After George Floyd was murdered on May 25, 2020 … after the marches, vigils, demonstrations and protests began, I thought about what I could do to help the Black Lives Matter cause. I didn’t feel comfortable joining the vigils or demonstrations. I am extremely nervous about contracting coronavirus. Now, almost months later, I know that the stats are showing that since most people were wearing masks, the spikes we are seeing in cases around the country are not really being tied to these demonstrations. But I am still a little neurotic when it comes to social distancing (as my friends can confirm). Still, I did want to do something.
I feel that I need to step up and contribute to the fight for equality, for the cause of BLM! It has to be EVERYONE that is in this fight together in order to effect real change! Because things in this country desperately need to change regarding the inequality and racial injustice that is pervasive within our society! And with the current person who is occupying the Oval Office, it is even more important, as his rhetoric of inciting racial divides and fanning the flames of hatred and racism puts the lives of people of color in even graver danger than they already were.
I decided that since I write, I could do that to help. But, as a white person, I couldn’t just sit down at the computer and start typing away. I needed to learn. I needed to listen. I needed to be open to facing any possible unconscious biases that I may have myself. I needed to become more educated on the matter.
When I look at the people whom I consider friends, I see a very diverse set of people. All races, religions, sexual orientations, backgrounds, experiences. It is one of the benefits of living in NYC. Actually, Queens, my home borough, is considered the most ethnically diverse urban area in the entire world! And I love that!
So, I reached out to my black friends. I asked if they wouldn’t mind, could I interview them for this piece. Some never responded, and I didn’t push. Others said they’d let me know, but didn’t get back to me. I guess they have their reasons, and I have to respect that.
But, a number of my friends did agree to be “interviewed”. So, over the course of a number of nights, I had video interviews with each of those who said that they’d be willing to talk with me. I started with one very good friend, who was kind enough to not only tell me his stories, but he helped me develop a set of questions to ask, to help guide the other interviews to come.
The questions were meant to not only allow them to relay stories of when the color of their skin determined how they were treated, but also for me to empathetically see how their lives are so different from my life as a white person in America.
Each of the video chats lasted a couple of hours, and there were some similar themes that came out of these talks. One thing that kept repeating itself was that each of these individuals didn’t think that what happened to them was “as bad” as what happens to others. Thankfully, none of my friends were ever physically hurt (by the police or anyone else) because of the color of their skin. But when I heard their stories, the one thing that went through my mind while listening to each and every one was that I don’t think that I would ever have to deal with what they were telling me. And the only reason … because I’m white.
Recently I was upstate for a little getaway with my sister to celebrate my birthday (no big parties this year). One night, she and I were driving back to the house we were staying in, and I had forgotten something in the back seat of my car. So I pulled over to the side of the road, turned on the hazards and hopped into the back seat for take care of what I had forgotten. Before I was finished, a Sheriff’s car pulled up. He had seen the hazards on, pulled up across the road from us and shined an EXTREMELY bright light at the car. Without even thinking, I opened the back door, got out and answered his question about whether everything was ok by letting him know what I was doing in the back of the car. He said ok, wished us a good night and went on his way. It was only after I was back in my driver’s seat that I realized that I didn’t think twice about getting out of the back seat of my car when he pulled up … BECAUSE I’M WHITE. Had I been a black person, doing what I had done would have been foolish, dangerous and could have very well ended in a VERY bad way.
This was the overall theme that came out of my talks with my friends. That they need to live their lives with a different set of rules to follow. That when they walk into a store, the manager or employees are more likely to follow them around than that same manager or employees would do if I walk into the store. *** That when they get pulled over, even if they haven’t done anything wrong, they will more likely than not be asked if it is their car and all other sorts of questions like where they are going to or coming from. I wasn’t asked any of those questions when the sheriff pulled up next to my car. He just asked if everything was ok. *** That if they are waiting on friends out in front of a store, they may be asked to leave, because just by standing there, they are making the store owner or other people nervous, or they will be told they are “loitering”. *** That they already have a “strike” against them when they head into the job interview and need to be even more convincing that they deserve the job. *** When I asked them if they’ve ever been pull out of the TSA line for the extra check, most of them said “oh yeah”, like it was a given. Not me. It’s not something that most white people would think was a “given”.
It hurts my heart to know that this is the way it is for my friends. It hurts even more when my friends tell me that they don’t really think that their stories are that bad. Because I know they are right. Not that their stories aren’t bad … they just aren’t THAT bad, compared to so many other stories out there! I am glad my friends have never had worse things happen. But the thing is, they are just lucky. Any one of them could have been a George Floyd, a Breonna Taylor, an Ahmaud Arbery, a Trayvon Martin, an Eric Garner, or countless others who had stories that were THAT bad!
So what do we do about it? How do we change this? I asked that question too. Because I have been on this earth for quite a few turns around the sun, and I don’t see it getting much better. Slight improvements, maybe. But way too slight. And it is infuriating! One friend said that this time it feels different to him. I hope so! I hope this time it will be different. I hope this time change will truly happen.
Another friend mentioned that we aren’t born with racism in our hearts, that we don’t start out with unconscious biases. So, start with the young. Teach them another way. Teach them to look past the outer layers and see the person on the inside.
Another friend said we all need to aim to be better! I love that! We all need to AIM TO BE BETTER! Print those words on a Post-it, put it on your bathroom mirror and read them aloud every day! AIM TO BE BETTER! And we can only be better if we lift each other up!
The same friend who told me that we need to aim to be better said that we need to stop looking at the differences and start to look for the commonalities. When we start to see each other as individuals, who may just happen to be similar to us in more ways than we initially imagined (a shared hobby or love of something, be it an author or a singer or a million other things we could have in common), then maybe we can see past the color of someone’s skin and start to see the heart within. Then maybe you will be more open to seeing the differences as doors that open new experiences, rather than a wall that separates.
Initially, I was going to relay the stories that my friends told me, but I decided not to do that. You see, unfortunately, their stories are not unique for people of color. But it is because these are people whom I love and care about, their stories were important for me to hear. Maybe you can ask your friends to tell you their stories. That will make more of an impact for you than my friends’ stories would. Or if you don’t feel comfortable doing that, then at the very least, be open to learning about who a person is, rather than judging them by the outer surface. Just AIM TO BE BETTER!