Like so many of my fellow Americans, my first response to George Floyd’s death was the urge to see justice done, to see those responsible face immediate consequences. But when I studied the face of Officer Derek Chauvin as he knelt over his victim, ignoring the pleas of onlookers to spare the man’s life, it didn’t take long for a more uncomfortable response to percolate to the center of my consciousness: recognition.
Officer Chauvin faced the crowd not with fear, righteousness or even anger, but with smug confidence and the hint of a smile. Casually cocky, one hand calmly resting in his pocket, he sent the message to his audience that he had power and control, no matter how brutal he was being, and there was nothing they could do about it. His nonchalance took me back to a memory of my childhood. As a little white girl in the South of the early 1960s, I remember that look. At least once, I probably showed it myself.
It happened on a boiling hot summer day in Texas when I was about seven years old. My best friend Lou and I were in her yard, running through the sprinklers in our bathing suits, laughing and screaming as the cold, refreshing water hit our sweaty skin. At some point in our frolicking, I noticed the little black girl sitting in the backseat of a car in Lou’s driveway. The girl’s mother cleaned Lou’s house once a week, and I’d noticed her silhouette against the car’s back window before. In keeping with the unwritten but clear racial codes of the neighborhood, we’d never spoken and I didn’t know her name. We’d certainly never played together. I went to a segregated elementary school and black children were strangers to me.
On this particular sweltering day, for some reason now lost to time, the little girl drew my attention. When I thought she might be looking, I decided to show off. I jumped higher in the sprinkler, laughed harder, screamed louder, even performed a few little pirouettes as the water came down. I wanted her to see me, to watch me. Wanted her to understand that I got to play in the sprinklers while she endured crushing heat in the car because I was white and she was black. Wanted her to see that my joy and her discomfort were ordained by the natural order of things. That little girls like me didn’t have to care about little girls like her.
Today, I like to think that the memory has stayed with me, like an indelible stain, because I knew even then that something was terribly wrong with my attitude and behavior. The meanness grips me the most. I must have known that the little girl was burning up inside that car. I must have known that a kind person — the sort of person I thought I was — would have invited her to join us. I would like to imagine that I wanted to do the right thing but was held back by fear: of getting in trouble, or getting the little girl in trouble, or facing the inevitable cascade of adult condemnation. I would like to think that my heart was in the right place; I was just hampered by circumstances.
But I search my memory and have no recollection of any such feelings. The shameful truth is that I recall no desire to include that little girl in our play, only delight that I might stir her envy. I remember no concern for the searing heat she must have felt in that backseat oven, only satisfaction in my own white skin. It’s the ugly essence of racism, this flaunting of one’s perceived superiority and entitlement while ignorant, ambivalent or even gratified, about the impacts. I had learned the lesson well in the small world I lived in, and even as a kid I felt its power.
I don’t mean to equate my childhood memory with Officer Chauvin’s killing of George Floyd. But my experience of six decades ago helps me understand it. When we as individuals, communities or countries internalize the attitude that some people matter and some people don’t, we are capable of great cruelty. And we won’t show remorse or shame for that cruelty because our actions are so deeply rationalized that we don’t feel it.
Officer Chauvin’s bemused smirk shouted “so what?” more loudly than his words possibly could have. Just another black man down. But I cannot raise my voice against his inhumanity without also recognizing the times in my life when I’ve been inclined to say “so what?” too. The little black girl in the back of the car is still with me, and she will be with me for the rest my life, tapping me on the shoulder whenever I’m tempted to deny or minimize racial injustice in America. She gives me strength to confront the prejudices that surface around me: the good-natured man who uses the N-word freely, the funny fellow who shares racist memes on Facebook, the beloved relative who responded to President Barack Obama’s victory by claiming “things were fine until the coloreds took over.”
Most of all, that little girl reminds me of my complicity. White privilege resists a truthful accounting, because it has its advantages and pleasures. The little girl in me recognized this, and the adult in me seeks to acknowledge it as honestly and humbly as I can. The reality is that white Americans have benefited for centuries from a landscape of opportunity that has never been level, from a prosperity that has never been offered equally, from a legacy of supremacy that needs to end.
It is far past time for us to do the heavy lifting required to forge a more fair and just future. We must insist on laws, policies and practices that give teeth to our nation’s promise of equal justice, and work to eliminate the economic, educational and health disparities that have been devastating to communities of color. We must hold law enforcement officers accountable to the highest standards of conduct, with no wiggle room for racist behavior. We must swiftly prosecute officials who commit criminal acts, regardless of their rank or stature, and prosecutors themselves must be fully answerable for any misconduct. Politicians who deny or minimize the racial disparities that exist across our nation — or carelessly inflame them — must be voted out.
But the hardest work in the challenge before white Americans runs much deeper, and gets personal. Each of us must examine and reshape ingrained attitudes that have allowed us to assign value to our fellow citizens based on the color of their skin. Each of us must dismantle, within ourselves, insidious hierarchies that dictate who matters and who doesn’t. And each of us must stop accepting for people of color injustices of daily life that we would never accept for ourselves. Together, we must commit to transforming our very culture — a culture in which a uniformed peace officer felt sufficiently emboldened to take the life of a defenseless black man in broad daylight, on film, before a protesting crowd, with his hand in his pocket and a smile on his face.
Barbara Hood moved to Alaska from Texas a half century ago, and has worked for human rights and social justice for 40 years.
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