Monday, December 1, 2014

On Ferguson, Privilege, Race and Society

America, we have a problem and it's not pretty.  There is a culture of racism stewing and I think the worst part is that it crosses all racial boundaries.  To be honest, it feels that this latest event was inevitable. There was going to be a crux, a flash point, and all hell was going to break loose.  The unfortunate thing is that this incident, this rallying point, was by all known evidence an unfortunate yet justified application of self-defense.  There is no one thing to point to here; every side shares blame in today's broken society.  Despite our desire for quick sound bites and easy to digest information, this story of a nation crying out with hurt and begging for healing is complex and nuanced.

Cultural and social revolutions tend to start with an injustice. Throw in a little authoritarian aloofness, mix thoroughly with oppressed populace and ignite with one person or party willing to stand up for themselves.  If we're going to talk about race, then the obvious analogy is Rosa Parks.  Here is where things get sticky.  Ms. Parks was ignoring an unjust rule in an oppressive society.  She was standing up to being treated as a second class citizen by peacefully refusing to move.  Michael Brown was not doing any of those things.  He was, allegedly, identified as a suspect in a recent robbery and when confronted reached into the officer's car and punched him in the face and after being drawn on made a move for the gun the officer was carrying. [1].  What we have is a young man who made some very poor decisions that lead to his death.  By all accounts, this is where this story should end.  Taken in a vacuum, there is nothing more to this story.  However, because of the conflict escalation that soon occurred along with the staggering difference in the demographics between the citizens of the town of Ferguson and the representation and authority figures, the situation has been entered as part of the national zeitgeist.

I see many posts, articles and memes on social media with anecdotal counterpoints such as "Here is a story of a black man killing a police officer" or "Here is a white man killed by black police officer and the media isn't giving this any coverage" or  as I've pointed out "This "innocent kid" was not so innocent and his death was justified." The problem with all of this is that there is a greater point being missed.  Our fellow non-white Americans feel oppressed every day.  They feel like the world is out to get them and their best option is to "act white."  The saddest part to me, is that I see a lot of these posts coming from other minorities.  It's like being brown is better than being black in our culture.  At worst, we get shitty excuses to be refused service or accused of being a lazy people.  Maybe we get told to swim back across the river.  No one really assumes we are all criminals or that we're just waiting for you to turn the wrong corner so we can jump you.  Even a reasonably well dressed black man will be given a second glance or maybe he will make you tense up or cross to the other side of the street.  God forbid, he be wearing shorts and a t-shirt. Then, you just assume he's carrying and on his way to or back from enjoying any kind of criminal activity.

Young, black people grow up being told that the world will not treat them fairly, that most people will assume he is up to no good.  This is further reinforced quite literally every day when people do exactly that.  You don't think he noticed you move to the other side of the street?  Maybe he wouldn't have if you weren't the fourth or fifth person today to do it.  People talk about white privilege without ever defining what it is.  People tend to think of it as an excuse that minorities use to justify their, frankly, poor decisions.  At times it can be exactly that, however ask yourself when you get stopped by a police officer, exactly how sure are you that you are going to walk/drive away from that encounter?  If your answer is over 80% or you've never really thought about it. Then, it's a nice world you live in.

"Every black male I've ever met has had this talk, and it's likely that I'll have to give it one day too. There are so many things I need to tell my future son, already, before I've birthed him; so many innocuous, trite thoughts that may not make a single difference. Don't wear a hoodie. Don't try to break up a fight. Don't talk back to cops. Don't ask for help. But they're all variations of a single theme: Don't give them an excuse to kill you." [2]
That article has a lot of first hand accounts of talks that people have to have with their sons to make sure they come home alive.  If you've never had this talk or had to have this talk with your child, that's a privilege.  People tend to think of white privilege as things they were handed because they aren't black.  If you have that attitude, then it's easy to say "Nobody ever gave me nothing for being white."  The real story of privilege is all the daily adversities you don't have to face because you aren't black or brown.  Some of us are lucky, we're brown and living in a white world and we more or less blend in.  I have no problem admitting I was raised white. I self-identify as white.  People for the most part treat me that way.  I don't face bald-face prejudice and racism very often. That may be because I'm well spoken or it may be the people I hang out with.  Either way, I live in a bubble where I'm treated fairly and not judged by the color of my skin for the most part.  The things I face are more subtle.  A cashier will speak Spanish to me assuming I don't speak English so when I answer them in English with a slightly exaggerated Texas accent I get to see a face that progresses from shock, to relief, to slight embarrassment.  Sometimes people speak slowly to me until I open my mouth and reveal I do understand what they're saying.  I honestly don't want to drive through Arizona because if I get pulled over I have no documentation that says I'm not illegal on my person, but really that's my biggest worry.  I don't have to deal with assumed guilt or confrontational stances by default daily.

It seems to me that it is becoming acceptable to be covertly racist or maybe it just always has been.  Posting things like "white people don't riot when they're mad" is missing the point.  First off, if white people are rioting it's generally because they're happy (see championship celebration riots across this country).  Second, pointing out that people of a different skin color don't riot when they're mad deflects.  It takes the fact that these people are mad and dismisses it by saying "they should handle it better."  You know what when my son gets mad he throws his toys across the room and beats his head against the floor.  That doesn't change the fact that he was genuinely upset in the first place.  When you see someone posting a story about a white kid gunned down and the lack of coverage you are ignoring the fact that the coverage really started after the violence between the local police and the people protesting peacefully had already erupted.  Instead of pointing out all the contradictions and dismissing the situation, first take a few minutes to recognize the underlying problem and find ways to address that.  This is a nation being torn to bits because we spend so much time looking at our differences.  And yet, we have a history of surviving and coming together to achieve wonderful things despite those same differences.  We just have to choose to embrace each other rather than climb over the most bodies so our message can be heard the loudest.  We can heal from this but it will only be done when we recognize there is a wound that needs healing.