The internet has been abuzz with comments–some of them quite hateful–since the grand jury’s decision not to indict Ferguson, Missouri Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of unarmed teenager, Michael Brown. As a lawyer who has many times seen the mainstream news media report only the aspects of the stories than sensationalize them and incite heated arguments, I haven’t gathered enough of the facts to understand if the grand jury’s decision was based on the evidence or racial bias. I probably will never “know,” since I was not one of the jurors and can’t fully understand the process each one employed. Regardless, my heart aches for the people who see themselves in Michael Brown and his family. When they’ve asked what to tell their non-caucasian sons, I’ve written:
Tell them that, unfortunately, they have a heightened responsibility to abide by laws and that even the most minor misstep (e.g., walking in the street instead of on the sidewalk) can put their lives in danger. It’s not fair, but being angry without any direction and safe action to express that anger can be deadly. Tell them that they will be able to make the rules someday and to focus their energies on fighting the system from within. Remind them that most people, regardless of race or any other distinction, are good. Yet educate them about the prejudices that still exist against people who are dark-skinned, dress too differently (from hoodies and baggy pants to headscarves, white tank tops, revealing dresses, and tattoos), or look poor and “like trouble” (whatever that means). Encourage their self-expression, but teach them that everything comes with price tags. They must choose their battles carefully, especially with people in positions of authority who could cause great harm. Introduce them to all of the healthy outlets for anger (e.g., sports, education, community service, art, discussion), and do not let them give up on our vision for a unified world.
As a woman, I can relate–to some degree–to the heightened responsibility specific groups have. I have been counseled since I was a young girl how not to behave, dress or otherwise appear like a slut. (I was raped anyway.) I have also been taught how not to look and sound too much like the poor girl from Kentucky–a state that remains the butt of many jokes. Maybe I look too “redneck” and shouldn’t actually do the yard work at my mom’s that actually reddens the skin on the back of my neck. Yet it was because I was dressed like a professional white woman that I was shoved, then surrounded by teenagers on a subway train a few years ago while they rapped about the white bitch and described her wearing the exact outfit I was wearing. On January 19th of this year, I was violently restrained, thrown to the concrete and restrained again by a young man who probably thought I was a good target because I was white and therefore presumably rich. Plus, I was asking for it because I broke the societal rule against females walking home by themselves at night in well-lighted, highly-populated areas. Are you as confused about the rules as I am?
STEP ONE: DEFINE THE CONFLICT. Many of us disagree with societal (and sometimes legal) rules that give us heightened responsibility for ourselves and our safety.
STEP TWO: IDENTIFY THE INTERESTS. We want to have the same rules apply to us as are applied to the privileged people who make and enforce the rules. We think the privileged should be more willing to share their wealth and power. We believe there’s some limited supply of wealth and power that “they” are hoarding. (We forget that we have wealth, power and privilege in areas others do not.) We expected to follow others’ rules and win their game. We wish they would play fairly. We have to develop a new game with rules that allow us to win, at least half of the time.
STEP THREE: PLAY WITH THE POSSIBILITIES. If I could have this conflict resolve in any way possible, every human being would see his or her value and use his or her personal power to play a team game in which the win statistics keep balancing out, not because others let the “weaker” players win, but because every player continues to improve skills in love, trust and conflict resolution. “On the court,” this looks like people of all races, religions, and genders or gender identities passing the ball, taking shots and scoring big, with only the occasional, unintentional foul that resets the game. We all play hard for unity. When we “lose,” we review the films, practice new plays and focus on the next win. Let’s focus on the next win, despite our heartbreak now.
STEP FOUR: CREATE THE FUTURE. To have this vision appear more clearly and permanently in my life, I have to accept my heightened responsibility and be aware of the realities we still face in our game of unity. I have to be courageous, compassionate and patient. I have to regularly be among people who don’t look, act or think like I do. I have to engage in conversation and activities with them.
- I will continue my training at Landmark Worldwide, where I get to be with people from all over the world and a variety of socioeconomic, racial, religious, educational, and cultural backgrounds.
- I will vote in every election, and I will ensure I have done the research to be an educated voter who chooses representatives based on expected effectiveness, not membership in the right club.
- I will speak out against injustices, using my blogs, Facebook page, Twitter feed, LinkedIn profile, and letters to my so-called representatives (who also have heightened responsibilities that they agreed to honor).
- I will not allow the actions of a few cloud my views of everyone else in any group, real or perceived.
- I will try not too look too slutty, too Kentucky or too white when I am traveling alone, and I will be alert for attacks. Just in case.