How to Oppress People of Color

We have a holiday named for this guy! But we still have work to do. Photo by Dick DeMarsico, World Telegram staff photographer

A black man once told me that, as a white woman, I didn’t have the right to write about racism. I understand his point; I don’t live in his skin. On the other hand, I pointed out that as a white woman, I am part of the problem, and therefore I must write about racism. I don’t believe white silence is helpful.

There can be no doubt that people of color are more likely to be killed by the police than white people are. Given the almost daily examples in the headlines, I cannot imagine how this affects people of color. Depressing? Yes. Horrifying? Yes. Outrageous? Yes. Scary as shit? Absolutely. When I leave my house, I don’t worry about being wrongfully arrested or killed by a public servant.

So, dearest white people, I know many of you care. I know many of you want to do your best. I know that, if you exhibit racial biases, you are probably blissfully unaware of it. I freely admit that I have been a complete idiot at times in my past, too. Life is for growing and learning, so let me discuss some of the ways in which white people may unconsciously oppress those who have a higher melanin content in their skin.

When we see another killing of a black person in the news, it’s uncomfortable, so our brain wants to make us feel better about it. Here are some of the things that may go through your mind:

He/she must have done something to deserve it.

This is what horror writers understand: if you’re going to kill a character, perhaps gruesomely, then you first write them so that when they die the reader will secretly applaud. No one minds if the despicable person gets eaten by zombies. Alfred Hitchcock set up Janet Leigh’s character in Psycho as an immoral woman who casually slept with men, thereby setting her up so that, as a slut, she gets what’s coming to her. So naturally, if a policeman killed someone, well, it must have been their own fault somehow. Right? See also: Blaming the victim.

If he/she didn’t deserve it, then they must have done something stupid.

Okay, maybe they weren’t actually robbing a store or dealing drugs, but maybe they already have a record (and therefore did something in the past to deserve it), or they were just “uppity.” Maybe they gave the cop some attitude, or did something to make the officer feel threatened. While there can be no doubt that politeness goes a very long way, there is no law that says that citizens are required to be polite to the police. People become upset. They get stressed. Cursing at a police officer may be unwise, but it is not illegal. A death sentence seems a very high price to pay for inflamed passions.

He/she must have done something to arouse suspicion.

We assume that all police officers are completely rational, and that they would never harass a civilian without a very good reason. But officers (and white people in general) tend to make assumptions about people of color that do not apply if the person is white. Unlike Sandra Bland, I have never been pulled over for failing to signal a lane change. Unlike Trayvon Martin, I have never been shot dead for walking in my neighborhood wearing a hoodie. Unlike Henry Louis Gates, I have never been arrested by the police for trying to enter my own home. No, black people do not have to do anything to arouse suspicion. Their mere existence is suspicious. If you have ever crossed the street to avoid walking past a man because he is black, I am talking to you.

He/she must have been hanging with the wrong crowd.

When we see another black death on TV, there is the initial assumption that these are poor folks from the ghetto, probably doing drugs and stealing. Because those are the only kind of black people in America, right? Oh, I guess there are some middle-class black families, but those people don’t end up dead on the news, do they? Somehow, our narrative says that “poverty corrupts.” All those welfare queens come from somewhere! And if you’re poor in America, you deserve it. And if you’re black and poor in America, you’re a thug. Thugs deserve to be shot to death. If you were shot to death and you’re not a thug, then you must have been hanging out with thugs, which brings us back to: You deserved it.

I have known plenty of poor white people over the years. Most of them aren’t thugs. And I’m pretty sure that if one of them was shot dead over a traffic stop, the community would be upset. But even the few penny-ante white “criminals” (if you count drug use) that I’ve known don’t deserve that kind of fate. We should extend our compassion to everyone, regardless of their skin color.

Black people are just “like that.”

You know what I mean. “It’s just how they are.” Naturally violent. Behaving like animals. No surprise when one gets killed. (“They deserve it.”) When a black person becomes angry, a white person feels threatened. When a white person becomes angry, another white person just sees an angry white person. White people love authority, and we submit to it more easily than we think. We automatically side with authority in most cases. When a shooting occurs, our first thought is that the officer was in the right. And that may be the case. But the officer may just as easily be in the wrong. They are imperfect humans in a stressful job, carrying guns. Shit happens. Unfortunately, it happens more often to black people, because white people tend to see them as a threat.

And so on…

I have written before about how well-meaning white people can exhibit racist behavior, unaware that they are doing so. We have had around 400 years of this nonsense, thanks to a culture that thought it was appropriate to kidnap other people, put them in chains, and sell them to people who would exploit their labor. Capitalism at its finest! But hey, you gotta watch these slaves. They’re probably not too happy about this state of affairs. They might try to escape, or worse—revolt. They might even want revenge.

Yes, our legacy of White Trauma is centuries of fearing those whom we imprisoned and exploited and paranoia that they want to repay us for all we’ve done to them. It’s in our national DNA. That’s a painful thing to acknowledge, however, and isn’t it so much easier to just deny that there’s a problem? Hey, this is a post-racial society now! Go Obama! Kill the Voting Rights Act. Problem solved. Nothing to see here.

Our black brothers and sisters keep saying to us, “Please listen. We want to live side by side as equals. Your attitudes are causing us pain. Racism is still occurring. We are dying because of it.” And we switch off the news without a second thought and go to the mall. “Oh, well, I trust that justice will be done.”

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
~ Edmund Burke

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