I don’t know what made me do it; deep inside I felt compelled to click past the warning about the graphic nature of the video to actually see a man take his last breaths. I’m certainly no violence junkie, so it must have been an exercise in confronting reality. My eyes were glued to the footage of Philando Castile bleeding out in his car. His girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, filmed the tragedy with her daughter in the back seat, while conversing with the police in an almost unreasonably calm and polite way. I watched all ten minutes of her Facebook Live video, sobbing into my laptop.
That video changed me. This wasn’t just a nameless, faceless man to me anymore. This was Philando Castile, a generous cafeteria manager for whom so many came forward to declare their love. This was a man who had been pulled over some 50 times in the years preceding his death. This was a man accustomed to law enforcement assuming the worst, someone who associated with other black adults that understood that the safest way to converse with the authorities was with extreme caution, respect, and compliance. This was a man who was licensed to carry a firearm and offered this information to the officer that pulled him over. Philando Castile can only be described as a victim on the day he died.
After that, I made myself watch the video of Alton Sterling’s death in Baton Rouge, witnessing how powerless he was when the police threw him to the ground and shot him at point-blank range. I read the story of his surviving family and the motives of the group that filmed his death. Once the horror subsided inside me, anger grew. That anger was fueled by research into all the other senseless deaths that groups like Black Lives Matter continue to highlight. It was fueled by hours of reading in an attempt to understand why American society seems to be slipping backwards in terms of race relations and cultural sensitivity, instead of moving forward.
As I worked through feelings of disgust, I spoke over and over with Sarah about these tragedies. How could officers feel justified in shooting Charles Kinsey, an unarmed Miami man lying on his back with his hands up in the air? What do incidents like this reveal about our perceptions of black men? Aren’t these incidents evidence of an endemic problem that requires our attention—everyone’s attention? Why aren’t more whites speaking out against this violence?
I believe the problem for white Americans is two-fold. If you support #blacklivesmatter or any similar movement, if you speak out about violence against blacks, you face scrutiny from both white and black Americans.
As a white woman speaking out about #blacklivesmatter, other whites are quick to understand my sympathies as antipathy for my own race. Too many people seem to view these matters as binary. You either support (white) police officers who have recently been the victims of shootings perpetrated by a radical minority or you support black citizens who are the victims of police violence at a wildly disproportionate rate. If you’re lucky, your #blacklivesmatter message will be met with a polite “well, #alllivesmatter” message; if you’re unlucky, you get told you’re a moron for supporting a “bunch of thugs” instead of the police. (I wish I were making this up.)
On the other hand, speaking out in favor of a minority group you don’t belong to can seem disingenuous to everyone, whites and blacks. Sometimes we try to say the right thing, but come up short. We try to be culturally sensitive but literally don’t understand the depths of our own ignorance. What makes me think, as a white woman, that I can speak up for blacks? What’s even the right thing to say? I can’t imagine the struggle of growing up black in a country as openly racist as America. And some black leaders make the case that it’s not their job to educate whites on how not to be racist; we just need to figure it out.
There’s just such a long legacy of hate that so many young white Americans are completely unaware of. A friend recently explained to me why you’ll never see a black child dressed in any of those cute summertime outfits decorated with watermelon slices. “Watermelons?” I asked. “What’s wrong with watermelons?” Turns out, a lot. Hundreds of years’ worth of racial stereotypes that I was utterly unaware of. This is just one piece of evidence of my (of white society’s) total ignorance on the history of race relations that has led us to this point. We don’t get it. We never will. So trying to speak on behalf of Black America is sloppy.
I’ve been allowing the weight of these thoughts to settle on me for weeks now, even as I’ve been attacked by racist bigots who feel the need to challenge my position against violence. I’ve come to believe that even though it would be easier to stay quiet, to live in my comfortable bubble of ignorance, to insist that I am not racist while doing nothing to acknowledge or address clear instances of racism in my own country, I cannot. I don’t want my kids growing up in a society that continues to maintain an “us versus them” mentality. I do not support the deaths of police officers who willingly put themselves in the line of fire to protect citizens. I also do not support black citizens being the victims of those very same officers. I do not support violence against any community.
I know some have argued that making footage of black deaths available for public consumption demeans the victims. But for me, it was the spark I needed to get angry and speak up. If you think you understand the problem but you haven’t actually seen the videos of Philando Castile’s and Alton Sterling’s deaths, if you haven’t seen the footage of Charles Kinsey lying on his back with his hands in the air asking police not to shoot, only to be shot, now’s not the time for timidity. Maybe the shock, the disgust, and the rage of being witness to this violence is what white Americans need to jolt us out of silence.