Like so many others, I have experienced a range of emotions over the tragic loss of life in recent police-involved incidents. Intense sadness, confusion, disbelief. All the while knowing that the pain I have been feeling cannot be compared to the pain of the millions of people who have been victimized by discrimination, or the unimaginable grief of families who had to bury a child, a father, a lifelong friend. Like so many others, I didn’t know what to do or where to turn. So I chose to listen.
I listened to the news, all day. I read every post I could on social media. I listened to perspectives of victims and suspects, of strangers who felt compelled to share their own experiences of discrimination and violence. A public servant myself, I listened to perspectives of community leaders and police officers defending the honor and good intentions of their work. I listened to the way that “experts” contributed their opinions on the evening news. But as events unfolded, it became more and more difficult to listen. Eventually, I reached a point of such disappointment and outrage that I couldn’t listen any more. I reached a point where I couldn’t read another opinion of someone who skipped a very important step, the first step, of moving forward.
You see, when I decided to become a teacher, I went through a very uncomfortable lesson in both my undergraduate and graduate preparation. I learned about the history of race, class, gender, and ability in our country. I was pushed through the very uncomfortable process of acknowledging my own unearned privileges and the inherent biases I was socialized to carry. I carefully reflected on this new idea that just because I was always kind-hearted and well-intentioned didn’t mean I was immune from developing a set of biased beliefs about groups of people, some inherent sense of power or control, or the idea that all of my career and academic successes were earned by my merit alone. It is a painful and imperfect process that I will continue to work on every day, but it is an essential process for anyone charged with caring for children.
This imperfect process has at the very least given me the tools to recognize situations in which I carry the weight of privilege, have an element of power, or even now the threat of biased patterns of thinking. It is this process that has me looking at social media feeds, or watching the news, and screaming to myself:
“No! No! You cannot create a character of someone you have never known, who is no longer here to defend themselves!”
“No! No! You cannot name the grief of a community that lost a child or loved one. You cannot demand a community express their agony and grief in a way you think is polite.”
“Please, please. At the very least admit that these stories might be different if the victims were white and affluent, and that means if you are white and affluent you need to speak with a humble respect for lives lost and community in heartbreak.”
We have all heard that the first step towards solving a problem is admitting there is a problem. I have a long way to go in understanding the complexities of race and challenging myself to be an ally. I do not consider myself an expert of any kind. All I know now is that if I want to be a part of the solution, I need to acknowledge there is a problem, and I humbly encourage anyone entrusted with sharing news and opinions on current events do the same thing. Admit to yourself that your perspective might carry elements of privilege or bias, and balance yourself by sharing your voice, and growing by listening to others.
I know what many of you may be feeling. You don’t feel privileged; so many of us are struggling to make ends meet every day. You don’t feel like you have biases; you might go to work every day with an open mind and willingness to serve your community. But I don’t think that we can move forward as a country until we can all acknowledge that we are, and we do. Once we do that, we might learn how to use language that respects the dignity and humanity of everyone in our communities. We might learn to stop and challenge any biased thoughts or feelings that can creep into our views. We might have the strength to be an ally, no matter how lonely and isolating that can feel at first. We might improve our ability to help prevent tragedies that leave parents without children, and children without parents. And if tragedy does strike, we might be able to grieve and respond in unity rather than division. We just might begin to heal.