Before writing “safer” a few days ago, I spent time reflecting on:
my many experiences witnessing numerous words and acts of racism since dating a Black man, and having Black sons, and watching—too relentlessly, given my own history of profound trauma—in the early months of #BlackLivesMatter.
I hadn’t then heard about the police killing of George Floyd,
whose fatal encounter with police began over a …
$20 bill suspected to be counterfeit.
Since posting “safer,” my husband and I have had many pained conversations around U.S. racism and state violence. The collective trauma level in our household has been very, very high.
In the quiet moments between those conversations, I’ve thought back to my pre-Anthony life,
and to my shocked disbelief when, in 2009, he told me:
“Our child is going to experience racism someday.”
Today, I spent an hour or two trawling through archive.org for some of the posts I wrote
as I learned about how modern U.S. racism is about much, much more
than lone individuals occasionally saying a cruel word.
In March 2012, the killing of Trayvon Martin prompted me to write about the 2009 conversation in which Anthony told me, “Our baby is going to experience racism someday.”
I both believed and didn’t believe him when he told me, “I’ve been called a ‘nigger.’ Lots of times.”
I believed that those encounters had happened, but not that racism was as prevalent as he assured me it was. That it was at least as much in systems as in individuals.
As I read and listened over the following months, I came to understand … he was right. He was absolutely right.
Strangely, though, he was calm when encountering—or reading about others’ encounters with—overt racism.
As I wrote then, “It took me a little while and lots of patient explanation on his part to understand this [his outward calm was] borne of decades of personal experience. What was new and pressing to me was something he’d already lived for 3.5 decades.”
In December 2012, some overtly racist folks jeered at my three-year-old son in Disneyland’s parking lot.
I’d witnessed people’s antagonism toward Anthony, but I was startled that … even toddlers were not exempt from such cruelty.
I would not be startled today; the person who thinks a Black person is less than human
won’t think otherwise because that person happens to, for now,
be very young.
By December 2013, I was much more clear on how pre-parent me had failed to notice that racism still was still alive and well in the United States:
though my instinct was to discount Anthony’s warning because its basis was so outside my personal experience, I couldn’t ignore the possibility there was more to this world than that which I’d personally experienced.
I started reading, from blogs to essays to research, and was shocked to discover how useless my personal experiences as a white woman were for gauging the presence or absence of racism in the modern world.
Still, it was 2014 that really made things crystal clear for me.
In mid-November 2014, I discussed Michael Brown’s killing by a police officer with my then five-year-old son. In my post on the matter (“Ferguson: the color of justice”), I wrote:
As the mother of biracial children, I have spent the last five years becoming keenly aware of how prevalent these instances are. They are systemic, not standalone. I have gone from worrying that people wouldn’t like my kids based on the abundance of melanin in their skin to fearing that my children might someday be killed because armed people attribute too much significance to that melanin.
So tonight, as I wonder about Ferguson and who Michael Brown might have become had he not been killed, I am really wondering about the color of justice in this country.
What it will take for police officers everywhere to approach men of all melanin levels in the exact same way, treating shooting as a last case resort in all cases.
Later in the same post, I continued:
I hope that there are additional new truths by the time Li’l D and I revisit this subject down the road. I hope that unarmed young black men won’t be so very much more likely than their white counterparts to be killed by those sworn, without limitation for skin color, not to kill in the misbegotten name of protection but to protect.
Only official accountability can stop young men needlessly dying today’s truths and lead us to living newer, more hopeful ones.
In late November, I wrote about how Ferguson protesters were protesting more than one youth’s murder.
They were, instead, protesting “ALL such deaths, and those to come if reforms aren’t made.” I listed some examples of lives cut short by police encounters initiated by police over … trifles:
- Eric Garner was choked to death by police for potential sale of untaxed cigarettes.
- John Crawford III was fatally shot by police after picking up a for-sale BB gun in Wal-Mart in (open-carry) Utah.
- Ezell Ford was shot by two veteran gang officers after they saw him walking and stopped him. Because.
- Dante Parker was stopped while riding his bike; police tased him to death under suspicion of burglary.
- Tamir Rice, 12 years old, was shot by police while playing with a toy gun. Tamir died after police failed to provide aid.
- Darrien Hunt carried a fake sword for his samurai costume. He was shot by police while running for his life.
- Michael Brown was shot by police after not moving to the sidewalk when asked. Trial would’ve allowed careful assessment what happened next.
In December 2014, I told my husband that a lot of the Black folks I followed on Twitter said they loved their blackness. I said I’d tried to understand, but that I … couldn’t, quite, in a country so vitriolic toward Black people.
We had a great conversation about why he’s proud of his blackness, and I was grateful for his candor. I concluded my post then:
I don’t believe any amount of listening or writing will lead me to fully understand anyone else’s experience, but I want to understand as much of [my husband’s] as possible. I want to understand as much as humanly possible about the world as it exists today, not as I wish it were. It’s no one else’s job to teach me or to diminish my ignorance, no matter how well intentioned an ignorance it is.
It’s not even my husband’s job. Understanding this, if little else, I’m grateful for his willingness to answer the questions I’m embarrassed asking but which Google can’t quite answer.
I’m also grateful that our different histories and different experiences somehow, inexplicably, lead us all the same toward a vast shared love.
In December 2015, I wrote “Died with his hands in the air.”
I explained there how my abstract awareness of U.S. racism hadn’t really prepared me to understand its brutal daily lived impacts. It took two months of Ferguson protests for me to suspect it likelier “I was uninformed than that [protesters] were delusional.”
It was thus that my real education on American racism began a few months after Brown was killed. It was during that self-education that I saw one video that really brought home the horror for me.
Brown’s killer claimed self-defense. Still alive and still endowed with the authority of the state, he was free to say whatever he wanted, however he wanted, and to be believed–as he was–by many who’d iron out inconsistent facts in his favor.
That video, which I had to dig to find served as a dramatic, compelling rejection of his story.
In this video, two White contractors stand side by side in the moments after Mike Brown’s death, facing something the viewer can’t see. They’re not performing; they’re utterly unaware they’re being filmed. “He had his fuckin’ hands in the air!” one of them shouts, incredulous, raising his arms to demonstrate. (The contractors affirmed this later.)
He had his fuckin’ hands in the air!
In the year since Mike Brown died, those words have stuck with me. They have been the ones that can’t be spun, or turned into something else, or undone. And they’re words I’d never have found, if I hadn’t been between jobs and foregoing sleep in search of the truth.
A year later, I find the mystery isn’t in whether or not Mike Brown posed a threat when Darren Wilson fired his killing shots; after all, Mike “had his fuckin’ hands in the air!”
The mystery is in how little has changed with so many people dying needlessly since.
As I finished revisiting this post, my husband called me from the grocery store. “I’m heading home!” he told me, to an aural backdrop of sirens everywhere around our home.
“Thank God,” I said before hanging up the phone, praying he made it home safely while thinking of that 2015 post’s conclusion.
Since I wrote it, the accountability I yearned for has not come, and so many more Black men—and women—have been killed in police custody;
in the last two days alone, U.S. police have been filmed permitting unconscionable acts of violence against peaceful protesters and media personalities alike,
so that my 2015 post’s conclusion, tragically, bears reaffirming today:
And so, if my husband ever dies in police custody, I want you to know:
Like Mike Brown, he will have died with his hands in the air.