On paper, my friend and I appear quite similar.
Darlene: Writer, daughter, mother, communications professional with a supportive, hard-working husband, two sons and one daughter, grew up in a suburb of Cleveland, college degree, worked for a major Cleveland hospital and several non-profit agencies. Arrested once.
Pam: Writer, daughter, mother, communications professional with a supportive, hard-working husband, two sons and one daughter, grew up in a suburb of Youngstown, college degree, worked for a major Cleveland hospital and several non-profit agencies. Arrested once.
We’re both creative, Type B personalities. Both prone to big feelings, busy schedules and frantic efforts to get to places on time. So it’s no surprise that we’ve each had a few speeding tickets and traffic violations over the years. But when it comes to our interactions with the police, that is where the similarities end. Darlene is black, and I am white.
When I was 16, I got my first speeding ticket about half a mile from my house. The police approached my car, asked for my license and asked me to step out of the car to place me in the police car. I thought that’s just what happened. But when I was older and told that story to my white friends, they said it was crazy. None of them had ever heard of someone being placed in the squad car as a ticket was being written. They also said as a female, it was crazy that I would get a ticket. I was told if I ever got pulled over again, I should do a number of things to avoid getting a ticket: cry, tell the officer I was on my period, be really apologetic, play dumb, beg. Each subsequent stop, I followed the advice of my friends. Surprisingly, none of it worked, for me. -“What if I Died that Night?” by Darlene English
As young adults, Darlene and I were both arrested for minor offenses. In the interest of full disclosure, she admits that she was angry and questioning the officer who placed her under arrest. In her own words, she was “old enough to know better” but also old enough to know that her white friends didn’t have to sit in the back of police cars when they got pulled over. Twenty-six-year-old Darlene was handcuffed and placed in a holding cell overnight. Her parents came and paid bail in the morning. Her only chargeable offense was failure to come to a complete stop at an intersection.
Me? At age eighteen, I was arrested for possession of stolen property – a stop sign that my friends took down as part of a senior prank. After my ride in the police car, I waited in a conference room for my mom to pick me up. No handcuffs. No holding cell. No bail required. I was home within a couple of hours. My pending case was expunged after a teacher and city council member spoke privately to the judge on my behalf. The only thing I was afraid of that night was the look on my mother’s face when she arrived at the station. The only thing I’m afraid of now when I get pulled over is the look on my husband’s face when he finds out I got a ticket.
Darlene and I became friends in the same way many women do in this phase of life – because our children go to school together. We have stood side by side at PTA events, Girl Scout meetings and yoga classes. Friends shouldn’t have to march next to each other in protest rallies. But we’ve done that, too. When Tamir Rice was killed, I watched Darlene struggle to manage fear and anger that no mother should ever have to experience. And when Sandra Bland was killed, I know she was immediately taken back to that day in a Cleveland Heights jail cell . . .
I’m supposed to be working right now, but I can’t. I’m just too heavy. My safety and security have been shaken. I have seen myself reflected in too many who have lost their lives over a bag of skittles, a toy air soft gun, a loose cigarette, a pack of cigarillos, words. Words. I’m a writer, so I cherish words. So when I see a woman, not unlike myself, questioning a police officer about why she was stopped, using her words, and then see this woman murdered because of her words, I’m heavy. But then when I hear things like “well, if she had just kept her mouth shut…” or “just like a black woman, talking too much…” or “all you have to do is listen to the officer and respond to his questions and nothing will happen to you” type of words, this heaviness becomes too much to bear.
I have been asleep, dreaming that I was like everyone else. Dreaming that because I grew up in the suburbs and went to college that I had assimilated. Dreaming that because I grew up with a father and a stay-at-home mother, I was acceptable. Dreaming that because I spoke well and had a diverse pool of friends that I was alright. Dreaming that because I was married, with a house and 3 kids and a dog, and working a full-time job, I had achieved the American Dream. Dreaming that because I’m registered to vote and recycle and work in social justice, I was honoring all those that gave their lives in the civil rights movement. But then Trayvon Martin happened. And then Eric Garner happened. And then John Crawford happened. And then Mike Brown happened. And then Freddie Gray happened. And then Sandra Bland happened. And then Tamir Rice happened. And countless others happened. And then #blacklivesmatter happened. And then #alllivesmatter happened. And then I woke up.
Add to that list Alton Sterling. Philando Castile. Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Lorne Aherns and Michael Smith – the five, honorable Dallas police officers who were just doing their jobs. Friends shouldn’t have to be afraid to stand in peaceful protest together – but that’s what we’ve come to, America.
I’m not sure Darlene believes that her voice and her story will have any impact. Why should she?
The monochromatic faces of mainstream media and the angry voices of strangers are quick to point the finger back at her ethnicity. But I believe we can do better. Heartfelt, difficult conversations and shared personal stories have the power to open hearts and change minds. Am I naive? Nope, just lucky enough to be a white, middle-class American.
Be the Change. This begins with acknowledging our shared humanity and holding space for the pain of our brothers and sisters. It helps to remember that each person we meet is someone’s son, brother, daughter, father or friend with a complex history and life experiences that shape his/her behaviors and opinions. Choose kindness whenever possible.
We can all seek to listen more than we speak and have the courage to ask questions or express discomfort when we witness an injustice. White Americans are uniquely positioned to change the future of race relations in America just by contemplating our own private beliefs about people who are different than us and avoiding over-simplification, judgement or blame when it comes to the complex issues of racism and inequality.