A Privileged White Person Saying Something

(originally published on The Huffington Post)

I am a privileged white woman. I know I’m going to make some people angry with my words. But I have to say something. In a world of finger pointing, a world where we need to be angry that black lives are being mercilessly taken every day, it’s time to acknowledge our white privilege and educate our kids about it. Several people have been anger ranting, or pleading with heavyhearted sorrow on social media. My friend Jessica Rotenberg summed the problem up best when she said, “for the record, police officers are lovely. This isn’t a police problem, teacher problem, or any other problem. It’s a human problem.”

I agree. I have a family member who is a police officer. I can attest that she has a heart of gold and is out there doing a hell of a lot of good in this world, putting her life in danger every day, far more brave than I ever will be. She is a shining example of the reason why anyone should go into the police force in the first place, and I look up to her.

I also once was the victim of a male police officer who pulled me over for something unreasonable, gave me a ticket, which ended up costing me a ridiculous amount of money in court, legal fees, and time just to get rid of. This police officer was misogynistic, condescending, rude, arrogant, and high on power. He left me feeling emotionally stripped and vulnerable, in a town I didn’t know, with nowhere to turn, and no one with which to lodge a complaint. He had no reason to treat me the way he did. My record is clean (no ticket in nearly 20 years, and that was for speeding 9 miles over at the beach), I was not disrespectful to him, I complied with his demands, and I was not a threat. And, I am white. I cannot imagine how that situation might have played out if I were not white and got into his hands. That is my privilege, and I was still treated like dirt by that one bad cop out of thousands of good ones.

Good and bad people exist in every field of work.

Just had to get that out first.

Now on to my duty of “saying something:”

Yesterday, a fellow, white, Listen to Your Mother cast member and producer, my friend, Marty Long, got my attention with a touching live Facebook video she posted: “Saying Something.” She explained how she opened the dialogue with her little boys when she said, no, they actually could not take their nerf guns to the park, because their friends with brown and black skin can’t do the same without fear of judgment, or much, much worse. This led to an important dialogue she started with her young, innocent, non-judgmental children, in helping them to fully understand the concept of “white privilege.”

Eventually I found the video of  Amiyrah Martin, begging white people to say something, because, as she says, “your silence is killing us.” Her video is public on Facebook, and everyone should watch it.

She pleads with tear-filled eyes, “you saying something to your African American friends doesn’t count. We go through this every day… Don’t talk to us about it. Talk to those that don’t go through this every day. Talk to those that are dealing with privilege right now and they just don’t understand that it is privilege. We appreciate you, but we don’t need to hear it. We live it every day.”

She goes on to say that everyone’s a writer nowadays. “You have a social media account?” she asks before asserting, “You’re a writer. WRITE about it. Tweet about it. Put up a status about you being so angry. Encourage the people who are not of African descent to make a difference – to say something, to do something – please!”

No one should have to beg for the lives of their culture, or their skin color, or their sexual orientation, or their gender. Discrimination is a rampant, nasty, widespread disease in our country; the only people not feeling its lethal symptoms are the ones who don’t experience the disease of discrimination in the first place. That would be most of us folks who happen –  by chance – to be white, straight, and cisgender (meaning our gender identity matches our gender assignment at birth.)

Last night I finally got around to watching the absolutely gut-wrenching video of Alton Sterling’s 15-year-old son, Cameron Sterling, a fine looking young man, standing beside his mother at a press conference. He was covering his face with his polo shirt collar in both shame and profound despair, as he sobbed, collapsed into the men behind him, who then held him up and attempted to comfort him as he was overcome and cried out, “I want my Daddy.” Cameron Sterling, the oldest child left behind in the murder of their father, Alton Sterling. Google yesterday’s press conference. Watch it. Talk about it. Show it to your kids. If you can watch that video and not tear up, be moved, or even compelled to say something, I have absolutely no words for that.

I have a 15-year-old son. I know how hard he tries to be tough and not show emotion – especially tears, especially in public. I cannot get through that video without feeling that young man’s pain, bursting into sobs myself, and physically aching along with him, for his tremendous loss, and the PTSD he will surely suffer in the future, from having seen a now viral video of his daddy dying on the pavement.

I have no words, by God, I don’t know what to say, but I have to say something.

This morning I awoke to the news that another black man was killed by a police officer. Philando Castile was his name. His girlfriend streamed it via Facebook Live. My first thought was, “why didn’t she call 911? Her boyfriend was moaning and groaning in pain, dying, right beside her!” My next thought was, “Actually, 911 could not have helped. Sadly, her streaming it live on Facebook was the best thing to do in the moment. She realized he was dying and she couldn’t save him. She inherently knew that we all needed to see this, up close and personal – a window into the lives of our African American brothers and sisters, their worst nightmare coming true.”

A routine traffic stop for a busted tail light. Allegedly, he admitted to the officer that he was carrying a permitted firearm, as MANY people do, as that is our 2nd amendment which we seem to love so much. Allegedly he was reaching for his license when he was fatally shot four to five times. “I told him not to reach for it!” the cop yells defensively, voice quivering like a two-year-old who knows he’s just done something very bad.

I don’t know what happened in the moments before Diamond Reynolds opened up Facebook Live and started streaming the horrific scene. I don’t know why the officers felt it was necessary to handcuff and remove her from the vehicle and put her in the back of a police car when she was obviously distraught, in shock, and trying to absorb the fact that her boyfriend was dying despite attempts at resuscitation. I guess that’s just standard practice. But you’d better believe I would be yelling and screaming, too, if I had to helplessly watch my husband die in front of me while I was in handcuffs, locked in the back of a police car.

One of my earliest public school memories is of being in the girl’s bathroom, washing my hands. It was 1st grade, 1982. I heard crying. I looked over from the sink and saw a little black girl my age, standing alone against the wall and sobbing, “I wish I was white. I wish I was white.” Over and over again. Until that moment, I was unaware that anyone felt that way. I went home that day and asked my mom what would cause a girl to feel that way and to cry over it. My mom explained to me, in terms that I could understand at that age, the premise of white privilege, though I’m sure none of us knew or used that specific term back then. That was the day I learned about history and slavery, good people and bad people. Well before it was taught in 4th grade North Carolina history, I knew why little black girls cried over their skin color.

I don’t know what led up to an officer feeling so threatened that he fatally shot Philando Castile. Or Alton Sterling. I still want to know what happened to Sandra Bland almost a year ago this month. I followed her story and listened to her mother and family members speak, and I still have a hard time believing that she committed suicide. What could possibly have been a motive? She was young, excited about her recent move to Texas to begin a job at the local university, and was looking forward to her day in court with the corrupt police officer who tazed her unnecessarily and shouted, “I will light you up!” I want to know what happened to the 90 minutes of missing tape that led up to her death. She’s the one who prompted me to forward the #sayhername hashtag on social media last year, around the time that I first heard about the #blacklivesmatter movement.

I have often reflected on that time in 1st grade. What happened that led up to the moment where that little girl ran to the bathroom, cried and said, “I wish I was white?” Did a teacher yell at her for something silly? Did someone pick on her appearance? Did something bad happen to a family member at home? And what did I do when I heard and saw the crying girl in the bathroom? I said nothing, and I did nothing, because I didn’t know what to say. I took a paper towel, dried my hands, and quickly left the bathroom. I said nothing.

Thirty-four years later, I still don’t know what to say, but now I’m saying something. I’m saying discrimination has got to stop in all of its many forms. This is what I write about, almost every day, dealing with gender stereotypes. I’m saying I’m sorry to that little girl, 34 years ago in the bathroom crying alone – I’m so, so sorry that I didn’t even have the decency to ask you, “are you okay?”

I’m saying I’m sorry for all the times I’ve failed to acknowledge and appreciate my privilege as a white, straight, cisgender female. I’m trying to educate my three kids about it, but the older two already seem to know more than I do, and have actually taught me quite a bit. I have a lot of hope for this next generation. Our family watched that video together last night of Cameron Sterling, breaking down in despair at the press conference regarding his daddy’s death. My kids heard my scream and saw my ugly cry when I first witnessed that young man collapse into tears and beg to have his daddy back. My youngest son has always bonded best with African American girls. Youth doesn’t care about color. My youngest then cried a bit and simply said, “I don’t understand. I don’t understand why we can’t just have peace in the world. I’m for peace.”

I’m saying that I’m for peace, too. I’m anti-gun, anti-violence, period. That doesn’t mean that I’m going to try and take anyone else’s gun rights away from them, but I will ask that we all acknowledge it’s time to continue this dialogue. After the funerals end, the church and/or community members have delivered their last home cooked meal to the bereaved, the dust settles, and we’re already on to the next news story, let’s please continue this dialogue.

Let’s not just say their names, but shout their names, repeat their names. Do not let them be forgotten. Ever. As the saying goes, “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” I’m calling on all my white, straight, cisgender friends to consider living a day as someone without that “perfectly” aligned privilege.

Say their names. Shout their names. Repeat their names. Over and over. Here are a few to start with, who died by unnecessary force in just the last couple of years, following all those who were gunned down in Orlando last month. There are many, many more people of color who did not get press. Oh, and before anyone tells me that actually by number, more white people were killed by police than any other racial group this year, please also remember that currently, black people and Native Americans are being killed by police at a higher rate than any other racial group. And consider the undeniable data and studies that show unarmed black men are seven times more likely than whites to die by police gunfire. This is not by any means anywhere near an exhaustive list. But it’s a starting point:

Dontre Hamilton, Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Michael Brown, Jr., Ezell Ford, Dante Parker, Richard Perkins, Lamontez Jones, Darrius Stewart, Jermaine Benjamin, Sandra Bland, Samuel Dubose, Anthony Ashford, Michael Lee Marshall, Jamar Clark, Cornelius Brown, Tiara Thomas, Kevin Matthews, Bettie Jones, Keith Childress, Tanisha Anderson, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Rumain Brisbon, Jerame Reid, Tony Robinson, Matthew Ajibade, Phillip White, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Natasha McKenna, Delrawn Small, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile.

It’s not for us to say, “Well, if they hadn’t been doing something wrong in the first place, they wouldn’t have anything to worry about.” None of us are without fault. We’ve all had at least one moment in time that we’ve regretted. This unnecessary force, violence, and killing is not a cop problem. It’s most definitely a human problem. As humans, we communicate with words. We have to talk about this and come up with a solution to the rampant discrimination in our society. I don’t know what the answer is, but I know it can’t be murder.

#saytheirnames, #SHOUTTHEIRNAMES, #RepeatTheirNames

My youngest son always bonded best with African American girls.

Youth doesn’t care about color.

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