THE FUTILE QUEST FOR A SINGLE TRUTH
This blog post has nothing to do with business, but I felt compelled to write it and share it.
A 4-year-old child watched her father shot dead in his car. She watched a white police officer continue to brandish a gun at the car in which only she and her mother sat. She watched him yell at them in the car. She watched as her mother was forced to the ground on the sidewalk. She watched as men, who looked like and were dressed like the one who killed her Daddy, took her mommy away from her.
She did not see anyone comfort her Mommy. She did not see anyone offer counseling to her Mommy. She did not see anyone offer to bring her to her Mommy. She did not see anyone display any empathy for how absolutely terrifying and traumatizing this must be for her.
The rest of us did not see the NRA stand up for the rights of these licensed gun owners. We did not see Fox News personalities who trot out #AllLivesMatter voice outrage at the treatment of this family. Twitter did not light up with #AllLivesMatter tweeters objecting to treatment that clearly demonstrated that these lives didn’t matter.
I’m a white man. I have a black daughter. I live in Canada. Yet I have found myself deeply troubled by the latest killings of black men at the hands of the police in the United States. The thought of what that little girl experienced haunts me.
And I am troubled by the muted reactions of white folks. When faced with the news of the deaths and with statements by members of the black community that there is a racist system, the dominant response is something along the lines of “It’s terrible, BUT ‘they’ shouldn’t say ‘we’ are ALL racists. “
While that may be technically true, I’m troubled that this is the issue of foremost concern. It isn’t the treatment of a 4 year old. It isn’t the fact that the media dig up an old mug shot of Alton Sterling while they display class photos and swim times of a white rapist. It isn’t that a white person in an open carry state can reach for their wallet without fear of being shot but a black man with a 4 year old in the backseat is dead. No. The concern is that we not all be labeled as racists. That’s what matters first.
And I wondered why that is. It’s an important question. As the white rapper Macklemore said “The systematic oppression that enables a murder like this, will be corrected once white people care enough to change it.” But if the killing of 12 year Tamir Rice and the killing of a 4 year old’s father in front of her are not enough to stir action, there has to be a reason.
The other day, I posted some lovely photos of my daughter on Facebook and received 53 likes, almost immediately. After the shootings, I posted 7 articles about the killings of black men and received 0 reactions.
I have a theory as to why. It comes in three parts. But all 3 parts relate to the same fallacy. We think there must be a single truth.
If you’re white, middle class, you grew up believing police are your friends. They are there to protect you. They may have come to your school and talked about safety or about avoiding the dangers of drugs or gangs. Maybe they turned the lights on the top of their car for you. That was cool, right?
Seeing them gives you a sense of security. If they stop you for a traffic infraction, you might be frustrated that you got caught and you’ll have to pay a fine. But it never occurs to you that you are in danger. And if you were ever in danger, they would, of course, be the first people you’d call.
And you know what? You’re right. That set of beliefs is true.
However, when presented with an alternative reality where police are dangerous and feared; where people tell you that the police might kill them just for moving the wrong way or saying the wrong thing, you simply can’t believe it. It is so at odds with your entire life experience with the police, or stories about them, that those other people must be mistaken. The police actions complained of must be because they have done something. For your experience to be true, which it is, they must be wrong.
But they’re not. There are two truths. You do not have to sacrifice your truth to accept another. They can and do co-exist. What you experience as an irreconcilable dissonance is simply the reality of different approaches in different environments.
A simplified way of looking at it is this. And I understand this is a generalization, but it gets to the systemic problem. When a patrol car drives through your middle/upper class white neighborhood, they are protecting you. When it drives through a poorer black neighborhood, they are policing you.
Think about that distinction. How does that affect interactions? What does that do to trust on both sides? What are the assumptions that inform the relationships in the communities? The assumption that black communities need to be policed is part of what makes the system racist.
The second manifestation of the fallacy of a single truth is with the troubling label of “racist.” We tend to think of it in binary terms. You either are or you are not. Like being pregnant. So, when a black person says we’re complicit in a racist system, we say “I’m not racist…therefor you are wrong.”
I suggest that racism exists on a spectrum. Or on a grey scale, from white through shades of gray to black.
Or, maybe we should think of racism as something like bacteria that is in us to varying degrees. It’s not that people ARE racist, but that they carry different amounts of racism within them. You may not want to have segregation or believe that black people are inferior. But if you clutch your purse a little more tightly when a black man steps on an elevator with you than you would if a white man stepped on, you have some racism. If you assume that child must be a good athlete because she’s black, you have some racism. If that teacher doesn’t push the black child the same as she does the white classmate because she feels he won’t be able to handle it, those reduced expectations reflect some racism. And if you assume that the black man shot in the back by a police officer must have done something to deserve it but would be outraged if a white person were so shot, you have some racism.
If you feel none of those kinds of things, maybe you have no racism. Good for you.
The third manifestation of the fallacy comes from the fact that you’re a good person. You’re not someone who takes from others. You work hard. You’ve provided value to generate the good things you have in your life. You went to school and started your career with people of various backgrounds and you never saw favoritism. With the exception of some people who were good at playing politics, you’ve seen people rewarded on merit. Therefor this stuff about a racist system seems like just so much politically correct nonsense. You don’t want to believe that you received an unfair advantage because…well…that would be unfair.
As previously discussed, there can be two truths. You absolutely have worked and earned your way to your current circumstances. But you also had some benefits along the way that others did not. (I choose not to use the word “privilege” as it has become a loaded word that is often used as an accusation and thereby triggers a defensive response.) One of those benefits was the fact you weren’t “policed” and, as a result, never experienced the fear, distrust, anger and separation that nurtures.
But here’s the real rub as to why this is so hard to accept. If you do believe in fairness, and you accept that the system isn’t fair then that means the system has to be changed. And change is scary. Especially when you don’t know what it is going to change into. Could it be reversed where “we” become disadvantaged?
No. That’s not good. The system that is, with just a few incremental adjustments here and there, will be juuuusst fine.
But it’s not just fine. People are being killed. Children are being traumatized.
So then, I’ve been asked, what do you propose we do about it, smart guy?
I’m not smart enough to have any definitive answer. But I think there are some simple starting points:
1) Try to understand. Stop worrying about whether someone thinks you’re racist or not. Try to understand someone else’s lived reality. I mean really understand it. Read what people are saying. Ask questions. Try to put yourself in those circumstances. What would it feel like to be followed in shopping malls by people thinking you will steal? What if every person you knew had someone in their family unjustly hassled by the police? What if everyone picked you for their sports team but never asked your opinion about schoolwork? What if you kept seeing people who look like you get shot by police?
2) Share stories. As a white person, voice your outrage. Say #BlackLivesMatterToMe. Or #StopTheKilling. Write to police departments and legislators to let them know you find this unacceptable
3) Give money to groups advocating for change (even if – especially if – they are run entirely by black people)
4) STOP saying #AllLivesMatter! It’s insulting because the system demonstrates everyday that this is absolutely untrue. The most you could say is that All Lives SHOULD Matter.
Thank you for considering my thoughts. No 4 year old should ever again have to watch a parent die because he reaches for his wallet.
PS: I wrote the above before the horrific Dallas shootings. That event will also tempt us into choosing a single truth. Some will feel that sides are to be chosen. However, it is no betrayal of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile or his daughter and girlfriend to acknowledge the tragedy of police, who were out protecting and who had committed no violence, losing their lives in premeditated cruel murders; actions that have deprived their families of loved ones and that will ignite fear and division. It is also no betrayal of those officers to acknowledge that the deaths of Sterling and Castile and the treatment of that 4 year old girl represent a significant problem.
All of these deaths stem from fear, anger, ignorance. The one trap we must avoid is to fall into their grip in response to these events.