What White People Think, a new portrait series launched in early September 2020 by Kathleen Dreier, is a call of action to recognize our responsibility to be proactive social change agents. Kathleen’s companion portrait series is Tucson Black Voices.
The easiest answer is to the last question about an example of an interaction with a police officer that would have had a different outcome if I were a person of color.
I remember this well because I have thought about it a lot, and it has only grown on me over time as I have become more aware of how this would have turned out differently if I was a person of color. This event happened when I was seventeen years old in high school in suburban West Orange, NJ. One evening I drove with my girlfriend to parking area in a municipal park. It was after dark and illegal to be there at that hour. A police cruiser came by, saw us, put on his lights, and told us we had to leave. I was not at all a troublemaker in high school, but my older brother, who preceded me by six years, was. And every cop in town knew him. With the same last name as my older brother, they just thought I was of the same cloth. So they were not particularly polite upon asking me to leave. As I started driving out of the lot, with their bright lights right behind me, very stupidly I gave them the middle finger in the rear view mirror. Of course they saw this (how stupid could I be) and put on their flashing police lights and pulled me over. This time they were even less polite and threatened to arrest me. They didn’t but gave me a ticket and told me to get lost. Over time I had come to realize that if it was black and had done the same thing, there more likely would have been serious bodily harm, if not worse, perpetrated by the officers, and nothing would have happened to them.
What does it mean to be a White person?
To be a white person in America means that I am a member of the majority race that founded this nation and also brought slavery onto this soil. I recognize that I have benefited from this identity in many ways. On the other hand, I am Jewish, a religion that has been persecuted both in this nation and more so throughout Europe. My ancestors came here long after slavery was abolished and lived impoverished lives from their arrival through the depression. My father’s father, bringing up two infant boys alone during the depression, actually died of exhaustion on the doorsteps of an orphanage as he carried his children there because he could no longer feed them. I have no guilt about the color of my skin. But I recognize that I have benefited from the tremendous wealth of this nation that has allowed it to pass on this wealth to middle class white families to live comfortable lives. This same nation denies that privilege to Black families to this day. What are you doing to address your own bias or those of others?
Growing up in America can mean either living with blinders on or learning how race effects every aspect of life here. I try to continually understand this in my relations with all people. And while I strongly support the central ideals of Black Lives Matter, I deeply understand that it is not only Black people who are discriminated against. Anyone who is not part of the dominant power structure does not benefit from it, and is often abused by it, in many ways. Whether you are disabled, Indigenous, LGBTQ, Latinx, Muslim, and Black, or poor, there as so many obstacles and hazards awaiting you in America. Your life just doesn’t matter as much as white Americans who follow the line. But Black Americans hold a unique position because of slavery, the legacy of slavery, and the violent efforts of white supremacists to maintain their slight edge over those whom they have the power to kill without repercussions.
How have you changed since George Floyd’s murder?
Only to embrace the ideals of Black Lives Matter more thoroughly because it is painfully obvious that Black lives just continue to not matter to those in positions of power.