Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin seemed to preen for the camera, putting his hands in his pockets, as he deliberately murdered George Floyd by jamming his knee into Floyd’s throat. That was on May 25, 2020. Since that time Derek is no longer on the police force and has been charged with second-degree murder. Since that time there have been daily protests about this killing staged throughout the United States and, to a lesser extent, the world. These protests are asking our leadership, whether federal, state, or local, to get better control over what is perceived as the overt racism within many of our police forces. I believe that the publicity gained by these protests will force changes in many police forces but I believe that there should be a larger outcome from this tragedy. We as white Americans need to acknowledge our largely unconscious tendency to devalue people who are “not like us,” that it is covertly bred into us, and that we can, and must change. Culture is not destiny.
There were two items on TV during the last week that made me reflect on how ignorant I was on what it must be like to be a negro in the U.S. The first was a set of interviews with black parents and how they instructed their children in various aspects of growing up. One told about giving advice to his ten-year-old daughter on how she should act if encountered by a police officer. The sixteen-year-old son of another interviewee had just acquired his driver’s license. His father went to great lengths in explaining the steps that the son needed to take if stopped by a police officer. Since I grew up white in the U.S. my parents never had to have those discussions with me.
The second eye-opener came to me while watching a memorial service for George Floyd. Reverend Al Sharpton was giving the eulogy, and made the following point:
The reason why we are marching all over the world is we were like George, we couldn’t breathe, not because there was something wrong with our lungs, but that you wouldn’t take your knee off our neck. We don’t want no favors (sic), just get up off of us and we can be and do whatever we can be.
Generally speaking, our white society suppresses non-white minorities, whether black, brown, or yellow. Why? Competition? No. The threat of “taking over?” No. Our attitude toward non-whites is based upon the concept of ethnocentrism, the belief that being white is right, and that non-white is wrong. It grows within our psyche from the time that we can see that everyone around us is white. All of our learning situations are done in a white environment. Our reality is white.
Attempting to alter our white reality is a challenge. How do we change our attitudes toward the condition of another? We acknowledge the situation, at which point we might sympathize with the other. Finally, we become affected by the situation of the other by empathizing with this person, at which point we are most apt to alter our position. We can follow this set of actions if the other is like us. We cannot if they are not. Sympathy is defined as an understanding between people. Empathizing with someone means not only understanding another person but being able to “walk in their shoes.” I can acknowledge and sympathize with a black person, but I cannot empathize with him. I cannot know what it is like to be a black person.
……….to be continued