On police and privilege

I said a few years back that I was going to tone down my opinions online. I was going to bite my tongue and figure that you can’t change people who are set in their opinions. I was going to stop “inviting” the nasty comments that my posts elicited, the name calling. I was going to not give people a reason to avoid speaking to me, or to look at me and say something about not approaching situations with anger.

But tonight I call bullshit. I might return to my state of relative quiet tomorrow, but tonight, I can’t keep it in anymore.

You see, I’m a writer. Whatever I post on here about wondering if I’m a real writer, I’m someone who believes inherently in the power of words, who believes that the things we say can have just as big an impact as the things we do. Who believes that the often horrible overabundance of information on the Internet is simultaneously its greatest strength. It gives us all a voice, and tonight I’m going to shout out into the cacophony. Maybe my voice will get lost behind the words of people who speak loudly, or with greater vitriol, or maybe behind people who are just generally more well-spoken and charismatic than me. Maybe. But I’m still going to say my piece.

In the last few days I’ve seen too many posts that don’t check their privilege. Many of these posts (or “likes” or comments or whatever) have come from people I care deeply about and have huge amounts of respect for. They’re from people I like, and people that I know I could have rational conversations with about most issues (some, namely abortion, I’ve stopped even trying to reason with people on, which to me is my own failure of words due to fear rather than a triumph of temperance, but I digress).

The posts also come from strangers, or from general acquaintances, and I’m happy to say that the words that make me most angry come from these people. Perhaps because we don’t have the bonds of history, but mostly I think it’s that the people who are cruelest, who are quickest to dismiss the complexities of life are people I’ve chosen not to allow too deeply into mine. These people—and here I’m including that guy whose post about a traffic stop is plastered all over my Facebook today—too often say something along the lines of “nothing bad has happened to me in this situation, so if something bad happened to you, you must have done something to deserve it.”

It’s about respect, that guy says. And sure, I can support treating people with respect, but too often respect is something we tell minorities, women, and other less-powered people to have. And the people we’re telling them to respect: usually the people who are already in power. As if respect is something that certain people deserve more than others, as if a title, or badge, or life status earns it without question. We have a hierarchy of respect in this country—perhaps in this world—assuming that some groups of people have yet to earn it and other groups of people already have, and we make these determinations with the barest of details.

And to be clear, I’m saying this as someone who bends over backwards to be kind to strangers and acquaintances, often to my own detriment. I’ve never sworn at a stranger or been anything even approaching physically violent. I had to put it as a goal on my Day Zero list to stand up for myself to a stranger, and I accomplished that feat exactly once in 1001 days—and how I “accomplished” that was something along the lines of saying, “Hey, now,” to a guy who joked about getting scored on by a girl at soccer. So yeah. Not even sure that counts.

But I am in a position of enormous privilege. Despite being a woman, I have pretty much everything else going for me on the privilege checklist:

  • No one looks at me and assumes I will be a violent person, or that I would be capable of injuring them if I were.
  • I have been loved every single day of my life and have never doubted that I had people to turn to if things got difficult either emotionally or financially.
  • I have always had a stable physical place to call my home and always have been confident where my next meal was coming from.
  • I have never been physically abused by someone who professed to love me.
  • I have always had a vast support system beyond my family.
  • I have never been told I was stupid, that I wouldn’t amount to anything, or that I was going nowhere in life.
  • I grew up around people who imparted to me the value of books, knowledge, and critical thinking and who without thought exposed me to “standard” English, which means that when I do express myself, people (often) listen to what I’m saying rather than how I’m saying it; people do not make negative assumptions about my intelligence based on the way I speak.
  • When I struggled with physical or mental trauma, I had access to a robust team of physicians who did not assume I was lying, acting out for attention, or otherwise incapable of offering valid suggestions for my own care.
  • I look like a normal middle class white girl, which means people don’t tend to automatically assume that I’m lazy, or worthless, or uncultured simply based on the way I look/dress/style my hair.
  • My parents were financially and mentally capable of being constantly present in my life and were able to instill in me what we might consider a traditional set of ethics; their words and their actions matched each other, as did the words and actions of all important adult figures who were present in my young life.

I could go on, but the point here is that I’ve always had a lot going for me. The point here is that there are many stressors I’ve never had to worry about in my life. There are many things I’ve never had to face and many more that I’ve never even considered having to face.

So I don’t care that so many people can’t conceive of a valid reason that might cause someone else to lash out. Because I’m fairly sure that even if I went out tonight and started acting belligerently to a police officer, they would use the most minimal force to restrain me. I’m sure they wouldn’t pull a gun on me.

We all give in to these stereotypes and snap second judgments at times. I’ve done it myself. One of my most shameful memories is of a time I was in a car accident in undergrad. I was rear ended while waiting at a light, and when I got out of the car and saw that there were two other cars involved in the accident—the one behind me driven by a black man and the one behind that driven by a white woman—I automatically assumed that the black man had rear ended me and, as a result, been hit by the white woman, despite the fact that there had been only one moment of impact. When I expressed this point of view to the other female driver (the whole time we were waiting for the police, I sat and spoke with her, but I never approached or said one word to the black man), she asked me if I would lie to the police and say that was what had happened. Only then did I realize that she had been the one at fault, and though I told the truth to the police officers (one impact), I felt guilty for doing so.

I’ve thought about that day a lot over the years. I was startled and shaken, and in that moment I resorted to pure prejudices. I wonder sometimes how the situation might have changed had the races been reversed, had the accident been caused by a black woman and had the other driver been a white man—and I’m sure that in that moment I would have gravitated toward the white man.

Admitting that to myself leaves me so ashamed, but I can’t do anything to change how I acted in the past. Instead what I can do is take compassion and listening and understanding forward with me—things so much more powerful than blind respect. I can try to spot my own privileges, and the moments where those privileges impact how I see the world. I can try to stop thinking about what I would do were I in someone else’s shoes, because the collection of experiences that make me me don’t exist for anyone else, and the things that have had the most powerful impact on me are often the same things that others are missing from their experiences.

I’ve heard that the girl in South Carolina recently entered foster care, and from what I can tell, it’s not due to the death of her parents. Which, hey, I don’t want to say one proves the other, but this certainly suggests that she’s having, or perhaps has always had, a very different situation at home than the one I’ve had, than the one most of my friends, family, and acquaintances have had.

Look. I don’t know what happened in that classroom, but to suggest, as some have, that the girl deserved this because she’s a “brat,” is, to me, a failure of human compassion. It’s a failure to see that there are other ways to look at the world than the one we see first out our own eyes, to acknowledge that other people have different, and sometimes irreparably challenging realities.

As that man’s Facebook post about his traffic stop suggests, we are all culpable, we are all able to make the world a better place, but I contend, and will continue to contend, that the way we do that is by trying to understand with compassion, not by punishing. We do that by wondering, even for a few seconds, what it would be like to live a different reality. We ask what might have pushed someone to such a place rather than crying for their punishment. It means we try to listen to people, especially when our first reaction is to assume they have nothing important to say. And when they don’t speak, we invite them into the conversation and believe what they say, and when they don’t want to speak we let them stay silent.

It means we stop assuming that everyone who carries a badge or wears a uniform automatically always has the best interest of others in mind, stop assuming those people can make no mistakes. It means that we recognize the power for good and evil (for lack of better terms) in all of us.

Maybe that police officer in South Carolina regrets what he did, or maybe the girl does. Maybe one or both of them acted beyond their normal behaviors that day, or maybe one or both of those behaviors is normal for them. I don’t know, but it doesn’t really matter.

What I do know is that there are so many people who have it worse than me, who have not had the wonderful combination of privileges that I’ve had. I know that privilege sometimes blinds us. So to all of my friends and family, to all of my acquaintances who want to dismiss the violence of people in power toward people who are distinctly lacking it, I say this:

Taken collectively, these and other issues of police brutality are not about respect. On the whole, this is not about people “asking for it.” It’s about fear of the other, it’s about letting our prejudices—all of us, all of our prejudices—interfere with our decision making skills. It’s about fear and turning fellow human beings into others. And maybe, just maybe, sometimes it’s about preemptive revenge, just in case. There’s a trend occurring about who does the hurting and who’s getting hurt, and pretending that trend doesn’t exist isn’t going to fix anything. Pretending that this country doesn’t have real issues of privilege and discrimination based on that privilege is just going to make it worse.

I don’t know what will help. Not for sure. But maybe it’s time to try looking inward, to see the ways all of us with privilege are responsible for continuing to uphold a system that benefits those on top the most. To think about all the times we hurt those around us by painting the world with a single brush. To look in the mirror and say, “I can do better by my fellow human beings.”

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