If you had asked me, twenty years ago, to name examples of police brutality, systemic racism, or white privilege, I couldn’t have. Sure, I would have agreed that such things existed, but I thought of them as some other era’s problem, or some other nation’s. Coming off of some really ugly experiences with male privilege in Wyoming, I would have taken the conversation in that direction–although I’d seen a lot of racism there, as I worked primarily with immigrants from Mexico. I just didn’t get it.
But then I moved to the South Side of Chicago.
It’s hard to live comfortably in a place where violence permeates. Muggings, break-ins, shootings affected the people I knew, marked the community around me. Sometimes, the gangs seemed wholly in control; sometimes, the police shot men in the back. Many of our friends simply couldn’t handle it, relocating as soon as they could. But for others, including Danelle, this is reality, year after year.
Ron and I accepted that we might be affected personally, and we refused to be intimidated. We embraced the South Side, venturing into blighted neighborhoods in search of good food, a blues band, or just to see what they looked like. We began to interrogate our own racist assumptions. As I may have mentioned, we are unusual.
Even so, I didn’t realize how very scary it is to raise an African-American boy in this country. I didn’t realize how many ordinary things would just be harder for him, from the get-go. Yeah, no one likes to see a toddler let loose in the candy aisle. Guess how much worse that is when it’s a Black toddler. No one likes to see the bully show up at the playground. Guess how hard it is when everyone just assumes your son is the bully.
We thought we had it figured out. Move to a safe, diverse suburb. Make sure we have “The Talk” early and often. Make sure respectful attitudes towards authority are mandated. Point out how not to behave, as when we walked by an arrest being made when the Original Wailers headlined our street festival. Don’t allow toy guns at the park, even when everyone else has them. Don’t allow toy guns in the backyard. Don’t allow toy guns in the house. Don’t pretend you have a toy gun.
But the events of this week, beginning with the murder of George Floyd, have made it painfully clear that there is no safety for my son. I see him in the man lying on the ground, unresponsive. Until he lives in a society that does not judge him by the color of his skin–and does not teach others to fear him–I will be afraid. And thus, I will know something of the fear that Danelle has known her whole life.
But therein lies the rub–how do we get to such a society? It is even possible? The Seattle Times had an article this evening that gave me some hope. They quoted Bishop Reggie Witherspoon Sr., senior pastor at Mt. Calvary Christian Center in Seattle’s Central District: “How we are going to fix it is when white America comes to the table and says this is categorically wrong and we are not standing for it anymore.”
My fellow white Americans, can you join me at the table?