(To my readers: As you know in my weekly column, “Going Viral,” I’ve been weighing in as an award-winning writer and filmmaker, Shoreline resident and concerned citizen on issues that affect us. Lately the focus has been on how the Coronavirus is changing our lives. This week I’m looking at racial bias and policing, our feelings about these issues, where we can find information and how we can help.)
My Nigerian friend had a very different upbringing than my friend from South Carolina who had a very different upbringing than my friend who was raised in Chicago who had a very different upbringing than my friend who was raised in Brooklyn.
They all have their favorite foods and favorite bands — all different. They have different religious practices and different traditions on different holidays. They wear their hair differently — buzzed, plaited, picked out, straightened. And they have different educational backgrounds and different professions and live in different cities.
And aside from being friends with me, they have nothing in common except for the fact that their skin is darker than mine. And yet that one fact — skin color — is enough to get them lumped together in the same bucket when it comes to health outcomes, school admissions, job searches, financial prospects, life expectancy and police stops. Because for some reason that has never made any sense to me, that one fact — skin color — defines them in this country.
And yes, we can go through the history and give all kinds of “reasons” but what I’m really asking is why does that one fact — skin color — tend to make people think that they know something about a person with skin darker than theirs?
Pop Quiz. How do you feel when you see someone approaching you on the street that has skin darker than yours? How do you feel when you’re assigned to work with someone with a darker skin color? Or discover that your new boss has darker skin than you? Or that a colleague with darker skin has been given the job or promotion you wanted? Or that someone you’ve been speaking to on the phone isn’t the race you’d assumed but has skin darker than yours? Or that your daughter’s new boyfriend — or girlfriend — has skin darker than yours?
Are you surprised? Afraid? Curious? Resentful? Ambivalent? Relieved? Attracted? Embarrassed? There’s no right answer but it’s worth thinking about because these feelings point to unconscious assumptions that can trigger actions that have consequences both for you and others.
Maybe you’ve heard of “white fragility” — a phrase that’s been much in the news these last few months. For those of you who haven’t read the book, basically it boils down to resentment at having to examine our motives. Apparently it can feel like you’re being called to account — that you’re being shamed while others are reaping “unearned” benefits. And we should pay attention to these feelings. But I would say that given “white privilege” — another phrase that’s much in vogue — thinking about our motives is a small price to pay given the enormous inequities that people of color face.
Think about it — about the extra worry and stress for people of color every time their child leaves the house or their spouse has to drive to an unfamiliar neighborhood. Think about what they face when they try to find a job or a house or a doctor they can trust to care for them. It’s a terrible burden.
While I’m sure I have my blind spots, living in New York and having friends, neighbors and colleagues of every nationality and color and creed has certainly helped inoculate me against having preconceptions based on skin color. I am extremely grateful for that and recommend living or working in a diverse community to anyone who has had the misfortune to grow up in a homogeneous community.
Starting with the terrible question in front of all of us: why is it that people of color are suffering so terribly at the hands of police? I grew up thinking that the police were safe — I never hesitated to dial 911 if I were in trouble or danger. But the people of color that I know don’t have that option — they avoid the cops whenever possible because encounters with police so often go sideways.
Look at Breonna Taylor – an EMT who was asleep in her bed when police burst into her home pursuing someone who didn’t live at her address and shot her dead. And then Ahmaud Arbery — shot while jogging. And then a handcuffed George Floyd — killed after a cop who had worked with him (at a nightclub as security) knelt on his neck until he died.
The facts are still in dispute about whether Floyd passed a bad 20 dollar bill or even knew if the bill he used to pay for his goods was bad and the police haven’t been able to produce the bill. In any event, we’re talking about a $20 dollar dispute.
Imagine if you were Breonna Taylor or Ahmaud Arbery or George Floyd. Three human beings — sleeping, jogging and shopping and maybe making a mistake — killed by cops. I don’t know about you but I’ve certainly gone jogging and slept in my own bed and made mistakes. But then I wasn’t a person of color so I did these things unafraid.
I’m certainly no expert on police matters but like all of us, I’m responsible for voting for the mayors and county officials who negotiate contracts with the police, hire police chiefs and sheriffs and make the decisions that affect all of us so I offer these thoughts and questions as something to think about.
It seems clear to me that police officers tend to close ranks when an officer is accused of bad conduct and that district attorneys rarely if ever prosecute a police officer. While we can all appreciate the pressures that police officers face, this tradition of “protecting our own” doesn’t seem to be working for anyone. Decent police officers — and as in most professions, this is most of them — get tarnished by the bad conduct of fellow officers and can face retaliation if they don’t “protect” these bad actors. They also may not be helped in this regard by their contracts if oversight has been traded away for salary caps. And without police cooperation, attorneys general are reluctant to pursue these cases.
So it’s clear that “blue privilege” has to be recalibrated. The proliferation of video evidence from police bodycams and bystander cams can help. And if evidence such as we’ve seen in the George Floyd case doesn’t trigger immediate arrests and substantial charges, public outcry can bring the necessary pressure as we’ve seen in the last weeks. Bottom line, there have to be consequences because without consequences, there’s no hope for change.
And then as was suggested to me by a doctor, we need to look at the stresses that the police are under. Like doctors and airline pilots, perhaps police officers should have their hours and overtime limited to help keep them sharp and patient and calm, with salaries raised to help compensate them for shorter schedules. Like doctors and airline pilots, they have our lives in their hands and need to be at their best when making critical decisions. And like doctors and pilots, perhaps they need some sort of “continuing ed” beyond firearms recertification to help keep them up to date on practices such as de-escalation or implicit bias recognition.
And yes, many police departments employ these practices but they aren’t yet common nationwide. Which brings us to legislation. We obviously need to back legislation that will support a police force where cops are peace officers and not armed combatants. I was horrified by the threat of bayonets being used on the kids in the streets last week. Fortunately there’s legislation working its way through the congress right now to stop the practice of off-loading military equipment onto police districts and we need to support it.
We also need legislation to limit and clarify the times when lethal force such as chokeholds is allowed. And legislation that will standardize procedures when officers make a mistake - they need counseling and reassignment right away, not after their third, fourth or fifth complaint…which brings us back to contracts and oversight and voting to elect folks willing to take on reform.
But first we need to stop and think about our own histories, choices, actions and feelings. Because if we can’t sort out the contradictions in our own heads and hearts, how are we ever going to sort out the troubled police departments, conflicted legal systems and all the other inequities faced by people of color in this country? Starting today, I suggest we all take a few moments to hold the families of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd in our hearts. And then just maybe, 6-year-old Gianna Floyd will be right - “Daddy changed the world.”
Editor’s note: Elizabeth Page’s plays include “Spare Parts” (produced by Olympia Dukakis at Whole Theatre, Off B'way at Circle in the Square Downtown and nominated for a John Gassner Award), “The Nazi Plays” (Denver Theatre Centre's US West Theatrefest) and Aryan Birth (Best Short American Plays.) Her work in Television brought her six Emmy Awards and four Writers' Guild Awards. As a filmmaker she has made lots of award winning shorts and web pieces for artists such as Melba Moore. Her latest short film, “Safe,” about an accidental shooting, is in distribution in Europe.)