Perception is everything. We are influenced by where we live, who we are related to, what restaurants we eat at, where we grocery shop. We learn how to react in the circumstances we find ourselves in, based on the factors of our personal histories. When we witness others going through hard times or even the simple routines of life, we relate because we have similar stories. So as a rule, it would seem that the more each person experiences the complexities of the world, the more likely we are to understand the world through the eyes of each other. We learn empathy.
The ability to empathize is something that matures with time and experience. Some advance quicker than others, depending on our life stories, yet occasionally, we reach road blocks. Inevitably, there will always be experiences we cannot relate to. Some elements of one’s life are inapplicable to that of another. What we do in this dilemma is the catalyst to either developing a normal character trait or a serious character flaw. Here, we debate, “I can either allow myself to be educated by listening to the experience of someone else or l can isolate myself from the situation because it simply will never apply to me”. Unfortunately, many of us choose the latter; the “no homework” version. Who needs to learn art when you do math? Well… you, if you ever want to have a conversation with an artist about art. This is the underlying problem America is facing with our response to the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
For generations, racial divides existing everywhere from cultural differences to geographic segregation, have enabled the ever growing isolation of groups. Even after the groundbreaking civil rights accomplishments of the 1960s, segregation, notoriously between Black and white Americans, has been allowed to expand and flourish. Fear, a lack of exposure and sneaky systemic tricks, aimed at keeping both groups separate and homogenous within each other, have not only divided us literally, but convinced many that division does not actually exist. This illusion has more significantly affected white America. Today, white life continues with the same advantages and privileges that whites have historically enjoyed. Whites did not have to struggle for simple rights and privileges, they just always existed. So it makes sense that many would take what they have for granted, unable to see how many of their fellow citizens are fighting to have granted rights.
We know Black America has never enjoyed the smooth train ride that whites have been privileged to have. Keeping with this analogy, the African American train has been thrown in multiple directions, hit bumps, had derailments and needs for repair, meanwhile, whites seem unaware that derailment is a possibility. This is because whites designed the train tracks not only for themselves, but for everyone else. Reconstruction, social programs and the general limits and conditions to which whites were willing to share access to the American Dream were always up to the white establishments that facilitated the progression of history. This has enabled so many to become detached and ignorant to the historic legacy of the foundational sabotage of Black life and progress. The journey ahead for whites was to remain the focus of what became the American Dream, while Blacks were to not only be left behind once the cages of slavery were unlocked, but intentionally and institutionally disenfranchised.
This unfortunate lack of awareness exists because while white America has “learned” about the injustices of the past (although they have transformed and linger today), they never learned about how the white train tracks were built to be smooth from their inception. Too many have failed to understand the intricate, maniacal schemes of superiority and inferiority politics, elevating a platform for which whites can thrive on the existence of something they deem lesser. This has created a present-day milieu where it has become appropriate to assume that since everyone can “have” a train in 2014, if you get derailed, it is your fault. You did something wrong. You have to deal with it on your own. In fact, you might even deserve what happened to you. This “equal playing field” myth, completely ignores a racial dichotomy afflicted by the fact that white America has had a 400-year head start in building its legacy.
The translation of our history has a coy way of impacting contemporary society. When an unarmed teenager is gunned down by police, the immediate universal response, predictably, is sadness. Everyone can empathize with death. It is the only thing guaranteed to all humans, regardless of who we are, from the moment we are born. Where we start to get into trouble is when we ask questions about why Michael Brown died. While we do not know every detail about what happened that day, many of us are aware of the systemic disadvantages People of Color face in America, particularly concerning young, Black males. Back to the train analogy, some of us think, “Hey! I have a train, so do you! Problem solved! Racism is over! Let’s strike down the Voting Rights Act!”. That would make sense and be an appropriate response if it were true.
Michael Brown was born into a society poised to demonize him before he could learn to walk, let alone run from a police officer who was shooting at his back. Michael Brown was born into a society that dehumanized him. When many media outlets were circulating a rhetorical picture of the incidents leading to his death, Michael Brown was often described as charging Officer Darren Wilson like a “bull”, leaving Wilson with no choice but to fatally shoot him. This well exchanged depiction is the posthumous dehumanization of Michael Brown. Being described as a “bull”, an animal, something that is not human, is the kind of character manipulation that makes it easier for many to absorb the shady circumstances of his death. Sure, many people might think that simply describing him as a “bull” is not a deliberate attempt to liken him to an animal for the purpose of dehumanization, but it does not have to be intentional to have the same effect. In doing this, we are having an easier time coping, even if our white privilege prevents us from knowing that is what we are doing.
Now, the fact that such a mechanism exists is evidence that American society, particularly white America is at least subconsciously aware that People of Color are intentionally dealt Jokers while white Americans routinely receive pocket Aces. The fact that we attempt to justify injustice is an indication that somewhere, there is a nerve in the anatomy of America that knows this was a terrible thing that happened. Releasing a sketchy surveillance video of Michael Brown “strong-arm robbing” a convenience store, focusing conversation on him having THC in his system, describing him as a “thug” or a “bull”, spreading photographs of him flipping off cameras or posing provocatively with money and paraphernalia, are all efforts at painting a specific picture of him. These are attempts at redefining him in a way that makes our society feel more comfortable with the fact that he was killed by a member of law enforcement, someone we employ. While Michael Brown may have smoked marijuana, may have shoplifted cigarillos, may have even mouthed off to a cop or two, it is highly unlikely that he indulged in the vices of youth in a way that young whites do not. But when we paint a thick-brushed image of Michael Brown as being nothing but vice, he is no longer someone we can address with. He becomes a caricature and an archetype, defined by white America. He becomes a monster, and dead monsters do not make people feel as bad as dead kids.
So why do we do this? Why is there a sharp divide in the public from social media to casual conversation, where whites seem more inclined to be comfortable with the idea of Michael Brown, the “thug”, versus Michael Brown, the unarmed, eighteen-year-old, gentle-giant? There is no way to answer that concisely, but a major element here is insecurity.
White America is insecure. As Attorney General Eric Holder put it in 2009, “Americans are afraid to talk about race”. What he was truly saying was that white Americans are afraid to talk about race. It is not that only whites are afraid of getting into it, but that nonwhites often find themselves without a choice. Too many whites, young and old, are afraid to confront the skeletons of American history that haunt society today. Too many are afraid to confront and be honest about their own prejudice and privilege. This is what I have always believed “white guilt” to be. White America’s inability to deal with it responsibly thus far has caused insecurity and subsequent hostility towards any reference to racism being an issue or factor in anything. Forget having an in depth discussion about race. We pretend that everyone has a fair shot at success, opportunity is equally available, cultural appropriation is just a “Blackademic” talking point and that Black people just “complain too much”. Pretending that we all live in this utopia is not only dishonest, it allows the travesties of the past and present to fester and grow. Getting real with ourselves and our society does not feel too good, but guess what? Too bad.
White folks are going to have to get over the “#WhitePeopleProblems” of feeling sad and blue when discussing race. Whites should realize that in feeling uncomfortable, upset, even angry with the system and themselves, they are actually being a part of the solution, because they are being honest. Accepting reality and being truthful with our feelings is the first step. People of Color do not have the luxury of being able to simply remove themselves from racial situations the way whites can. The least white Americans can do is be honest about the fact that while we are not all rich, we were born with a sort-of-silver spoon in our mouths with respect to opportunity and how it is affected by race. Basically, unless you are auditioning for a production of The Color Purple, being white is never, ever, ever, ever a disadvantage…. That’s right dudebro, it’s actually working in your favor.
Ignorance to these societal constructs, be it blissful or willful, seems to be what is holding so much progress back. Unfortunately for us, our society does not have the time to wait for the privileged to feel comfortable enough to face this. The moment is not now, it was before Michael Brown was shot and killed. The sooner we are all honest about who we are and what we may be privileged to, the sooner we will collectively, as Americans, be able to mature our ability to empathize with each other. Once we get there, if we have the courage to get there, we might start hearing about more police interactions with civilians kin to: “you kids be safe, now” … versus “Bring it! All you fucking animals!” Perhaps I am wishfully thinking. Maybe the same white privilege I reference is behind a naiveté that plagues my perspective. If this proves to be true, I will accept it and try and learn from it. I know that I have privilege, I just wish more white people would be honest about their own.