I’ve been quiet on here lately. Things have been busy, yes, but honestly? Sometimes it is so dang hard to know what to write.
The news cycle right now is of course focused largely on issues related to race, and policing. (Also, the election, but I steer realllllll clear of that one.) Bloggers are supposed to say stuff about the stuff that’s going on in the world, but I have found myself intentionally remaining quiet. I tend to stick to safe topics in my Catholic columns (you know, like birth control and Humanae Vitae), because it’s just easier and there is less chance of being misunderstood. But here in this space I feel like I should be saying something, but I don’t, because I don’t want to offend or say the wrong thing.
It’s not that I don’t have opinions about the racial issues in our country. Because actually, I do. Just ask my husband. No, I’ve been quiet because I am trying to listen, and to think, and to choose my words Very Carefully. So many angry opinions and harsh sentiments are flying around the internet these days, and I just plain refuse to engage. Maybe that’s the wrong way to go about it when you’re a blogger, but I really don’t have much space in my life for that kind of thing.
But today I wanted to share what I’ve been thinking about. I of course have a personal vested interest in the subject of racial injustice, because I have four black children–including two black sons. My boys are young still (just nearly twelve), but they are growing up. And I am loving who they’re growing into, by the way. They are witty, smart, and athletic. One is orderly and (usually) plays by the rules, and the other is spontaneous and carefree as all get out. (And occasionally a stickler for rules.) They are hard workers. They swim, play soccer, and have most recently taken up the sport of cross country. (“Mom! Can I please have five dollars, because we’re running two miles to Dairy Queen after school today?” my son asked me last week, in his earnest and exuberant way.)
My black sons were born in the East African country of Ethiopia. They don’t remember anything about their lives there, sadly, because they were just shy of a year and a half old when they joined our family and became Californians, and now Coloradans. But in a sense, where they were born doesn’t so much matter when we’re talking about race–African American or Ethiopian American, they are black, which is how the world sees them and how they see themselves.
Over the years, my sons have at times been the target of racism. Not too terribly often, but on occasion. Last year for example, some kid at school said some really cruel, stupid things to one of my boys, which I only heard about because a kid who witnessed it told one of my other children. This necessitated yet another discussion with my sons about how those sorts of insults need to be reported, either to the teacher or to me (so the teacher and principal can be told.) We have always made it a point to keep an open dialogue around here about our differences, adoption, and race, but things sure do kick up a notch when your children are going to school and encountering other kids. I’m a big believer in empowering all of my kids, every last one of them, and affirming them in who they are, so I take this stuff seriously. So far my sons have a healthy dose of self-confidence and lead a relatively carefree existence, but I am not so naïve as to believe that racial injustice will never touch them in a more deeply significant way.
And this is partly because, well, I’m white. I do not have the experience of living as a black person, my relatives were not captured and transported from their homes, only to be enslaved first by plantation masters, and then by Jim Crow laws. My family does not have a history of being racially profiled. Nobody sees me and assumes I’m this or that way, or suspects me of being a person who would be more likely to commit a crime.
I have, however, had a scary experience with a police officer. Long story short my husband was driving and we were getting rerouted in a ton of traffic, but we were confused as to what the barricades meant and where the highway patrolmen were wanting us to drive, and where we could exit the highway. And as our minivan inched along at about two miles per hour, we apparently didn’t do what we were supposed to. An officer came running over and yelling, and yanked with all his might on my husband’s door handle, trying to jerk it open. Thank goodness it was locked–I honestly don’t know what would have happened if he’d been able to open it. Or, if my husband had been black. Because this gentleman was SO amped up, overstressed, he was cussing and furious. So we were all, um, we’re sorry. It’s not clear what we’re supposed to be doing here. Thankfully we were able to drive away, but it was pretty terrifying. In hindsight we should have gotten his name and filed a report, because it really scares me to think he carries a weapon on the regular.
Some of our kids were in the car with us that day. They remember that. (I have explained to them of course that I believe the vast majority of police officers are there to help us, but that this man was obviously having a bad day and quite possibly should not have a job in law enforcement. I have also reminded them that when Alice had a breath-holding spell and went unconscious, I was very grateful for the calm and compassionate deputy who showed up to my home to make sure we were okay.) And so I can see why over time, a group of people could come to really distrust law enforcement, in general, if they are repeatedly having bad encounters with the police, or hearing about loved ones having bad encounters with the police. In fact, two of the departments where we live (the sheriff’s office and the Denver Police Department) have been in trouble in recent years when it comes to the use of excessive force. I know they’re really trying to improve community relations, and Denver has a black police chief now. That’s a good thing. But we have to acknowledge that the problems in urban neighborhoods are complex, and that many in the black community perceive themselves to be at greater risk of being hurt and/or killed by those in law enforcement. I would like to see more statistics on the demographic breakdown of what’s happening during traffic stops in different parts of the country, because that seems like it would be helpful in understanding what is going on and where.
But regardless what the statistical reality is, what black men and women are expressing should matter. Period. Because black lives matter. Period.
The term “white privilege” has become somewhat of an overused buzzword in my opinion, but the concept is very real. There are all kinds of privilege that children are born into, so I’m not sure why the acknowledgment of white privilege is so controversial. And because I am white, I will not attempt to speak for black people or pretend to understand their unique cultural experience. We may all be citizens of the same country, but blacks have a very different history in the United States than, say, I do. This is part of why I refrain from publicly commenting too much on these matters–I want to be an ally but I also have no interest in being a voice for people who can absolutely speak for themselves. And, I think social media, the mainstream media, and conservative media are all contributing in their own respective, insidious ways to making race relations even worse than they already are.
What is the answer? I’m not really sure. I believe we must all pursue justice, love and peace, to the best of our abilities, first in our own homes and then in our communities. I believe that the laws of the land should be upheld, but also that our justice system (like most things in this world) is imperfect, and susceptible to being exploited. I would like to see more police officers of color, and better relations between the police and communities. I would like to see hate and prejudice banished from every heart, and a greater capacity for listening before speaking. (Talking to myself there!) And that is the main thing I try to do, by the way, when it comes to the subject of racial injustice. I want to listen to a variety of black people and hear their various perspectives. I don’t ever want to minimize a person’s experience simply because I have not experienced it myself. The video of the recent shooting, where the wife is yelling for the police not to shoot, and for her husband to stay in the car, was horrific to watch. Lives changed, tragically, in an instant. But I watched it because as heart wrenching as it is, it is also someone’s reality, and that reality deserves to be known. And back when those police officers were tragically shot and killed in Dallas, I read and watched that coverage as well, for the same reason. Those men and their reality deserves to be seen and understood, too.
It is not, at least I don’t think it is anyhow, an either/or proposition here. We can address the very real issues of racial injustice and support the black community, while opposing violent assaults on members of law enforcement. We can hear what others are saying, stick up for them, and give them the space to share without automatically being anti-cop or, conversely, anti-black. White people like me can sit and think things through as we scroll through our newsfeeds, putting ourselves in another’s shoes and choosing hope and empathy over cynicism and hate.
Finally, I’ll close by sharing that I recently discovered Lt. Tim McMillan’s Facebook page. He’s become a bit of an overnight social media star because of a status he shared recently, after pulling someone over for texting and driving:
When I went to talk to the driver, I found a young black male, who was looking at me like he was absolutely terrified with his hands up. He said, “What do you want me to do officer?” His voice was quivering. He was genuinely scared.
I just looked at him for a moment, because what I was seeing made me sad. I said, “I just don’t want you to get hurt.”
In which he replied, with his voice still shaking, “Do you want me to get out of the car.”
I said, “No, I don’t want you to text and drive. I don’t want you to get in a wreck. I want your mom to always have her baby boy. I want you to grow up and be somebody. I don’t even want to write you a ticket. Just please pay attention, and put the phone down. I just don’t want you to get hurt.”
I truly don’t even care who’s fault it is that young man was so scared to have a police officer at his window. Blame the media, blame bad cops, blame protestors, or Colin Kaepernick if you want. It doesn’t matter to me who’s to blame. I just wish somebody would fix it.
And so, that is where I’m at these days. I too wish somebody would fix it. I see the news reports about all these shootings, I see people complaining about how other people are protesting, I see all the finger-pointing, I see when rioting leads to violence, and it’s discouraging. We are a nation deeply divided, but then I also suspect that many of us (regardless of race or party affiliation) really do want the same things, deep down. And when there are problems, it’s important to speak up, and to say it’s not okay. Martin Luther King, Jr. once called rioting “the language of the unheard.” So, I hereby recommit myself to listening and to learning, to speaking out for the dignity of all people, and to raising up my black sons as best I can. (One of them wants to be a police officer when he grows up, incidentally, and I think he’d make a darn good one.) And if you have been a victim of injustice, racial or otherwise, I am truly sorry. Most days it feels like there’s not much someone like me can do, so I just want to go on record as saying: I am a person who believes justice very much matters, racism is a terrible scourge on society, hatred is a serious evil, and you are seen. We are, collectively, capable of so much more.