Dear friends and family not in Minnesota: we are, I am somewhat embarrassed to say, safe.
I woke up this morning forgetting for a few minutes what was going on 20 minutes from my home. This white woman, who, all her life, has been middle to upper middle class, was safe in her suburban home, worried more about whether she was going to get control of the weeds in her garden today than anything else.
Then I remembered the horror the Twin Cities is going through right now. Which in turn made me remember the horror peoples of color have endured for hundreds of years.
And I was ashamed on so, so many levels.
I was horrified and outraged when I heard the news and subsequently watched the footage of George Floyd being murdered. I turned to my husband and said “This is going to be bad.”
Clearly I understated things.
I also should’ve reminded myself at that moment that it had been bad before, even in a city and state that prides itself on being open, accepting, liberal.
I pride myself to have the same qualities, but I find myself wondering if I have ever done anything to perpetuate this injustice, even inadvertently? What can I do other than continue to be aware, and to point out when I see people acting wrongly. But in my desire to do the right thing, I find myself afraid to ask questions and state opinions.
Today I replied with much hesitation to a Facebook post made by an African American friend , Adrian Walton, who used to live in Minnesota. I must have typed and deleted and retyped my remarks a half-dozen times. I wanted to express how I felt, but was afraid I would come off as not understanding.
I wrote, “I can’t even look at the news. And I don’t know how to say anything — as a white, upper-class woman, I have no right to be angry or sad or outraged. Everything I say is wrong somehow. I know that the officers who filled Mr. Floyd are heinous individuals that should be jailed forever. I know that the protests were righteous. I can’t get behind the riots — and for that, I am told to check my privilege. I feel for the employees, the patrons, the small business owners, the people whose low-income housing is now gone. Somehow that makes me on the wrong side. I ask myself over and over — what can I do to help this never happen again? I try to be an open-minded person. I don’t like the idea of being blind to race, religion, sexual orientation, etc. I want to SEE it all for the beauty everyone’s unique diversity brings to the world around me. ”
Adrian graciously responded: “the best thing I would suggest is speak up against what you see is wrong and don’t conform to the rhetoric of staying quiet. What hurts me more is seeing my white friends quiet or mute on this issue yet they vocally speak against everything else. I believe, well I know others feel the same. The only way to help in this problem is buck the norm. I get killed when I speak out against blacks doing wrong… but I’m going to always speak what I believe and think is right or wrong. You may lose some friends but if they are your real friends then they know where you stand ethically and morally anyway. This situation won’t stop until more people of other races feel like you yet speak out against it and correct it when it’s wrong.”
I thanked him for his response, and cotinued: I do feel…that …I am walking on eggshells when I speak in favor of a group I feel is being wronged, whether POCs, LGBTQ, Muslims, etc. Often there is eye-rolling, or you don’t understand, type comments. Of course, I don’t understand! But it doesn’t mean I don’t grieve or feel empathy or want change… I will continue to smile at everyone, be kind, courteous and respectful, not change to the other side of the street, or grab my purse tighter, or make assumptions about someone based on their appearance. If you ever see me doing something that needs “checking,” please let me know, AD!”
My daughter helps me be more aware every day, navigating the world of non-binary pronouns and helping me identify ways that may inadvertently come off as insensitive. So I continue to try. In talking with her today, she pointed out that being shocked or surprised about what happened to Mr Floyd is a form of privilege. The African American community is wearily not shocked anymore. It’s expected — every day — to be a suspect. To be looked at furtively. To be wondered about.
Think of that wretched white woman in Central park, who called the police on the African American man who was reminding her of the leash laws. While she essentially strangles her dog, she tells police he is threatening her, when he CLEARLY is not. She and he both know how the police could respond to the woman’s pleas — and he bravely stands his ground. How easily Christian Cooper could’ve been the next dead black man., had the police not recognized the shameful situation for what it was.
That, my friends, is white privilege. Using race as an indication of good vs evil, right vs wrong. Luckily, rightfully, she ended up the villain, and he was the hero.
I’m not saying that George Floyd was a hero. I’m just saying that he was a human who deserved to be respected by and protected by the police, not treated like vermin to be stepped on in the street.
Don’t we all just want to be respected? And to feel safe?
I am also not going to blanketly blame law enforcement. If we say all cops are bad, that’s just like saying every person at the protest looted and burned and destroyed. OK — wait — that’s gonna piss someone off. I know it’s not the same. But is it so different that we can’t at least take a breath and talk about it? So let’s not say “the cops.” Let’s say “THOSE cops.” Yes: it is a systemic issue that must be forever and radically changed. But please: don’t assume that all police officers would’ve acted that way. We know they wouldn’t. But yes: it clearly happens so frequently that the headlines are saying “again” and “another” POC killed by cops.
We also need to be careful about others who are being blamed. The owner of the Cup Foods, where the incident with Mr. Floyd originated, spoke publicly about the situation. He said usually when counterfeit money changes hands, the person handing it over has no idea the bill is counterfeit. Usually, the police arrive and just ask the individual where they obtained the false currency, and let them go. Obviously this did not happen in this instance. The store is appalled that their call resulted in this catastrophe. The clerk is devastated. The owner has offered to not only pay all funeral expenses, but wants to help the community heal however he can. I do hope that this small, minority-owned neighborhood business does not suffer. We don’t need that in a time when small businesses are failing daily due to the current health crisis.
The COVID-19 situation crossed my mind on the first day of the chaos: if it weren’t for the boredom of a pandemic, would the rioting and looting be as bad? I mean, I was a reporter once. I know the media is grateful for any non-pandemic news right now. And people are bored, and cooped up. Quickly I quashed that thought — and chastised myself for what was clearly a train of thought which diminished the complexity and severity for the situation.
Ironically, today I read an enlightening op-ed piece in the New York Times by writer Keeanga-Yamhatta Taylor. Ms Taylor, an associate professor at Princeton, eloquently gave some background on why, right now in particular, Mr Floyd’s murder is so incendiary. She actually mentions COVID-19, and that yes: it does play a role. But not how I thought.
Ms Taylor talks about how COVID-19 has disproportionately ravaged the black community “highlighting and accelerating the ingrained social inequities that have made African-Americans the most vulnerable to the disease.” Secondly, she talks about how the response to the pandemic is skewed “It’s not just the higher rates of death that fuel this anger, but also publicized cases where African-Americans have been denied health care because nurses or doctors didn’t believe their complaints about their symptoms. Just as maddening is the assumption that African-Americans bear personal responsibility for dying in disproportionate numbers.”
She also talks about something that has been mentioned repeatedly on social media: why are white protesters, heavily armed, allowed to walk into the Michigan state capitol and other areas, and scream in the face of police, without repercussions? In fact, our President praised them as “very good people,” whereas he called the protesters in Minnesota “THUGS” (his caps, not mine).
Even my candidate for President, Joe Biden, screwed up by saying “you ain’t black” if African Americans consider voting for Trump in the fall. Dude, you are a rich white man. You have no right to say something like that. I’ll vote for you, because we gotta get rid of the current abomination, but I’ll be honest: you were not my top choice.
Getting back to Ms. Taylor, who eloquently summed things up: “The convergence of these tragic events — a pandemic disproportionately killing black people, the failure of the state to protect black people and the preying on black people by the police — has confirmed what most of us already know: If we and those who stand with us do not mobilize in our own defense, then no official entity ever will. Young black people must endure the contusions caused by rubber bullets or the acrid burn of tear gas because government has abandoned us. Black Lives Matter only because we will make it so.” I urge you to read her piece in its entirety.
Back in the Twin Cities, everyone is agreeing it is time for real change. In today’s press conference, Governor Tim Walz gave an impassioned speech insisting that real change would come, but first the neighborhoods had to be set to rights. Kind of a clean up the broken glass before we can fix the foundations thing. I get that, appreciate it, and support it. He and the other elected officials seem to be truly committed to change. I hope so.
It might help that business leaders are vowing to help.
Dr. Marc Gorelick, president and CEO of Children’s Minnesota, released a statement today co-signed by 28 corporate leaders, from companies as diverse as General Mills, Best Buy, the Minnesota Wild, US Bank and Ernst and Young and Medtronic (full disclosure: HWSNBN works for one of the signed companies). It read, in part:
“As business leaders in Minnesota committed to the principles of greater equity, diversity and inclusion in our companies and in our community, we are deeply saddened and horrified by the recent death of Mr. George Floyd… His death … reflects deeply ingrained, long-standing injustice within our society. .. The repeated occurrence of racially charged events of this nature are contrary to the close-knit employment and residential communities we desire to have in Minnesota. We are committed to taking steps to eliminate the repeat of events like this in our society and committed to investing in substantive change in our organizations and the communities we serve to address racial inequities and social justice. Change has to start today, and it needs to start with us.” (read the full text here).
This is admirable. But will they make measurable change? What will they do? Today an African American CNN reporter was arrested for doing his job reporting on the riots. His white counterpart was not. Will these respected business leaders change that?
Let me pose this scenario. It is 10:30 at night, and the African American CEO of a company comes home, and his wife asks him to run back out to grab a gallon of milk for the kids’ breakfast. He has a choice to make: can he stay in the workout clothes he wore home from the gym, or should he change into khakis and a polo so he won’t be racially profiled?
When I run errands in my grubbies, I laugh and nervously hope I don’t run into anyone I know looking like that. If I were black, I would be worried I would be arrested or worse.
But, as I sit here, a white woman in my suburban home, I am not afraid to die.
And for that, I am privileged.
Below is a piece done today by my brilliant artist friend, Melissa Moore, another suburban white woman who found herself overcome with emotion today. This was her outlet.