This week has been full of conversations that should be had each and every day, but aren’t. The senseless murder of George Floyd and all of the other Black people by the very people who are tasked with protecting us was the impetus for these conversations. First there were my patients — one of them didn’t understand that it is not our place as white people to judge how people protest when they have been continually dehumanized and murdered by a system that refuses to hear them and protect them. One of my clients, a young woman of color, was feeling helpless, particularly after her parents, who never talk about politics, told her that the system was broken and she had to realize that her skin color is actually what defines her in this country. She told me that she wants to do something but her individual efforts couldn’t possibly change a broken system and we talked about the power we could all have if each person actually did just a little bit rather than waiting for one individual to come and fix everything.
Then there was my 6.5 year old, Jake. We watch the news in front of him and we talk openly about politics. He and I have talked about slavery and how our society is still rife with inequity. I wondered how to talk to him about police brutality directed at Black people. I wondered how to have this conversation when our schools always deify our police officers and emphasize their role in protecting our society. A part of me wanted to avoid talking to him, yet the other part of me knows that I have a responsibility to educate him to know better and do better.
On Wednesday, I had spoken with a friend of mine, a Black Woman with smart, talented, kind, and amazing sons. Sons who confessed to her that they were afraid of taking walks down their suburban street. Remember, their fear isn’t just about police brutality in this racist, mostly white suburb, it’s about the fear of bias actions taken by people that do not know them. It is the same fear that Ahmaud Arbury felt that his white neighbors would decide he didn’t belong in their neighborhood and choose to hunt and kill him in cold blood. It is the fear that every Black family experiences whenever anyone steps outside of their home (or, apparently, when they choose to sleep in their own beds, like Breonna Taylor). It is my privilege to wonder if I could still shield Jake from the brokenness of our society that we refuse to address. I thought of our good friends, with a daughter the same age as Jake and I know they have spoken to her about these issues because they have needed to prepare her for a world that devalues her life because of the color of her skin.
So, I talked to Jake about what we were watching on the news and how it is his responsibility to stand up for Black people because he has privilege as a white man. I thought about and put into 6 year old language Regan Byrd’s lessons about institutional racism because we consistently refuse to address this and it contributes so heavily to the violence (whether that is defined as relational violence — calling police on Black people who are bird-watching, or swimming, sleeping, or shopping; emotional violence — blatantly verbally abusing Black people; or physical violence) white people constantly committing against Black people for no other reason than their skin color. It was interesting to hear how his 6.5 year old brain processed the injustice and the solutions he generated.
It has taken me a while to figure out what to even write about all of this. Because the way in which we respond to such horrors is crucial in terms of actually righting these centuries of wrongs. I don’t want to be someone who just talks to my kids about abstract ideas. I want to model for them what it means to accept our collective responsibility to address racism in this country. Writing this was an example of that. I will never dare to believe that I can adequately communicate about experiences I have not had or will not ever have myself. It is also not the job of People of Color to bear the burden of having to educate people like me. So I’ve written a couple of drafts of this and I sought the consultation and honest feedback of people who have both had these experiences and have expertise in training others on issues of equity. I am terrified of invaliding the experience of Black people, which makes me want to stay silent, but silence is complicity, and that is absolutely not an acceptable response to the rampant racism in our society.
I am fearful that the discussion we should be having about what we should be doing to protect Black people is now overshadowed by the nature of the protests that are happening around the country. In our country, we consistently refuse to engage in proactive, preventative solution finding. Instead, we constantly react to whatever is the biggest thing going on. I am tired of hearing elected officials express their sorrow for these incidents (this, by the way, is completely discounting the reactions of people like the current President, who will not even acknowledge the blatant injustices experienced by Black people). What are we going to do about this? It isn’t right to continue to just feel sad and sorry when incidents like what that police officer in MN did to an innocent Black man occur. What is our collective accountability for all of this — we can’t just blame the actors and remain silent.
One of the biggest problems we face is that, in reality, there have been no consequences to these perpetrators of racially-motivated violence. If we are going to treat these atrocities as if they are not punishable to the maximum extent of the law, then how can we expect them to stop? Unfortunately, our country consists of a large number of people who have never advanced very far on Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development. Many people never developed an intrinsic set of morals and values and are instead governed by the perceived consequences of their actions. If this is the state of moral development in our society, then we must have harsher consequences for the white perpetrators of violence against the Black community. We cannot continue to leave these crimes unpunished or make excuses for them. We also cannot hope that people will suddenly recognize that this is wrong and choose not to do these things.
We also must educate our children now. White, privileged people often talk about how they are color-blind and act as though it perpetuates racism to acknowledge it. It is actually our responsibility to teach our children that racism is still alive and well because it is our children who need to use their privilege to demand systemic change. I don’t know how long it will take our country to address its racist, deplorable foundational values. But I do know that we must demand that we start and we absolutely haven’t done that. I’m starting by educating my children and modeling for them what it is like to address racism head-on and I hope that you will do the same.