Racism, justice and my role in both
Quick recap of the last two months, since that's when I last posted:
The pandemic is still raging out in the world, but we've added to it murder hornets and the start of a hurricane season that is likely to be brutal. Despite all of that, the country has started to open back up because apparently people care less about dying on a ventilator than they do about being first in line for a table when their local Applebee's opens for dinner.
It's an infuriating time to be an American, that's for sure.
But something that has always been infuriating about being an American -- at least for anyone who isn't white (bonus points added if you're straight and/or male) -- is its lack of racial justice, which constantly simmers on the back burner until an event causes it to boil over. This time, it was three back-to-back deaths of Black men and women -- Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd. They're all an outrage in their own right -- Breonna Taylor was sleeping in her apartment when plainclothes police busted down the door in the middle of the night with a no-knock warrant to arrest someone who didn't even live there and was already in police custody, Ahmaud Arbery was hunted down while jogging by some racist hillbillies with ties to the local police department who thought he shouldn't be in their neighborhood, and George Floyd was strangled by a callous police officer's knee on his neck while he repeatedly said he couldn't breathe and called out for his mother.
After George Floyd, something snapped. Large-scale protests were organized, some of which turned into rioting and looting. Police responded by swinging their dicks in ever-grander fashion, donning military-grade gear and unleashing tear gas on protesters whether unlawful or not, shooting rubber bullets at people's faces and, inexplicably, bashing around the journalists there to cover the event. If they wanted us to believe that use of force isn't a problem for cops, they're doing a pretty shitty job.
I've been watching all of this unfold from the fringe. I haven't joined protests because I'm still worried about the pandemic (and I'm terrified of getting shot in the eye by a rubber bullet and losing my eyesight, like what happened to a photographer covering the protests recently). And even though we live in Washington, D.C., we're far enough away that the only views of protesters and the "Black Lives Matter" street painting I've seen is on TV and through social media.
But while I'm not in the thick of it, I'm trying to do my part. I've made a few donations to organizations fighting for racial justice, and I've been actively seeking out Black-owned businesses to support. A friend of a friend organized an anti-racist study group through Facebook, and I've joined that, too. Assignments so far have included reading the "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" essay, taking a racial bias test, and listening to the podcast "The 1619 Project" from the New York Times.
All of this -- the deaths, the protests, the police brutality, the activism, the study group -- have caused me to be reflective about my own behavior over the years and the ways in which I've been racist, or at least used my whiteness to my advantage (which I suppose is still racist, I don't get a pass for it being passive).
Like the time in September 2015 when I noticed police officers roping off and shutting down Lafayette Square, where I was due to get married in less than 24 hours. I was a bubbling pot of stress because of frustrating interactions with family members and a disorganized and incompetent wedding planner, and I was frantically trying to tie up last-minute loose ends. When I saw those officers standing guard over the park where I was banking on taking pre-ceremony photos, something broke in my brain. I marched right up to the man at the corner of Jackson Place and H Street and demanded to know why the park now had a fence. I remember feeling like my boiling blood was going to shoot straight out of my head. I raised my voice and mouthed off to this man -- I'm certain there was finger wagging, though I don't specifically remember it -- while my girlfriends tried their best to hold me back and calm me down.
I think about that moment a lot every time a Black man gets killed by police for some low-level infraction. Not once did that officer reach for his weapon, or tell me to stop, or call for backup, or make the slightest move to arrest me. I was aggressive and in his face -- in plain view of the White House, no less -- but I got a pass because I'm a white woman. Would the outcome have been the same had I been a frustrated Black bride? Or a frustrated Black groom? I don't think so.
I also think about the fact that we've moved to a traditionally Black neighborhood, and the ways in which we've assimilated and the ways in which we haven't. We are cordial with our next-door neighbors on both sides of our house, but we've made no real attempts to befriend them. I go back and forth on this -- in all my years of living as an adult in the D.C. area, I've never had a relationship with a neighbor that's been anything more than passing hellos. But, we bought this house. Shouldn't we have made more of an effort when in theory we could live here for the rest of our lives? And is race a factor, even unconsciously, in why we haven't?
And speaking of buying the house, I think about the issue of gentrification. Should we have bought this house to begin with? We moved into a Black neighborhood and contributed to the increasing real estate prices that are pushing out the folks who've lived here for years, and I am aware of my role in that. But what's the solution? We wanted to buy a house, and this was one we could afford in a location we liked. Should we have not bought this house? Should we have looked for a house in a white neighborhood instead? That last one seems like the definition of racism, so that's obviously not a solution.
So, we live here, and we just do our best to be good neighbors to the folks around us -- we keep our yard tidy, we clean up trash, we're quiet. But, and I hate to admit this, we have occasionally called the cops. There have been a handful of times we've complained about loud music in the wee hours of the morning, and there was also the time a man appeared to be having either a drug reaction or other psychotic break (he was screaming and rolling around in the alley and was half-dressed). Did we endanger people's lives, or worse? And again, what's the solution? I feel like I would also call the cops on people blasting music at 3:30 in the morning if I lived in a white neighborhood... but I know that's inherently less of a risk for them.
I've been reflecting more on my interactions with the folks in my neighborhood as a whole. Recently, a young teenager (best guess around 14) on a bike closely rode past me as I was walking the dogs. Ren HATES bicycles. She hates most wheeled-vehicles aside from cars, actually, but bikes and scooters are particularly loathsome because of how close they can get to her. So when this kid rode past, she reacted in her usual way of snarling, barking and lunging at the leash. (We've tried to correct this behavior but have been unsuccessful, and that's a story for a whole other blog post.) The kid saw what happened, and I saw the kid see what happened. And like a scientist testing a hypothesis, he rode past us again. And then turned around and did it again, and each time Ren reacted in the same way. It was making walking down the street nearly impossible, and I got increasingly frustrated. "Hey," I called out angrily, "can you give us a break here? Stop swooping past us." At that moment, Ren stepped in her own poop and kicked it toward me, causing me to shriek "Goddammit!" The kid turned back around on his bike and said, "Did you just call me a dumbass?" He'd misheard me because I was wearing a cotton mask due to the aforementioned pandemic, but I immediately felt ashamed of myself. For one, I assumed motive on the part of this kid, determining that he was out to upset my dog with his bike. For another, I lost my temper with a kid. Teenagers around the globe are assholes. This is a universal truth. But I'm the adult in this situation; I should keep my cool. And the bigger question I'm asking myself: Did I let myself lose my cool because he was Black? Or would I have given it a pass had it been a white kid? Now, I just sit here and worry about him, wherever he is, having to add to what is I'm sure a growing tally of awful interactions with white people.
There are more things like this in my life, I am sure, but these are the most poignant memories I have right now. I don't want to be a racist. If we have children, I don't want our kids to be racist, sexist, classist... any -ist. I've been doing a lot of reading lately, and I know I need to sit with how uncomfortable it is to have these revelations about myself. I know I need to keep wrestling with these thoughts.
And what I'm doing right now is probably not going to cut it. I need to change some of my behavior. I will tell you right now, we have called the cops for the last time. And I'm going to keep advocating for racial justice on my social media feeds, regardless of how uncomfortable it makes me (I worry about losing my job over it). I've got "So You Want to Talk About Race" on its way to my house; I am also going to read "White Fragility." I'm going to keep amplifying the voices of people of color when I can.
I don't expect to be congratulated for this; this is just doing the work everyone should be doing as a rule. I also hope this blog post didn't come off as trying to center myself in the conversation or make everything about me. I'm just trying to reckon with my own role in white supremacy, and it helps me to write it all down.
And maybe at some point, this country will become one I actually want to live in.