This past Tuesday, May 25, 2021, marked one year since George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer. There have been numerous news stories and editorials reflecting on the impact of that day and the days, weeks, and months that followed. Some are reveling in all the positive changes toward racial justice that have occurred over the past year, others are lamenting that it is not nearly enough and not changing quickly enough.
I suppose I am simultaneously reveling and lamenting for a variety of reasons, but I am doing so through the unique lens of a white woman who has been married to a Black man for nearly 22 years. I am also reflecting as a mother of three biracial teenagers.
As our nation acknowledges the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s death, I hope that some of my insights might offer a unique perspective to white Americans who are still brave enough to believe in the ideal of liberty and justice for all; but who are also honest enough to acknowledge that there is much work to do if this American ideal is to ever be a reality for Black and Brown Americans.
Regrettably, I was not raised to think much about racism, and my undergraduate experience was in an environment that did not give any time to discussing the systematic discrimination of marginalized communities. My understanding of systemic racism is not the result of some sort of familial or educational indoctrination. My views on racial injustice in America come from a solid twenty-plus years of observations and experiences that not many white people are privy to. Nevertheless, my observations regarding systemic racism are limited by my whiteness and I speak only has someone who has observed it, not with the authority of one who has experienced it. My hope is to be a catalyst that prompts white Americans to seek out and listen to Black voices on this topic.
I grew up in a small town in western Pennsylvania and attended a small, conservative, evangelical Christian college not far from home. Just before my college graduation, my plans fell apart and I ended up accepting a summer job working with inner-city youth in Cleveland, Ohio, where I was the only white person on the team of summer camp counselors. The rest of my teammates were young adults who had benefited from the youth program growing up and who were returning to give back.
My worldview began to shift that summer as I realized how differently my peers from the inner city had experienced the world. Several of my teammates with high school degrees could barely use a computer or write a proper letter. Their public high school educations were not the equivalent of mine. I vividly remember when one of my teammates told me that he did not attend English class his senior year because the hallway where the class was located belonged to a gang and it was not safe to go there.
I left Cleveland with a nagging suspicion that my small-town, working-class upbringing and my rigorous, classical, liberal arts education in a whitewashed private college had failed to truly educate me about the complexities of the society in which I lived. I have spent the past 24 years confirming that suspicion.
I met my husband that summer I spent in Cleveland. It has been difficult to accept that although my husband and I come from similar socioeconomic and educational backgrounds, unlike him I have been consistently granted the presumption of innocence, competence, and privileges because of my whiteness.
For more than twenty years I have borne witness to the often-unspoken ways that systemic racism permeates our society. Recently, for example, my husband was in the hospital. I went to drop off some items after hours but when I walked through the main doors, I realized no one was sitting at the front desk. I knew I was not allowed to go to my husband’s room because his COVID test had not yet cleared. Nevertheless, no one was around, he needed his possessions, and I was desperate to see him, so I gave it a try. I ran into a security guard on the way, explained my dilemma, and asked if he might let me go to the room rather than having him take the bag for me. He kindly escorted me to my husband’s room, helping me break the rules, and even convinced the nurse on the floor to let me run into my husband’s room for a few seconds. It was a lovely gesture for which I am grateful.
My husband would never consider wandering around the hospital breaking the rules if the roles were reversed. He does not have the luxury. For me, I assume such a minor infraction would be met by a negligible response; however, my husband assumes that such an innocent violation could be met with something far more punitive.
I have so many stories like the hospital situation. If a white person cannot recall times where they have enjoyed privileges that would likely not apply to people of color, I would suggest it is simply a lack of awareness of those privileges and probably also a lack of exposure to the stories and experiences of most Black Americans.
No one has ever locked their door when I walked by their car. No one has ever clutched their purse when I stand in line behind them in the grocery store. I would not think twice about wearing the hood up on my hoodie or wearing winter accessories that cover most of my face when entering a place of business.
None of this is true for my husband. I am not suggesting that my husband always experiences the world exactly the opposite of how I experience it, but I do know that I have had more than two decades of to observe the way society responds to him versus me. Some of that difference is likely attributed to our genders, but in my view, most of it is attributed to race. There is a stark difference even though I am unquestionably a louder, less gentle, and more assertive individual than my husband.
In the early days of our relationship and marriage, my husband and I made a lot of trips between Chicago, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh. I ignorantly made fun of him for being so worried every time we passed a state trooper on the turnpike. He would nervously look in the rearview mirror again and again until the cop car was out of sight (which he still does). I called him paranoid.
I had no point of reference for it. I have been pulled over quite a few times in my life. I have never gotten more than a warning. And I certainly have never been intimidated, threatened, or made to feel afraid. While my experience is my truth, it does not make it true that all individuals experience law enforcement the way I do, even if they behave in a similar way to me.
My sixteen-year-old, biracial son got a driver’s license last week. A mother’s fear of her son driving recklessly and getting into an accident is universal. A mother’s fear of her son being harmed or killed by a police officer if he is pulled over is not universal. It is specific to mothers of Black boys and men. It is paralyzing and it is not unfounded. The videos and incidents keep coming, and no number of justifications or excuses by white folks changes the realities of what we all continue to see with our own eyes.
I have wondered if we should have our son cut off his afro and keep his hair short just in case it might change the perception of him at a pivotal moment. I have worried that we should not have let him get his ears pierced for the same reason, although he earned some high grades in a remote learning environment to persuade us to let him get those earrings. My son is an honors student, a two-sport athlete, was chosen as student of the month by his teachers and works at a local church. Still, this brings me no comfort when he drives away.
It should not be okay with any of us that millions of American parents – specifically parents of Black children that is – must have blunt and repeated conversations with their children about the dangers of encounters with law enforcement while their white counterparts can confidently teach their children that police officers are helpers and heroes. Broadly speaking, both are telling their children the truth based on their lived experiences.
My daughter attends American University in Washington D.C., arguably one of the most liberal and racially conscious schools in the nation. The esteemed Ibram X. Kendi who wrote “How to be an Anti-Racist” was a professor at this school. My daughter was stunned by the racism she experienced her freshman year in her classes and on her hall with her fellow honors college students.
My husband has worked for our local government for nearly nine years and was the first Black director to be employed by the town. My daughter works at our local library. I have worked in higher educational institutions and now work in a public high school district. I spent many years working on church staffs in the south suburbs of Chicago in my early career. The examples of institutional racism I have witnessed and heard recounted by my family in these spaces are too many to list and count and too risky to enumerate while we still sit in some of these institutional positions.
In addition to what I have witnessed myself or heard recounted from my own family members, I have had the pleasure of getting to know a lot of people of color who I count it a privilege to call my friends. My friends of color strongly echo all I have observed and witnessed regarding systemic racism.
I experienced the reading of the Derek Chauvin verdict with a Black woman for whom I have tremendous respect and affection. I cannot overstate the impact it had on me when she began to weep upon hearing that Chauvin was found guilty. Justice is often not assumed or even expected by people of color, particularly when it comes to police brutality cases.
I was taught to believe that all cops are heroes, the system is fair and just, there is liberty and justice for all, and this is the greatest nation on earth. That was my worldview, and it was supported by my lived experience as a white person. This worldview was impossible to maintain once I began to enter into authentic relationships with people of color.
My husband and I have chosen our community, our neighborhood, our children’s schools, and even our faith community with racial diversity as a high priority. Being part of a multiracial family and living in a community that has a substantial Black and Hispanic population has afforded me the opportunity to acquire the education that I did not receive in college regarding the complexities of our society as they relate to race.
I am encouraged by the number of white family members and friends that reached out to my family with words of concern and support in the days and weeks of protests after George Floyd’s murder. I am still reveling in the relief of seeing multiple white friends and family who began to wake up to the realities of systemic racism in this past year. It seems there are substantially more white Americans who are now trying to listen, understand, and be part of the solution in a way that was not sought prior to the video of George Floyd being murdered.
And yet, there are so many in my own sphere of influence who continue to show zero interest or concern on the topic of systemic racism. I assume this is because they are not directly impacted by it or maybe even subconsciously realize that racial equality means that white folks will need to give up some of the privileges to which we have been taught to feel entitled. Moreover, some white people may not be able to face the shame that comes with accepting that they have unknowingly or deliberately upheld a system that disenfranchises others.
In my experience, the most powerful way to broaden one’s worldview is through relationships with individuals who experience the world very differently. The second most powerful way I have grown in my understanding is through reading and discussing books by individuals who experience the world differently. If I had to recommend two books from recent years, I would choose “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates and “How to be an Anti-Racist” by Ibram X. Kendi. Littleblacklibrary.com also has an excellent list of resources.
As we mark one year since an unarmed Black man was killed by a police officer in a brutal, horrifying fashion, I hope white Americans who are not already actively doing so will seek to expand their worldview on the topic of systemic racism as an act of patriotism. I am suggesting this endeavor is an act of patriotism because liberty, justice, and equality for all are at the foundation of America, and these ideals should be pursued not only by all Americans but for all Americans.