Three Dates, Three Incidents, Three Deaths
On February 23 of this year at about 1 pm, Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old African-American man was jogging through a neighborhood in Brunswick, GA. Two white man, seeing him run by, chased,shot, and killed him. The two white men, a father and son, said they thought he was a burglar and decided to take the law in their own hands. It took nearly two months for the local police to arrest the men, even though they knew back in February they had committed the killing.
On March 13 in the early morning hours Breonna Taylor and her boyfriend were asleep in their bed when Louisville, KY police broke into their home on a “no-knock” drug raid. The police had the wrong house and Breonna, a 26-year-old EMT was shot and killed when a gunfight ensued.
On May 25, this past Monday, George Floyd was stopped by Minneapolis, MN police because he supposedly looked like a man suspected of forgery. Four officers grabbed Floyd and pushed him to the ground. One of the officers sat on Floyd’s neck and refused to get off, even when Floyd pleaded for the officer to get off crying “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.” Floyd died en route to the hospital. Protests and riots broke out on the site of the crime and outside the police station over the next couple days.
Three incidents, three black people, three deaths in three different cities. On my Facebook and Twitter, black folks are venting their anger at these incidents. They are enraged.
What About the Reaction of White People?
White people need to care as well. I suspect most, if not all the white folks reading this blog, understand why there is rage, and to the extent they are able, they empathize with their black friends and co-workers. I suspect most of the white people reading this blog to some degree understand that these are not three isolated incidents, but are part of a pattern of dehumanization, violence, and death that goes back 400 years in this country. We/You may understand that what happened in these deaths is part of larger picture in our own day of police abuse and violence against people of color. Moreover, we/you recognize that if Ahmaud, Breonna, and George had been white, these incidents would not have occurred and if they did, the killers would have been quickly and summarily arrested and charged with murder.
The thing is many of the white people in our lives – our friends, co-workers, family members – don’t get it. It may not even have been on their radar, just another death of another black person in the news. And if there is a reaction, they probably are critical and angry that all those people in Minneapolis are looting, breaking windows, and starting fires. What good does that do? – they say.
That is why we who are white and somewhat aware need to talk to those other white folks in our lives. We need to help them see this isn’t a black issue, this is a human issue and that every day black men and women go through their lives worrying and wondering if they will be next. They don’t often talk with their white friends about their fears because all too often the white folks just don’t get it. Racially-based police violence is just not part of their life experience. For black and brown folks it is. That’s why we need to talk to the white people in our lives.
Ahmaud was taking a run, Breonna was asleep in their bed, and George was standing outside a store – all of them minding their own business. But that didn’t matter because they were black and that meant they were targets. We need to talk to the white folks in our circles about that.
How Do We Talk to White Folks About Racism
We don’t have to yell or preach, we just need to ask: What did you think about the incident in Georgia? In Louisville? In Minneapolis? And if they don’t know what we are talking about (and many won’t), we can share what we know and how we see it? We need to ask them if they think it is just that black folks are so often targets of others racist hate. We need to ask them how they think this sort of thing happens. We need to demonstrate by our questions and our concern that we care about these incidents and that we think they should too.
Now don’t be surprised if folks get a little edgy and want to avoid the conversation by saying they aren’t racist, and they weren’t there. Don’t be surprised if they accuse you of trying to make them feel guilty just because they’re white. Don’t be surprised if they do everything they can to avoid the conversation. There are a lot of white people who are scared to death of talking about race. But hang in there. You know them. You care about them. Don’t let them off easy.
Not Talking About These Incidents is Racist
Back on August 11, 2017, a group of self-proclaimed White Nationalists marched through the campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, VA carrying lit tiki torches chanting “White Lives Matter,” “You Will Not Replace Us,” and the Nazi-inspired phrase “Blood and Soil.” Counter-protesters gathered to challenge their presence and some scattered brawls ensued. Police soon arrived and dispersed the crowd. But in the process, a woman was run over by a car and killed.
While there was a great deal of back and forth in the press, I was struck how the white people around me weren’t talking about the incident like the black people I knew. Some of my students came to me and asked, “How can I talk to my family and friends about these issues?” It dawned on me that we white folks often don’t get involved. We let the people of color vent. We are afraid to talk because we don’t want to appear or be accused of being racist. What we don’t realize is being silent and going on like nothing happened is as racist as if we spoke a racial epithet.
White folks need to be involved. We need to be in the conversation. We need to talk to the white folks in our circles and let them know that incidents like deaths of Ahmaud, Breonna, and George cause as much damage to white people as it does to people of color because it only widens the divide, stokes the anger, and increases the misunderstanding.
We need to talk to the white folks in our lives and help them see that this isn’t a black problem but a human problem. It’s not “their problem” it is our problem. That is why we need talk about it
*** Parts of this blog are adapted from my forthcoming book, Disrupting Whiteness: How to Talk to White People About Racism, due out 2021.