Last month, Starbucks made national headlines when two black men in Philadelphia were arrested after a barista called the police on them. Last week, the police were called on three black women who were renting an Airbnb in California by a neighbor who said they didn’t wave at her. Police were again called when two black teens were shopping for prom at Nordstrom Rack in Missouri. And, a black Yale student who was napping in her dorm awakened to police who had been called by a fellow student at the residence hall. Then this weekend, the police were called on brown colleagues of mine representing La ColectiVA while they were speaking up at a public meeting right here in Northern Virginia.
Despite the frequency, I have made the decision to allow myself to feel the anger and pain that comes with every example of community profiling, because desensitization feels far more dangerous to me. While this is just a reality for black and brown people, these examples of back-to-back national headlines help provide justification for our outrage and fear. They demonstrate that nowhere seems safe for people of color, and instances like these happen everywhere — including in our own neighborhoods. What cannot be denied is that there is a common thread behind these encounters: A scared white person. For all who feel threatened by even the mere presence of people of color, I have one simple request: Please stop calling the police on us.
Black people around the country are well aware of the potential dangers that they face when engaging with police. At an early age, we receive The Talk from our parents and other adult family members, as to how to conduct ourselves when confronted by law enforcement. "Just stay alive," is the plea.
Police brutality has received more national attention in the recent years amid the countless killings of unarmed black people, but solely examining the perils of police encounters limits the weight of the broader situation. Stop-and-frisk and racial profiling are problematic examples of police approaching black and brown people on an unfair basis, but in many cases, police are summoned by members of the general public — often in urgency and panic. Our everyday neighbors, colleagues, and local business employees wield their power by dialing 911 to bring law enforcement to us.
When I read these headlines, the callers’ contexts all sounded remarkably similar. They expressed feelings of fear and discomfort about black people appearing aggressive, disruptive, or suspicious. I cannot help but to question how everyday activities can be perceived as threatening — eating, shopping, renting, barbequing, speaking, SLEEPING. How is any of this dangerous? It leads me to conclude that it is not really our actions that ignite fear. It is our simple presence. Our mere existence is threatening. Our mere existence demands explanation from us about why we are present and monitoring from others for our being present. Our mere existence seems to justify removal at anyone’s request.
These examples highlight the clear core of all of this, which is not fear or danger — it is racism.
We have to be willing to call out racism and realize the complexities of how deeply it is engrained in society, how we have absorbed facets of racism in all manners that are unconsciously poured into us on a daily basis. We must recognize that racism, more than anything, is systemic. As soon as we acknowledge this truth, we can be honest about acknowledging how it is showing up however and wherever it can. Many are so afraid to even speak the word. In fact, I notice a common trend of people fearing being called “racist” more than they are concerned about being racist. Even the most “woke” people become defensive and fragile when they are asked to turn the mirror toward themselves. We must stop confining racism solely to malice if we seek to dismantle it. Yes, there are people who intentionally seek to inflict harm and maintain levels of hierarchy based on skin color. However, racism’s enduring nature is a result of its systemic nature — and no one is naturally immune to it. Systemic racism is a strong energy to which our white neighbors must resist relenting. Thus, one is not a bad person for acknowledging and their complicity in racism; rather, it is a testament to their character, and critical to the work ahead.
When we agree to see racism as a system, rather than a determinant of character, then we can be intentional about examining how that system can rear its ugly head —particularly where we have privilege. Social injustice is a result of privilege leveraging power in a manner that hurts marginalized groups. Thus, white privilege turns into racism when people are able to assert power over anything involving their race. “Privilege-power” can look like excessive force from police, but it can also look like calling the police in the first place. “Privilege-power” can look like seeing someone different from you and using enforcements so that your world can remain unchallenged and impenetrable.
If we are really going to beat racism, we are going to have to admit that this has nothing to do with politics or character. This is not about Democrats versus Republicans, liberals versus conservatives, or even good versus bad. A progressive mindset does not excuse or exclude us from potentially causing harm. In fact, I have faced some of my most significant harm as black woman doing anti-racism work in “progressive” spaces. This is often due to the impression that white champions of anti-racism have no work to do on themselves — that they have arrived and must now fight the good fight to save all of those who haven’t. That is incredibly misguided and dangerous.
We cannot control implicit bias. As human beings who are oriented, fueled, and directed by our collective social experiences, implicit bias is a natural outcome for our species. While we may not be able to control this, we can control how we manage it, and address this bias in a way that allows us to make improvements to thought processes that can eventually redirect conclusions and behaviors. It is a long process that begins with recognizing it, calling it out, and then making the decision not to act on those thoughts and feelings. That means if you see a person of color, and your immediate reaction is fear or distrust, recognize that and then choose to not act on it. Choose not to call the police. We can control our behavior much more easily than we can control our minds, and there is a stark contrast between someone having a racist thought, and acting on that racist thought. Taking a second to react appropriately in the moment can prevent much of the danger and trauma for people of color. You can do the work on self afterward to address those thoughts too.
Last year, I remember seeing a viral video of several police officers tackling a black Ph.D. student who was trying to enter his own car on campus. After it was finally clear that it was his car, viewers could hear a woman in the background crying about how she didn’t mean to racially profile. I believed her when she said that she did not mean to cause any harm. However, she did. She caused harm when she saw the black man, picked up the phone, and became complicit in an act of racial bias and criminalization. The handful of stories in the news last week are just a drop in the bucket in relation to what is happening daily. It will continue to be the same old story until the cycle is broken, and that responsibility lies in the hands of white people. White people have the power to break this cycle by addressing self and encouraging their communities to do the same. I implore white people to examine the implications behind baseless fear about situations that realistically pose no danger; because for each call made to the police, our safety really is at stake.