When White People Don’t See Black People As People

young man closes his eyes with his hands

If none of these new stories, none of these videos, none of these cries for help makes you hear the voices of people you know and love yourself, makes you sad for another mother’s child, then you are the problem.

For over a year now the abuse of black and brown bodies has filled up our newsfeeds, men and women, old people and children, they are handcuffed and thrown down and screamed at by uniformed men. Sometimes they end up dead, always they end up damaged.

This has been happening forever but now White America is forced to see it, in between pictures of your friends’ kids carving pumpkins and Willy Wonka memes, white people like me are now having to think harder about why this is happening and how we are complicit.

Because don’t think for one second that we aren’t complicit. You don’t have to do anything more than look at the comments on your local news station website to realize just how complicit we are:

But they don’t show you what happened before that. That’s what the media does. They keep the drama going.

I must be watching a different video. It looks to me like a student resisting authority.

Show the whole video, not just the reaction. When she was asked nicely to exit the classroom multiple times, there are consequences for being non compliant.(sic)

These are just a handful of the comments in response to the video of the high school student in South Carolina being violently thrown to the ground and handcuffed in the middle of class but they’re boilerplate for every link to every video or news story about police violence against people of color. They’re not foamy mouthed classic N-word racist comments though those are always there too. But they’re racist just the same and here’s why: Every comment like that, every statement that amounts to justifying violence against an unarmed person disproportionate to what they are doing at that moment, every sentence that chooses to blame the people reporting the story instead of the people committing violence in the story, every word that justifies extreme brutality against a person who has no recourse to fight back, is denying the humanity of those people. And that’s racist as hell. It might not be white-hooded, late night lynching party racist, but it is still racist and it’s just as destructive as George Wallace’s water hose-carrying goons.

Why? Because it allows people to think they’re being “reasonable” and “measured” when in reality this reason and measure only goes in one direction. The people in these videos who are getting their heads bashed in never get the benefit of the doubt extended to the people doing the head bashing. There are some reasons for that, White America’s adoration with authority figures and their flawed obsession with the infallibility of the police despite so much evidence to the contrary is one. But there’s another, bigger one that has become clearer to me in this last year of violence: the inability of white people to recognize anything of their own experience in the experiences of people of color.

From the comments you read about these stories you would think that America has the most well behaved white population on the planet. Nobody has ever talked back in class, nobody has ever run a stop sign, nobody has every gotten frustrated when treated unfairly. Just a bunch of super gentle and agreeable white folks instantly obeying the commands of anyone with any measure of authority, a nation of Andy Griffiths (but not Opie because Opie killed that mother bird with his slingshot that time and then lied about it.)

I’ve taught my children better than that, they know they have to listen to their teachers and police officers, they learned respect at home unlike other people.

For a moment let’s ignore the racist coding in those words. Every white mama who comments on news stories of police brutality to defend the cops says something along those lines. Never mind that it’s bullshit and they know it. Look at any school division’s behavior statistics and you’ll see a whole pile of little white children not doing what they’re supposed to at any given time. Whole lotta white men and women getting outraged when they don’t get what they want when they want it on shows like “Cops” or in the line at the grocery store or just anywhere white people are because people talk back and people run stop signs and people get frustrated when treated unfairly. That’s what it’s like being people. But only one group of people is regularly brutalized for it and sometimes for just being suspected of it and sometimes for nothing at all. That’s what makes it racist.

It is often difficult or impossible for some white people to see the humanity, to see their own experiences reflected, to recognize the similarities of life between themselves and people of color. I think I fully realized that when Sandra Bland was pulled over last summer. I’d been pulled over a couple of weeks before that and I knew the frustration in her voice. She just wanted it to be over with, she was annoyed, she just wanted to go home. Everyone who has ever been pulled over has had that exact feeling. I knew though when I was pulled over that I didn’t have to fear for my life because I’m white. “I’m white so I’m safe” is something I literally said inside my brain. I can’t imagine what it’s like to not just instinctively assume that.

In Sandra Bland I saw a familiar experience and when I heard her speaking to the cop I thought to myself Oh honey, I hear you. Finally, I thought, here’s a situation that is unimpeachable. People will see this and realize that things are messed up. Anyone can see she’s being reasonable and the cop was being an aggressive asshole. Of course I was wrong and it’s a measure of my naiveté that I was so surprised at people’s responses

That’s what you get when you disrespect a police officer. If she’d have just listened she wouldn’t have been arrested. I can’t believe the foul mouth on her.

It was proof, clean and clear, that so many white people have a basic inability to see people of color as people like themselves: innocent people, harmless people, people who feel.

Michael Brown reminded me of boys my little cousins went to school with; the girl in the bathing suit at the Texas pool party reminded me of my daughter’s friends; Tamir Rice reminded me of my own son; Sandra Bland reminded me of me. If none of these new stories, none of these videos, none of these cries for help makes you feel the same way, makes you hear the voices of people you know and love yourself, makes you sad for another mother’s child, then you are the problem. You are the racist face of a White America who refuses to acknowledge her racism. You are complicit in the pain and suffering of a nation of people.

It’s long past time that you either go make some new friends who don’t look like you or shut up on the commenting because like it or not, you are the problem.

Jenny Poore writes about parenting, public education, and politics. Her work has most recently appeared in xoJane, Mommyish, and Full Grown People. You can follow her on Twitter @Jenny_Poore and at her blog, Sometimes There are Stories Here.

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