Most writers are familiar with the concept of POINT OF VIEW and how dramatically different a scene can be when experienced through different characters’ eyes. Now, in the real life story of Ferguson, point of view has come to life.
Over the past few months, I’ve started and stopped this blog post at least four times, trying to organize my thoughts about the events of Ferguson. Up to now, those thoughts have been too frenetic. Also, I admit to a little fear about offending people.
So, I let the post sit, and almost forgot about it as I thought everything would settle down and the events of Ferguson would fade into the backs of our minds, as it did with Trayvon Martin.
But it hasn’t gone away. In fact, reaction from people of all races has spread across the nation, around the world.
Yesterday morning, I caught the tail end of a conversation with Nicholas Kristof on CNN. He said something that reminded me of what I’d been trying to write in this post when Michael Brown was first shot. I’ll paraphrase:
White people are raised to believe that police are good, that they are there to help. Black people are raised to distrust and fear police.
This was the very premise of what I first began to write after reading comments on Facebook written by my friends Donna and Michele, and it revolves around POINT OF VIEW.
Hearing Kristof speak drew me to Google to find more information about what he’d said. I found the following New York Times articles that inspired me to finally finish this post:
These articles are some of the most thought-provoking I’ve read, though the titles may be a little off-putting to the very people who should read them. I think “not getting it” falls on both sides of the fence, and therein lies the problem:
We don’t see the problem of racism through each other’s eyes.
I’m both fascinated and saddened by our lack of empathy for “the other side,” not only with issues of racism, but also with politics, religion, money–just about anything upon which we may disagree.
Our inability to see through another’s eyes is one of the themes of my historical fiction, The Red Kimono. It’s why I wrote the “inciting incident”–Papa getting beaten up in the park–in the point of view of both Terrence and Sachi. They each saw the events that took place in the park completely differently.
So, I’d like to show you the point of view of “the other side”–two black mothers who are friends of mine. I grew up living across the street from Donna. Her little sister, Nina, was the inspiration for my character, Jubie. Michele is one of my Facebook friends. I’m grateful for their (brave) honesty in opening a dialogue about racism and prejudice. Maybe if we made a habit of talking about it, rather than only talking about it when our emotions run hot and high over something bad that happened, we might close the gap of misunderstanding.
Donna and Michele also helped me with a previous blog post titled, The Help, a Multicultural Perspective. In a time when so many of us are too easily offended and so many of us (including me) are afraid to offend, I’m grateful for people like Donna and Michele and their social media “followers” who open up and welcome dialogue about race and prejudice. It helps us to see through another’s eyes, and I believe that’s the only way we’ll ever move beyond the issues of racism.
Here’s what Michele said on Facebook shortly after Michael Brown was shot:
Several thoughts ran through my mind but the biggest one was: I wonder if she knows about ‘THE TALK’… you know, the talk that all parents of black boys have to give: how not to get shot and killed by the police. I wonder if she understands the nuances he will face as a black male in the U.S. and how will they prepare him for how differently he will notice he’s treated versus how his own parents, who are white, are treated. I wonder… those just were thoughts that went through my mind. And I’m saddened that i even had those thoughts to begin with. RACISM is REAL… and it is POISON.
Here’s what Donna said:
I wrote this after seeing a post of a picture of a mother with her young son, about 3-4 years old explaining to him to raise his hands if encountered by the police. It reminded me of these real life talks I’ve had with my son beginning at the age of 3 when he asked what a “nigget” was. He had learned it from a fair head friend in preschool. I didn’t give him an answer, rather changed the subject after telling him it was a bad word and not to use it anymore.
In middle school at 12, I warned him to always carry his military dependent ID, cellphone, at least a dollar and my business card in his pocket.
In high school at 16, I told him not to have more than one passenger in the car with him at one time and always check the car periodically for anything that he could not identify as his.
When he went away your college, I fretted many a night, reminded him of his upbringing, encouraged him to find a church, warned him of the dangers associated with underage drinking and premarital sex, but most of all called some nights to simply pray with him.
A few nights ago, I had to remind my now 26 year old Corporate driven son who has NEVER been in ANY trouble, earned a Civil Engineering Master’s Degree by the time he was 23, but after working his 9-5 may wear a hoodie, or gym shorts , and slippers to be polite, speech firmly but politely, and not to struggle even if he feels wrongfully accused and singled out. Rather to go peacefully, to memorize every detail for a record statement because I’d rather see him alive than ever lying in the middle of the street.
Hard as it is to hold these conversations. They are absolutely a must today in 2014 as it was in 1814 and 1914.
Until I read these Facebook posts, I don’t think I’d ever really thought about the difference in what white children and black children are taught about the police. I have very clear memories of my parents telling me that the police were “good guys,” that they were there to help.
It’s clear in Donna’s and Michele’s posts that black children are raised with a very different view of police, not only based on our country’s past history with racism, but also on what is happening today, as referenced in Kristof’s article:
But there is a pattern: a ProPublica investigation found that young black men are shot dead by police at 21 times the rate of young white men.
So now imagine how what we were brought up with, something that is at our very core–what we were taught about the police–would affect how we see what happened in Ferguson.
I, like Nicholas Kristof, have no idea what really happened there. Only the eye witnesses know what happened, and even their recollections are “tainted” by what they were taught about the police.
My core belief as I listened to the events that occurred the day of the shooting was that there was no way Wilson–any cop–would have shot an unarmed black teenager without good cause.
It seems from what I’ve seen and heard on the news and on social media that most people in the black community believe that once again, a cop shot a young black man for no good reason.
No matter the story, the evidence, the proof, each of us is likely to keep believing what we initially believed and those thoughts are only strengthened by what our peers, our “team,” our “side” believes. In fact, I’ve seen many instances of people being chastised, criticized, even vilified for having different beliefs from their “side.”
Here’s my point of view:
- Just because we’ve come a long way with race relations in this country, doesn’t mean we don’t still have a way to go. It will never be resolved if we don’t start talking rationally and respectfully about it.
- I believe, and evidence shows, that police brutality occurs more frequently with blacks than with whites. I was especially struck by two recent stories: the first of a 12-year old black boy who was shot to death while holding a toy gun, the second of a black man who died after being held in a choke-hold for selling cigarettes on a corner in New York. (Breaking News: The grand jury in New York decided against indicting the cop who put Eric Garner in a choke hold. Personally, I was surprised with this decision, considering the choke hold had apparently been banned due to the possibility of death.)
- The protests and riots began in Ferguson before anyone involved even looked at the grand jury results, indicating that some people don’t care about the truth, only their opinions of what happened. This Washington Post article provides an easy-to-understand breakdown of the forensic evidence and how it does or does not match up with witness testimony.
- The violence, looting and threats against Darren Wilson after the grand jury decision did absolutely no good in resolving race relation problems, in fact, it heightened the tension and even worse, confirmed some people’s opinions. We are not a vigilante nation.
- I hope the peaceful protests will begin to focus more on the problems we have with our perceptions of race and about how they affect the way we view things and the way we behave, rather than on the Michael Brown shooting. Sadly, his parents have lost their son, but the problem is bigger than what happened in Ferguson. Yet it’s what happened in Ferguson that keeps our emotions running too high to be rational and respectful.
- I think the media (both news and social media) fans the flames of our emotions. And we keep watching and reading, because we apparently enjoy having our emotions flare up. One example happened just today with CNN’s Brook Baldwin’s interview with Charles Barkley. In her lead in to the interview, she said, “…Charles Barkley’s explosive comments.” I watched the interview, and Charles Barkley was very calm and unemotional. Hardly explosive. The fact that he may say some things that people disagree with should not be considered “explosive.” As for social media, it’s a “safe” place for people to express their opinions, sometimes in 140 characters or less, often saying things they would not say to someone’s face.
- I believe some whites will bristle at what Nicholas Kristof has to say in the articles referenced above, and I believe some blacks will bristle at what Charles Barkley has said about blacks. In my opinion, both men speak the truth. But whether you agree or not, it’s their opinion, and everybody is entitled to their own opinion.
- People get offended way too easily these days.
And that leads to a few conclusions:
- Many people seem to believe we all have to think the same way. They believe that if someone’s opinion is different, they’re wrong.
- We’re losing our ability to empathize–to see things through another’s eyes.
- We look at a tiny microcosm of a group and project it to the whole group. Not all cops are bad. Not all black people are criminals. Not all white people are racist.
In my opinion, the solution begins with dialogue, and for dialogue to be effective, we must be unafraid, yet respectful.
Instead of fighting about our differences, why can’t we be grateful for our differences?