This is a story about racism that turned out not to be racism. I’m sharing it because it stays with me and informs my current reluctance to accept that every unhappy story involving a black person is an example of racism.
One year, I attended a conference with two teacher friends, Jan and Michelle, in Vancouver, BC. Jan, who drove us to Vancouver, was black; Michelle and I were white. The three of us chatted and told teacher stories on the way. As we passed the duty free store near the Canadian border, we said, “Let’s get some booze!”
Alas, we were already past the exit for the store. So, when we went through the Canadian check point, we said we wanted to make a U-turn to go to the duty-free store. We were allowed to do so, and quickly re-entered the US explaining to the border agent what we intended to do. We bought a bottle of liquor and made another U-turn to return to Canada.
At our hotel, we each had a drink, but realized that we would not finish the bottle. Hmm. We would only be out of the US for 24 hours, not long enough to return with booze from the duty-free store. The next day, we attended the conference and headed home. We decided to put the booze in the trunk and forget to mention it at the border.
This might have worked. We didn’t look like hardened criminals. But when we got to the US border, the agent asked us to pull over and open the trunk. Sheepishly, Jan, our driver, did so. The agent found our booze and invited her into the facility. While she was away, Michelle and I were left stewing in the car where we harrumphed about the obvious racism of the border agent. There was clearly no reason other than Jan’s black skin to pull her out of the line. We were scheming about how to help her when she returned to the car, minus the booze, laughing about what had happened.
We two white folks were a bit surprised, so we asked for the story. Jan said, “Well, didn’t you recognize him. We got the same agent tonight that we got last night when we were telling him our plans to go buy some booze. We couldn’t have been more conspicuous, so of course he recognized us!” She was given the option of paying the tariff on the whole bottle or leaving it at the border. She opted to leave it.
After we left the border, Jan said, “I bet you were thinking we were pulled over because I’m black.” We agreed. “Nope,” said Jan. “It was because we were such fools.” I’m sure Michelle also remembers the night. How fortunate we were to have a teacher like Jan. She’d grown up in the south, so she certainly knew racism. But she didn’t see it under every rock. She was able to see other factors that affected how white people behaved and willing to give people the benefit of a doubt.
This year, in the Black Lives Matter Summer of 2020, we are being asked to view everything through the lens of systemic racism. I don’t, and I know that sets me apart. I’m sort of out on my own ledge this year. We’re even told that “silence is violence.” No, I don’t accept that either. Well, in any event, I’m not being silent; I’m just not saying what I’m supposed to say.
For sure, I don’t pretend that racism has been eradicated. It hasn’t. I also don’t pretend that there aren’t racist cops in uniforms. There are. But I refuse to accept the data about police killings or the videos of police killings as proof that all cops are out to get black people. There’s more to many of these stories than evil white cop kills innocent black person.
Many cop killings are not clearly justified, regardless of race of cop or victim. But not all of the stories are black and white. Many departments are trying to change. Are unions standing in the way of holding individual cops accountable? Quite likely. Will this summer’s protests make it easier to hold cops accountable if they don’t try to de-escalate situations? I hope so. But can we live without cops? Not where I live. Arrmed citizens with AK-47s are not a solution that appeals to me.
Before we push the narrative of racist cops so far that no one wants to be a cop, we need to consider who will protect the social workers who are asked to de-escalate dangerous situations of domestic violence or someone in the throes of a mental health crisis. Happy outcomes are not guaranteed.
I worry that by signing on to anti-racism, we sign on to a new religion complete with limits on questions we are allowed to ask, agreement that whiteness is an original sin, prohibition on thinking for ourselves, and blindly following self-proclaimed prophets.
Furthermore, I’m going to keep asking if black people care about the black people who are killed by “friends” and neighbors in the ‘hood, which is actually where most of their young die. Why can we only talk about cops?