Dravon Ames, Iesha Harper, and their two young children are just one more black family who is the victim of excessive force, captured in a shocking and terrifying video in Phoenix.
I’m a family therapist and social emotional health expert, my whole life is about context and understanding all sides of a story before jumping to conclusions. But in cases like these, the “we don’t know the whole story” approach just adds insult to injury, and it’s time for us to be unified in our outrage.
As a white woman – even if my thumb was on the nuclear button, there is absolutely no scenario where I get treated like Mr. Ames and Ms. Harper were. If my children walked out of a store without paying for something, things would easily be made right again, and the manager and I might even act as co-conspirators to bring an important lesson home if the doll was taken on purpose. If instead of a peaceful resolution, an officer pointed a gun at me and my children and showered me with threatening F-bombs, there would be no question as to whom the victim was.
In order to move away from this bifurcated reality for white and black families, several narratives must change (I’m talking to my fellow white people here, people of color have always known this).
1) We must drop the pretense and the defensive posture fueled by the narrative that racism is something that happened long ago that we have nothing to do with. Indeed, we have come a long way from separate water fountains, but it’s a mistake to think those overt policies and the racism that informed them didn’t transmute into more subtle but equally harmful structural barriers and racial disparities that are alive and well today.
As explored by the Urban Institute and many others, evidence abounds in our criminal justice system, in access to housing, healthcare, employment and education and in how people of color are treated by some who are charged to protect and serve. In addition, to the overt, Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative has carefully laid out the many ways that people of color bear the weight of always being presumed dangerous, which requires an enormous amount of energy to navigate and is traumatizing – on a daily basis.
2) We must move away from the toxic narrative that you either support police or you believe Black Lives Matter. We have been recruited into that false dichotomy by people who want to justify or ignore the systemic and structural racism that is braided into our psyches and our policies. We can fully support and be grateful to the men and women who serve as police officers and still be outraged when one of them abuses their power. In fact, we can be outraged in the very name of the many officers who would never behave the way the police officers in Phoenix acted in the video.
3) We must look deeply and honestly at what we have gained as white people over the many decades by continuing to perpetuate, in little and big ways, the narratives that keep white supremacy in place and undercut the voices, views, vote and veto of our fellow citizens who happen to not have the same skin color as we do. (You know race is a made up construct right?)
In a recent interview with Pacific Standard, Stevenson points out that this work belongs to all of us, “You can be very progressive, you can be very educated, and you can still be complicit in the kind of microaggression that takes place when you look at people through this lens of racial difference.” Robin Diangelo in her New York Times bestseller, White Fragility reminds us that “being friendly, open-minded and surrounding yourself with diverse people is not enough.”
Changing our society will require us to do the work of looking at the role each of us plays in perpetuating racism. Over 80,000 people have downloaded Layla Saad’s Me and White Supremacy in just six months, which will now be available next February in book form. It’s a 28-day challenge for white people to explore our privilege and examine how we can stop even the unconscious ways we participate in keeping troubling narratives alive that do harm.
Without question there may be more to the story in Phoenix, new facts will emerge. And without question, there are good police officers in every city. None of that should cool our outrage, and the fact that we continue to introduce these commentaries as counterpoints to shocking, abusive and racist behavior just highlights how much work we still have to do for families of color to truly have an equitable experience in this so-called land of the free.