When I First Learned I was ‘White’

The anniversary of my friend’s murder just passed.

Thirteen years. Still hard to swallow.

Something like that changes you. It has to… or, at the very least, it should.

One of the things that makes everything in Ferguson so powerful is the way it shapes — & hopefully matures — the context/narrative of crime and a group of people criminalized for simply being born black.

See, in the world I grew up in, the only crimes the media talked about at length were when there was a ‘white’ victim and a ‘non-white’ assailant. The statistics weren’t proportionately representative of real life, 43% portrayed on TV to 13% in real life. But in Southern California, the narrative was always a disproportionate number of white victims, especially female, at the hands of other races.

This was true of my friend. Though we wouldn’t actually have an answer to who killed her for years. YEARS!!!! Even with her face on my TV screen. Even with a hooded non-white accomplice caught on an ATM camera.

But even her story faded from the front of the media’s short lived attention span.

There was another white female victim to exploit.

A different non-white to blame.

After all, how can they incite this fear if the (likely) black criminals aren’t caught & paraded on our TV screens.

See, the interesting thing about that ‘white’ privilege… it does no good when it makes another ‘white’ look bad. Daniel’s killer took 6 months to be found. A far cry from the years it took to find the people that murdered Cris. But Daniel’s tragedy wasn’t covered like the news talked about Cris.

Maybe it was because a white male couldn’t be as sensationalized as a white female victim. Maybe it was because a white man was responsible for his killing. Or maybe it was because of his own challenges with the law. He wasn’t ‘innocent’ enough.

Even 15 years later, you can hardly find anything about him on the internet. You can literally type the names of the killer and the victim and nothing pops up. Misspell the victim and one article pops up. One. Odd considering a newspaper article prompting the community for information those months later is what led to the killer being named. Can’t let a white man look bad, I guess.

But, still, how do I fit in a world where, on one hand, my friend’s murder would not have gotten coverage if it weren’t for her skin color; while on the other hand, my friend’s brother’s murder hardly got covered at all because it couldn’t be exploited the same??

Realizing the unfair news portrayals made me think about what it meant to be ‘white’… and the first time I was actually aware of my whiteness. I grew up in a county that wasn’t all that diverse, but I always found myself friends with everyone.

I never thought of race being a factor in being someone’s friend…. until it was an issue for someone else.

I was a freshman in high school. A friend and I had class together right before lunch. So, naturally, one day we went from class to lunch together. As I sat with her and her group of friends, I noticed eyes on me that I didn’t understand. One of the friends asked me why I was sitting with them. Confused, I rebutted, “Why not??” The friend abruptly stated, “You’re white.” What does that even mean??! A little hurt and still confused, I muttered, “And???”

I never got an explanation.

But I understood that, for this friend in particular, my sitting with her group of friends was not going to become a normal thing. I wasn’t welcome. I don’t know if it was because I wasn’t Indian, or just because I was white.

Fast forward to college. Studying sociology, I started to recognize the disparity between the world as the media portrayed it to be and the one that I actually lived in. I started to understand for those people who have limited interactions outside their race, the media — & reality TV, now — defined a person’s understanding of other groups; for better or worse… but mostly worse.

In a criminology class, a professor starts to talk about the OJ Simpson case.

Here we go.

Let’s talk about black-on-white crime.

But this was something different.

This wasn’t about the black-on-white crime itself.

This was about race relations and how it, in their mind, determined the outcome of the trial.

The professor shared that she knows the jury consultant that was used by Simpson’s team. The consultant told her as soon as the jury selection was done that OJ would be acquitted.

Stunned, the professor asked why.

The explanation she received: While the prosecutor wanted women on the jury, she didn’t think about the racial implications and prejudices different women would have. So as she zeroed in on women, OJ’s team systematically removed white women and gave her black women. She was so focused on thinking women would be emotional (sympathetic) about the murder, she thought she was winning the jury lottery. She didn’t realize black women (1) wouldn’t have sympathy for a white woman who ‘stole one of their good black men’ and (2) wouldn’t send one of their beloved black men to prison.

Let that sink in. In our lifetime… a jury was chosen based on racial biases that exist and one side figured out how to manipulate those biases.

And we all remember exactly where we were when that verdict came out.

Now, it’s 2014. And the media is still telling virtually the same story. Sure, there are some black-on-white crimes the media doesn’t exploit that some people bring up every time a Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown murder is met with public outrage. But there’s still black-on-black crime that goes unacknowledged every day, especially in Chicago. There’s still white-on-white crime that goes hidden from public airwaves. Unity doesn’t seem to be the goal of media. They don’t want us to band together and demand change. But we have to.

Right or wrong, some people will have fears that are largely in part due to the narrative the media hand selects to tell us. Which for white women, is to be scared of black men — or any man — but maybe, especially, black men.

A while back, I saw a video ((meant as satire, I think)) of a black man getting in an elevator with a white woman. She clenched her purse. His response: “Yeahhhhhh, we see that crap.”

My discomfort with that video is not a means to nullify his experience, but simply to enhance the dialogue so we understand both sides of the conversation. It points to a larger problem that still exists… and we need people on every side willing to talk if we’re going to see any real progress.

_ferguson_is his life worth

We all have wounds and experiences we can’t tell by looking at one another. Sometimes, a woman clutches her purse when anyone comes close to her. Another woman. A man. A teenager. A homeless person. Not just a black man. Your own personal narrative may tell you she’s doing it because you’re black. But she may be doing it because of what she’s survived that you know nothing about.

I’m not scared of every black person because Cris was car jacked, robbed & killed by a few bad ones. I didn’t jump to conclusions about Trayvon Martin because he wore a hoodie like one of the accomplices in Cris’ death. I’m not scared of every white man because Daniel was run down & run over by one hiding behind the wheel of his car. I know these acts cannot define entire races or genders. But I do have a heightened awareness of my surroundings, more so than friends who haven’t experienced evil firsthand. Still, some blanket judgments cannot be afforded… no matter how painful an experience you’ve lived through.

Some things, however, are absolutely black and white (pun intended). Police brutality is always wrong. Excessive force, shooting to kill without being in danger. These are wrong, whether the victim is white or black, whether the officer & the victim are the same race or not. Rape is always wrong… whether the victim knew the rapist or not… dressed a certain way or not. Murder is wrong — whether a child, sorority girl, guy fresh out of jail, ex-wife. These are absolute truths fundamental to humanity.

I cannot imagine if the community hadn’t supported Daniel’s family in searching for answers, justice. Sadly, though they got answers, the legal system robbed them of justice. And Cris?! The amount of years spent searching for justice — to put away the people who did this, so there wouldn’t be another Cris later — I cannot fathom someone telling her mom to get over it, to give up.

Maybe death, outside of cancer & other similar diseases, hasn’t reached your doorsteps. Consider yourself blessed. But what if your loved one was killed like Cris or Daniel, like Trayvon Martin, Ezell Ford or Michael Brown? How would you feel if people told you to shut up… move on… stop recording… while you were looking for answers??! How dare we not afford Michael Brown’s family, his immediate Ferguson community & the larger community around the world, the right to process their grief and look for closure. How can we not be supportive, active participants in the dialogue for change??

While the first time I realized I was ‘white’ was not nearly as life threatening as many young men realizing they’re black, we all need to come together to be heard and validated. One life isn’t worth more than another. God doesn’t play favorites, especially when it comes to our skin color. We don’t choose what race we are… but we do choose how we respond to injustices done to every people group, whether we identify with them, outside of basic humanity, or not.

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