Deliberate Accidents & White Complicity

Hi, White folks.

As always, I welcome comments from Black folks, but I don’t expect any of my Black friends or followers to have a desire to read this right now. This week has felt like drowning to me: whenever I try to get a breath and some perspective on a racist killing, I’m hit by another death, another wave of horror and emotional disbelief and fear and hopelessness. And I’m just a moderately conscious White woman. It’s hard not to view this as open season, despite the supposedly increased antiracist awareness of the past year, despite the prosecution of George Floyd’s murderer, and I carry no judgment on any emotional, physical, or verbal reactions of anyone directly or racially impacted by these attacks.

For my White people, I have a bit of analysis and a recommendation or two. Specifically the question of the cognizance of officers killing of Black men and children. The barrage of social media assertions by White folks that the Brooklyn Center cop could not have accidentally grabbed her gun has stirred me up. After having a few days to process, I realized that I wasn’t so much bothered by a perception of irrationality or performativity or ignorance, but by our attempts to separate ourselves from the ubiquitous racism of the place where we live.

I’m not saying you’re wrong. It is both possible and impossible to grab a gun on one side of your belt while intending to grab a taser on the other.

I’ll start with the possible: I’ve read a smattering of books about how the brain works, because I find the explanation of the disproportionately subconscious control over our lives fascinating, because I want to understand why we aren’t aggressively moving to reverse climate change, and because I want to know how to effectively change people’s minds about racism in particular. And I have learned, among other things, that brainwashing works, and cleaning the filthy, revolting lies about other “races” (and many other biases) is extremely difficult and almost never accomplished without deliberate work to scrub them from our subconscious mind. If you think you can simply decide not to be racist, ableist, sexist, fatist, etc. I beg you to take some of the Harvard implicit bias tests. We (White people most importantly, because we tend to be in positions of power, but to some extent all Americans and most humans) have been acculturated to White, male, able-bodied supremacy and it lives in us like a cancer that will go untreated until we truly recognize it and work to treat it. We can go to a Black Lives Matter protest and still metaphorically “grab our purse closer” when a Black man passes us on the street. I personally feel a twinge of … judgment? shame? – I don’t know how to describe it – when correspondence from an African-American writer has any spelling or grammatical errors, whereas with White folks I brush it off as their own personal problem or prioritization; and I have repeatedly tested as “slightly favoring Black people” in bias tests. Again, not through force of will, but likely because I was, intentionally or not, raised to think White people on the whole are more evil than Black people.

The Harvard Bias tests are so important, in my view, not just in building an understanding of ourselves, but in increasing our understanding of our inevitably interconnected fellow humans. And in demonstrating that no matter how hard you try to consciously make your finger click the correct button, your subconscious biases may prevent you from quickly associating a Black face with “law-abiding” or a person in a wheelchair with “strong” or a woman with “leader.” Which brings me back to our taser cop. I believe she absolutely could have meant to grab her taser and reached for her gun, but that “accident” was born out of an antipathy, hatred, and/or fear of African-Americans nearly endemic to the White population in the US. From what little I know of fast brain/slow brain thinking, or how our reactionary, non-rational actions work differently than our conscious ones, I think it is actually more likely that she consciously yelled “taser” and impulsively grabbed her weapon than that she consciously grabbed her weapon and deliberately yelled “taser” as a cover in the (manufactured) urgency of that moment. (This is not a legal defense or analysis. I am not qualified to speak on that and won’t try to.) However, this is the “impossible” part: while in the moment it may have been an accident, in the larger, deliberate scheme of US policy and practice, it was the inevitable and premeditated consequence of centuries of racist dehumanizing of Black people.

Why does this matter? Why do I feel the need to point out the possibility that this officer’s defense is, to the best of her understanding, true? Because when we write off actions like this as deliberate acts of racism, as deliberate efforts to murder African-Americans, we remove ourselves from the equation. We (compassionate, non-race-hating, White folks) would never do that, so we are not like her. But to a greater or lesser extent, we really are. Our wealth, our privilege, our failure to address casual racist comments or aggressively dismantle racist policies or integrate schools or educate ourselves and others about our vicious history has all contributed to reinforcing White supremacy and the countless lies about Black people that are still held in our collective unconscious.

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