I’ve been taking the approach with the people of color in my life that I take with people I know are in the midst of, or just past, some trauma: I try to be extra kind and I wait for them to volunteer information without prying, assuming if they want to talk about it, they will. The reason is that sometimes people want escape, sometimes people do not want to be triggered, and sometimes a rehash just hurts. I don’t want to hurt people. Yet, I don’t know if waiting is the right thing to do. It can come off as indifference. It can come off as denial. It can come off as tacit approval of whatever is causing ill. I’ve been talking more with the white people in my life, yet! That can also feel clannish. There is no perfect action, of course. There are just preferential mistakes.
My numbness grows with every new hashtagged name of someone killed by the police. I don’t have an inherent problem with police officers; lots of people in my life have been, or currently are, cops. They care about their work, they do their best. I do have problems with institutions that do not fix their problems and with occupational cultures that let professional malfeasance go uncorrected. One way to see the killing of Black people in traffic stops and such as an extreme form of professional malfeasance; many in my Twitter feed has argued this is how the system is designed. They aren’t necessarily wrong, in that all power structures are built to be self-perpetuating. I expect more from police officers. I want to dictate the norms of a profession that I am not in, I want to demand they be better than people with authority tend to be, because this profession is funded through my taxes, this profession exists explicitly to serve society at large, and I’m concerned with the boundaries of the society that’s served doesn’t always include everyone in it. I fear the codification of racial prejudice through the enforcement arm – to quote a philosopher-cop I used to TA for, law is pretty much only that which is enforced. I’ve been having the same conversation with a lot of white people – this isn’t really about if cops are inherently bad people, it’s more about what happens when the job done is lacking. Some occupations really need you to rise above prejudices and the big-picture aggregate is disheartening. One way white supremacy reinforces itself is by making everything about the inherent goodness or not, and then defines goodness as a weird socially-located set of intentions for the pale and perfection for people of color.
My numbness seemed to transform into emptiness with Philando Castile. I don’t know why it was him. Maybe it was because I was awake when the video broadcast on Facebook Live. Maybe it’s because his daughter isn’t that much older than mine. Maybe it’s because I recently had my first traffic stop and it was a ten minute speeding ticket and that’s it. I did not watch the video, because the purpose of being awake was to put my son back to sleep. I read Twitter when I rock him to stunt the encroachment of late-night ennui, and that night it was just outrage and sadness. I still haven’t seen the video. I feel like I don’t need to, what I read was awful enough. Then the sniper shot the Dallas Police and I found myself frustrated with the sniper for 1) killing and 2) complicating the narrative because white supremacy demands angelic victims, demands the oppressed rise above all occasions by never having a member of the group do anything wrong. It’s not right of him, of me, none of this is OK. Seems that people are getting a little better at acknowledging that you can demand better policing practices in our country and hold law enforcement officers to high standards *and* believe that the professional malfeasance of some officers doesn’t make belonging to that profession an executable crime. This understanding shouldn’t require people to stretch the muscles of nuance so strenuously, I would have hoped, but here we are.
Sociologist in me understands that oppression requires obedience, and any challenge to dominance gets pushed back. I’m trying to be gentle in the conversations with other white people about Black Lives Matter. No, it’s not perfect. Does it need to be? Does the violence in the white community require we dismiss our own claims to worth? Why are so many people willing to do so for the Black community? I try to be gentle because I don’t want my thoughts dismissed after people know what they are, and that it’s just how I think and to move on. I don’t want to damage the relationships I have with others, for selfish reasons (guys, I really like the people in my life) and it’s also a lousy persuasive rhetoric. I am a gear in this system, and I’m trying to slow the spinning, watching as the rest of the machine continues, as if all I managed to do was shear off some of the gear’s teeth.
Black Lives Matter. My Black friends, neighbors, colleagues, fellow country residents, etc matter. They matter whether I agree with everything they do, they matter whether you agree with everything they do. That’s the thing about mattering – it’s not conditional on perfection or expectations. Black people have the same inherent worth and dignity that all human beings do. This society is, ever so subtly in some ways and overtly in others, structured to diminish that. I’ve been hearing a lot of white people who have beloved people of color in their lives articulating a real fear of loss. I can only imagine what living in a society structured with systemic racism is like when you are a person of color. This is not the world that should be. It needs to change, and that’s work, and that’s slow, and that probably has a longer time horizon than my lifespan. I feel numb. I fear an encroaching sense of futility in the work I do. I’ve been quiet. Know the silence isn’t approval of the status quo – the silence is an imperfect effort to keep space. The silence is the attempt to stand up as waves crash over, again and again, realizing there is no shore, not knowing what to do next.