—for me, an inner inventory, one that includes more question marks than exclamation points, one that includes the words I don’t know—is a place to start.
Photo by Ondrej Supitar