The death of George Floyd was a tipping point for me
I’ve never had much to say about racial injustice.
Not because I don’t have opinions, but because I don’t feel qualified to provide an opinion regarding the subject. I’m a young, white woman. I don’t know what it’s like to be black. I’ve never lived in an American city. Growing up in a rural, Northern California county, I only know a handful of black people. I was raised by conservative parents in a household where I was taught to treat everyone the same, regardless of color. Yet when the Trayvon Martin shooting launched the “Million Hoodie March,” I, the same age as Trayvon, religiously watched the Fox News coverage picking apart each and every detail of the story as portrayed by the “mainstream media.” The photo of Trayvon that was circulated after he died wasn’t representative of what he actually looked like at 17 years old, they said. He was actually bigger, more manly, and had run-ins with police in the past. They said Black Lives Matter was a step in the wrong direction. Didn’t all lives matter? Though it came off as a tad contrary, I agreed. Who could disagree with that? We had a black president, after all. Wasn’t it time to break free from the past and move forward? In my little bubble, there was no racism to be seen through white eyes. The one black student at my school was never short of friends and was always treated with reverence — perhaps an overcompensation to prove we weren’t the backwards bigots the city folk thought we were.
Right or wrong, the nationwide riots made me finally confront the realities of racism in America.
Then I went to college — a small, liberal arts school in North Carolina. The campus was still comprised mostly of white kids, but I made some black friends. I would never attempt to sum up their experiences of being black in America, but I will say that they opened my eyes to alternate realities. I will also say that my own constant awareness of them being black made me realize that I was in no way “color blind”; that the physical remnants of systemic oppression I observed during my surface-level tours of the South made it evident that the traumas of the last century couldn’t be erased any more than the names of slaves engraved near an old bunk house, preserved for the sake of history. While on a road trip through Georgia, I saw a KKK recruitment ad on a billboard beside the highway. We had to stop for gas in that town and were uneasy about it. But as white girls, the anxiety we professed was merely an act of righteousness.
In Jerusalem, while studying abroad, I witnessed modern-day systemic oppression of an unarmed minority which could not be denied, even by my own exacting brain. It was right before my eyes in the form of demolished apartments, internal border walls and unwarranted teargassing. Yet, every day in that city, I lived in fear of falling victim to Palestinian vengeance; and even though my heart ached for the Arab man in Bethlehem who told me he never went into the city anymore because he once found himself at the wrong end of a rifle after reaching for his wallet, I was grateful for the gun-toting Israeli masses who defended the unjust equilibrium from chaos. In Nice, France, I ran for my life from a delivery truck driven down the promenade by an ISIS recruit. Eighty-seven people died that Bastille Day night. When the local authorities retaliated by banning Muslim women’s swimwear on those sparkling, sunny beaches, I learned that the paradise had been an illusion all along.
It’s far easier to stay home and uphold the social contract — even if it’s not working in your favor.
Still, college and travel didn’t shake my conservative roots. Instead, I became an ugly mutt of conflicting ideologies that could only be described as a South Park Republican or a Roganite. Some may call me a fence-sitter, as I harbor disdain for just about anything radical or exclusive. If I’d been alive during the American Revolution, I probably would have been a Loyalist. I’m entirely skeptical of the mainstream media (I added Fox News to that list after my first year of college). Like most who inhabit the lukewarm center, I don’t like people telling me what I should think or feel. When the latest morality fad rolls through social media, I roll my eyes at those who feel the need to repost a clichéd 100-word manifesto in order to prove to their grandchildren they were on the right side of history, whatever they believe that to be. If I embody any political stance, it’s taking my time to form an opinion and not talking about things I don’t fully understand. And I don’t pretend to understand most things.
When Central Park “Karen” came onto the scene, my nose reflexively wrinkled in disgust at her screeching threats and her cognizance of the weight they wielded. But, like a good skeptic, I did my research. Was Christian Cooper baiting noncompliant dog walkers into hysteria with his pocket full of treats and cryptic words? To me, it sounded like two entitled New Yorkers — one a Harvard grad and the other a thinly-veiled, “bleeding heart liberal” — who were facing off in their natural habitat. If anything, it was satisfying to watch.
And then, George Floyd was murdered. I say murdered because no one who has seen the video can deny that is what happened. When I watched it, I quickly came to the conclusion that explaining away his death would be impossible. There is nothing Floyd could have done in his past, nothing that he could have been suspected of, nothing he could have said prior to being snuffed out under the unrelenting knee of a white cop that could have made his passing justifiable.
I feel sadness and anger on behalf of people losing their businesses while also feeling sadness and anger on behalf of the rioters who are destroying them.
I did my research. I watched the videos of peaceful protestors, as well as looters attacking innocent people and their businesses. I watched a Snapchat compilation of black Americans speaking their truths. I watched Trevor Noah’s enlightening and deferential speech about social contracts and contemplated what it would take for me to engage in a riot. Like all of us, I’ve had a recent taste of the government’s power to keep me in my home, control my movements and take away my job. Some folks (mainly white conservatives) bore arms and took to the streets to defy those restrictions. But it never reached a pitch of overt violence. Why? Because people typically don’t riot for anything less than life or death. It’s far easier to stay home and uphold the social contract — even if it’s not working in your favor.
What I’ve learned from these past few days is that there is still a really big problem in America, and I can no longer ignore it just because I want it to go away, or because it’s not a pressing issue in my hometown. I understand now that the backstories of Rodney King, Trayvon Martin, Amy Cooper, and George Floyd don’t really matter. These stories resonate with us as a society because there is a ubiquitous truth to them that we all know from our own untold experiences. I won’t speak on behalf of others. But I can say what I know and hope it adds a drop of compassion to this raging river we’re all riding down.
1. I’ve always felt confident that, if I were to be pulled over, I would be treated politely by the police officer because of how non-threatening I look. On the very few occasions I have been pulled over, this hypothesis has proven true. It is quite impossible for me to imagine a scenario in which I am questioned by police for an alleged nonviolent crime, pulled out of my car in a drunken state and held on the ground under a cop’s knee until I die of asphyxiation, despite my repeated pleas that I can’t breathe.
2. I know quite a few cops who are really great people. The police in my area have demonstrated an incredible capacity for restraint when lethal force would have been warranted. Even in the case of a (white) suicidal active shooter, they walked away from the situation with no lives lost.
3. When visiting the city, I’ve judged a black man as potentially more threatening than I would a white man of the same age, wearing the same clothes, riding the same subway.
4. Even though I’d like to believe I would never use someone’s race as a means to destroy their life, no matter how scared or enraged I may be, I have an innate understanding that my identity as a white woman would grant me credibility over a black person if the police got involved.
5. I feel sadness and anger on behalf of people losing their businesses while also feeling sadness and anger on behalf of the rioters who are destroying them.
6. Right or wrong, the nationwide riots made me finally confront the realities of racism in America.
7. If I believed that the social contract I was living under didn’t fairly represent me; if it was a matter of life and death; if I had spoken out only to be dismissed and forgotten when the next headline came along; if I had protested peacefully only to be scorned for my decision to do so; if, by all accounts, the future in its entirety looked much the same, I would riot against that contract.
8. People’s views can change. Mine change all the time. But condescending to others to “educate themselves” and telling them their opinions are bad only fuels the conflict. I’m trying to not get sucked into the white echo chamber that is my social media feed. I’m trying to listen more and talk less.
9. Admitting my own privileges and prejudices doesn’t make me feel guilty for being white. In order to move forward, we must recognize what is.
I’ve spoken my truth. What’s yours?