I spent this past weekend at a lovely retreat center in Dittmer, MO, out of range of cell phone towers or wifi connections.
On Monday, as I began my slow transition back to the real world, news of two sad events reached me.
First, I learned that a young black man – or a boy, depending on how you look at it, as he was 18 – had been killed by a police officer in Ferguson, MO. Reports differ, but the facts that seem uncontroverted are that Michael Brown was unarmed and was shot 8 times, his body left in the street for more than 4 hours.
A short time later, I heard about the death of Robin Williams.
In a strange way, these events are somewhat linked for me, tied up in my first conscious realization of my own privilege.
While I came of age in the Mork and Mindy era, when I think of Robin Williams, my mind always goes first to his portrayal of Professor John Keating in Dead Poets Society. I loved that movie. I was inspired by it. I still cry at the final scene, when Ethan Hawke’s feet appear on his desk, his voice calling out, “O Captain, My Captain.”
My first job out of college was at a children’s home for minors, the majority of whom were in state custody, sometimes due to their own behavioral issues, but more likely because their parents were incarcerated, or struggling with addiction, or unwilling to remove an abusive person – sometimes the child’s other parent, sometimes not – from the home to ensure the child’s safety.
I was the typical young, idealistic, wildly naive white person going into this job. I was going to inspire these kids. I would be part Michelle Peiffer in Dangerous Minds, part Whoopi in Sister Act II, but mostly Mr. Keating.
What better way to accomplish this goal than to let the kids watch the movie that had inspired me?
One movie night, I popped a bunch of popcorn, bought the girls sodas with my own money, and we settled in to watch the movie. I pictured my young charges jumping up when it was over to do their homework, or going to school and signing up to be in a play or on a sports team.
I gravely misjudged the situation.
Almost immediately, one of the more outspoken young women was rolling her eyes and making it clear she wasn’t buying any of what the movie had to say. I finally hit pause after the scene where he has his students look at the pictures of young men who’ve come before them – young men who, by the time of the movie, are “fertilizing daffodils.”
It’s the part where he whispers to them, “Carpe… Carpe…. Carpe diem. Seize the day boys! Make your lives extraordinary.”
I asked her what was going on, and she said something to the effect of, “Shit, Miss Melanie! We don’t have time to be worrying about any ‘carpe diem.’ We have to worry where we’re going to live when we get out of here. How are we going to eat? We’re too busy trying to survive to worry about living.”
The other girls echoed their sentiments.
I didn’t say much. I didn’t know what to say. But I took that experience to heart.
I often wonder what that young woman, whose name and face I still remember like we had that conversation yesterday, would say to me about events that happen in the world which are rooted in race and class.
I thought about that last night as I read through my Facebook feed, finding mostly posts of outrage and sadness over the loss of such a young man. But mixed in were the posts asking why people have to make everything about race, why don’t people give the police the benefit of the doubt.
I can’t ask that young woman, by now in her thirties, what she would say to these people. But I suspect she’d tell them that if you’re white, you can’t know what it’s like to be policed by an armed force of people who view you as a threat merely by the color of your skin. I guess she’d explain that only a black person, and even more so a black man, can understand what it’s like to live in the shadow of Rodney King, and Trayvon Martin, and all these other men who were killed by police or those acting like the police, most of whom were never charged, and even in the rare case when they were convicted, never spent any time in jail.
It seems to me that if you live in a town that’s 67% black, but the police force is 94% white, any interaction between the police and the citizenry is going to have a racial component.
I know people who like to say we live in a post-racial world, that after years of affirmative action and anti-discrimination laws, race no longer matters. After all, we elected a black President, didn’t we?
Guess what color skin the people who say this tend to have?
The bottom line is that I can’t know what it’s like to live in fear of the police. I don’t especially trust the police – anyone who comes out of law school and doesn’t realize how often the police lie just isn’t paying attention. But I don’t worry that they’re going to kill me simply because I happen to be in a certain place at a certain time. Until I can understand what that justifiable fear feels like, I think it’s best that when an unarmed black teenager is killed by the police, I simply sit back and listen to those who live that fear every day.
Edited to add that this doesn’t mean those of us who are white shouldn’t take action in response to such situations. We just need to let others take the lead and not question their experiences.