Burying One Of Ours

If we really believe in having a national conversation about race, we must be prepared to have it when it’s personal, painful, and fresh.

I work in an insular industry in a town that feels smaller than it is (Washington, DC). On Saturday one of our colleagues, Kevin Sutherland, was stabbed to death on a metro car. I spent this weekend answering the same “did you know him?” question at work, at social gatherings, and when I bumped into friends on the street. I didn’t, though my old roommate, a former colleague, a friend of my boss, and a few other acquaintances did. I’ll never get the chance to meet him, but I can picture the meeting pretty easily — shaking hands at some party, happy hour, or other get-together, figuring out the web of mutual friends we shared, swapping war stories.

I’ve walked around for days carrying a suddenly clarified fear — it’s impossible not to think that That Could Have Been Me. We were the same age, lived in the same part of town, worked in the same industry, had many of the same friends, and lived similar lives. He was killed on the same metro line I ride nearly every day, at a stop I ride through nearly every day, a ten-minute walk from my house. I’ve caught myself reading the stories about his death, wondering whether it could have turned out differently. How I would handle it if I found myself in a similar situation? Would I have fought back? What if someone had tried to hurt my girlfriend or my family? Can I learn anything from this that will help keep me alive? My knowledge that violent crime is declining washes up uselessly against this kind of fear.

I don’t think any of these reactions is uncommon, but in my experience they’re almost universally kept private in ‘polite company’. We frown on people personalizing other peoples’ tragedies. We view writing like this as self-centered, and maybe correctly. I’m doing it anyway, because as I’ve continued to think about this senseless and violent tragedy, I believe I’ve found a lesson for myself in this experience, and one that I hope my friends may benefit from as well. I’ve realized that this new fear that I have to confront when One Of Ours dies is something that people born without the privileges I enjoy as a white man face constantly. The fear that took years for me to put a face and name to is one that other people grew up with. And while it’s one thing to acknowledge privilege in an academic sense, when there are no personal stakes for me, it’s another thing to take an event that I know is causing immense pain for people I know personally and laying it on the altar of ‘the national discussion’ about race.

Quietly burying our dead with dignity, without distasteful and ‘political’ conversations about their lives and deaths, is a luxury available to us that was never made available to hundreds of black men, women, and children. No one asked them if it was all right for reporters to call their families, to stand outside their homes and question their friends, to broadcast their funerals on cable news or convene roundtable discussions about what their deaths meant, laying their lives and deaths in a broader, race-related context before they had been laid to rest. Instead, many of their lives were turned upside down to assign blame for their deaths to anyone but their killers — effectively putting them on trial for their own murders.

If the national conversation on race is an important one, and I believe that it is, then white people should be prepared to have it when it is deeply personal, soaked in pain, fresh in our minds, and attached to people we once knew and loved. It should be immediate. It should feel garish and inappropriate. It has been that way for our black brothers and sisters for their entire lives.

I cannot imagine the pain of losing a family member or a close friend. I did not know Kevin Sutherland. I have no idea what would, or would not, comfort me in a situation like the one his friends (some of whom are also my friends) and his family are confronting. But I do know that the law stands firmly, and correctly, on the side of Kevin Sutherland. The man suspected of his murder was arrested 24 hours later, and it is overwhelmingly likely that he will be imprisoned for his crime. There has been no discussion in the press about what Kevin should have done to avoid an unwarranted and violent death. There has been no speculation on the psychological state of the man who killed him. The police had no difficulty figuring out the suspect’s identity, or apparently in figuring out where to find him.

(And speaking of the police: the people who witnessed the murder of Kevin Sutherland did exactly what I would have done in that situation: they called the authorities. I will live my entire life, and so will the overwhelming majority of my white friends, without ever considering a simple but terrifying question: what if the people who we call to protect us are the same people we are afraid will kill us when we do?)

We have been conditioned to view this entire line of thought as diminishing this tragedy by comparison, or of cheapening a man’s life by reducing it to an academic study. I don’t believe that anyone could minimize the horrific tragedy that this man, his family, his friends, and his community are facing. Stating these facts and acknowledging the pain of others doesn’t diminish the pain felt by anyone else, for anything else. There is not a finite amount of empathy in the human heart that is portioned out to some at the expense of others unless the human in question decides to conduct themselves that way.

It’s easy to build a wall between the emotional lives we live with our immediate friends and the intellectual tools we use to confront ideas like race and privilege. Tearing that wall down — trying to learn lessons about the latter through painful experiences in the former — is painful. To acknowledge that the fear I feel in my gut, right now, is a reality that our friends and peers have lived with for years feels either melodramatic or like an attempt to minimize my pain and the pain of others. I felt invasive and, simply put, rude writing about the death of someone I didn’t know — and then I remembered writing or talking about Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin, and men murdered in my hometown, picking their lives and deaths apart to try to learn something. Watching their friends and families brought before various journalistic outlets and asked to do the same. Even if the realizations I’m describing can’t produce anything more concrete than greater empathy or more compassion, that’s a small step down a long road towards understanding and loving our neighbor.

There will always be violence and tragedy in this world. I hope that facing it, and doing our best to find some lessons in it that will make the world a more loving, more just place, will make things just a little bit better. I believe that we all have the responsibility to try.