Saturday, June 6, 2020

A Camera Is a Shield

I was recorded in public by a black person a few months ago after a near-accident in a parking lot. (I misjudged the timing of an oncoming car as I turned left into a parking spot, and we narrowly missed each other. She confronted me as I got out of my car, and I defensively disengaged and fled to the store bathroom when she started recording me.) I worked through it privately with friends and struggled with whether or not to say anything publicly. At the time, I decided there wasn't any benefit

The situation involving Amy Cooper and her off-leash dog, threatening Christian Cooper (no relation) in Central Park with the police when he simply asked her to leash her dog has changed my perspective on sharing this reflection.

White people, we have to get used to the notion that when a Black person pulls out a camera, it's not really about us at all. It's about preserving their own lives.

In that parking lot, I felt defensive. I worried that the video would get posted out of context and I'd be marked as racist. Much of my personal processing was related directly to that. Were my actions and reactions overtly racist or coated with microaggressions, or was it all just car safety? Why did an incident where no people or property got harmed merit recording at all?

The thing is, Black people have been subject to so much racism that no one believes happens. Even with video evidence, that racism often gets brushed off in the long run. A bit of outrage fades like a flickering candle. The habit of making recordings creates a safety net. Maybe with the camera on, the situation will resolve peacefully--and if it doesn't, at least people will know.

White people, what we need to understand is that there is a pattern of White people overreacting to even the calmest and most level-headed Black people and calling the cops over nothing. There is a pattern of cops killing Black people unprovoked.

So, that camera is the only self-defense they've got, and even with it, some of them still lose their lives.

She was angry because of the near-accident, but she wasn't safe to express her anger without a camera involved. She didn't know how I'd react if she just started off the bat with, "You almost hit my car!" She had to protect herself as she expressed herself.

It feels threatening to be recorded if you aren't prepared for it--but feeling threatened and being threatened are not the same thing.

So, how do you stop yourself from falling into fight-or-flight racism when your conversation is being recorded? Same thing you do to prepare for any potentially stressful situation: You make a plan.

Immediately after the incident, I made a plan for myself, thinking through how I'd handle being recorded in the future. I based these steps on my research, the experiences and advice I've read and heard from Black people, and my conversations with people I admire as good allies. If anything seems off, I hope they'll call me out. Because of current events, I've revisited it, restructured it, and organized it.

This plan is centered on a situation where *you* are involved in a conflict directly--which is different and distinct from intervening if you see a racist conflict and want to step in. There are some great posts regarding how to use your influence as a White lady bystander to protect lives. (See: https://www.afsc.org/bystanderintervention or https://twitter.com/FeelingFisky/status/1266938529646407680?s=20 for two examples)

1) Prepare yourself by acknowledging that you have some degree of internalized racism or implicit bias--even if you're a good person. (Want to see how much? Try this: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html.) Do some reading and research to understand where Black people are coming from. Learn why the camera isn't about you personally. The camera is about the pattern of racism in the US and the deaths of Black people at the hands of cops.

2) In the moment when the camera comes out, take a breath and try to ignore it. This is hard. Being filmed without your permission is uncomfortable. I obviously know this. The sensation that the video surfacing could "ruin your life" is terrifying. Try to recall your Step 1 research. Say a few of their names to yourself mentally. Sandra Bland. Tamir Rice. Trayvon Martin. George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Choose the names whose stories resonate with you. Make it a mantra. If you keep your cool, no one's life has to be ruined today, no names added to the list.

3) Don't call the cops, don't mention the cops, and don't involve security. Ultimately, verbal altercations aren't 911-worthy. Most scenarios that cause verbal altercations are probably not 911-worthy, either.

4) If you can, listen. There's a reason this Black person felt unsafe and began filming. They might be speaking calmly. They might be angry. Frankly, they don't have to be any kind of way. I know that sounds unfair because I'm expecting you to be calm and listen. You're going into this prepared, and you're trying to de-escalate the situation.

5) If they need you to leave for their safety, or if you feel unsafe, excuse yourself and walk away. Something has made them feel unsafe enough to start recording. If they start walking away, let them go. If your adrenaline is pumping too hard and you're afraid you're going to do something you will regret, choose flight over fight. Phone or text a friend to come pick you up. Go into a public restroom. Pull out your maps app and locate somewhere that feels safe and secure for you. Get somewhere safe to cool down.

6) Or, if you can't walk away, address the person--not the camera, and definitely not an I'm-not-racist-but defense. Give this person the benefit of the doubt, especially if they're calling you out. Center yourself on the issue at hand. If you're not sure what's going on, ask for clarification. If you think they're at fault (or you initiated the conversation because they appeared to be at fault), accept that your impact overrides your intent and apologize. If this individual is a coworker or associate, you can make a personal record of your experience and come back to it later with cooler heads. If it's a stranger, the apology hurts no one and may provide some reassurance for a stranger in pain.

7) Take time to reflect with friends you can trust to be bold and call you out if you were in the wrong. Also remember, if you aren't sure what happened, there are all kinds of great websites that might answer your questions (many written by Black people who are telling us what they want!) without you having to emotionally burden Black people in your life to do the work for you. (See also: https://sojo.net/articles/our-white-friends-desiring-be-allies?fbclid=IwAR345sf32fbkS6Rc49sfxJ7cKAn5AaXVFf8I4NS6qFgoNQv0ajwCxo_jeEo) Your Black friends are going through things. Give them space to mourn while you do your own work, be grateful to the Black friends who are willing to share, and be understanding if they aren't in a place to help you. Your reflection and your research should be something you keep privately or share only with a small group of friends. This is about improving yourself, which is a process of constant growth.

That's the plan. You keep your head. No one dies. No one accidentally unleashes racist instincts. No one's life is ruined.

Granted, there are so many difficult and tricky layers to this fear of confrontation, especially for a woman. Especially at night or in secluded areas, we also feel unsafe for good reason. We're told to ignore our gut instincts that tell us we're in danger and to be polite instead of being safe. Fears for our own safety make this an incredibly difficult juggling act.

There's a lot to unpack, but we can recognize the fear and self-defense that the camera signifies.

It's a shield, not a threat.

Panic Attack

Today, I saw my husband have a panic attack.

On our way home from the gym, we decided to check an errand off our list with a trip to the ATM. We needed to bop home for Dido's wallet, but luckily it was on the way. We were chatting when we pulled in, and so I took off my seatbelt out of habit. Dido reminded me he was just there to pick up his wallet, so I stayed in the car, and soon we were on the road again.

Scrolling down my feed, I noticed that our gym had just posted a statement. I read it aloud, and by the end, we were both teary. It was a beautiful message of support and solidarity, it was reflective and substantial, and it encouraged everyone to do the hard work of examining ourselves and our society, and concluded with a resounding Black Lives Matter. We were so profoundly proud to be a part of this fitness community.

Then, the little dingdingding! that indicates your seatbelt isn't fastened went off. Dido hurriedly reminded me to put my seatbelt on. I'd completely forgotten I had ever taken off!

"There's a cop car ahead," he said.

My first reaction was sadness - it reminded me of the way I immediately see spiders. My brain perceives them as a threat, and so whenever I enter a room, the first thing I have to do is scan for danger. If I call Dido in to kill said spider, I often have to point at it very directly because he just doesn't seem to notice them the way I do. My reaction to spiders is evolutionary but irrational; his reaction to cops is cultural but rational. What a tragedy.

We came to an intersection, and as cars peeled away, we were left at a red light right behind the massive SUV labelled Sheriff. Dido hesitated, and stopped maybe two car lengths behind the police car. "I don't know why that car is making me nervous..." he said, but his throat was tight with emotion and getting the words out was a struggle. "I don't want to get too close."

I saw him getting very anxious, even though we weren't doing anything wrong. Later he told me that his thought process went something like this: Rachel didn't have a seatbelt on, and that's a reason to pull us over. I have a phone in my hand. Texting and driving is illegal. I'm not texting, but the cop
doesn't know that.

And of course, the rest follows: We know well how a traffic stop can go bad for black men in America.

And then there's the uncertainty - are cops wary of pulling black people over these days? Or might they be going out of their way to do so? I'm sure each officer is different, but I'm also sure there are some assholes who are doing the latter.

I made the withdrawal. When I returned, Dido looked a little calmer, and we decided I should drive home. Usually, Dido drives because I drive slow, and this time, slow was good. Good thing I did, too, because on our way, either the same Sherriff's SUV or an identical one appeared. I could practically hear the Jaws theme as danger circled nearer.

The thing is that Dido is a professional mindfulness trainer. He has a masters degree in Science of Education from Johns Hopkins University, and his full-time job is teaching people the neuroscience they need to regulate their emotions, and in the moment, I did my best to encourage him to use the mindfulness tools he's taught me to help him through this panic attack. Probably because of my slow speed, the cop eventually overtook us and disappeared.

If we had been stopped, do I expect something would have gone wrong? Not really - maybe 0.01%. However, that is with me - a white lady - in the car. If my husband had been alone? My worry increases - maybe up to 1%. That's a 10% increase, which is significant, but I still feel relatively confident that if my husband got pulled over that he would come home. I understand the statistics are on his side for survival...

Here is what I think is missing from the larger discussion: Dido doesn't have to get into a confrontation with the police for this to have an affect on his mental health. Our society - through a system that allows and excuses officers who kill a disproportionate amount of black people - sends a persistent and consistent message that he is less than human. If I can do this to you, then you must be less than human. And I will get away with it because you are less than human.

Make no mistake. There are systems in police departments that make them relatively certain they will get away with it. Look at how calm the cop was as he murdered George Floyd - he knew what he was doing, and he expected to get away with it. And why wouldn't he? Just look at how many cops tend to get charged when they kill a black civilian they were supposed to be "serving and protecting."

So today, we did not have a confrontation with the police. But we did have a confrontation with anxiety. With trauma.

Today, I saw my husband have a panic attack...

Because police violence is a mental health issue.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Black History Month: Reflections and Recommendations

I’m sorry this post is delayed - February 2020 felt rather normal, but by March, the world was falling apart and the truth is that I lost a lot of my drive to write. However, with the recent incidents bringing racism into the forefront again and again and again - Central Park Karen, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd - I was brought back to the month I spent immersing myself into black literature.

I’m a big reader. In honor of Black History Month, I decided to set a goal to ten read books by black authors. I already read a lot of books exploring social justice, and I was hoping to shift that focus from just learning about racism, injustice, oppression, etc, to really exploring the experiences and stories that black writers had to tell me.

To be honest, some of it was a struggle - I noticed quickly that I, as a white woman, was not the intended audience for many of these books. In fact, I saw myself sometimes cast as the antagonist in these stories. Which forced me to reflect: how often is the case the reverse? How often do people of color see themselves portrayed as the criminal, the terrorist, the rapist, the murderer, the problem?

I appreciated the opportunity to really walk a mile in the shoes of someone with a very different experience, and I invite you to do the same with these amazing titles!

Non-Fiction


Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson


As I said, I am a reader. I devour books like a starving man at a buffet. And this book, like none I can recall before it, required me to put it down. I would sob, listening in the car on the way to school, and know my face would be blotchy in first period. I would cry cooking dinner, and know that I really did need to see through my tears so what I was chopping wasn’t a finger…

This book is a memoir of a lawyer who worked on death row in Alabama, not all that long ago. It shows the cases he lost, and the downright heroic victories he won, and the way he swam upstream for every inch of ground. This book was also made into a film recently, so if you’re not a reader, you can still appreciate the story!




Dark Sky Rising by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Tonya Bolden

This is an incredible book geared toward young adults that explores the history of the Civil War through the beginning of Jim Crow. For most of my life, I would absolutely have summarized this era as, “Slavery was bad, so we fought the civil war. The South lost, so we progressed from slavery to segregation and then eventually to civil rights around the 60s. Right?”

But no - there is so much more to the story. One day, when I was reading during SSR in class, I put the book down and asked my students when they believed the first black person was elected to congress. All their answers ranged from maybe the 70’s to the 90’s, and they were shocked to learn that no, it was 1870, during the incredible period where black people thrived that was the Reconstruction. This book makes those lost stories really accessible for young readers.

Well-Read Black Girl collected by Glory Edim



This book is a collection of essays by black, female writers, exploring the first books where they “saw” themselves and the impact this had on them as women and as artists. As an English teacher, there’s nothing more heartwarming than hearing how books were formative for young people, but I couldn’t help but ask, “If these are the books that changed lives, why are these not on my assigned reading lists?” Toni Morrison came up many times, but not the particular book that I teach (Home).

Biggest advantage: A substantial set of books to put on my list. My next is The Bluest Eye.





Eloquent Rage by Brittney Cooper

This was one of those out-of-body experiences where I  could absolutely have felt insulted or threatened by the way the author talked about white people, and especially about interracial romance. I’ve been the white girl who “stole away” an amazing black man.

However, her perspective is so well-argued, so impactful, that it was really awesome to see my marriage in a new context. This book is absolutely difficult, and might not be for white people just getting started in their social-justice reading, but if you’re comfortable with being uncomfortable, this book offers smart insights that you won’t find everywhere.




I fell in love with Coates’ writing, so I had to read both of his books. His background is in journalism, but I swear, he writes more like a poet. You will not find finer or more incisive prose.

He’s another writer whose unapologetic arguments pushed my thinking - he made me feel the extent to which I need a wider base of understanding of black intellectuals and literaries over time. He was critical of everyone from WEB DuBois, to Dr. King, to Obama, all of whom I had a limited but complementary knowledge of. He had a lot to say about Malcolm X, who I know little to nothing about. Coates sparked my curiosity, which I love - there is such a substance and richness to these leaders, but they were human, and I must acknowledge that my perception is, well, whitewashed. I have to honestly wonder: are these the civil rights’ perspectives that I was allowed to learn about for a reason? What other perspectives or voices were too controversial to make it into the curriculum I was delivered, and what might their merits have been? I can’t wait to learn more, now that the door of inquiry has been opened.

Coates also has a new novel out, The Water Dancer, that’s absolutely on my list for this summer.


Fiction

Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead


This book was historical fiction, following the saga of a pair or escaped slaves. The literal railroad featured in the book is fantastical, but not the struggles the characters face as they navigate the tenuousness that passed for “freedom.” It’s also on Oprah’s book club!

This book really made me reflect on what it might be like for even modern black people to exist in our society. We talk a big game about “liberty and justice for all,” but they know that isn’t true. Nowadays, the “Georgia” or the “slave catcher” might be metaphorical, but all the same, it’s more pervasive. “Georgia” is a traffic stop, or a phone call from a white woman. This book did a masterful job of showing the way the psyche can be on constant alert, constant surveillance, because the threat is real, and you never know when it will come for you. Powerful.


Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks


This was one of the few graphic novels I’ve read - I don’t have strong visual literacy. (I blame the

Japanese manga comics I tried as a child, and didn’t realize you’re supposed to read them backwards…)
This story followed a troop of black soldiers into WW1, chronicling their struggles to even serve their country as well as those that followed as they did. This resonated with me as I read some of The 1619 Project around the same time - it floors me to think about the service and sacrifice and bravery that these black men demonstrated, and for a country that had promised the sky and effectively delivered dirt for them. Black people have always believed in the promises of America more fervently than anyone else, and they deserve the fulfillment thereof.




Slay by Brittney Morris


It was too funny - when I finished Slay, I reached out to Steph in absolute delight because I had found such a gem! ...Only to have her remind me that she, too, had reached out in delight about this book a while ago.

You know how it is: there are too many recommendations to keep up.

Slay is a novel about a high school senior who creates an elaborate online game that is exclusive to black people. When a real-world murder occurs between players, the news gets wind of the game, and - inevitably - the ideas of “racism against white people” or “reverse racism” spring forth. This book does the important work of addressing these problematic ideas while showing black beauty, strength, and creativity in all its glory.



Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid



This novel follows a professional nanny, a black woman who looks after a white toddler. Early in the book, the family calls her at a party with an emergency: their house has been vandalized, and could she come look after the baby while the police took the report? Seeing as she was at a party - and dressed as such - this becomes a problem when she escapes with the child to a local grocery store, where her party-dress, obvious loitering, and a mismatched white baby cause a viral video.

I loved this book for it’s complicated characters and situations. It effectively shows the nuances of white liberal racism. You can equally see how the white characters mean well, but also how their thinking and behavior is problematic, and just what a mess interracial dynamics can be.


*****

As a teacher, I always want to have more diverse books in my curriculum, but it was really impactful to just decide to immerse myself - not necessarily because I’m looking for a “diverse text,” no end game in mind, but because I wanted to open my mind to see what the stories were and what I could learn from them. Lo and behold, the stories were beautiful and smart and important and, at times, heartbreaking, but I left this endeavor feeling inspired and challenged and uplifted. I hope everyone reading will choose at least one from this list - educate yourself, combat racism, and bask in the intelligence and beauty of our black authors.

Here’s an amazing link where you can go to find even more awesome reads!