I have an uncle who was a cop.
His kids, my cousins, were around my age and when we visited our family in Québec every summer I practically lived at their house. As soon as we got to my grandmother’s house, all rumpled and grumpy from our eight-hour drive, I would start dialling my cousins’ number on her beige rotary phone. I spent the whole damn school year waiting for summer, and my time with my cousins, to come; we wrote each other letters all through the dreary winter, hatching plans for new summer exploits. Life with my cousins — swimming in their pool, family barbecues, playing hide-and-seek in my grandmother’s mammoth hedge at twilight — was light years better than my boring life in Ontario.
Pretty much every summer my uncle would, at some point, take us to visit the police station. He would pretend that we were criminals and take our fingerprints, maybe a pretend mugshot. He would let us explore the holding cells they had at the station; I remember being utterly fascinated by them — bare blank rooms in miniature, each with its own personal toilet and sink. One time I lingered so long that he threatened to lock me in if I didn’t come out soon. I said that was fine, and asked what the prisoners were going to have for dinner. I wasn’t afraid. I had no reason to be afraid.
Like most white people, I grew up with the idea that the cops are on my side. Over and over again, I was told that the police were here to protect me. As a little kid, I was told that if I was ever lost or in danger, the first person I should try to find was a police officer. I was taught that this is the system; I was taught that the system was here to take care of me.
What I was never taught was that the system takes care of white people like me first, and everyone else second. If at all.
I’ve been trying to figure out over the past few months how white people can be so blindly outraged over the events that have unfolded in Ferguson. It’s honestly baffling that they can argue that it’s fine for a police officer to fire six shots at an unarmed man because he maybe stole some cigars and also wasn’t walking on the sidewalk. I’m in awe at the vast mental gymnastics required to believe that there’s nothing wrong with a cop shooting an unarmed man six times in “self-defence.” The same goes for white reactions to the cases of Trayvon Martin, John Crawford III, Tamir Rice, and countless other young Black men who have been murdered for no reason. I’ve lived a privileged enough life that the white responses to these crimes still shock me; I know that for Black folks, these responses are just par for the course. I can’t even wrap my head around what it would feel like for this spew of racist hate to just be part of another average day — and that’s my privilege showing right there.
White people have been taught for their entire lives to believe in the system. The system is civilization; the system is democracy, the courts of law, the way the state cares for and supports us. We’ve been told over and over that the system is what allows us to live safely, free from fear. But every time something like Ferguson happens, we white folks see glimpses of how completely fucked the system is. And those glimpses terrify the shit out of us, because they shake the foundation of every bit of patriotic jingoism that’s been crammed down our throats since day one.
A popular belief among progressive white people is that the system is broken, but it’s absolutely not. It was built this way; it was built to prioritize the safety and security of white people over everyone else. The way the system works is by oppressing Black people and other people of colour. As Ta-Nehisi Coates said at a recent talk that I attended, “the machine is running as intended.” The very foundations of the American economy are based on the enslavement of Black people. Throughout American (and Canadian) history, there are so many examples of state-sponsored marginalization and oppression of people of colour. These examples continue today — just look at the overrepresentation of Black men in prisons. This is the fucking system — this is how it is meant to run. We don’t need to “fix” the system, because it’s operating exactly the way it should be. What we need is to completely overthrow it and start again from scratch.
I have friends who have Black sons, and today, as they struggle through grief and pain and fear, they are trying to figure out how to make sure that their son isn’t the next Mike Brown or Trayon Martin. They want to know what they have to tell their kids in order to keep them safe. I wish I had some kind of answer for them, but of course I don’t — both because I’m white and this is so far outside of my realm of personal experience that I am absolutely not in a place to give advice, and also because there are no answers. The only way to ensure these boys’ safety would be for them to be white — and that’s both an impossible and terrible response. There is nothing about this situation that doesn’t feel impossible and terrible — and, again, that’s me as a white person saying that, and I can’t even imagine the depth of horror Black communities are experiencing right now.
We — and by “we”, I mean white people who want to be allies — need to take action. We need to de-centre ourselves, and start promoting Black voices. We need to, in the parlance of social justice circles, take a fucking seat. We need to take a whole goddamn chair factory’s worth of seats. We need to listen, and then we need to turn around and share what we’ve learned with other white people. We need to let Black people lead, and we need to learn to be good followers. We created this broken system, and now we need to humbly help build a better, fairer system.
Because maybe even right now my friend is sitting her three year old son down and telling him that he can’t always trust the police. And that is both incredibly fucked up and also exactly how this machine was designed to run.
Below are some excellent pieces by Black writers. If you are white, please take some time to go through it and educate yourself. That is our job right now. If you have any other articles (or blog posts, or videos, or whatever) by Black writers or activists, please share the links in the comments and I will include them in this list.