Last week, I watched a video of a police officer at a teenage pool party. Most everyone has seen it at this point. He charged towards the group of kids, screaming and cursing at all the black ones to sit on the grass, then grabbing a young African American girl in an orange bikini. I gasped as he grabbed her dark braids forcefully, twisting one arm behind her back as he shoved her face into the ground again and again.
When a couple teenage boys stepped in to stop the brutality, he jumped up and pulled a gun on them. Two other officers pursued the boys and the officer grabbed the girl again, forcing her face down into the grass before kneeling on her to keep her subdued while he waited for a pair of handcuffs to bind her with. Her crime? Standing nearby and talking. The white kid filming the whole thing? Didn’t raise an eyebrow.
“There is no racism in America anymore,” I hear people say. “Slavery ended a long time ago.” “We have a black president! What are people complaining about?” “I’m colorblind. I don’t see race.”
I call bullshit.
Sure, racism is over in America. That’s why George Zimmerman killed an unarmed black 17-year-old and was acquitted. That’s why a white police officer fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed, black 18-year-old. That’s why there’s a video online of unarmed Walter Scott running away from a white police officer who proceeds to shoot him in the back one, two, three, four, five, six, seven…eight times.
Racism is over in America, which is why a police officer killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice for having a toy gun. That’s why most people have never heard of Ernest Atterwhite, Dontre Hamilton, Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Levar Jones, Rumain Brisbon, Naeschylus Vinzant, Tony Robinson, Anthony Hill, or the names of any of the other thousands of unarmed black Americans who have been assaulted, detained, beaten or shot without reasonable cause even in our supposedly “modern” and “colorblind” times.
But those were all just isolated incidents, isolated examples of a few overzealous police officers…right? Systematic racism and decades of disempowerment and discrimination couldn’t possibly be an explanation for this. It couldn’t possibly explain the fact that black citizens make up a disproportionately large percent of the population in prisons, or that they serve longer sentences than white people who commit similar crimes.
Racism is over in America, which is why our neighborhoods and schools are still largely segregated with minorities living in the worst neighborhoods and going to the worst schools while gentrification continues to drive them farther and farther away from white utopias. Meanwhile, privileged white kids bitch and whine about the “reverse racism” of affirmative action, unable to comprehend that due to the color of their skin they have benefited from our political, social, and educational system their entire lives. Racism is over, which is why most black characters in movies or TV shows are criminals or comic sidekicks, and black women are not considered beautiful by the fashion industry unless they conform to the white standards of straight hair and pale bronze skin.
Racism is over. That’s why many people will read these words coming from the mind of a white girl and nod in agreement, but if a black girl were to write them they might feel threatened and label her as an “angry black woman.”
I could list thousands of examples and statistics, but there are so many that I feel overwhelmed by them. It would take multiple tomes to document the brutality and violence, the discrimination and disempowerment, the tears and the suffering experienced by our black brothers and sisters here in the United States within the last five years, even.
When I think about this issue, I feel enraged. I feel a monster inside of me growing and threatening to take over my body, a monster that feels like it could grow big enough to rip apart the systems of power and control and militarization and dominance in this nation with its teeth and claws so that we’d all have to start from scratch. I want to scream at the top of my lungs from the tallest building I can find, roar with a thousand voices, walk among a nation of people all outraged and fighting against the injustice of it all.
Then, almost immediately, I feel weak and powerless. I shrink. I am small. I am not big enough to do these things, not powerful enough to make a difference.
What can I do? I’m nobody. There are so many problems, and so much needs to be done. I am an infinitesimal speck of dust in an infinite universe of suffering and misery. I think about police brutality and racism, war and genocide, the destruction of the rainforests and the killing of the animals, child abuse and domestic violence and rape; people all over the world hurting each other and killing each other and destroying the planet, and when I think about this all I want to do is curl into a tiny black ball and become a black hole, sucking in all the despair into nothingness until there is nothing left of me. Then I feel empty, numb.
I am sure many people feel this way: apathetic. That is why nothing changes, why those in power remain powerful and the multitudes sit by and watch it happen generation after generation. The thought of all the suffering in the world is overwhelming. It is easier to turn our eyes away and redirect them to our pleasant distractions, keeping up with our television shows and social media presence rather than contemplate reality. That is why so many people remain ignorant of the problems in the world. In all honesty, they don’t want to know. I am also tempted to use this as a defense mechanism, and I constantly have to check myself.
But honestly, what can we do? There are thousands of people who don’t even realize they are racist or hateful. There are people who still tell horribly racist jokes and think they’re actually funny, people who instinctively lock their doors and roll up their windows when they’re driving past a group of black people.
There are white parents who protest when their children learn about racism and police brutality in school, people who post signs to thank the police officers that responded so forcefully to the incident at the pool in McKinney. How can there be progress when so many people still don’t see what’s going on, still lack compassion for their fellow human beings?
This lack of compassion extends to both sides. Police officers are flawed human beings with families and loved ones, just like the people they try to protect. Everyone is always doing the best they can in any given moment, including those officers who act with excessive force and target minorities. They are acting out of fear, a fear deeply ingrained in them since they were born, passed down through the generations by the decades of racism that has seeped into white bloodstreams since the first white imperialists set foot on Africa.
Of course I don’t condone the actions of the police officers who have killed and beaten innocent people, but I can look with compassion on the deeply seated fears and needs that cause some officers to act out this way. It’s those fears that we need to address before this problem will ever be solved. We can never solve it by pointing fingers and dehumanizing each other.
I am not calling for the demonization of police officers. I am calling for police reform. I am calling for chest cameras on every cop, or rubber bullets in every gun. I am calling for the demilitarization of the police force, for training each officer in compassionate communication, history and cultural relations. I am calling for justice for those who have been wronged by our law enforcement system.
I am calling for education and integration, for love and understanding. I am calling for people to stand up, to subvert, and to challenge the status quo, to challenge the attitudes within themselves that make them complicit in a system that benefits some people over others. This is by no means a partisan issue; racism lurks across the board. Every one of us has to learn to see the undesirable parts of ourselves and ask ourselves the hard questions.
I’ll start with myself. I have racist thoughts. One instance a few months ago I remember very clearly. I was standing alone on a dark street, and I saw a tall black man walking towards me. I instinctively moved into the light of a streetlamp, a quiver of anxiety shooting instantly throughout my body. As he approached and came into the light, he smiled at me with an open-heartedness that surprised me.
“I like your poncho,” he said, and passed me by. My stomach felt like a lead weight, and I hated myself in that moment. How could I have judged this man simply by his size, gender, and the color of his skin? Why had I instantly felt afraid, felt the need to protect myself from someone who only had kindness in his heart for me?
I felt ashamed. As a small, white woman I know no one I pass on a dark street will ever feel afraid of me. I imagine what life must be like for a young, black man: seeing fear on the faces of strangers, perhaps overcompensating in friendliness so as not to be profiled, so as not to be shot or arrested.
We are all in part products of the culture in which we were raised. The police officer who used excessive force on that teenage girl is reacting from a place of fear, the same fear that drives policemen all over the nation to act aggressively towards minority groups, the same fear I found in myself when I judged that man on the street.
It is up to us to recognize the biases and judgments and fears and uncomfortable feelings within us, to have compassion for those parts of ourselves and to overcome them until our compassion spreads to every human we come into contact with. Not everyone has to skip school or work and go downtown to join a protest, but everyone can do the inner work necessary to build a better nation for everyone. Only then will racism truly be over in America.
TIME Magazine article, “Black Lives Matter,” April.
For the images, I am extremely sorry if I have violated anyone’s copyright by using them. I have tried to include URLs that correspond to the images I have found but a lot of them have already been appropriated from other sources. If anyone knows the original artist of any of these images that needs crediting, just let me know and I will definitely include it! Thanks.