In life we start with experience long before we can articulate reality. As we grow and mature we try to make sense of the world and our place in it. As we develop, we come to recognize that our experiences are always biased and in need of correction. Yet, no matter the need for correction, our experiences still shape us in powerful ways. Thus, if we are going to get a handle on the complex sociopolitical issues involved in the current distress of Black men being shot or mistreated by police officers, we need to start with their stories—not because these stories are all we have but because they are fundamentally shaping experiences for these men.
Full disclosure: I am lily white. While I am the father of two African American sons, I myself can never fully understand their experience. I have never felt that others are afraid of me solely based on the color of my skin. However, what follows may help majority readers prepare to listen to heart-breaking stories and to become a bit more aware of what it might be like to be a Black man in America.
Two personal stories first.
Since it is my blog, let me tell two of my own stories of interactions with authorities. First, many years ago I was driving my little VW late one Friday night through the rural pine barrens of New Jersey, on my way to a youth group retreat. I was by myself. At some point a car came up on my rear at a high rate of speed. I hoped he would pass me but he didn’t. After a few minutes, blue lights flashed. I was being pulled over. I checked my speed and was sure I had not done anything wrong. After stopping, I turned off my music, lowered my window and awaited the officer’s approach. With his bright flashlight in hand, he asked me if I knew why I was being stopped. I didn’t. He asked me to get out of the car. Now my heart started racing a bit. He told me I had been weaving (I’m sure I hadn’t) and whether I had been drinking (I know I hadn’t). He put me through my paces with touching my nose, walking in a straight line. Had I been doing drugs, he asked. Why were my eyes so bloodshot (hard contacts did that to me)? He asked me if I would allow him to search my car and to move to the back. He proceeded to take the next 15 minutes to rifle through my car: glove box, under seats, through my packed bag. The longer it took and the more silent he was, the more anxious I became. I found myself starting to panic. Why? I hadn’t done anything wrong. Intermittently, he would stop, shine the light on me and ask me quite gruffly, why I was anxious (which made me jump and become more anxious). At one point I put my hands on my head so as to get a bit more oxygen into my lungs–like you might do after running an 800 meter race. Finally, he stopped looking through my things and help up a small tube containing a tiny suction cup (used to removed a hard contact that had become stuck in the corner of my eye). What’s this? I tried to explain but stumbled over my words until I could show him out it worked. Abruptly, the officer told me he could give me a ticket for weaving and driving tired. He wouldn’t this time but he was going to follow me for the next two miles to a nearby convenience store where he expected me to stop and buy a caffeinated drink. Those two miles were the longest I’ve driven. I probably choked that steering wheel to death!
Thus ends my scariest interaction with American police. Not much of a scare really. It was, however, unnerving. I was not anywhere near home. I didn’t have any power. I hadn’t done anything wrong but was being suspected of many wrong things. You might argue that he was just doing his job but my experience was that I wasn’t believed when I gave my answers. Even though I passed the balance tests, I still wasn’t believed. I didn’t really have the right to refuse the search of my car even though the law said I did. He had all the power, I had none. I wasn’t really mistreated and went on my way no worse for wear. When I drove back by at the end of the retreat, I noticed being a bit on edge, looking around for police and being doubly sure I was driving in a straight line.
But stick with my story for just a minute more. Imagine further now that this happened on a semi-regular basis, maybe even only once a year. How would that shape my sense of self or my reaction to police anywhere? And what if the outcome were undeserved fines or handcuffs just to keep the officers safe? How would that influence my sense of place in the community, a place where evidently you are a cause of fear merely due to the color of your skin?
I did have another police interaction worth telling here. I attended a tiny bible college in Lenox, MA between 1984 and 1986. This school was situated on the edge of Tanglewood Music Center (summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra), a most beautiful and wealthy (and white) part of the state. Our study body, though small, was diverse with a number of students from the historic Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury, MA. One day, several of us decided to go play basketball at a local school. We piled into one of the Daye brother’s mammoth car. Likely there were 6 of us going to shoot hoops. What I know is that I was the only white person in the car, sitting in the back seat between two much larger African American men. On the way, (which couldn’t be more than 2 miles at the most) we were pulled over. No tickets were given but we were questioned as to where we were headed. What I most remember from this event is the questions I was asked. On several occasions I was ask, “Are you okay?” Taken off guard and, frankly, naïve to what he might be asking, I must have stammered out a yes. Either I was unconvincing or he couldn’t imagine why I would be with this group of friends. So, he asked at least 2 more times. As far as I recall, we went on to play basketball and never (sadly) spoke of that event. It wasn’t until later that I realized what the officer was asking and what message that spoke to my brothers–that they were a threat to me, that I must be there against my will.
Why and How to Listen?
In previous blogs I have covered the why and the how of listening to those who seem different from ourselves. Consider reading “Loving Your Cultural Enemies” and “On having Substantive Conversations about Race Relations.” Each of these short essays suggest the way forward is through listening and validating personal experiences because being heard, seen and understood tend to move us more quickly beyond simplistic diagnoses and blame-shifting. Think about the most recent argument you had with a family member. Did you make more progress debating or by acknowledging key points?
Try These Steps
- Remember your own minority experience. Before you start listening to the stories of others, recall your own experiences of being different or objectified. Maybe it was the time you were the only one of your kind (e.g., a Baptist among paedobaptists, a man among women, an English speaker among non-English speakers, a democrat among republicans, etc.). While these minority experiences may have been a passing, superficial experience, they teach us about what it is like to feel like an “other.” Recall the experience and then try to imagine it happening every day.
- Read widely of minority experiences. Start here with Brian Crooks’ experience of growing up Black in Naperville, IL. Remember, our goal is not to verify a person’s facts so much as it is to understand that perspective. Look for the common threads of systemic cultural/racial blindness and/or oppression.
- Imagine how you would want others to respond if you had a story of mis-treatment by authorities. Likely, you would want to be believed and you might want them to ask how they could help. Work to name injustices without excuses, blame-shifting or “sin-leveling.” For example, just as you don’t ask a rape victim if she was wearing a suggestive outfit, you don’t ask a minority male if he was wearing a hoodie.
These are starter ideas to get ourselves immersed in the stories of others. Next we will consider what responsibilities we have when we learn of individual and systemic injustices.