Typically, I don’t write about the murders of my Black brothers and sisters. It is not for a lack of caring. But there’s something about this latest public murder of George Floyd, a Black man, that guts me. Perhaps it’s the COVID-19 pandemic and the fact the United States leads the world in deaths from the disease, the Christian Cooper incident in New York’s Central Park, or America’s 400-year propensity for and proficiency at practicing racism, but here I am writing about the latest murder of an unarmed Black man.
If any of you are wondering why we Black people are up in arms over the deaths of people we never knew, I’ll unpack a few reasons. First of all, let’s not sanitize these incidents. Ahmoud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Walter Scott, Freddy Gray, et al didn’t pass peacefully from this world to the next during a restful sleep in their homes like your great-aunt Minnie. No. All of these individuals were killed at the hands of law enforcement officers. And in the case of George Floyd, his life was choked from his body deliberately by a Minneapolis police officer who blocked his airway with his knee pressed firmly against his neck while Floyd begged for his life and repeatedly told the officer that he could not breathe. For all the world to see.
Black people are enraged by the murder of yet another unarmed Black person by a law enforcement officer because each and every Black American shares an experience that transcends age, gender, education, financial status, athleticism, and even the highest level of celebrity. We are bound together by a three-strand cord of hatred, fear, and ignorance—not of our own making, but by prejudiced white America. Far too many white people hate Black people; some because we sought freedom over slavery, others have been taught to fear us for the political and social gains of powerbrokers, and others still because they simply simply do not know us. It’s an ugly truth, but its repugnance makes it no less valid.
Since the first enslaved Africans were brought to North America some 400 years ago, the Black body in white spaces has been viewed by white people as a commodity to be exploited, controlled, and despised. If that makes you bristle, good. (See Atlantic slave trade, Jim Crow laws, the Civil Rights Movement.) White folks, perhaps you can recall an instance where you were verbally harassed, involved in a physical altercation, or even worse, assaulted. Those experiences sting, yes? If you’re lucky, the incidents become hazy with time; but the worst memories stay with you for the rest of your life. When similar incidents befall your loved ones, my guess is that you probably hurt for them. You never quite forget when your sister was raped, that time your brother was jumped on the way home from school, or that look in your father’s/mother’s eyes when they lost their job or were passed over for that promotion.
Now imagine similar experiences happening to you and every member of your family, to everyone you love. Sit with that for a moment. Think of all that you’ve achieved in your life thus far. Yeah, I know no one’s life is ever exactly what they had hoped for, but just think about the positive things that have happened to you in your life—all that you have and what you went through to achieve those goals. Imagine that your hopes, let alone the attempts, and those of every member in your family to fulfill their potential are met with opposition at every turn. Thwarted. Imagine the physical and emotional toll. Day in and day out. Fortified roadblocks constructed to stop you, dead in your tracks if need be, so that others deemed better, more deserving than you might be allowed to get on with the business of life, liberty, and pursuing happiness. The effects of existing under that type of oppression can last a lifetime for a person. A family. A people. A culture. That’s the emotional trauma we carry in our bones. It. Is. Exhausting.
In every shooting of a runaway slave, every lynching, every stand-your-ground murder, every wrongful incarceration, we see our children, our fathers, our mothers, our selves; not as less than, or the other, but as beautiful Black human beings gifted in countless ways with a wisdom you know nothing of. We are a people of fortitude and character attempting to live our lives as best we can in a system designed to denigrate us. We see in those murders, a machine oiled with the blood of our forefathers that holds no regard for the lives of Black Americans. We understand, but for the grace of God, we could and still might find ourselves or our loved ones in a similar situation through no fault of our own.
We know all too well what it is to leave our homes secure in the knowledge that there’s always a chance we or any family member might not return home that night. We do not eat or young, nor do we toss our elderly aside. We love our family members, dare I say even more than you because we have witnessed white supremacy at work. Ergo, the need for “the talk”; the conversation every Black parent has with their child about how to best conduct themselves so as to mitigate the chances that they fall victim to any harm should they have an interaction with the police. All it takes is a run-in with a cop who does not like Black people for the situation to go fatally wrong. You would hard-pressed to the parent/guardian of a Black child who has not had “the talk.”
Every Black person in American, from the youngest first-grader to the oldest centenarian, from the person with the lowliest job in the country to our forty-fourth president and every Black person in between knows what it is to be regarded and treated as substandard, suspect, not worthy while beheld in the loathesome white gaze. The most heinous aspect is that all of you have regarded a Black person as such at one time or another. You don’t have to admit it to me, you know in your heart of hearts you have. Subconsciously or volitionally, you’ve done it. To think you have never done so is disingenuous. Be honest. Own it.
Sugarcoating malevolent intent hides little. Very little. We see you. And your thinly-veiled motives.
This is the same white supremacy you’ve heard so much about. It’s as baked into American culture as apple pie and Fourth of July. You see, white supremacy isn’t limited to bubbas marching around in white robes burning crosses on lawns or incel dude-bros in golf shirts and khakis carrying tiki torches. It’s a full-on spectrum of behavior. You may not be the one to actively call the police on a Black male birdwatcher who asks you to abide by the rules and put your dog on a leash, or question the legitimacy of a Black police officer, or to question the presence of a Black person in any space that is not your home, but you are someone who benefits from the system that has created an environment that’s conducive for such actions to occur.
There is hope for racists and people with racist tendencies. White people can change. I’ve seen it happen. I know people who were brought up, by their own admission, in patently racist environments. And they were able to grow and change and came to embrace a much more inclusive way of living. But they changed because they knew change was possible, and they wanted to change.
And there are a lot of white people out there who know what’s going on is wrong, yet they don’t speak up. There are those of you who have authentic relationships with Black people, but you sit on your freaking hands, perplexed with your mouths sealed shut, and turn your head the other way when another white person attempts to deny our humanity. That is not friendship. Nor is it allyship. And it most definitely isn’t love. It is a mash-up of complicity and cowardice. This one-two punch says your comfort is more important than a Black person’s dignity. Knowledge of the right thing to do is useless if you don’t do it when the time calls for that action to be taken.
I write about these murders because to do so means that I must acknowledge the pain, the grief, the horror, the suppressed rage I keep under lock and key because far too many white people lack the audacity to acknowledge:
- the extent of this country’s illicit affair with racism, and
- their singular willingness to idly sit by as Black Americans are murdered.
In order for me to write about these killings means that I must throw out the benefit of the doubt and tell you of the cognitive dissonance that exists between the honeyed words that fall from your lips versus the injurious actions you allow to occur against Black people. To quote James Baldwin, “I can’t believe what you say because I see what you do.”
I am writing these about murders because I know America can do better. I’m bringing the challenge to you to do better, to be the people you would have us believe you are. I am writing about these murders because you need to hear the hard truth: I and millions of Black people want to live. And the only way that can happen is for you to stop killing us.
Love one another.