Tag Archives: police brutality

Being color brave

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I had in mind to write a post today, because it’s been way too long. Then … I read this. And nothing I have the energy or the time to say measures up.

Please read it. Think about it. Click the links. Something has to change, and it starts with you – and you – and you – and me – and you.

Oh, and by the way, I am routinely stopped for traffic violations. The routine goes as follows: Cop peers into car. Sees apologetic middle aged white woman and a couple of cute dogs. Says, “Ma’am, slow down. And you have a nice day now.” The end.

The Monster in Your Closet

Sandra Bland was taken into custody after failing to signal a lane change.

She died in custody a few days later. Though she’d tried to post bail just two hours before and would soon be starting her dream job, she was reported as having committed suicide.

I would have taken this story at face value a few months ago, but something happened to change that.

I was between jobs a couple months after events in Ferguson, Missouri inspired a series of protests across the nation. While my children slept, I browsed Twitter, Instagram and Vine for firsthand accounts of both protests and police brutality. I became increasingly agitated by the stark differences between firsthand–yet somehow “unofficial”?–accounts and the secondhand news media accounts treated as official. To hear the secondhand accounts represented as truth infuriated me. I also felt guilty, because I’d never before thought to question reporting I’d more or less taken for neutral presentation of fact…

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Skin-deep storytelling

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I was just off visiting one of my favorite bloggers and her latest post got me thinking … and my thinking has got me all upset and bothered and pondering uncomfortable questions.

She wants to know, where are the kids’ books with non-white heroes? And she makes the point that, while there are books about black kids, in almost every case the fact that they’re black adds a whole chunk of extra Stuff to the story. Usually, it’s not just a story the way “James and the Giant Peach” is the story of a boy who has an adventure. The kid’s color almost always matters.

So my first thought, on reading this, was to wonder how much of the issue was inherent in the way these stories are written, and how much had to do with Stuff already floating around in the reader’s head. Could it be that when the main character is white, you don’t think about their whiteness because that’s the norm in Bookworld, so you simply identify with them, and focus on the action? Seems to me that might be part of what happens. Whether the reader was white or black (or whatever), the very fact that a hero or heroine was Not-White would make them unusual. You would notice. You would wonder whether there was another layer of meaning hidden in the Other-colored skin. You would be alert to cultural signals, speech patterns, other indicators of Not-Whiteness, and if the author got them wrong you wouldn’t like it.

When does the hero's skin start to matter?

When does the hero’s skin start to matter? (Source)

This got me to wondering when it starts to matter. White kids obviously don’t notice the whiteness of characters. Do they notice not-whiteness? And what do black kids think when they read book after book about white kids? If nobody points it out, do they care that Snow White is an unusually attractive shade of pinkish beige, while they are not?

I find myself remembering an incident that shocked me when the Girl Child was at preschool. It was a Montessori preschool – in other words, featuring parents with liberal opinions about matters such as educational philosophy – in an upscale neighborhood (the Girl Child fit right in, but my battered little no-name-brand car looked pretty silly when I pulled up between the Mercs and Beemers to pick her up). Maybe 10% of the kids were black, and they all played together just fine. And then one day when I picked her up, the sweet man who tended the grounds waved goodbye to her, and she stuck her nose in the air and refused to wave back. Because he was black.

It was a long time ago and I have forgotten just how I reacted, but I remember feeling nauseated, wondering where in Hell she’d picked up that ugly piece of nasty. I remember saying, “But some of your friends are black!” and how she just rolled her eyes and told me that was “different”. They were kids. He was black. The end.

So much for the real world. What do kids see when they read story books? Could we make Jack the Giant Killer black, and not change the essence of the story? Would the result be a politically correct version of an old European fairy story? Or would it be blackface?

Anyway, this got me wondering whether I could write an ordinary adventure story or fantasy in which the hero or heroine is black, and get it right. Because a kid is just a kid, right? That’s what I want to believe … and yet … we are all so much a part of our families, our neighborhoods, our culture. From our earliest days we are immersed and soaked and pickled in the worldview, assumptions, expectations, fears, beliefs of our family and community. Even if we consciously reject everything we are taught, I don’t know that it’s possible to climb into an Other-colored skin and know how to wear it.

I lived for two years as a teacher in a poor rural South African community, where the only white people were my daughter, another woman who lived separately from us, and I. We were fully part of the community. We shared an outside toilet with our neighbors, ate the same sort of food as they did, went in and out of each other’s homes, prayed, argued, worried, grieved and celebrated together. I remain in contact with several of my former pupils. Their children call me Granny, and I wouldn’t hesitate to call on them if I needed help.

Yet I really don’t know that I could write a convincing story from inside the head of a black African kid. And I don’t understand this failure of imagination and empathy. Can I imagine being a desperately poor, or fabulously wealthy, or superpower-endowed white kid? You bet! Can I give that white kid black friends who are also fully-developed characters each with a unique voice? No problem – in fact that’s an integral part of the book I’m working on at present. Can I imagine being a black kid growing up in an ordinary black home with the spoken and unspoken everything that generations of racism means to my family, my future, who I am, how I think – can I get out of my white head and into theirs? I don’t know, but I suspect – I fear – that I could not. And I don’t know whether that is because I am lacking, or because it really isn’t possible.

And even if I did – if I were to try – what would readers think of my story? Would they assess it simply as a work of fiction – well written or not, believable or not, enjoyable or not? Or would I face the hostility due to an ignorant trespasser on sacred ground?

And, you know, thinking about all this just makes me so. Damn. Sad.

It shouldn’t matter.

It shouldn’t matter.

It shouldn’t matter.

But God help us, it does.

[UPDATE: I posted the link to this video of a white police officer sitting on a bikini-clad teenage girl to restrain her, while cursing and waving a gun at other teens. Apparently a party “got out of control” when a large group of black teens showed up in a predominantly white, upscale neighborhood. The video, taken by an observer, is out there somewhere but not where I could find it during a short search. I’m sure you get the idea, however … We’re talking about kids here, not hefty 18 and 19-year-olds, and a cop who thinks the best way to calm them down is to wave a gun. Not okay. I don’t care who did what, that’s simply poor policing.]

So now it’s your turn. What do you think? I really want to know.

Swamped

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So there I sat, in the middle of a sweet green meadow separating the off-ramp I wasn’t supposed to take from the road I wanted to be on, hubcap deep in swamp.

I did get out of my car and squish around a bit and take pictures with my cell phone, but this one from Fotolia looks more dramatic.

I did get out of my car and squish around a bit and take pictures with my cell phone, but this one from Fotolia looks more interesting. In the interests of accuracy, I should mention that I don’t drive a 4×4. Also, I had the good common sense not to get the mud quite this churned up.

If this had happened in my hometown, within minutes pickups would have clustered like flies, disgorging big-bellied guys with beards and NRA caps (or, possibly, their equally capable wimmin), and they’d have guffawed a bit and called me ma’am and hooked up chains and popped me out of there in no time. Of course, in my hometown on the dry east side of Washington State, we don’t have swamps lying around sneakily concealed under a layer of green. Here, if you need to pop across a highway median, you glance quickly around to check for inconvenient Highway Patrol officers and then you bebop across with a quick swing of the steering wheel, no problem.

I was not in my hometown. I was in Seattle. Well, Bellevue, if you can tell the difference. There are no pickups there, and nobody belongs to the NRA, and they don’t interrupt their commute to engage with beswamped and baffled strangers. I know this with no shadow of doubt because I sat in that field for nearly an hour, surrounded on all sides by rush hour traffic, so I had ample opportunity to ponder the differences between there and here.

Someone must eventually have called 911 – which it hadn’t occurred to me to do, because I was busy calling my few west-side friends in hopes of finding just one with a truck and/or manly man readily at hand, or at least a useful suggestion as regards a towing company. (These calls took a while because of all the laughing.) At any rate, a state patrol car pulled up and a sweet boy wearing a strangely flat, broad-brimmed hat ambled squishily across the swamp to ask me if I was okay. He seemed to be under the impression that I had collided with something and sailed violently off the road. (Folk in Seattle don’t have enough to occupy their imaginations during rush hour, apparently.) I had to explain that no, I had merely been attempting unobtrusively to sidestep an inconvenient traffic rule having to do with staying on the road.

“So you’re not hurt?” he said.

“Only my dignity,” I replied glumly. He thanked me for my honesty, took my license and registration, and squished back to his car.

I wondered whether telling the cop I was on an errand of mercy would make him more sympathetic. (There was a hound puppy in my back seat. The puppy had a broken leg. His owners had opted to have him euthanized rather than pay for surgery. The vet, who objects to killing healthy young dogs, had called me to ask if I knew who might help her find an alternative, and I’d found a rescue willing and able to save both the puppy and his leg … on the liberal, moneyed side of the state. Of course, it followed naturally that I got to drive the puppy to safety…)

The pathetic yodeler, whose relentless wailing was a big reason why I absolutely could not consider going back and around and in any way prolonging the trip.

The pathetic yodeler who was the cause of all the trouble.

I wondered whether it would be more effective to engage the patrolman’s sympathies for me, a woman old enough to be his beloved mother, lost and bewildered in foreign climes. (At the end of a long drive, heading straight into the setting sun, I’d had to go through all four loops of a cloverleaf interchange. Over and over again, my GPS told me to “take the right ramp”, and I obeyed until dizzy right up to the point that she told me to keep straight and I didn’t and I found myself headed back toward Spokane, and I just couldn’t stand the thought of driving back to the next interchange and turning round and returning along the packed highway and through the loops of the interchange and probably missing my turnoff all over again.)

The puppy, who had been singing his hound dog lament on and off since about the time we crossed the Cascades, started another aria. I wondered what the cop would do if I leaped from the car, tore off all my clothes, and ripped off the puppy’s head with my teeth, before plunging into the swamp and disappearing in a swirl of greasy bubbles. While I was still considering this option, he returned.

“I’ve called a tow truck,” he informed me.

“Are you going to fine me?” I asked, with a demeaningly pathetic quaver in my little-old-lady-puppy-saver voice. (Heck, yeah, I’ll demean myself to avoid another black mark on my car insurance!)

He chuckled kindly. “I think the cost of the tow will be penalty enough,” he said.

He was right.

I did think about a few other things while I was sitting there, in the blazing late afternoon sun, breathing swamp gas and traffic fumes and waiting for a tow truck while a hurting hound puppy made music behind my head. For example, I wondered what it said about my claims to feminism that the first thought to come to mind, after my car oozed to a stop, was, “Oh bugger … Himself is too far to call. Who’s going to rescue me now?”

And later, after sun and swamp gas had softened my brain a bit, I got to wondering how different my situation might be if, say, I’d been a buff young black man, instead of a fat useta-be-middle-aged white woman. If I’d been a muscular young man engaged in hauling that car out of the swamp by sheer brute force and testosterone at the time the state patrolman pulled up, I might have reacted a little differently to questioning by a slightly-built youth in a cute hat. And if, in addition to being muscular, young and male, I’d also been black, would that sweet boy in his hat have felt sufficiently threatened to shoot me?

Mostly, though, I thought about how completely screwed I will be in the event of a zombie apocalypse. Really, I’ll be meat in no time at all.

Probably not me.

Probably not me.

Is it just me, or do you also ponder strange and random things when sitting in the middle of a swamp? Have you ever been embarrassed by a sloppy failure to break the law?

Kill first, ask questions later: Ferguson protests explained 140 characters at a time

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Yes, I know this is my second repost in a week, and I apologize. But … there is so much here that I want to share. Not the post itself – although that is hard-hitting, as most are on Deborah’s blog – but the links. Please, guys, take a look at the links.

Here’s the thing about Ferguson – one of the many things, as I see it – and the same thing applies to many of the other cases cited in the links: We allow ourselves to be side-tracked. We hear that police shot an unarmed (black) person, and we think “That’s terrible.” Five minutes later we hear that he had a criminal history, or was running away, or was resisting arrest, or was being black in the vicinity of a crime … and we think, “Well, the cops are only human. It sucks, but mistakes happen.”

This is the same thinking that shrugs off the deaths of a busload or a building or a school full of unarmed civilians as “collateral damage”. It’s thinking governed by the idea that the victim was not “one of us” and therefore their death matters less.

It does not matter less. They Do Not Matter Less Than You Do.

It is not okay that communities are setting inadequately trained, ill-prepared armed men loose on civilians in the name of service and protection. (Note: I’m giving the cops the benefit of the doubt here. I’m assuming that they’re not bullies with shiny buttons, but rather that they simply don’t know how to handle conflict effectively, they’re scared, and they panic.)

And then they get away with it, because grand juries refuse to indict. Again and again and again, grand juries shut down due process and refuse to let the legal system of this country do its job.

I don’t know what the solution is. I don’t have any plans to take to the streets in protest myself, any time soon. But I do know this is wrong. And it needs to stop.

The Monster in Your Closet

Many people seem to think in 140- (or fewer) character bites these days.

It’s hard to break complex news into 140-character bursts. Much is lost. But I’ll try. I want people to understand. Lives count on it.

Michael Brown and Ferguson are about more than Michael Brown or Ferguson. They are about every black man in every town in the United States.

Months of protesting have followed Michael Brown’s death. But why? He was a “thug.”

Beside, a grand jury found his killer innocent? Strange, since grand juries decide whether charges should be brought, not give verdicts.

Much was terribly wrong with this peculiar grand jury. Prosecutor McCulloch counted on the public not caring about the differences.

McCulloch seems to have counted correctly.

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