Yes, It’s About Race

Have you seen the videos? The ones of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile being shot and killed? The ones where two black men were shot and killed by police officers? Two days in a row, two sets of videos, two men’s lives lost.

I haven’t seen the videos, and I’m not sure if I will. I have no desire to each two more men’s lives be horrifically taken, right in front of my eyes. I’ve already seen this over and over again – so many of us have – and yet it’s still happening, so clearly watching isn’t helping things, and I need to maintain a small shred of protection around my heart.

To Anton and Philando’s families, I’m so sorry, and I’m sorry that I’m not watching; I simply can’t right now. But I’m here speaking out for them, and I hope that’s one minuscule consolation.

Where is the outrage? Not amongst black and minority communities, but amongst the rest of us? How are we not so aghast and appalled and furious and devastated that we have to take a moment to sit down and then figure out what to do next? (Actually, I cried when I told Nick about it, and now I’m literally shaking, so there’s at least one of us who feels this way.)

Every single time this happens, the number of people who positively stumble over themselves in their rush to say that “race has nothing to do with it” is astonishing. I’m sure the excuses are already in full force: but Anton had a record! He just got out of jail! He was carrying a gun! (He didn’t reach for it, and was on the ground when he was shot, but yes, he had a gun.) He wasn’t complying! In other words, he somehow deserved to be killed, or was asking for trouble, or at least presented an awfully strong case for violence against him.

Nope. Not about race.

But what about Philando? He had no lengthy rap sheet. In fact, he worked for the local school system as a cafeteria manager. (Not sure why this matters? Well, these days, every school employee is required to be fingerprinted and background-checked, so there is absolutely no way that this man had a violent record. Further, do you have any idea of the saint-like patience and stamina it takes to run a school cafeteria??) Those facts aside, he was pulled over for a broken tail light and was asked for his license. After informing the officer that he had a permit to carry a weapon and that, if the officer checked, a gun would be found in his car, he calmly leaned over to reach for his license and registration – fully complying, as he had been asked – when the officer shot him.

So, just to be clear, Philando deserved this, or was asking for trouble, or presented a strong case of violence against him… how?

Think this is still not about race?

A couple of months ago, I was pulled over for speeding. The whole family was in the car and I lost track of how fast I was going. I didn’t even attempt to pretend otherwise; I acknowledged to the officer that I’d been going too fast, apologized, and handed over my paperwork. I explained to the girls that I absolutely earned the ticket I was about to get, and that it would be a great lesson for me (and them, fingers crossed).

When the officer came back to the window, he returned my license and registration… and told me to drive safely, then headed back to his cruiser. That was it. No ticket, not even a warning. I was stunned, and told the girls so. They wanted to know why I hadn’t gotten a ticket when I’d broken the law. Maybe it was because I was only driving fast, not erratically. Maybe it was that I fully cooperated and took responsibility for my actions. I probably just got lucky. But I also told them that I was lucky to be a white woman rather than a black man, because the outcome could have been different.

At the time, this statement – although true – felt extreme.
It doesn’t this morning.

And yet, most people continue to say that race is not an issue.

When a white college student gets only six months of jail time for sexually assaulting, and attempting to rape, an unconscious woman behind a dumpster, and the photos paraded around the media are of him as a shining athlete, rather than his mugshot, I grow a little suspicious. When a white man guns down people in a theater and is not shot and killed on the spot by responding officers, but is arrested and led away, I grow still more suspicious. When a white man deliberately targets a black church, murdering parishioners in cold blood, and is offered a bulletproof vest by police as he is taken to the police car, I am no longer suspicious; I am certain.

Race has a heckuva lot to do with it.

Still unconvinced? Try this. Imagine that you could trade places with someone for a day. You experience life exactly as they would – a Freaky Friday sort of situation. Now imagine that you’ve traded places with a black man, and that you’ve been tasked with driving around. You’re on the highway. You’re in the ‘burbs. You’re downtown… a black man, behind the wheel. Imagine that you’re pulled over – maybe you ran a stop sign, or maybe you just have a broken tail light (did you even know your tail light was broken?). The cop shows up at your window, and there you are, strapped into the driver’s seat behind the wheel.

Be honest: you’d be terrified. You would’t be sure that you’d come out of it alive.

Think this is still not about race?

We cannot begin to fix this if we cannot even acknowledge, as a country, that racism is an *enormous problem*. So I will say it: racism is an enormous problem in this country. Yes, there is also a police brutality problem (although I truly believe the vast majority of cops are good and are trying their best – but our best is a best that is inherently, unconsciously racist). There’s a gun problem (which is another issue that is still not even acknowledged as a problem, so that’s fun). But right now, right here, the biggest issue is race (ever seen this video of how differently a white and black man are treated while openly carrying?).

WE NEED TO FIX THIS. This is not a black problem or a minority problem; it is a human problem for all of us, every race. I know that the United States is facing almost unprecedented division and difficulties right now, but at its heart, I know we are better than this. I believe in America, and I believe that we can do this; I believe that we can truly be the land of the free, where everyone is created equal.

But until all of us would feel safe walking around as a minority (a person of color… or a Muslim, or someone who is gay or lesbian or transgender, or heck – a woman), we have not reached that place. When most of us would be scared for our lives to walk in those shoes, there is a serious, dangerous, heartbreaking, terrible problem.

Please, let’s stop pretending that this isn’t happening. Let’s not avoid talking about it because it’s difficult. And, for the love, let’s stop explaining away violence against black folks and people of color. Let’s acknowledge that racism is a tremendous problem. And then let’s work together – all of us – to make the change.

 

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How Is This Still A Thing?

On Saturday, Nick and I saw a local theatre production of To Kill A Mockingbird. It was a wonderful performance, beautifully staged and marvelously acted.

Seeing the stage production, I was struck by how powerful Harper Lee’s novel had been when I first read it and how powerful it remains now – not because it brings to mind the struggles of a bygone era, but because of how real those struggles remain today.

The story’s message is simple: black people are not treated the same as white people; they are not given the same chances or opportunities, they are killed for unjust reasons, their very existence is seen as a threat… but we all have the power to make it different and better.

The craziest thing is, half a century later, we haven’t heeded that message. Today, minorities are still not given the same chances or opportunities as white folks, they are still killed for unjust reasons, and their very existence is still seen as a threat – albeit less overtly than before. That so many (white) people are offended by the Black Lives Matter campaign (which, of course, does not proclaim black lives to be more important than other lives but merely asks that they matter equally to white lives) and that they feel the need to counter this movement with All Lives Matter underscores how little progress we have made.

It’s been a long damned time.
How is this still a thing?
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The Geva Theatre production is really outstanding.

For concrete examples of how people of color are not valued equally to white folks, you need look no further than the movies. The overwhelming majority of “regular” people in cinema are portrayed by white actors; black (and other minority) actors are typically relegated to the role of Sidekick, Gang Member, Slave, Athlete. Just a normal ol’ suburban family? Pretty much always white.

This is not because there aren’t enough talented black/minority actors to fill the roles. Rather, producers (the vaaaast majority of whom are white) don’t usually cast black people in “regular” roles… because they feel that we  – the white audience – don’t want to watch movies with people of color playing the starring, everyguy role.

Minority lives matter less. Even on screen!

To Kill A Mockingbird was fresh on my mind as I sat down to watch The Academy Awards on Sunday night. More to the point, I sat down to watch Chris Rock host, to see what he – a black actor – would bring to this year’s all-white celebration.

Simply put: I loved it! I thought Chris’s commentary was biting, real, thought-provoking, and hilarious.

Yes, sometimes it fell flat or didn’t work. That whole Stacey Dash thing was just wrong. The Asians-are-always-nerdy-number-crunching-types joke didn’t belong, period, especially in a night that was (supposedly, according to the host) dedicated to diversity.

And, personally, I didn’t like Chris’s jab at Jada Pinkett Smith. If you want to protest something, boycotting can be a very effective way to do so. Participating anyway and then attempting to change how things are done is also an effective form of protest.  Jada chose the former; Chris, the latter. I understand his desire to explain his choice, and his decision to address Jada directly, but it could have been done without taking a swipe at her.

So, no. His hosting wasn’t flawless. But overall? I think he rocked it. (Sorry.)

I was still a little rattled from hearing the words “lynch” and “rape” in To Kill A Mockingbird when I found myself confronting them only one day later – in Chris’s opening monologue. Only this time, raping and lynching were made into jokes.

I laughed and then covered my mouth, slightly horrified. Was I supposed to be laughing at jokes about raping and lynching? It was very uncomfortable.
Which was clearly his intent:
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That’s what I enjoyed so much about Chris’s hosting: he made me laugh and think at the same time. He made me uncomfortable. Which is okay – good, even – because so often, it’s only when we’re made uncomfortable – when we’re faced with the reality of a situation and asked to view it head-on instead of turning away – that change can occur.

Rape and lynching are not remotely funny. But they were the (horrible) reality for black people in the United States; they are part of our country’s history – a part that, quite frankly, I’d rather not think too much about because I’m ashamed of how minorities were treated by people who look like me. But that’s exactly why I should be thinking about them and why I should be reminded: Hey! Times were REALLY BAD. After that whole Civil Rights thing, y’all said that racism was over… And it’s better, it is. But it’s not over yet. Not by a long shot.

Yes, those lines were over the top. They might have been inappropriate. But they sure as hell got my attention and made me contemplate. If Chris hadn’t gone there – if he had just made expected, appropriate jokes about how black people are treated by Hollywood – I can basically guarantee you that most (white) viewers wouldn’t have given him a second thought. “Look – a black person talking about racism. Again. At least he’s funny!”

No. By making me cringe, I thought about what he was getting at, about why I was uncomfortable. When Chris told the audience that black actors in the 60s didn’t boycott the Oscars because they had “better things to protest… When your grandma is swinging from a tree, it’s kind of hard to get worked up about best foreign film,” I thought looong and hard on that.

By Chris’s reasoning, black actors who boycotted the Oscars in 2016 could have been protesting other, bigger things. I agree with him: there are clearly other, bigger things to protest. I also disagree with him, because all of the other racial inequities and atrocities don’t make it unimportant to speak out against – or boycott – one of the biggest nights in entertainment when minorities have been entirely ignored.

Another take on that statement is that black actors today don’t have better things to protest (unlike their 1960s counterparts) — I mean, public lynchings and rape boasting are no longer acceptable. We’ve come a long way! Yay for tolerance and equality! Except if that were really the case — if today is different from the 1960s — why, just like then, were there still no minority nominations?

How is this still a thing?

Well – for the same reason we don’t see black (and other minority) professionals in numbers that correspond with their percentage of the US population: they aren’t given the chance, because their contributions, their efforts, and – ultimately – their lives are less important than those of white people. We don’t have black or Asian or hispanic or Latino or Native American doctors or lawyers or teachers or stock brokers (or actors ) equal to their percentage of the population; things are skewed ridiculously in favor of white folks, regardless of education or performance or ability or productivity or intelligence.

It isn’t that people of color don’t want those jobs. It’s that, from the time they are born, they are not given the same opportunities as their white counterparts.

That is what absolutely has to change.

I’m just going to quote Chris here because he says it far better than I could:

“It’s not about boycotting anything. We want opportunity. We want the black actors to get the same opportunities as white actors. That’s it.”

I understand that there is still fear. I understand, somewhere inside, in a place that many of us cannot even fully imagine because it is so deeply ingrained, that (white) people are nervous that there is not enough for all of us – that if we truly shared everything, if we were all equal (like for real), somebody would miss out. Having been the ones benefitting from this centuries’ old system, this is freakin’ scary, so we – subconsciously (much of the time) – continue to allow discrimination to continue, to perpetuate it, because it benefits us.

So, I guess I get how this is still a thing.

The thing is, though: there is enough. There always was. We can create those opportunities for everyone – and, instead of some of us losing, we’ll all win.

I’m confident we’ll get there someday. Not this year (the racism coming to the fore in the American election is appalling, to say the least)… but someday. I really believe that – if only because my daughters genuinely do not understand how this is still a thing.

“But mom. Everyone is the same inside. Do people honestly not know that??”

Until that someday, I’ll be grateful for To Kill A Mockingbird and Chris Rock opening Oscars-watchers’ eyes and the ensuing discussion of his effectiveness as host. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: we need to keep talking. We need to keep thinking. We need to create opportunities. We need to stop being afraid.

We need to make this a thing of the past.

A Difficult Truth

It’s been a relatively quiet week in terms of the whole riot/protest/police cycle we’ve got going on. If you dig beneath the surface, however, tensions are still simmering and “sides” are being taken. There seems to be very little room for middle ground. You’re either with us or against us. It is one thing or the other. Two opposing ideas that cannot coexist.

Quite frankly – it pisses me off. This is not an either/or situation. It’s a both/and.

This concept should not be so foreign to people; it’s how most of us operate, most of the time. Two seemingly opposing ideas can coexist. But somehow, many people seem to have forgotten that recently.

The riots that occurred in Baltimore (or Ferguson or anywhere else) are not okay. They are not the solution.
AND also death of Freddie Gray while in police custody is not okay. It is not okay at all.

Both/and.

Throwing rocks or bricks – or, frankly, anything – at police officers is not condonable.
Neither, however, is it condonable for police to overstep their boundaries and persecute the communities they are bound to protect.

Saying that “black lives matter” does not imply that you are, in any way, anti-police. It just doesn’t – no more than saying, “Doritos are delicious” means that you are, in any way, anti-Pringles. You can believe that Doritos are manna from heaven while also thinking that Pringles are pretty dope. That should go without saying.

Yes, of course police lives matter and white lives matter and all lives matter. But here’s the thing: those statements are basically givens. They’re obvious, omni-present, so we don’t need to continue saying them. Our black and brown citizens, though? Their lives have never mattered as much as non-black or brown lives.

They still don’t.
And so reminders are needed.

We have long recognized this in our society: that we need to celebrate and specially acknowledge the minority, the underdog, the marginalized. When Gonzaga first showed up on everyone’s radar in 1999, they were deemed a “Cinderella story.” Everyone was rooting for them. But while people cheered the Zags on, how many folks were on the sidelines saying, “But what about UConn?? Where are the UConn posters? UConn matters, too!” Because UConn was ubiquitous. Everyone knew them already. They didn’t need the extra support.

Or what about St. Patrick’s Day, when parades are held and people proudly tout their Irish heritage and cities dye rivers green? Do we stomp our feet with indignation that America is not being celebrated, too? “Hey, you guys! We live in the UNITED STATES. Happy St. Patrick’s Day? What about Happy America Day? When you raise that Guinness, you’re basically saying that you hate Americans.” No, of course not. Because we already know that America matters, too. We don’t need a reminder; the Irish can have their day.

Our black (and brown) citizens are told and shown, time and time again, verbally and silently, overtly and subtly, that they are not as important as the rest of us – and by “us” I mean white people. I won’t link to the (literally) hundreds of stories and articles supporting this claim; all you’d need is a quick Google search to confirm it (if you’d like, you can find some of them in this post that I wrote in November). Heck, all you’d need to do to confirm it is ask even one black friend to tell you even one story – of being pulled over when nothing was wrong, of being stopped in their own neighborhood and asked “what they were doing there,” of being followed by a store clerk, of being overlooked at a counter while the cashier or salesperson waited on other non-black customers, of being called racist epithets, of watching as people obviously avoid walking by them on streets…

Or, if you’d rather not do that, perhaps you could ask yourself (if you’re white, or at least non-black or non-brown). Ask yourself when the last time was that you worried that you’d be pulled over by the police while driving through your neighborhood. Ask yourself how often you’ve been walking your dog near your home and have been stopped and asked what you were doing there. Ask yourself if you’ve given your children (especially your sons) “the talk” — not about the birds and the bees, but you know, the one about moving slowly around authority figures, about making sure their hands don’t drift too near their pockets, about keeping both hands on the wheel at all times if they’re pulled over (for God’s sake, don’t reach into the glovebox unless you’re told to) — to help ensure that law enforcement officers have no reason to suspect them of a crime.

I would imagine, if you really asked, and then if you really, truly considered the answers, that you would see – even in this glorious America where everyone can succeed if they only try hard enough, where we have a black President, and where Oprah is the queen –  that black and brown folks are still not treated the same as white folks.

And so, sometimes, we need to be reminded that black lives matter.
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Did you know that even black dogs are adopted less frequently and euthanized more often than non-black dogs? CRAZINESS, you guys!
Yes, I know that dogs and people are not the same. I’m not making a direct comparison. But none of my other photos seemed appropriate… so here you go. Our black and yellow Labs, both of whom are awesome.

But we aren’t asking those questions. Or, if we are, we are jumping immediately to answers without really, really thinking about them; so often, the conclusion is drawn that race doesn’t play a role in how we treat one another. And that, really, is what bothers me the most: we don’t even acknowledge it. We, as an American society as a whole, do not acknowledge that racism still exists — I’m not talking about the overt, name-calling kind (although that exists, too), but rather the systemic, deeply-rooted, unconscious, so-pervasive-we-don’t-even-realize-it’s-happening racism.

I am going to ask, for a moment, that you ignore the riots**. I’m not saying that they aren’t horrible – they are. I’m not saying that they’re good or okay – they’re not. (Which is a rather absurd notion, anyway. Have you really come across people saying, “YAY, RIOTS!!”?) But people get all hung up on the riots (which are shown non-stop by our media), which causes them to miss the bigger picture.

For me, the bigger picture starts with the protests. Tens of thousands of citizens have been peacefully protesting for years now; the protests are growing ever more frequent. There must be a reason for this.

When we look to find that reason, however, there is almost immediately name calling and criticizing. I’ve heard some folks gripe that these protestors “have nothing better to do” – but that’s just untrue. Sure, some are unemployed. Some are looking to simply entertain themselves. But the majority are not. Protests – not the ones that last 30 minutes outside of your local Starbucks, but the ones that take hours and days and are focused and targeted – are not usually what one would consider “fun.” They take people away from their jobs, their homes, their families.

So, then. Why? Why the protests?

Have you ever had something to say and no one would listen to you? Maybe you were in a large group and couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Maybe everyone else was dead set on seeing Age of Ultron but you had your heart set on Pitch Perfect 2; in their excitement, they didn’t hear you. Maybe it was a meeting and no one asked for your ideas even though you had plenty.

Whatever the situation, I think you’d acknowledge that it feels crappy when no one’s listening. Sometimes, you sit back and just let things happen; there’s always next time. Others, maybe you email your boss or try to pull someone aside and explain your thoughts. But what if that doesn’t work? What if it happens over and over again? What if you feel ignored, unheard, shushed? What if you just can’t stand being unseen and unnoticed one minute longer?

Well, then.
You raise your voice.

You yell. You shout. You make noise. You stand up. You do whatever it takes to get people to hear you. It’s very simple, really.

That, to me, is the reason behind these protests. People are not being heard and they are sick of it. Yes, they want change. They want to be treated differently, fairly, better. They want justice. But at their core, they want someone to listen to them, by God.

And then, when they finally begin to raise their voices, we “listen”… and then immediately discount what they’re saying. Racism doesn’t exist anymore; stop complaining. Not all police are bad; stop generalizing. White lives matter too. Stop playing the race card. If he hadn’t tried to run, the cop wouldn’t have pulled his gun. When you dress like a thug, you’re asking for trouble. I don’t even see color.

(That’s a personal favorite, by the way. I understand the supposed meaning behind it – that you treat everyone the same, regardless of race – but if you don’t see color, you should probably get your eyes checked.)

Their concerns are summarily dismissed – there’s nothing more to see here. Which leads to people speaking even more loudly and strongly because they are still not being heard.

Until we can even agree on a topic, we cannot have a conversation.

Which is a problem, because holy sh*t, y’all, we need to have a conversation. We need to talk about racism in this country because make no mistake about it: racism still exists. We are all, almost without exception, racist. Yep, that includes black people. It includes teachers and scholars and human rights activists and historians and preachers. It includes me.

I try very, very hard not to allow skin color to inform my opinions of people. When I think rationally about it, I know – I believe, to my core – that white people are absolutely no better, smarter, harder working, or more deserving of respect that our non-white brothers and sisters. And yet… I still make assumptions. I feel the worry creep in. Not consciously, not on purpose. But it happens.

I am racist.

Until we can acknowledge this – until we can accept that racism is inextricably woven into the fabric of our nation, and until we can accept that non-white people still feel its sting despite our so-called “post-racial” era – things are not going to change. Men of color will continue being funneled into prisons. There will still be a wage gap between minorities and white folks. People will describe themselves as “colorblind” and pat themselves on the back for reading Maya Angelou and watching “Blackish.” Fewer black and brown citizens will attend college than their white counterparts. Police will continue to disproportionately arrest, detain, imprison, or even shoot people of color. Retaliatory shootings will continue to occur. The protests (and, occasionally, riots) will go on. And on. And on.

I’ll be honest with you: I have no idea how to fix this. We’ve been (mostly) trying for hundreds of years and we’re still not there, so obviously it’s a pretty tricky issue. But I do know that we don’t stand a chance at fixing it until we’re honest with ourselves that racism exists – all over, pretty much all the time.

Once we can do that – once we’re all on the same page, or at least in the same book – we can start a meaningful dialogue on how to make it better. It’s going to take all of us to make this change, but it’s one of the most important journeys we’ll ever embark upon.

So, for today, I’ll start with me.
My name is Emily. I believe that police have a tremendously difficult job and I have deep respect for our officers. I also believe that black lives matter. Both/and.
I believe that riots are absolutely not the answer. I also believe that the current protests are meaningful and valid. Both/and.
I believe that everyone should be treated equally, regardless of skin color. I’m also racist. Both/and.

I’d like that to change.
Let’s talk. Let’s listen. Let’s do this.

————

** (If you’re absolutely determined to focus on the riots, I’d also invite you to check out other riots that have occurred over the past five years. Yes, we all know about Ferguson, but how about this one in 2014 which resulted in fires, two shootings, and a stabbing after the San Francisco Giants won the World Series? Or this one in Lexington, Kentucky, where more than 50 instances of arson occurred after the University of Kentucky Wildcats won the national championship? Or this one, after a WVU football game, where participants “pushed over street lights and threw rocks, beer bottles and other items at public safety personnel and their vehicles”? White people are crazy, yo!)