No one can look at the video of George Floyd being slowly asphyxiated by an indifferent police officer and not be appalled and enraged.
And yet this is not the first time something like this has happened. In fact, one of the reasons it’s so appalling is because it is almost an exact repeat of another famous, filmed instance of police brutality: the killing of Eric Garner. Not only did Floyd’s dying words, “I can’t breathe,” precisely echo Garner’s, both men were targeted by police for maddeningly minor infractions: Garner was selling loose cigarettes without a tax stamp and Floyd tried to buy something with a counterfeit $20 bill.
It happens once and you think there must be some explanation – a bad cop. It happens twice – after the uproar over Garner, and after the killings of Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many more – and you realize with a sickening thud that it’s not a bad cop. It’s a bad system.
Well, that’s what you realize if you’re me – a white, middleclass girl from the suburbs. If you’re a black American, though, you knew it long ago. You’ve known it all your life.
Why did it take me so long to see? Why did it take so many senseless deaths, so much grief and anguish, so much protest before I finally took a good, long look and saw what has always been there?
I’m asking that question because the answer is the key to change. When I identify the moment in my thinking when I habitually gave myself permission to look away, I create the opportunity for a new choice.e. I’m sharing my process with you in case you, like me, are a beginner: someone who was, for most of her life, comfortable in her privilege, who now wants to be antiracist.
Find the moments. Make a list of moments when you looked away from racism or retreated into white privilege.
Here’s my short list:
– Noticing that the only kids to get paddled in school were black boys, but not speaking up;
– Not speaking up when men in my family said racist things;
– Noticing that I have only white friends and clients.
Ask, “What was I afraid of in that moment?”
When I look at the first two memories, of not speaking up, the answer is that I was taught to be a “good girl,” to be “seen and not heard.” My mom was kind, but good- mannered compliance was non-negotiable; to be otherwise would bring shame to my family. I would never contradict an elder or authority figure, even when I knew they were wrong.
When I wonder why I only have white friends and clients, it comes down to my fear of not being liked – fear of being resented for my privilege, laughed at for my ignorance, and useless as a teacher or coach to people whose lives I struggle to understand.
Ask, “Is it true?”
This is the first question of Inquiry, which is my go-to for questioning limiting beliefs. In this case, “Is it true?” means, “Do those same reasons still make sense to you? Do you want to stick with them? Or do you want to upgrade your thinking?”
It is certainly time to upgrade my thinking! I am no longer a girl. I am a woman and would like to behave as one. Good-mannered compliance is an old reflex, but in the case of racism, grossly inappropriate.
As to risking not being liked, it is time to take that risk. I have sheltered in my privilege too long. My privilege isn’t fragile, either; I can use it to be an ally of people who do not have it. I will probably say some stupid things and embarrass myself – I may be doing that now – but I also am not fragile! I have learned how to receive criticism and learn from it. (I wrote about this skill in “The Four Words that Cracked My Marriage Open”).
Ask, “What small step will I commit to?”
Just pick one step, and make sure it’s small enough to feel unintimidating and doable.
I will now practice speaking up against racist speech – even to authority figures. This will be uncomfortable at first, as I have practiced doing otherwise for so long. But it will get easier with practice.
I will go with a friend to a Black Lives Matter protest. I will talk to other people there. I will practice reaching out to people who are not like me and thereby practice risking not being liked and learning from that feedback.
I regret my years of complacency and complicity, but the world doesn’t need my shame; it needs my action. Now that I have identified my pattern – the moments when I chose to ignore racism and the reasons why – I can choose better. In this way, big changes accrete from small steps.