In 1993 I was in 5th grade. No one in my circle was talking about racial injustice. No one at my school, or in my home, or any of my friends. I grew up thinking racism ended with slavery and civil rights. I thought it a relic of the past. The beating of Rodney King was “of course” an isolated incidence by “bad apples” (People only talked about it because it too was caught on camera).
I was attending a newly constructed school in Everett, WA. Towards the end of the year during a game of playground basketball, I found myself disagreeing with a black boy named Ozzy about a foul. We were yelling at each other and attracted the attention of other children hoping to see a fight. I remember internalizing a different type of threat than had I been arguing with a white child. I thought he was acting too aggressive for the circumstance. I thought he really wanted to hurt me.
Eventually teachers got involved and stopped any actual “harm,” and we were taken to the principal’s office. But I spoke their white language…I used their white idioms, Ozzy did not. Ozzy was suspended, I was not. A few months later I was honored as the single most outstanding male at the entire school. Ozzy and I had two very different experiences with authorities after the same conflict.
Looking back on the event, neither one of us did anything more than the other. He yelled, I yelled, I pushed, he pushed, and yet he was suspended and labeled an aggressive person while I was given an award. The only difference was the color of our skin.
For years I didn’t think there was any problem with what happened. That was just the way it was. Because I felt he was the aggressor, I thought justice was served. I rationalized it to my young self. What I didn’t know or understand was all the psychological mechanism that were working internally to keep me from seeing truthfully.
Loads of research, including my own, dating from the 60’s to today, suggest Americans stereotype black men as more violent, aggressive, and disrespectful. One such study demonstrated simply being shown a picture of a black man before guessing pixilated objects, causes us to more quickly and accurately guess objects equated with violence like guns, and knives, but has no effect on benign objects like carpentry tools or cups.
I never thought twice, never really focused on that fight with Ozzy and the two very different outcomes until I started educating myself about race and systemic issues in the US. I researched more in college and later performed my master’s thesis, “Implicit Bias Measures in the Real World”. I think of implicit bias with regard to race as acting favorable to one skin tone while being suspect of another, all the while unaware of doing so. We all do this to some degree and that is why we have to intentionally address it so that we can find a way through. Whether it’s a woman clutching her purse while passing a group of black men or a store clerk watching a black customer a little more closely, it happens all the time.
Even as I write this I remember working for a shoe store in high-school and the many times my manager would tell me to “watch’ certain customers the minute they walked in the store. These customers were exclusively young black men.
From a birds-eye view Ozzy and I were just two boys yelling over a call (something I did a lot of while participating in athletics as a child and young adult). Our actions mirrored the other, yet the system in place to protect us, prioritized my well being over his. It assumed he was at fault. To the school system it was “self-evident” that the boy of color was a danger to me. Any system like this one is broken and in need of healing.
As I learn more about systems that benefit, or at least don’t hinder me, but slow people of color advancing, it is made clear to me that my interactions with the police and other authorities is not the only reality. They are simply my reality. My siblings of color have had different experiences from birth.
Now before going further, you might be thinking, “Well, I worked hard for what I have.” I am not trying to discount your hard work. But I am asking you to open your eyes to the extra hurdles that people of color may have in their path.
People have a hard time seeing a system that isn’t broken. From a white perspective our system is working out alright. The very fact that it is working for us makes it even harder to notice its flaws. Think about the interstate highway system. Anybody driving on perfectly paved roads at 65mph, easily exiting and entering doesn’t notice everything it takes to make that system work. It is taken for granted. It isn’t until we are stopped by terrible traffic or road construction that we see it and take notice of the interstate system and become frustrated that it isn’t doing what it is supposed to be doing.
America’s capitalistic system mostly awards momentum, having money creates more opportunities to make money and being poor is really expensive. So, being stuck in traffic at any point in history can cause a huge deficit in the present. People of color have been stuck in traffic for generations while many of us drove on by in the express lanes without having to slow. Today’s generation of black men and women are the children of those who were stuck in traffic by redlining and mass incarceration, who came from parents who were stuck in traffic by Jim Crow, who came from parents who were stuck in traffic dealing with segregation, who came from parents who were stuck in traffic as property of white families with proud names.
My reality is not your reality is not their reality. Take the time to listen.