Fellow White People…Can We Talk?

Fellow White People…Can We Talk?

This is a post that has been simmering in my mind for quite some time. I’m not going to say anything profound that hasn’t been said elsewhere, a hundred times and more eloquently, by both people of color and white people (and let’s face it, white people are more likely to listen to other white people, that’s been part of the problem all along).

In the wake of just story after story after story of white people calling the cops on very innocent black people—stories that of course have been happening all along but now, in the age of smartphone video and viral articles, (some) white folks are finally hearing them—it feels like a #metoo moment for race relations. Whether or not things change remains, like in #metoo, to be seen. This story of mourning while black right here in Boston should be a wake up call.

When we saw the 5 unmarked black trucks speed into the empty cemetery, we didn’t think too much of it. But when over 10 officers got out and approached us, we all knew something was terribly wrong. “Put your hands up,” an officer said walking towards us, with his hand on his holster. …

My boyfriend and I immediately knew who called in the tip. Right at the entrance of the cemetery was a house that we pulled my Prius in front of briefly to let another car pass us. We noticed that the occupants, a white couple who had just gone inside, reopened the front door and stared at us until we pulled into the cemetery. We were there for maybe 30 seconds but that must’ve been too long for their comfort.

The Internal Affairs officer handling our complaint confirmed that there were no other incidences in Hyde Park, MA on that day that would’ve warranted the Strike Force reacting the way they did. After talking with my father, a Brockton Criminal Justice employee for over 20 years, he told me quite plainly that the tip must’ve suggested that we were possibly armed and dangerous.

I’m not any more woke than the next white person. I don’t claim to be any better in my day to day interactions, as hard as I try, with people of color. I don’t claim to be any less biased. In fact part of being woke in any way is to admit you are a card carrying member in the daily grind of microaggressions against people of color (or people with disabilities or any number of other marginalized groups). Combating that isn’t just a matter of changing your individual attitude, or making sure you are carefully considering whether race, sex, or any other “ism” is influencing your decisions such as hiring, where to sit at lunch, or whether or not to cross a street when you see someone because you feel unsafe. I mean, definitely consider that! Every day in every moment. Acknowledge when you screw up and do better! Try not to get defensive especially when called out by a person of color, but strive to understand and correct yourself. All very important. But.

Maybe like me, you are unlikely to call the police on someone based on skin color. I can’t imagine myself calling the police for anything less than seeing actual criminal activity in front of me, like really obvious stuff (not two people of color meeting on street corner and talking, or even exchanging things in their hands). I consider calling the police, even on the non-emergency line, to be a thing you only do when it’s actually important (like, finding a stray dog!). But maybe, just maybe, you, dear reader, you are exactly that person. A car stops in front of your house with a group of black kids, maybe even in *gasp!* hoodies! and it makes you nervous that they sit there for a couple minutes. What are they doing? Is it illegal gang activity? Maybe someone should check!

Or maybe you decide that today, you’re going to make it your job to police your local park where you see a family of color BBQing. I mean, it’s not that that family is black, right? Illegal is illegal! You think, anyway, maybe you have the rules wrong, but why double check, a deed is being done right in front of you! Call the police!

Maybe you don’t stop and think, if a group of white teens stopped in front of your house, or a white family was sitting in the park with a cooler and BBQ, that you wouldn’t have even glanced at them once, never mind twice. Look, white people, admit it—you are hyper aware when it comes to people of color. They stand out. You notice their activities in the spaces around you. Things that are happening a hundred times a day, activities white people do…falling asleep in a dorm common room, sitting in a Starbucks waiting for someone, acting upset about a meal charge they think was unfair…you wouldn’t even blink. Heck YOU do some of those things!

Hell, I admit that I am hyper aware of what people of color are doing around me, things that every day white people do as only so much background noise. And sometimes, occasionally, I notice that I was overly hyper aware and feel awful, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t happening in my brain the whole time, or even that I wasn’t unconsciously changing my behavior because of it.

(It does help that in Lowell and Boston, two places I spend 99.5% of my time, I am often surrounded by nonwhite people. You eventually begin to reatune your senses, like when you’re exposed to so much construction noise every day you tune it out because hey, background noise. Nothing in my very white New Hampshire upbringing prepared me for being a woke white person, and it’s an active thing I need to do every single day, but exposure does help. It’s one of the reasons I chose to stay in Lowell despite the kind of hellish commute. I love the community here. It challenges me every day to be better. To check my assumptions constantly.)

But bottom line, white people: before you pick up that phone and dial the police, consider two things. First, whether or not there is actually something for the cops to check out. Check your assumption of suspicious activity. Did you notice that person because they were of color? If they were white, would you truly have even noticed them?

Second, always, always remember: calling the police on a person of color is in itself an act of violence. “But I don’t have a violent bone in my body!” you say. But if you call the police on any person of color (even one doing something you think might be suspicious, like jumping through backyards, though you have no idea why they are doing it) they can wind up dead. Do you want to be the reason someone dies? Think through that carefully. And even if no death results, think about whether you would want the cops to come and harangue you on someone’s say so, if you fell asleep in a common room, or were waiting for a friend at a Starbucks, if you would want just the mere embarrassment of the public spectacle of a police interrogation. Think about how mortified you are (OK, at least I am) when you get pulled over for speeding and all those cars going around you can see you, and know you are being called to task—even perhaps if you didn’t do anything actually wrong. Now picture that in a coffee shop. In a store. On the street. In a cemetery while you are celebrating the birthday of someone you miss very much.

I know that you have to picture being innocent in public and having the cops called on you, and have not likely experienced it, because you are white. That is what white privilege is—to live your average life with no suspicion. To be background noise. To be unnoticed because no one is hyper aware you are doing your thing. It’s a relative anonymity that every person of color can only wish they had. And beyond being awakened to this privilege we have, white people, you need to do something. Be active. Find some way to combat this. Film every encounter with the police you witness. Stand up strong against family members who say or do racist things. Talk to family members about this much more “subtle” subject (how subtle can calling the police on someone be, I wonder) of hyper-awareness when people of color are in the same space. Donate to groups fighting unfair policing practices, or other racial fairness initiatives. Stand on the street for justice. Call your legislators to support justice reform bills in front of them (or against racist bills that would cause harm). Be active.

Help dismantle this racist world we are all steeped in like tea, permeating everything in and around us. White people, ultimately, we are the only ones who can really do this! Because it’s us who has to change.

I picture my ideal police dispatcher conversation to go something like this, someday:

Dispatcher: 911, what’s your emergency? (Or, police non-emergency line, this call is being recorded.)
Caller: Yes, I’m calling because there’s this guy in a car on my street and it looks suspicious.
Dispatcher: OK m’am, I can help you. First, may I ask for a description of the person in the car?
Caller: Well, he’s black, he looks kind of young, maybe 20? and in a hoodie.
Dispatcher: OK, I must ask you, what is your race, m’am?
Caller: My race? Huh?
Dispatcher: Yes, m’am, what is your race?
Caller: …um…well, I’m white. I live here at 123 Main St. It’s a nice neighborhood. This car parked there a few minutes ago, I’ve been watching him the whole time.
Dispatcher: So he just parked? And is in the car?
Caller: Yes.
Dispatcher: He hasn’t gotten out of the car?
Caller: No, he’s just sitting there, it’s just…off. Not right. No one sits in a car for five minutes!
Dispatcher: Well, it seems you really have no reason to have called (911/the non-emergency line). Please only use this line if you actually see a real crime, or have an actual emergency. We will not be dispatching the police for this incident.

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