There is something that anyone who reads this blog or who has ever seen my Facebook knows about me. I love dogs. I had them my entire life growing up. And when I bought a house, a dog moved in the very next day. I named her Passion, because that’s how I feel about dogs. They are my friends, my children and my protectors.
My brother John, on the other hand, went to his grave fearing dogs. He was mauled as a child and being around dogs triggered him. He, of course, had to live with dogs as a child, but he never warmed up to them like the rest of us. He's the only one of six children to never have a dog as an adult. To him, they were dangerous, unpredictable beasts.
There are lots of people out there like that. And they don’t have to have been attacked by dogs themselves to feel that way. Maybe a family member was attacked. Maybe they grew up in a neighborhood with some vicious dogs and learned to fear them. Maybe they even have a long family history of dog anxiety that has been ingrained in them, probably for good reasons. They’ve likely been told that dogs can sense and play off their fear, in a co-created, escalating kind of way. Let’s face it, dog lover or not, if you encounter the wrong one (or worse, a pack of them) they will rip your throat out and there’s nothing you can do about it. So dogs are a hazard that those with bad experiences try to avoid.
So imagine if you feel that way about dogs and you’re cornered and growled at. Conventional wisdom might tell you to respond in one way, but your inner fight vs. flight mechanism—your fear—may very well tell you something different in that moment. It’s not about staying calm and rational, it’s about survival and whatever your brain tells you will get you there.
Likewise, I’ve never been mugged. But I’ve been told all my life anxiety-provoking things like “women are vulnerable to muggings” and “walk with your keys between your fingers as a weapon” and “if you feel like you’re being followed, cross the street.” I do know that, when the moment comes, you’re supposed to just give them your wallet. But what if I’m so afraid in that moment that I can’t move? What if I’m in such a panic over my worst nightmare coming true that I can’t access all the lessons I’ve been taught? What if a voice in my head says “run”, even though, intellectually, I know I can’t outrun them? What if some trauma in my past urges me not to listen to the person with the gun or knife in my face, because I feel this will end poorly, even if I cooperate? Maybe cooperating will help save my life. I mean muggings are usually just that, right? But maybe, no matter what I do, it could escalate from the mugging into a murder. I can honestly say I have no idea how I’d handle that because I’ve never been in that situation. I’d probably rely on my gut in the moment.
Are these concerns about muggings and maulings rational? Maybe. Maybe not. When we’ve grown up and seen or heard about certain dangers, we naturally become afraid of them. I remember being afraid of monsters in my closet as a child. I’m 53 years old and probably still won’t sleep with a closet door open. These things—attacking dogs, muggers, etc.—get filed in our head as dangers and no amount of intellectualization can remove them entirely, especially if they were imprinted in our heads at a young age.
And let’s say muggers were targeting green-eyed women specifically. And let’s pretend I had a cousin with green eyes that had been attacked—that just raises the concern to another level. It doesn’t matter that you tell me that the odds of MY green eyes drawing an attack were statistically small, or that maybe it was just a coincidence that all had green eyes. It would be stupid for me to just blindly trust an “unknown quantity” who happened to notice the color of my eyes. Right? I mean, you wouldn’t blame me for wanting to get out of the situation, even if they were dressed like a priest, for example. Fear and survival are natural instincts within us. They are difficult to override.
So this is where we reach the part of this blog where I actually get to the point…haha. It’s not about dogs. It’s not about green eyes or muggings. Those are analogies that explore the same kind of understandable fear-based thinking and response that set the stage for the point I'm trying to make. So I want to be clear—I’m not likening anyone to a dog or a mugger or anything like that.
The point of all of those analogies is that white suburban folk like me can’t possibly say “I don’t see why black people just don’t listen to the cops” and have that be ANY kind of relevant input. What you would do and what a black person might do is completely different, because your perception and reality are completely different. Your experience with the police is like mine with dogs. Positive. And I’ve been bit by dogs, myself. But I’ve had enough good experiences around them to a) not feel fear b) trust dogs in general and c) avoid being bit.
But if I were my brother, frozen in fear, surrounded by barking dogs with thoughts of mauling going through my head, it would be totally different. Everything I might have been told by my mother about how to handle a situation might be out the window and replaced by fear. If the relevant portion of my dog experience is “dogs bite” I’m going to do whatever I’m capable of in the moment to avoid being bit. That might be freezing in terror, unable to respond. That might be running. And if dogs get me down on the ground, even if it’s to smother me in kisses, I’m probably going to struggle and panic, regardless. Even if I know I’ve done nothing to invite aggression, even if I see tails wagging, I’m going to respond from a place of trauma. I’m going to act like the dogs think I’m a threat, because MY history with dogs says that’s what dogs do. (That's if I were my brother. The real me would tell them to clap their yaps and come over and give me some lovin'.)
Dog lovers can’t possibly relate to what people with a societal knowledge of repeated maulings feel, think or do. Even if it’s only, say, 5% of dogs who attack. They are going to be afraid or on guard 100% of the time. And they should be, just as I should be concerned about a rash of attacks on green-eyed women.
Now that that’s out of my system, I’ll say this. I respect cops and I love dogs. And I’m also going to say these analogies work both ways. Just as blacks have a cultural knowledge of excessive trouble with cops, cops have a cultural knowledge of excessive trouble with blacks—not all blacks and not all cops, but enough that it has created a real issue. Further, white men (not all but in general) have a cultural “caution” against black men, from what I’ve observed. To the black man, that might seem unwarranted. But, frankly, that white man is aware that people who look like him kidnapped, enslaved, beat, raped and lynched your relatives. You might hold that against them and you might not. But they don’t know if they don’t know you. You could be Will Smith and that caution would be there—not out of fear of The Fresh Prince—but out of fear of karma.
This is a co-created dynamic that builds upon itself. A snowball. The more cops profile and have preconceived notions based on color and the more they shoot unarmed black people, the more distrust and fear they earn. And the more black people fear cops and respond in ways that support the policeman’s fears, the more people get shot. It’s a self-feeding cycle that repeats over and over again because neither side is willing to give the benefit of the doubt. Because they are both acting and responding in fear, the consequences of trust feel too great. But, in my mind, when one person is armed and the other is not, the armed one is in the position of power and, if they shoot, they do the greater wrong. So why do we keep placing blame on “untrained” victims, when trained “officers of the peace”—professionals who have supposedly learned best practices on how to respond in a variety of situations—keep losing their objectivity? To be fair, unarmed white people get killed by police, too. But, according to the Washington Post, it's five times more likely to happen to a black person.
Another thing I’ve heard white people say is “why do black people have to stage violent demonstrations?” Well, most of the demonstrations are peaceful. You don’t hear about them, because nothing bad happened and stories with happy endings don't get as many clicks as controversial stories do. But yes, some of these protests turn violent. And yes, cops were recently killed by a fringe sniper at an otherwise peaceful protest. And they have been targeted elsewhere, too. Which is not OK. NONE of the killing is OK. But consider this…Colin Kaepernick staged a peaceful protest and the country was OUTRAGED, calling him everything from the n-word to traitor.
So the fact is, there is really nothing a black person can do to win when it comes to speaking against this. Society has set it up for them to be wrong. It would seem we want them to just forget, look the other way and be silent despite there being a clear and dangerous pattern of bias out there. White people simply don’t have a right to ask that of them. You wouldn’t ask it of a victim of any other kind of violent crime or inequity, and you sure as heck wouldn’t stand there silent if it were happening to people you love.
Being a white person myself, I can say this: a lot of white people think racism is over. A non-issue. They just want everyone to go on with their lives like nothing ever happened. I wish my brother had gone on like he’d never been mauled, because his kids weren’t allowed to have a dog growing up. I was never invited to bring my pups over to his house to play, either. But ultimately, it wasn’t my place to tell him to just move on from trauma that, understandably, haunted him all his life. He healed a lot of it, but of course his guard was up until he knew, for sure, a particular dog was trustworthy. And while I can't speak for his children, I wouldn't be surprised if at least one didn't have preconceived notions about dogs based on their father's reticence.
His caution was as much a part of him as being family-oriented and a sports lover was. It was woven into the fabric of his being, just as unwarranted violence and bias against blacks has been part of the fiber of our country going back to its very inception. And the fact there are white people out there who believe that Obama started all the racism in our country is proof. That may be the fringe, but the fringe is always nothing more than an exaggeration of the feelings of a much larger population of people.
I’ll be the first person to tell you I don’t have the answers. I mean, spiritually speaking, trust building is the answer. Heart-centered listening, as opposed to reactive listening would help, too. But the trust took hundreds of years to erode. Thinking you can overcome that with a quick fix is naive, though I think we can knock it out in a generation or two if we start healing it *consciously* and from a place of love right now. That said, I don't think society in general is capable of that at this juncture in history. So I won’t claim to know the fix. My strength is more in understanding what motivates people and what goes on beneath the surface. And understanding is always the first step to healing.
Racism is a thing. Denying it or looking the other way or blaming others won’t make it disappear. That *sort of* worked with the monsters in my closet, but it doesn’t work when there are real tensions, real people, real fear, real guns and real lives involved. It flabbergasts me how many otherwise good people suck at empathy…at putting themselves in other peoples’ shoes. And, to be honest, we can never really do that anyway. But if we are the people, the society and the country we like others to think we are, we have to at least try.