I have this friend. She’s one of my favorite people on the planet. And I’m lucky enough to say that we’ve been friends for half my life. We met at the American University of Paris, where we were living on our own for the first time in our newly adult lives. In French class one day she made a joke under her breath and I cracked up. We became instant friends.
I came from the mountains and she grew up on an island, but both inside and outside of class we made each other laugh so hard that our cheeks and abs would ache as we struggled to catch our breath and pretended to pay attention to our professor. We spent lots of time together wandering around Paris, dancing, eating, talking about life and love and sharing secrets we’d only ever divulge to close friends.
A few years (and countries) later she was in my wedding. I was at hers. She had a son first, and not long after, I had one as well. She had a second child, a daughter. We talked about parenthood and marriage and jobs. She became a lawyer and I an author/photographer. We joked about how similar our peace-loving husbands are in disposition and how we’d love to live closer so we could hang out more. We have as much, if not more in common now as when we met. And she still makes me laugh like no one else. But we have one glaring difference. She is black. I am white. Her husband is black. Mine is brown. Her son is black. Mine is white.
My husband, son and I toured the country a few years ago and when we made it to their hometown, our kids got to play together. They had a sleepover. They played and laughed and made up games. Our boys love Legos and drawing and pirates. They are both sweet, good-natured, smart, loving and funny. If we lived nearer to one another I’m sure they would have regular play dates, adding to that list of commonalities.
But as similar as they (and we) are, the difference in their melanin matters. It matters because I’ve never had to worry about my blonde haired, blue-eyed son being targeted by police. I don’t have to worry that he will be in danger if he plays with a toy gun at a playground. I don’t have to worry that he’ll be profiled while shopping. I don’t have to deal with kids at school not wanting to play with him because of the color of his skin. And I don’t know how my friend manages not be become an angry, cynical person when she has to balance raising healthy, happy children with the fear that they could be killed by someone in uniform who would be unlikely to lose their job, let alone be tried and convicted of murder. She is a better person than I am.
When I see the news that another black person was killed by a white police officer it makes me teary and angry and filled with righteous indignation. I am also forced to appreciate the fact that I can choose to engage in this issue or not. That I can call it an “issue” rather than experience it as a pervasive fear within my daily life. That is my privilege as a white person in this country.
But what if this had happened to my friend? Her son or daughter? Her husband? Do I only care because my friends fit that description?
I have to admit that I have been in many social situations where I’ve listened to racist slurs and stayed silent. I grew up hearing a lot of Trump-esque blustering about all sorts of people and while I never condoned it, I often remained quiet. And when I think about that, I feel ashamed.
I was playing the role I was taught to play. I’d been instructed to smile and “let it go” because they “didn’t mean any harm.” Same went for sexism and misogyny. For a long time, I believed that was (mostly) true. They were basically good people who just had some ignorant ideas. But the thing is, that’s bullshit. I’ve experienced the real-life repercussions of female objectification. I know it’s harmful, intentionally or not. Sweeping generalizations lead to dehumanization. And dehumanizing people is a necessary precursor to accepted violence against them.
I am part of the problem if I can’t address my own discomfort and speak up. Yes, those conversations are awkward. Yes, there are going to be people who are offended by “reverse racism” and “political correctness.” Offending those who disregard others’ humanity is a laughably small price to pay for promoting human equality.
While I cannot change the institutions or systemic racism that exists in this country, I can use my racial privilege to speak up. When I hear friends, acquaintances or relatives make casually racist comments in conversation I can call them out. When I hear sweeping general statements about Blacks, Mexicans, Gays, Jews, Muslims or Immigrants I can point out the ignorance of those statements. I know and love individuals in my life that fall in every one of those categories. And every one of them would stand up for me if they were called to.
There is no question that we as a society cannot tolerate anyone flagrantly disregarding the rule of law, even and especially not those tasked with upholding it. We cannot ignore an ugly, racist history that has enmeshed itself at an institutionalized level. And we cannot pretend that it is a problem for black and brown people to address and fix. They did not create the institutions that continue to oppress and kill them.
When we stop seeing people as belonging to categories of other, and instead see them as individuals—friends—with the same hopes and dreams as us we can’t help but feel differently about the injustices they endure.
We see ourselves as good people. And no good person would stand idly by as friends or family were casually berated, unfairly targeted or murdered. If it happened to someone who looked like us we would be outraged and expect justice. We would not blame them for the violence against them.
So what can we do about the constant barrage of bigotry and fear-mongering seeking to demonize the victims of systemic racism? We can engage in uncomfortable conversations. We can ask questions. We can listen to people of color talk about their experiences. We can seek out conversations with people who think and believe differently from ourselves. We can put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and think, “If that were me, how would I feel?” We can behave like friends and stand up for people we care about.
We can choose to live our lives with empathy and love. We can speak out against injustice. We can change the way our society treats its citizens, one interaction at a time.