June 7, 2016 — Coming home from work, I heard the voice of Diamond Phillips on the radio. Phillips witnessed the murder of her partner, Philando Castile last night in a town near Minneapolis. I nearly had to pull off the road as I listened to the rage and tears of Ms. Phillips, about Castile being shot next to her in a car. Her four-year-old daughter was in the back seat. Castile was pulled over for a broken tail light.
According to Ms. Phillips, the police asked both Castile and Phillips to raise their hands. The officer then asked Castile for his identification. Castile told the officer he had a licensed firearm in his vehicle. Castile responded to the cop’s request for his wallet, which required lowering an arm to reach into his pocket.
All hell broke loose, witnessed by Phillips and her child. After the shooting, the officer kept his gun directed at Castile. No one checked Castile’s pulse, and Phillips and her child were left alone in the car for 15 minutes.
Yesterday a black man named Alton Sterling died in a similar shooting in Baton Rouge, LA.
I am likely complicit in the deaths of these two black men, shot by white police.
How could that be? I didn’t personally know either of these men. I barely know the difference between a rifle and a shotgun, and there’s no way I could pass a police physical.
When I’ve ignored or let racial statements pass me by –floating away like white cumulus clouds in a lazy sky — it’s as if I pulled the trigger.
Several years ago, I visited my dentist’s office for a routine check-up. I’ve been going to the same dentist for more than two decades. I know everyone in the office. I know how many kids they have, which ones are Scouts, which ones play soccer. I know who has grandkids.
I asked the receptionist what her son was doing for the summer. She said, “He’s working construction this summer and is as dark as a N****R.”
Did she say that?
What did I do? I did not correct her. I gave a half-giggle. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. That half-giggle means I approved what she said. I did not. My lack of conviction has haunted me since it happened.
And I am ashamed.
A word, six little letters. But, not just a word. This term represents the ideology that murders African-American men in this country.
That was five years ago. I’ve since called people out. I will do it again, and I’m learning that fighting injustice starts with the tiniest of actions.
In the late fifties, I was born in a rural area where no people of color lived. Let me say that again: no people of color lived in my county. My elementary school class of sixty children had one child of Hispanic descent. My classmate’s mother was white, her father, Mexican. Her grandparents raised her.
My parents were kind, decent, educated middle-class people. To their great credit, they offered my brother and me the world outside of our small, rural town. They took us to cultural activities and on vacations to cities with museums and monuments and theater. They encouraged us to read books from the library and their collections. They subscribed to multiple newspapers and magazines, which opened up the world. We talked about current events and history nearly every day. My parents offered us all that they could from their vantage point in an all-white world. I am well aware of this great privilege of two, loving, long-married, educated parents.
But, they could not provide what didn’t exist. And the diversity — apart from books and media and traveling — wasn’t there.
My personal history, my extreme whiteness, doesn’t matter. I don’t live in the 1950s anymore. In spite of my privileged and insular upbringing, I must speak up because that is what people of God are compelled to do. I am a Christian and this is what Jesus calls us to do by His example. Regardless of your faith tradition, any person of peace must hoist a banner for justice.
This burden does not belong to our black brothers and sisters. This burden is on us to make the changes that are needed, in encounters every day where we work and play.
Black lives matter, and white people — like me and others who sit behind the safety of our news programs and white privilege — must speak out and act up against racism.
Cross-posted on BlogHer.