Wrongly Accused: What Would You Do?
Let’s say you’ve lived your life the way you have, no difference — same career, same family, same friends. Then one day, out of nowhere, you are accused of an incredibly violent murder of a five-year-old child. You are arrested and taken to jail, yet you you’ve done nothing wrong — you’ve always been a law-abiding citizen. You go to trial and it makes national headlines. Let’s assume the best, that you plead innocent and they are unable to convict you. You are acquitted of all charges.
You attempt to go back to the life you had before. However, you start to notice that people respond to you differently. When you walk into a grocery store to pick up dinner, people look at you suspiciously. You feel that they are afraid of you. When you walk your dogs down the street, you find that people either stare at you intently like you might do something horrible, or they can’t even make eye contact with you. Some people even say hurtful things.
Either way, you’re treated as if you are no longer a fairly normal human being.
Almost every single interaction with other people (that isn’t a family member) only confirms that people don’t trust you, and you are considered a violent pariah. Some look at you with disgust. Perhaps you’re even considered less than human because of something you never did.
This happens every day. You have to go to work, you have to interact with other people. Yet, their reactions to you every day, every hour, clearly show you they don’t trust you.
Sometimes when you’re walking home, the neighborhood watch people come out and make you feel unsafe. They clearly want to hurt you. In fact, last month there was an incident where someone even beat another person to death they believed had abused their spouse, even though it hadn’t gone to trial yet.
Even the people who’ve been nice to you inevitably ask about the story, what it was like, how it felt. Even though it comes from a place devoid of hostility, it reinforces the feeling that you’re different — apart from the rest of society. You can’t escape it.
How do you react to these interactions? Do you feel incredibly hurt? How long do you deal with it before wondering if you actually deserve it? Do you get angry right away? What if people take your anger as proof that you’re dangerous and can’t be trusted, especially around kids?
If you have children, you find that they receive the same treatment — they are bullied at school, sometimes beaten, and rarely included by the other kids and families.
Five, ten, fifteen years go by, yet very few people treat you differently. Even if you try to move somewhere new, your story made national headlines, and you and your family aren’t able to escape the horrible reputation.
Maybe all of your money was spent on court costs, and you and your family are living in a run-down apartment in an unsafe area. Your children are stuck in a bad school based on where you live and the fact that you can’t afford a private school. But when you try to get a better job or a housing loan, you’re denied, no matter how many times you try or how hard you fight. No job or bank ever explicitly tells you why, but you know why. It’s pretty obvious what they think of you.
It doesn’t matter that you did nothing wrong. It doesn’t mater that you don’t deserve the way people are treating you. Either way, it is going to continue. The only thing you can even attempt to do is change one person’s opinion a little bit at a time, showing them you’re different than what they originally thought.
That might take a long time, though. Assuming they ever really believe it.
Now I want you to change this thought experiment a little, and imagine that you aren’t a person wrongly accused and acquitted of a child’s murder anymore, you’re a person of color.
That is what it’s like to be a person of color in this country. Everyday. And you can’t do much to change the color of your skin.
And that fear of violence - of being hurt or killed - well that extends to every single family member, including those that are still in the womb. A mother worried about the safety of her child, based on the race and gender.
Every form of discrimination described above is from real accounts of people of color I know, in addition to government policies and research on discrimination in housing and finance. As a white person, I will never have to go through these experiences or suffer these injustices.This thought experiment is a way for me to try to understand and empathize with people who deal with discrimination of this form every day of their lives. Having the privilege I do, this is an important reminder that the little things we do every single day, every interaction, mean an incredible amount.