About thirteen years ago, I was on a work trip with several colleagues when we heard the news of police shooting an unarmed Black man (one of many such incidents in this country's history). The four of us (all white women) talked about this. Three of us felt sick by it and confused too, which I think is a sign of our privilege. Feeling confused and surprised by evidence of racism is the luxury of those who don't have to deal with it every day. The fourth woman, who I liked and admired generally, said something I haven't been able to forget: "Well, maybe the police had learned through experience that men who look like him usually have guns."
We all stopped walking and looked at her. She couldn't be saying what we thought she was saying, could she?
She went to clarify. She didn't hold the police officers at fault. After all, if in their experience Black men carried guns, then naturally they would assume this one had a gun, and so shooting him was in self defense.
"But he didn't have a gun," I said, in case she'd missed that part somehow. "He was afraid and running away from police, afraid they would shoot him, which they did. Even though he didn't have a gun."
"But he might have," she insisted. "They didn't know. Plus he shouldn't have been running. He should have just surrendered."
By her own logic, I wanted to add, perhaps then he had reason to be afraid the police would shoot an unarmed Black man, even if he surrendered. Perhaps his experience had taught him that that was likely.
We tried to point out to her that this is what the problem is with stereotypes. Even in the extremely unlikely scenario that every single Black man these white police officers had ever met had been carrying a gun and intended to use it to kill cops, this one wasn't. He should have been treated as an individual, as a human being, not by what others who looked like him had done in the past. He was killed for the color of his skin, not for his actions. That is the danger of stereotypes. That's what racism is.
She could not understand. She couldn't grasp what we were trying to explain. She could only see the situation from a single point-of-view. I don't want to paint the other three of us as heroes. I'm sure we are all spectacularly ignorant about a great number of things. But in this one instance, for whatever reason, we could see something that this other woman simply could not.
I wonder about this woman. I wonder if she only ever had friends who looked like her. I wonder if she'd ever read a book with a Black protagonist and learned to identify with him or her. I wonder if learning to recognize the pervasive racism in this country would have so upset the way she understood the world that she just couldn't manage it. If it was scary for her. If ignorance was a security blanket that she, as a white person, could afford to cling to.
I'm reminded of her a lot this week. People are reacting to the news from Ferguson in vastly different ways. One of those ways is, "It's not about race. Why do people have to make everything about race?" If someone were to say, "It's obvious that racism is a real and huge issue, but in this case, carefully examining the evidence, I don't think it applies here," I could respect that. I'd disagree with you, but I'd respect that. But to claim "there is no racism" is alarmingly blind and willfully ignorant.
Until we all choose to see and try to understand the racism around us and in us, nothing is going to change. And we so desperately need change. So desperately the need aches. It stings. And for some, it kills.