I am only one person with one life. And I only know so much.
But my thoughts on race always lead me back to the innocent minds of children. We are all oblivious to the world’s wrongs until we are suddenly not.
At some point, every child of color in America learns about that other side of national history, the one that put the ugly asterisk on “all men are created equal.” At what age does a young black male learn that he is perceived as a threat to many because of his skin tone? What a sad day for both child and parent. Imagine your own childhood bathroom, your own mirror. Imagine that first look at yourself after this realization, that first question: Me?
Or, think of your own son asking: Why me?
No matter your race, what do you tell your own child about such difficult things? White families don’t necessarily have to engage in such talks. We aren’t saddled with the same social heaviness other people face in America. We got a pass on the day of awful awakening and generally don’t understand that we got a pass.
When white people acknowledge such realities, it’s not some wallowing in “white guilt,” which is the way some people dismiss such observations. No, it’s the needed recognition that there are hard truths for others that are worthy of our empathy, our understanding and our push for something better. I will never carry a child. But it’s worthwhile for me to try and contemplate the different challenge that a woman faces bringing life into this world — and to try, in my own way, to be a positive, not a negative in light of that different reality. I think the same way about race and all the corresponding difficulties.
Think about the word “minority.” It’s not as simple as it sounds. I’ve been thinking a lot about that word recently. “Minority” status is not chosen. It’s given and it’s purely racial. It implies that, due to your birth, you are not a standard American citizen, which has always been recognized as white, but instead, you belong to a subset of the default American race. I think the fear of losing “majority” status is real for a lot of white Americans. I’m not worried about whites losing “majority” status, because it will be a relief if we can move beyond this old-time way of thinking about race and power in this country. But I can imagine how this old-time fact is ever present in the mind of “minorities” in the same way grief lingers and pulls up reminders all the time, while others who aren’t in grief don’t see or feel a thing.
And the reminders are brutal. George Floyd is a reminder. I watched that terrible video. I feel like that officer was in a rage state, getting something out of himself, taking his own pain out on another, and taking a life. Did Derek Chauvin enjoy the moment? Well, I thought so. Otherwise, he would have gotten up after it was clear Floyd was no longer breathing. And that visceral ugliness in that officer’s action sparked massive outrage like we’ve rarely seen.
Kneeling has been a powerful image throughout history — kneeling before kings, before flags, to propose marriage. A white law enforcement officer kneeling on a black man’s neck to murder him was symbolic in a perverse way, a true American sacrilege. Outrage over this is not a problem, but a necessity.
I think many things about the protests, just like you surely do. Maybe our thoughts are similar, maybe not. But I don’t think protests are going to be put down by force. I think force has the opposite effect in this volatile moment. Force is gasoline in that regard. There is a feeling that something in our nation has been deeply violated for far too long. I know many view this collective rage and see only property destruction or rioting or other aspects of lawlessness. Well, those elements are real, and if you can dismiss the spirit of the protests based on that, then that’s your prerogative. But the spirit of the protests is not rooted in lawlessness but in a passionate demand for dignity for all. The death of George Floyd was so grossly undignified but symbolically powerful. It was disrespect of the worst kind. And it was representative of a greater historical disrespect that stretches back to the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement and belittlement of a race for wealth building.
I also feel truly terrible for so many police officers right now. What a terrible job in this moment. As a member of “the media,” I can say that it’s no fun to be lumped into a group and viewed as awful by a huge portion of the country. Such a generalization makes you inevitably feel like, “Yeah, but you only know me as an idea, not as a person. You hate your idea of me, but that’s not actually me.”
People are screaming bloody murder at the police right now. And those police officers are in heavy, militaristic gear. Their individual characters run the gamut, just as in any people group. But their faces and individual identities are swallowed now to their group identity. And when any of them act out of rage and unprofessionally, then the group pays the price. And when those wrong actions are defended not punished, the group is judged.
But that’s true both ways, right? The protesters lose their own individuality to the police, too. It’s easy to look at a sea of people and judge harshly, because some of them are indeed hurting the group’s message with poor individual actions. And when conflict is at a large scale, it’s easy to vilify the collective and to put a simplistic good or bad identity on every individual. This is the nature of man, that reduction of humanity in times of distress to one narrative. Are you friend or foe? Every individual can be quickly and wrongly judged in such an environment. This is, if you think about, the point of the protests. Judge each person by their actions, not their God-given identity, not their skin.
So, I think the spirit of the protests is absolutely right, a historical moment in its way. This is a mass rejection of the terrible asterisk on that most American phrase, “all men are created equal.” These five words are still not a solid truth in 2020. That must change.
The protests are a passionate demand to make that truth firm, not malleable. The passion for this is morally right, not wrong.
If you disagree, then how do you explain that to a child?