Look with me.
Look at these racial “incidents” that have happened in the last week or so. See the white people acting in outrageous ways – the officer who knelt on the neck of George Floyd until he died; Central Park Karen who knew precisely how to threaten the uppity Black man who had dared correct her.
Now look with me at how you and I are those people.
On the morning in 1983 after the United States started to bomb Iraq I was working in an intensive rehabilitation program with men in prison. With the program director, we were driving down to Groveland prison to meet with a group there. I was spouting my fury at this rush to war, at this aggressive invasion, at this violent reaction that would lead to the deaths of so many. “How could they do this??” I asked, berating the U.S. administration.
The Director of the program, Jim Smith, let me spout off for a while. Finally, quietly, he asked me, “What part did you have in that bombing?” He might have said it in Portuguese, given how puzzling the question was to me. He reminded me that I was a U.S. citizen, and that this was done in my name. I wanted no part of that marriage, identity. But ultimately I came to understand: to the extent that I hadn’t spoken out, to the extent that I was passive about the build-up to that act, to the extent that I trusted in the military to “keep me safe,” to the extent that I relied on that administration to keep terrorists at bay, I was the bombardier who loosed those missiles.
Back to the present:
We’re horrified at what we witnessed Officer Derek Chauvin do to George Floyd. He went too far. See, the unwritten contract you and I had with him was that he was to keep law and order, preserve tranquility, keep the disruptive, dangerous elements in our society from harming us or our property. We did not speak out when he demeaned people; we turned a blind eye when he pushed a grandmother to the floor; when he slapped handcuffs on a ten-year-old child; when he administered a few quick punches to a hand-cuffed person who had already stopped resisting. Those incidents all happened in Rochester within the last couple of weeks. But now, well, he had just gone too far. We didn’t want him to do THAT!!
Can you see with me now: that our silence is complicity? Can you understand that our self-righteous outrage is tainted with hypocrisy? Can you dig deep enough and honestly enough to comprehend that we’re late with our outrage? Thousands of lives late?
And Central Park Karen disgusted us. Look again with me: can you perceive that instinct in you to view a Black man as a threat? Can you recall those times you intentionally, instinctively, often sheepishly, steered in a different direction to avoid him? Or skirted around a Black woman who was registering a complaint? When you assumed that she was just angry, rather than angry with injustice? With rigorous self-honesty, can you claim that deeply embedded, uninvited but entrenched devil called racism? Can you recall those times when you were quite certain that your voice, your opinion, your accusation would be believed when held against that of a Person of Color? And you believed that would hold, because you believed in your own superiority at that moment? And you knew that your community would have your back? Just as Amy Cooper knew the police would take her word over his?
Officer Chauvin was our surrogate. We had not trained him well enough to know when we would be horrified and disown any claim to him.
We are Amy Cooper. As long as we have those instinctual reactions of fear, of disgust, of superiority in us, we are Amy. Even more so if we insist that those instincts are not there, if we deny that we are brain-washed from centuries of indoctrination in the social, racial hierarchy.
Is this too much for you, this concept of complicity? I know it was the first time I was confronted with such realities. Work with me on the healing task of self-honesty, the soul-reclamation project that is ours to do. Then speak up, speak out, now, before the next “horrifying” event.
Very literally, lives depend on this.