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Being White In a Time of Black Lives Matter

college graduate
Me, circa 1994, just after the kind cop incident and years before the scary cop incident.

I realize posting about this topic may be unwise (to put it mildly).

But pretending like it isn’t happening feels even less wise as well as, well, inhuman.

Oh, and I am white, just in case you are new here and don’t already know this.

I am also female, and right after hurricane Harvey ripped through my home city of Houston, TX, and flooded my elderly parents out of their home, I decided to break my silence and post just one of my many #metoo stories.

Why didn’t I do this many years ago, before #metoo was even a thing? Honestly – because I didn’t think it would matter. I wasn’t “somebody.” I didn’t think anyone would care or listen and that would be more painful than just staying silent. I thought it might even put me in harm’s way to share my story with no real context around it – I didn’t feel safe.

But when powerful public people started speaking up and the #metoo movement gathered steam from their collective acts of brave, I started to feel differently. I thought, “Maybe now I can share and feel safe and supported by a community. Maybe we can be brave together. Maybe now someone will care and it will matter. Maybe now if I share someone else who has been silent far too long might also choose to break their silence and we can be healing together instead of silent apart.”

But while there I felt it was at least legit to craft a public post and add my voice to the nationwide (international, really) #metoo chorus, with #blacklivesmatter I feel far less sure. Or clear.

Say something? Don’t say something? Say something and risk what I say being imperfect or even the wrong thing, regardless of the underlying intention to offer support?

I chose option C. So here goes.

As Lady Gaga sings, I was born this way. I popped out white.

This – my whiteness – doesn’t mean I don’t know what it is like to be marginalized, unseen, discounted, dismantled at times in service to agendas I don’t even know are there, much less am able to understand.

As it so happens, I am also a victim of horrific police abuse.

Here is what happened. It was about 15 years ago. I was (relatively young), slim, blond with a long ponytail. I was driving along one sunny afternoon in my clean but aging and relatively dent-free Toyota with updated tags. I might have been speeding a little, but certainly nothing reckless.

As I slowed down to drive underneath a familiar freeway underpass (one I still use at least weekly today, but never without remembering this incident), a white police officer jumped out and flagged me down.

He was yelling and waving his hands about wildly.

As I inched my way around the U-turn lane under the overpass, I then saw two cop cars pulled up on the concrete side area beside the overpass, which was otherwise deserted.

The first officer motioned me to pull my car up onto the concrete as well. At first I didn’t understand what he wanted me to do. I definitely didn’t understand why just staying on the street wasn’t sufficient. Then three other white officers joined him and surrounded my car. I slowed down but did not stop, not at all understanding what was unfolding, which made me slow to react.

It all felt a bit surreal.

Suddenly a little voice inside me said “this isn’t safe – don’t pull up off the road.” I increased my speed just slightly and continued with my U-turn maneuver. My goal was to make it up onto the public and populated freeway and pull over there.

The moment they saw I wasn’t going to stop and comply with their instructions, both sets of cops jumped into gear. Lights and sirens blazing, they jumped into their cars and raced after me (even though I wasn’t going very fast). I pulled over to the shoulder of the highway and stopped my car the moment I got onto the public freeway access ramp, where I figured at least other people could witness whatever was about to happen.

I still had no idea why I was being pulled over.

The cops blocked me in on either side so close I couldn’t maneuver – this in spite of the fact I was already parked in the breakdown lane with my hazards blinking. One cop came to the driver side window and began to yell that I was to step out of the car immediately.

I refused. I kept my car locked. I rolled down the window half way and asked why I was being stopped. I didn’t get an answer.

The cop yelled that he could arrest me and take me to jail. I called my then-boyfriend and put him on speaker phone to listen to the whole thing. I continued to refuse to get out of the car although I offered my driver license and insurance documents through the half-open window.

Meanwhile, the other three cops were circling my car, examining it from every angle. After 10 minutes or 20 minutes or however long it was, the lead cop handed me a ticket. The citation totaled up to more than $500 in charges. They even wrote me up for “obstructed license plate” (a new thing at that time in my state, Texas).

They still refused to tell me why they had initially pulled me over.

Since we were at a stalemate in a public area, I guess they finally decided attempting to manually remove me from my vehicle might not be a great idea. I don’t really know. I have no idea what might have happened to me if I had pulled over in the deserted underpass instead. I am glad I don’t know.

I slowly drove home, feeling in shock to the degree it was like I was outside my body the whole time, me watching me drive.

When I (somehow, miraculously) got home, I immediately started making calls to find out who at the police precinct I could tell about the incident. I finally got a name and an address. Then I wrote a letter, including all the details as clearly as I could remember them and including a copy of the ticket with the letter. The packet got mailed the next day with return receipt confirmation requested.

Then I completed the ticket paperwork and put my court date on my calendar.

A few weeks went by. One day when the mail arrived I was shocked to see a letter from the police precinct. The letter stated that the incident was being investigated further. I don’t remember what else it said.

My court date arrived and I showed up, citation and letter in hand, hoping for what…I didn’t know.

Not a single one of the four ticketing officers was there. The judge dismissed my ticket immediately and told me I was free to go.

To this day, I have no idea what the whole thing was about. I have never stopped feeling fearful of law enforcement officers or those flashing lights. It took me years to be able to write the details of what happened this calmly and clearly. But I still feel the familiar clench in my gut even as I write this post now.

By the way,  in case anyone finds this detail relevant, this whole incident took place in a relatively affluent and mostly white section of Houston, TX.

But then I look back on another traumatic event involving me and the police and my whole inner landscape shifts.

It was several years before the incident I just described. At the time, I was in the first semester of my senior year of college.

I was battling through midterms while trying to interview for jobs and keep my eating disorder from swallowing me whole. One night, it finally gained the upper hand. My anxiety spiraled out of control and I became obsessed with one of the chopping knives in my kitchen.

I called my younger brother, who lived in a dormitory not far from my apartment. He came over. The obsession got worse. I told him I was pretty sure I was going to kill myself that night. I’m not sure why I decided to pick up the phone and call 911, but with my brother’s support I did it.

About 15 minutes later, the nicest, most caring human being I had ever met at that time showed up at my door and knocked politely. He was white, male, just a little taller than me, dressed in blue with a badge and gun strapped to his belt. I explained that I thought I was going to kill myself but to please believe me that I wasn’t crazy.

He looked at me, then he looked at my brother standing next to me with a huge metal cage on his leg and crutches from a recent leg surgery, and he said “I believe you. I’m not going to take you to the psych ward. I’m going to take you to the emergency room.”

He escorted us both downstairs and carefully helped my brother into the backseat of his squad car. He got me buckled into the front seat and put on some music. I don’t know what he and my brother talked about, but soon we were at the emergency room.

He carefully helped my brother out of the backseat and explained to the staff member who came out to meet us what was going on.

I truly, wholly and thoroughly believe that caring cop saved my life that night.

So….does any of this mean I have any right at all to speak on behalf of others who are currently being persecuted, disenfranchised, discounted, marginalized or even killed just for the color of their skin? Does it mean I have any right to speak up to denounce or support the particular law enforcement officers who are at fault?

No. I don’t believe that it does in either case.

I haven’t stood in those particular sets of shoes. And I never will, regardless of what other experiences I may have gone through in my own life that bear some if any resemblance to what others are going through now.

But if any of those individuals find that hearing about any of my experiences may in some way help us to find our way back to each other, across the great divide that is race, skin color, gender, age, sexual preference or even species, then here they are.

In the meantime, I realize I have my work cut out for me as a white person to unearth, identify and eliminate any sense of racist difference, privilege or preference based on any of the above. Being white means I don’t understand what it is like to be black. I get that. I endeavor to do something for the greater good with the knowledge.

And it may just be that the only good I have to contribute to the events unfolding today is this: I have always firmly and truly believed that everyone has something. We each have something, definitely individually and sometimes systemically, that we struggle with or against or through.

In other words, if we want to dive into divisiveness, it is there in the differing experiences we have had based on how we look on the outside.

If we want to find inclusiveness in the shared experiences we have had based on how we look on the outside, it is there.

Here is my prayer and my intention from the white side of the perspective: may we find inclusiveness and – even more vitally – compassion – wherever it may be found. And when (not if) we find it, may we use it powerfully for all who need it, every time any one of us needs it.

With great respect and love,

Shannon

NOTE: Lately I have seen an uptick in incredibly rageful comments here and elsewhere. Those will be deleted without hesitation. These are difficult times and heart-closing comments do no one any good. All the rest are warmly welcomed. Peace.

Being White In a Time of Black Lives Matter


Shannon Cutts

Parrot, tortoise & box turtle mama. Writer. Author. Songwriter. Champion of all people (and things) recovered and recovering. http://www.loveandfeathersandshells.com http://www.shannoncutts.com


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APA Reference
Cutts, S. (2020). Being White In a Time of Black Lives Matter. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 4, 2020, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/mentoring-recovery/2020/06/being-white-in-a-time-of-black-lives-matter/

 

Last updated: 13 Jun 2020
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