My White, But Dark Heart, in Light of Terence Crutcher’s Death
I read the news today and I watched video clips of an unarmed man being shot and killed in the middle of the road. I haven’t ignored the previous shootings. I’ve prayed many prayers; I have listened to many challenging perspectives. But, this shooting was different. Not because a Taser was involved or because there were multiple camera angles, but this one was different because the officer who killed Terence Crutcher is a woman.
I am a woman. And this is the first time that I ever really tried to put myself in an officer’s shoes. Her shoes look a lot more like mine, and this time it was easier to do. As I prayed for Terence Crutcher’s family, for the officer, her family, and the entire Tulsa community, I couldn’t help but imagine myself being in Officer Betty Shelby’s place.
A certain situation came to my mind. It happened just about a month ago. I was in China with my friend who was adopting a little boy from an orphanage there. The little boy was sick, so I went out after dark to try to find a pharmacy to get him some medicine. Stores were starting to close down, and as I scurried down little back, poorly lit streets, I felt at ease. I lived in China for many years. It is a largely safe place with very little violent crime. I passed people without a care as my focus was solely on finding the pharmacy. However, I noticed on the other side of the little road, two tall black men coming my way. Immediately, my heart started to thump a little bit louder and a little bit faster. My palms began to sweat. I swallowed hard. I began to feel afraid. My cognitive brain was able to overact those fear impulses, and I raised my hand to wave. I even managed to smile and say, “Hey!” But the fear didn’t subside. Even as I walked back to the hotel along those same little back roads after I purchased the medicine, I still was a little more anxious than I had been before.
I wrote about the experience that night in my journal in the hotel room. I wrote:
“This is what is meant by privilege. The privilege that I have had my entire life to walk down the street without causing anyone else to be afraid…If only the world could have seen my ugly heart tonight. What would they have thought of me?”
I have known that fear response on more than just this one occasion. I have felt it and I am ashamed of it. I hate it, yet I can’t entirely explain it. I could try to blame TV and media and growing up as a white kid in a suburb in Maine, but I am now a relatively intelligent adult. I have traveled the world. I have several, very close black friends: the sob together, binge on ice cream together, do this life together kind of friend. My family is in the process of adopting a precious little black boy who we love with a hungry love, like I will give my life to save him from another day of pain kind of love. I have raised a beautiful black little foster girl for over two years now, who could not feel anymore like my daughter than she already does. So, how is it possible that when I saw those two black men, my first reaction was fear? What does that say about me, and the world I live in, and the lies I tell myself when I say that I love all people and treat all people equally? Don’t give me the excuse of saying it was simply because they are men, and I perceived danger due to their gender. I passed plenty of Chinese men that night and even a couple of white men, and felt nothing that could be described as fear.
I know now there are talks of possible drugs and other justifications like there always are and always will be. But after this shooting, when I imagined myself as that female officer, I realized, that if I saw Terrence, a big, black man, move his hands in such a way he may have been grabbing a gun, I would have been scared, too, and the fact that he is black would have been a very real factor in my fear. Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying fear is a justification for shooting. I know officers are trained to question those fear impulses and control their emotions and react only when the threat is made clear. But, when I honestly believe I would have experienced more fear simply because he was black, that tells me something I haven’t wanted to admit to: the playing field is simply not level. It is invalid to presume that because laws have changed and outward actions for the majority have changed, we live in a truly equal society. When we try to simply dismiss these shootings based on justifications whether they be true or false, we are imagining a level playing field to begin with which doesn’t truly exist and we end up saying incredibly hurtful things to our black friends and neighbors like, “Well if he would have just followed the instructions….”
This isn’t simply about a person who didn’t follow instructions, this is about a society that has been conditioned to respond to a black man’s perceived disobedient actions with such an incredible amount of fear, they murder him and genuinely believe it is justified because he wasn’t following orders. The only force the officer presumed safe to use was lethal force. You might want to say it’s only me who has experienced that fear towards black men, but I know it’s not just me. Listen to the helicopter pilot and try to tell me that it’s just me. Guys, we just aren’t there yet. Even when we point to policies and people in high positions that seem to say we are, even if we earnestly want to be there, we still aren’t.
Reading this might make you mad if you are black. You might call me racist to admit to often feeling more afraid of a black man than a white man. This might make you mad if you are white. You might want to talk to me about how you back the blue — I have many friends who are LEO wives, but this isn’t about choosing sides, it’s about seeing all sides. I read social media posts and articles and can already see the angle turning. Initially after the shooting everything was about what a good guy Terence Crutcher was, a college student, and regular church goer. Now, with the news of PCP being involved, the descriptions have shifted to, he was a good man, trying to turn his life around. Under the influence or not, he was unarmed, and the officers involved had lesser means of force available. Terrence should have survived the encounter. His death is a tragedy and even if we don’t want to admit it, the fact he was a “big scary black dude” contributed to his death. As awful as that is, I understand how it did, because I too have known that irrational fear. If it is okay for a police officer to kill a person because of the mere possibility that he or she might be reaching for a weapon, then you could be killed, and so could I, so could your kids, and so could mine, and all someone would have to say is we were non-compliant and might have had a weapon.
I want to defend myself and my illogical fear reactions, but, the reality is, The Bible tells me my heart is desperately wicked, and it is. I have just shared my sinful nature. But I am not going to stop here in my sin. I am not going to accept my fear. I am going to fight it. When I stop at a gas station to fill up my tank, and a black man, listening to loud music, pulls up beside me, even if my heart starts pounding, I am going to say hello. I will make conversation if he is willing, because he a precious heir to the throne of God. I will continue to seek out a diverse group of people to do life with, people who can share their pain with me, different pains than I have felt, because I want to feel their hurt so I don’t become another person who causes it. I won’t allow my fear to prevent me from being in uncomfortable situations, asking hard questions, and forming new relationships because Christ didn’t call me to love just those brothers and sisters I feel comfortable with right now. Perhaps through this intentionality the greatest victory will be accomplished when my four white sons grow up together with their black siblings in a diverse community, without ever learning the fear that somehow I did and they will never have to struggle to unlearn it like I am unlearning it now.
The precious black boy we are adopting cannot walk or talk, or even sit upright on his own. I will never have to worry about anyone perceiving him as a threat. But my friends do have sons, beautiful black boys, that if I encountered in the right set of unfortunate circumstances, I could all too easily imagine a scenario where I react out of fear and make a tragic mistake. That’s not fair to them. It’s not fair to anyone. I think admitting this possibility is the first step in making sure that the possibility never becomes a reality. For your sons and daughters, and for mine. Let’s be honest, and let’s make this better. I don’t know how, but I know that we must.