C., a friend whom I knew from church, is someone I would want my kids to be like. He attended an Ivy League school, dresses conservatively, and holds down a very nice job at a tech company.
He is also African-American.
Recently, in a comment to a Facebook post, he outlined some of his personal rules for avoiding trouble in stores: always get receipts for goods you get. Only hold goods for as long as you need to read the label. Don’t carry items around until you have. Try not to carry items from store A into store B if store B also sells them.
This was an eye opener for me. Yes, I knew there was white privilege, and that I benefited by it, and was aware of problems of African-Americans being followed around stores. But receipts? I often ask not to be given receipts, especially for small items. I don’t want the extra paper, and I figure the amount of the purchases will show up on my bank statement. And not holding goods? I carry things around stores often without thinking about it.
But I am a white woman, and I am never harassed.
There have been a lot of articles since the shooting of Michael Brown detailing the various indignities — and downright dangers — faced by African-Americans in day-to-day life. While intellectually I knew about a lot of these problems, and was outraged by them in that white liberal “I hate racism in all forms sort of way,” I am perhaps reading them with more emotional intelligence than before.
After all, as I said, I am a white woman, and a middle-aged one at that. I get the benefit of doubt. Others do not.
I worked a campaign last year with my friend J. He was the best phone canvasser of our group, so much so that I once sat next to him to see if I could learn his technique. (I didn’t.) But things changed when we began precinct walking: he was treated with suspicion, while I was greeted, if not warmly, at least civilly. He took to carrying books around with him, so he would appear more acceptable. (Not unlike whistling Vivaldi.) He once commented “people look out their windows at you and see a neighbor.* They look out their windows at me and see a big black guy.”
Stories — a few among many — that have been reported the past few years:
Black man gets shot by police while looking at toy guns in WalMart. This while the white NRA members swagger around events holding real guns to demonstrate how important their interpretation of the Second Amendment is.
Fifty-one year old man (with impressive resume) is arrested and detained for six hours because he “fit the description” of a suspect in a burglary. (I have previously mentioned the Palo Alto police chief who in 2008 instructed officers to stop and talk to young black men, because they would “fit the description” of a suspect in a string of break-ins.)
One thing that strikes me is how often details such as “college-bound” or “good father” or other qualifiers are added to descriptions of victims, or how they are described as thugs who (implicitly) deserved what they got. (The New York Times ran a piece that declared that Michael Brown was “no angel,” as if that mattered.) It is though we think that such things don’t happen to middle class people who act “appropriately.” Even how I started this post: the fact that my friend went to a good college and doesn’t dress like a gang member is irrelevant. He should not have to deal with the petty humiliations that come his way based on his skin color. (C. also commented in the Facebook thread that “Justin Beiber can get away with wearing baggy pants. I can’t.”) It is almost as though the media needs to reassure us that yes, this is horrible: the deceased was a “perfect victim.” Or not, as in the case of Michael Brown. (Horribly, media coverage tends to treat white killers better than black victims.)
Nothing matters except than what happened in the confrontation that resulted in the shooting. No one deserves to go around afraid for their life or safety just because they’re young and black.
And I have to remind myself that I am the beneficiary of three centuries of slavery and oppression. That my white skin shields me from indignities and fears that others have to live with all their lives.
That I need to speak out for justice, and support others who do the same.
*This was not true when I walked Vietnamese neighborhoods.
**Yes, I do know that Trayvon Martin was not killed by law enforcement, but by a vigilante. If anything that makes the case even scarier: if you are young and black you can be a target even if you don’t have a run in with the cops.