At this point you have all seen the news coverage of Michael Brown’s death and the protests in Ferguson, Missouri. Some of you understand why the senseless death of Michael causes fear, anger, and disbelief among African Americans in the country. Many of you have similar emotions. Still others, and it’s those of you that I’m writing to, don’t understand. You trust the police as they have never meant you any harm and you see them as men and women that protect you and serve your community. Often they do just that. However, experiences with law enforcement officers can be different depending on one’s race. At this point, you may stop reading this essay or may call me a few names. I hope you continue to read.
What I know is that unless you are black in America, you can’t possibly understand what it’s like to be black in America. You can ask questions and you can be empathetic but you can’t truly understand being black in America unless you are black.
What I understand is what it is like to be white in America. Countless people have written about the advantages that white people have, but still many whites don’t understand these privileges. Whites often deny that they are safer, are held less suspect by those in authority, are assumed to be intelligent and to speak well, are more likely to be hired for jobs, and have more access to resources in society.
I also know what white rage looks like. I lived with a father who hated African Americans fiercely and blamed them for everything that was wrong in his life. It’s important to note that he never knew or met anyone black. I often covered my ears as my father spewed out hatred, hoping to make me a racist like him. How many times do you do this to your children in both overt and subtle ways? Do you make racist and prejudice comments about blacks?
When I pushed back at my father — asking why he hated blacks so much — his answer was always ‘they are lazy, stupid, and criminals.’ This is the way that my father saw all black people — through this lens. Interestingly, my father was uneducated and stole from his employer regularly. I wonder how many of you see blacks through the same lens that my father used. What would you do if you were seen through this lens? How would you feel? What would your chances be — during a job interview, when pulled over by the police, when hailing a taxi, or sitting in a classroom — if you were only seen through a negative, discriminatory, and racist lens? Would you be systematically discriminated against in all areas?
And, what if you were a parent and you knew that your children were only seen through this same derogatory lens? Would you fear for their future and their lives? Take a few minutes and think about how you view black men, black women, and black children. Are your thoughts positive or negative? Research tells us that many whites, when shown pictures of blacks, have negative emotions and thoughts due to inherent prejudice and fear perpetuated by books, movies, the media, their families, and many other aspects of society. Do you? If you are honest, the answer is probably yes and this makes it difficult for you to understand how many people are angry about the killing of Michael Brown. You see him as a criminal and deserving of death as a result of the depiction of black men in society, his skin color, your own fears, and some media outlets’ portrayal of his character. You don’t see him as an unarmed teenager who was gunned down by a police officer. You might not wonder why he was shot so many times. You might not ask, ‘If he was indeed a threat, why wasn’t he shot in the shoulder or leg?’ I bet you would be asking these questions if Michael Brown was your white son. I know you would be calling for justice.
In order for the lives of black people to be valued in America, it takes effort on all of our parts. We have to believe that black lives matter and that black people have dignity. Do you believe that black lives matter? When you see an African American male, do you consider his dignity or does he represent a negative stereotype in your mind?
If you are struggling with these issues, if you know that you hold racist viewpoints and actually want to rid yourself of them, move out of your comfort zone, challenge your friends’ perspectives if they are hurtful and hateful and talk to people who are different from you, often. Stand up for someone other than yourself and stand for something larger than yourself. Raised by a hateful, resentful, and racist father, I could have turned out exactly as he did but I chose love and understanding over hate.
In the end, my father chose love and understanding too. In his later years, due to a massive stroke, he lived in a nursing home in Tennessee near my younger sister. He shared a room with an African American man and his life was forever changed. It was through friendship, exposure, laughter, and love that my father rid himself of his racism, anger, and resentment and became someone I was proud to call my father. Near the end of his life, I asked him, once again, why he hated blacks throughout the majority of his lifetime. His response was truthful and telling. He said, “Because I didn’t like myself and I needed someone else to blame for my failures in life. I was wrong.” Who do you blame for your insecurities and problems?
As I have told many people, my father, although a vehement racist for most of his life, is the impetus for much of what I do professionally and how I live my life personally. Living a life that is based on a belief in the full potential of all human beings and sees the dignity within everyone is a life of joy and hope for both you and others. I choose that life. Which one do you choose? I hope it’s the life that lifts up all members of society, and especially our black brothers and sisters. Given our nation’s history of dire racism and oppression, we (whites) have a deep obligation to see the humanity of blacks and ensure opportunity, equity, safety, and happiness.