I’ve wondered that for more than a week now, and it’s a question that’s been growing. Over the past week, like many people, I’ve been watching coverage of demonstrations against police violence, injustice, and racism. Some of the demonstrations have been violent, perhaps because of some people’s pent up frustrations, although there have also been white supremacists who’ve tried to stoke violence. Most of the demonstrations have been peaceful, and yet many police have responded even to peaceful demonstrations with violence. Journalists have been harassed and even attacked by police officers. Police destroyed a medical station near at a peaceful demonstrations. and peaceful demonstrations, even one taking place on church grounds, have been dispersed by police using tear gas. Tear gas, by the way, was banned in warfare by most of the world’s countries, including the United States, under the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993. There’s no reason for this country’s police to use against its own citizens.
It’s good to see, too, that some police have been brave enough to kneel with and talk to fellow citizens.
Still I’ve wondered if I should say anything. Back in January of 2017 I attended a solidarity march that called for unity among minorities: people of color, LGBT people, and others who, understandably, felt threatened. Many worried that the gains they’d made in recent years would be rolled back.
As a white guy I was, for once, a minority in that group. I don’t mean I know what it feels like to be a minority, or even to be oppressed. I don’t. I was, however, conscious of my background. And I thought that perhaps just by being there I didn’t need to say anything. Still I wondered if I should say something. There was a stage and another white guy, a minister, got up and said something close to what I was thinking I should say. “I know people like me have spent a lot of time telling people like you what to do and how to be,” he said, “so I’m going to keep this short. I just want you to know I stand with you.”
Then he got down.
I worry too about saying the wrong thing. Many years ago, back when the internet was still fairly new, I was on an online discussion board where someone shared a list of insulting things women engineers hear regularly from their male coworkers. I was clueless enough to be surprised and I said, “I can’t believe women still have to put up with this.”
Someone replied, “Congratulations on your white penis.”
It stung but it was deserved. It was exactly what I needed to hear. I started to get defensive, to say that “I can’t believe” is just an expression, that I didn’t really mean it, but then I thought about how it sounded. It was, I think, my first lesson in privilege, and how it makes some of us ignorant and even dismissive of what others are going through. I realized that what I was really saying was, “I don’t believe you.” And there was no reason for me to say that.
It’s too late for me to keep this short but I’ll try to conclude now by saying that I realize how lucky I am to have a voice and to have a voice that’s often magnified by my gender, race, and even economic status. I hope I can be smart about how I use it. I hope that when I do speak I can do a better job of speaking up for other voices, voices who, for too long, have been silenced.