Thursday, May 28, 2020

No, I can't possibly know what it's like. And that's the problem.

Last night Chris Cuomo got all sanctimonious about how Minneapolis erupting in violence is where it stops being a protest.  It was archetypal whitesplaining, and pretty cringeworthy.  In the handoff to Don Lemon, the latter gently chided Cuomo for just that.

It's an important segment for white people to watch.  In an even sadder and angrier vein, Elie Mystal wrote at The Nation yesterday that the only possible conclusion is that white America likes its killer cops.  It's a hard read but a necessary one.

The truth is that we white bleeding heart liberals like to think that we're somehow better, that we know what it's like for black people in this country because we are aware and because we don't defend bad cops. 

Yes, I'm afraid of police.  I'm afraid of police because I had them barge into my residence and trash the place back in 1984 when Mr. Brilliant got caught up in a friend's pot bust and they thought they'd busted up a huge pot ring, instead of his friend who was dealing small quantities and Mr. B.,  who had just purchased under 25 grams for his own use.  This was followed up by months of wiretapping our phone, which caused me to spend lots of time on the phone with my women friends gossiping about this and that and boring the cops to death.  After all that, both guys pleaded guilty to disorderly persons misdemeanor charges, paid fines, and had their records expunged after 10 years.  (The cop who busted them went on to become Chief of Detectives and a rather colorful career, peppered by rumors of corruption and apparent business dealings with Mob figures, eventually stepping down in disgrace.)

I'm afraid of police because in 2009 when I was sideswiped by a speeding car on the Garden State Parkway, the officer refused to hear my account and wrote up the report based solely on the account of the 21-year-old male (who was more like the cop) who hit me, who said I cut him off (not possible given where the damage to my car was) and wrote up the report with me as being at fault.


If I should ever get pulled over for a busted tail light, I'm a little old white lady who needs to get her car fixed.  I'm not going to be asked to get out of the car.  I'm not going to be frisked, put on the ground, and beaten. Or have a knee put on my neck.  Or have my shoulder dislocated. I will not be summarily executed in the street because I am white.

Here are things I can do that black people don't seem able to without risking their lives, and the ones who either died or could have died for doing the same things (copied from a friend on Facebook):

I can go birding (#ChristianCooper).
I can go jogging (#AmaudArbery).
I can relax in the comfort of my own home (#BothemSean and #AtatianaJefferson).
I can ask for help after being in a car crash (#JonathanFerrell and #RenishaMcBride).
I can have a cellphone (#StephonClark).
I can leave a party to get to safety (#JordanEdwards).
I can play loud music (#JordanDavis).
I can sell CD's (#AltonSterling).
I can sleep (#AiyanaJones, #Brionna Taylor)
I can walk from the corner store (#MikeBrown).
I can play cops and robbers (#TamirRice).
I can go to church (#Charleston9).
I can walk home with Skittles (#TrayvonMartin).
I can hold a hair brush while leaving my own bachelor party (#SeanBell).
I can party on New Years (#OscarGrant).
I can get a normal traffic ticket (#SandraBland).
I can lawfully carry a weapon (#PhilandoCastile).
I can break down on a public road with car problems (#CoreyJones).
I can shop at Walmart (#JohnCrawford) .
I can have a disabled vehicle (#TerrenceCrutcher).
I can read a book in my own car (#KeithScott).
I can be a 10yr old walking with our grandfather (#CliffordGlover).
I can decorate for a party (#ClaudeReese).
I can ask a cop a question (#RandyEvans).
I can cash a check in peace (#YvonneSmallwood).
I can take out my wallet (#AmadouDiallo).
I can run (#WalterScott).
I can breathe (#EricGarner).
I can live (#FreddieGray).


Even in 2020, judging people, especially African-American men, based on color is still entrenched in our power structures.  My anger is white liberal anger; it's the limited way of empathy without similar experience.  When Mr. B. first died people said dumb things about how they knew how I felt, but the only people who REALLY knew what I felt were other widows. When a friend's daughter died, a mutual friend said "You can't possibly know how she feels because you don't have children."  And I replied, "And neither can you, because you get to go home and tuck your very much alive kids into bed tonight."  We can feel badly for the plight of others, but it has limits, because we have not been there.

Like you, I am horrified and sickened at the video taken of George Floyd, begging to be allowed to breathe as his life ebbs away on a street at the hands of people who are supposed to be protecting him as much as others.  I've forced myself to watch it a number of times.  But I'm white.  I can turn it off.  I don't have to watch it.  It triggers my humanity, but not my experience. I don't have to live it.  But every black male in this country lives with that fear.  Christian Cooper could have lived it the other day simply because he asked a woman to leash her dog in accordance with the law.

Seeing photos of unconscious people on ventilators and their families having to make "the decision" during this pandemic has triggered my memories of Mr. B.'s last two weeks because that was my experience.  I get it.  But this?  This is not my experience. It can't be.  I can't know what it's like. And that is a problem.

The list of Black Americans killed by police keeps growing and growing and growing.  And one of the most horrible things about it is watching the people they loved and who loved them, on the news, speaking in a tone of resignation as if they always knew this would happen eventually.  How does one live like that without going insane? And yet Black Americans do, every single day of their lives.

In the midst of this pandemic, I don't see Black people going around saying that wearing a mask to avoid spreading a deadly virus is tyranny.  I don't see them saying that not being able to sit in a restaurant is against the Constitution.  They simply do not have the luxury of saying so.  In this pandemic, Black men are damned if they wear the mask and damned if they don't.  They are more frequently cited for not wearing masks where it's required.  And with black men in danger if they wear a hoodie, imagine what kind of police and civilian freakout will happen with black men in masks.  Imagine if hundreds of black men carrying assault weapons marched on a state house, stopping afterward at a Subway for sandwiches, as white people did recently in Raleigh, NC. Imagine the white panic.

It's really easy for us white people to sit here and tut-tut-tut about rioting, and about how it makes black people look bad, and how it reinforces every stereotype that racists have about them.  It's easy because it's not happening to us.  I watched Chris Cuomo whitesplain the unacceptability of breaking the windows of a police car and cringed, because it was so utterly clueless.  What Don Lemon did to his friend in the handover last night was far more gentle than I might have been in his shoes in explaining WHY people who are dark of skin are exploding.  He wasn't excusing violence.  But when we focus on the angry demonstrators instead of on the perpetrators of the original violence and on their victim, we play right into the racists' narrative of violent black people.  Chris Cuomo should know better.  We all should.  Because if you're white, we don't know.  We can't know.  And we have no business whitesplaining what an appropriate response is when a president exhorts white people to violence every single day, whose criminal behavior and that of most of his cronies goes unchecked, while George Floyd is murdered in the street  for passing a counterfeit $20 bill that he probably didn't even know was fake.