By My Silence…

This is an apology. It’s an apology to all black people. I’m apologizing because I’m sorry and embarrassed about some of my past behaviors.

I never considered myself racist. I’ve never picked my friends based on the color of their skin. I have always had friends from every race and ethnicity. Being a military brat virtually ensured this. I have stood up for people in all kinds of minority classes, as a child, as an adult, and as an attorney.

I thought that was enough.

I am a police supporter. My father is a retired military police officer. My first serious relationship was with someone who became a police officer while we were dating, and I spent a year and a half raising his child with him. I married a police officer and had a child with him, who I’m raising right in the middle of all of this mess. (Later divorced, but that’s a different story.) I still have many friends and people I care about in law enforcement. Photos like this one bring me to tears every time.

Until now, I’ve spent the majority of the last decade responding to every incident of police brutality (or perceived police brutality) jumping to the defense of police. I understand that side of it. I understand the split second decisions they have to make, and I understand that they don’t have time to even process whether or not to make a racist decision most of the time.

What I was missing is that it was never about any specific black person or police officer. It was about racism. And on that issue, I am no expert. Racism is dangerous across the board. But what makes it more dangerous in a police officer is the assumption of innocence on the part of the law enforcement officer, and the license to use force that would otherwise not be legal, and to not have to answer for it until later, if ever. I actually saw a police officer asking why people filming didn’t intervene. 🤯 Seriously!? As if he thought people could’ve intervened without being killed themselves, being arrested, and probably convicted of violence against a police officer. If they did what they did to a suspect, what would they do to a civilian trying to pull them off of the suspect? And then the police would have looked justified in what they did to Mr. Floyd.

I didn’t understand it was less about blaming law-enforcement, and more about seeing racism. Until now. Seeing four…not just one… but FOUR police officers kneeling on a handcuffed man’s neck until he stopped breathing for almost 9 entire minutes was my breaking point.

Then two things happened. First, someone posted a video that showed Jane Elliot asking a question that “left a [white] audience speechless.” She asked how many people in a room would trade places with somebody who was black. She asked the question twice, and nobody raised their hand. Then she pointed out that nobody wanted to live life the way black people live their lives because we can see that it isn’t good or right, yet we allow other people to be treated that way. Why!? That is one of the most profound questions I have ever heard.

Then, someone who is responsible for a lot of good in the world posted in a group I belong to, and believe wholeheartedly in, a “listening.” She asked for people of color to say what they wanted to say, and said, “We are listening.” Another friend posted a similar sentiment on her page to simply hold space for people to post what they felt and took it a step further by asking white people to not comment. She asked people to take a look at themselves if that made them uncomfortable, and question why that is.

That was the moment. That’s when I got it. It’s the shutting up. That’s the part I wasn’t getting right. It’s not about a conversation, or a debate, or a winner. Its not about being right or wrong. It’s about acknowledgment. It’s about letting people share their experience and not questioning it. Because it is their experience, and nobody has the right to question someone else’s experience. And they want to be heard. So my job is to shut up and listen. With no agenda, no reply, no opposing viewpoint, no alternate hypotheticals, no rationalizations… Nothing except acknowledging and validating their experience, and being willing to stand up for them and with them UNTIL IT STOPS.

It was never about who was wrong or right.

So there are some things I need to change. Maybe some of them are things you want to think about as well. Maybe you’re shaking your head at me and saying, “Well, it’s about time!” I am sorry. I’m sorry it took me this long. These are only three of the most important things I know I have done wrong, and which I will change.

  • Saying “All lives matter.” I was coming from a place of supporting law enforcement officers who had been killed. Meaning both of the ridiculously sad and unnecessary killings matter. But again, the issue here is racism. That’s why I never understood why my comment was offensive. As I saw someone explain, to say “all lives matter” would mean that black lives are included, which would mean there was no issue to begin with. A better analogy was that it’s like saying that all houses should be sprayed with water because one is on fire, rather than spraying the houses that are on fire. The issue is racism. “Black lives matter” does not mean “ONLY black lives matter.” It means black ones SHOULD matter AS MUCH as all the rest. I get it now.
  • Responding that there are “good police.” We know this. That doesn’t excuse the bad ones! Until bad ones are held accountable as often as they should be, how are people supposed to feel safe around them? Unfortunately, the bad ones make it worse for the good ones. This is why the good ones need to work harder from THEIR positions, to eliminate corruption. Good police mean nothing if they aren’t there when the bad ones kill innocent people, or they don’t feel confident and secure enough to intervene and know they will be supported by their agencies. Responding to a specific injustice by saying “there are good police,” is almost invalidating that the injustice took place. If someone says their parent died, you don’t reply by saying, “Well, not all parents died.” How would that help?!
  • Replying at all. This is an issue for me in general. Feeling like I have to respond to everything. I don’t. Or at least I don’t have to rationalize it. Sometimes I just need to acknowledge that something exists, and just sit with it. Sit with a person who is hurting, and just support them. Even if I have an opinion or a response. When someone is discussing these sensitive issues, they are seeking support and validation. You can’t listen if you’re busy formulating your “response” (argument).

The last of these points was clarified for me in part of another article that discussed “private policing.” I had never even considered this concept prior to reading it last week. The problem is when white people correct, critique, compare, advise, or otherwise take it upon themselves to offer some kind of “instruction” to black people much more often than they do white people. The fact that I didn’t even know this was a thing makes it likely I have done this without knowing, as I do believe much of racism comes in the form of subconscious bias.

“Private policing.” Are you guilty of this?

One of the issues I am the most passionate about, probably due to being an attorney, is sentencing disparity. Studies repeatedly show that black people are convicted and sentenced at much higher rates than white people for the exact same crimes. I do not think people sit in jury deliberation rooms and decide someone is guilty or not guilty because they are black or white. However, when they are undecided and they decide to just trust their gut, I think most people don’t realize that their gut is biased.

Another friend recently posted a study done by Harvard that I have often referred to as well, which allows people to learn about their own hidden bias. Take the test and find out how you score. Read about hidden bias and then select “race” from the list. (You can also test for hidden bias when it comes to gender, age, sexual orientation, etc. Bias and bigotry comes in all shapes and sizes.)

I am grateful to everyone who has tolerated me for all of the years it has taken me to finally “get it.” I am especially grateful to my black friends who have so graciously excused or understood my behavior and that it wasn’t intentional, but rather a lack of understanding. There is always room for growth and learning. I’m grateful for such an important lesson in life, for learning it in time to help me parent better, and for having time left in my life to make changes and hopefully become a true ally.

I’ll close with the link and lyrics to a song that truly represents the current times, and how critical it is that we stand with each other.

By My Silence © 2008 writen by Ellen Bukstel & Nick Annis