Would I still have been safe?

Oh hey my American friend. I wake up to the same headlines you do. I grew up on the same stories you did. I’ve learned roughly the same stuff as you about threats and expectations and stereotypes and all that jazz. You and I both have a general idea of what it means to live in America.

And it’s the spoken or unspoken reality of what you and I have learned and heard and seen and come to expect from our experience living in America that informed this experience I recently had:

I got home from work, threw on joggers and a hoodie, and headed outside for a run.

Police vehicles were everywhere. Silently combing the neighborhood.

I kept walking right by them. After a bit, I waved one of them down.

“Hey, is everything okay?”

“Shots were fired. If you see anything, let us know.”

I want to share the 140-decibel-loud thought I had as I walked by the searching police officers: I’m safe, because I don’t look the part. I look like a people-pleasing white guy who smiles just the right amount and who is used to being respected. I wonder what would happen if I were a Black man living next door who just wanted to go out for a run after work that night?

Maybe nothing would have happened. Or maybe I would have been yet another story in a long line of stories that have been written by an America that grew up on the same headlines and stories and expectations and prejudices that you and I did.

Or even if not a story that made the news, at least confronted and traumatized a bit, probably not for the first time.

America’s past hides propaganda and movies and stories and labels and accusations that painted a picture for us of “the dangerous Black man.” It’s what America grew up on: From D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation to the Central Park Five.

I’m not saying you still believe the stereotype. Or that every police officer does.

What I am saying is: That evening was a loud reminder that America’s racist past does still consciously or subconsciously inform our expectations and reactions and prejudices and fears.

In that moment walking down the street past all the police SUVs on the hunt for someone suspicious, I knew as a middle-class-looking-white-guy I’d be safe. And I knew it because I’ve been reading the same headlines you have for years. People who look like me don’t tend to get stopped by the police. Or shot.

Nobody assumes or worries I’m a bad guy.

My white American skin made me feel safer.

So if you grew up as conservatively convinced as I did that all this “racism” stuff is a thing of the past, now blown out of proportion–can you honestly say your white skin doesn’t make you feel safer?

And if it does, how the hell did we get here?

And what is your part in making this country safer for people who don’t look like you?

Comfortable-to-Anti-Racist ratio

A lot of well-meaning Americans are scratching their heads and, their feelings a little hurt, saying “Hey wait, I’m not a racist!”

And it’s true. Most Americans aren’t white supremacists. Most Americans think that being Black is as exactly, beautifully, perfectly human as being white.

Sure, lots of us non-racists accidentally have some subconscious biases built into us and generally expect more mischief from Black people (and yes, that needs to be addressed). But if you asked us what we thought, we’d say “Of COURSE Black lives matter, JUST as much as white! We’re all just humans! Racism is terrible!”

The vast majority of white Americans would never see a jogging Black man, arbitrarily assume he must be that criminal they heard about, grab their shotguns, chase him down, and murder him when he tried to get away, throwing racial slurs at his dead body.

The vast majority of white Americans would never kneel for 8 minutes and 46 seconds on a Black man’s neck and listen to him beg for his breath, for his mama, and for his life while he slowly dies.

So why does America still have a racism problem?

Well maybe we’re looking at the wrong ratio.

For racists to get away with their behavior and continue their racism, they don’t need there to be more racists than non-racists. They just need there to be more people who are too uncomfortable facing the realities of racism than people who are willing to actively challenge and oppose racism.

Bullies don’t need everyone to be bullies. They just need everyone to be too uncomfortable to stand up to their bullying.

Abusers don’t need everyone to join in the abuse. They just need everyone to be too uncomfortable to call them out.

Oppressors don’t need everyone to carry out similarly oppressive acts. They just need everyone to be too uncomfortable stepping in to defend the oppressed.

The ratio that keeps racism alive is not racist-to-non-racist.

It’s comfortable-to-anti-racist.

As long as the vast majority are too uncomfortable with facing racism to actively stand up to it and choose to comfortably look away instead, racism will continue on alive and well.

As long as most people choose to stay comfortable, America’s racism problem is here to stay.

So if hearing “Black Lives Matter” makes you feel uncomfortable, because you’re “not a racist,” “of course black lives matter,” and “this shouldn’t be a race issue”–welcome to the fight. You’re uncomfortable because American racism is uncomfortable. So stay uncomfortable and help us get to the bottom of why Black Americans feel like they don’t matter.

Uncomfortable is good. Uncomfortable is the only chance we have to fix our racism problem.

Don’t just be comfortably “not a racist.”

Get uncomfortably anti-racist.

MLK - silent about things that matter