That is my first memory of what it means to be black in this country. Here is a limited selection of lowlights:
During middle school, as I rode my bike along the street, someone drove by and yelled “n-----.” The car turned around and then tried to knock me off my bike, throwing open a door as it sped past.
During high school, as I sat in my car waiting for a friend, police officers approached with their hands on their guns and demanded that I get out. After I calmly stepped out, they pushed me against the car and asked to search my pockets. I refused, not because I had anything to hide — I didn’t drink and avoided drugs — but because I was outraged at the affront to my dignity. The police impounded my car, arrested me, told me I would amount to nothing and locked me in a holding cell for about 12 hours. Still, I know it could have been worse.
After college, during a recruiting visit to a PhD program at Stanford University, someone called the police to investigate as I went to enter the apartment I had been lent for the visit. I decided not to attend Stanford, though a different department at Stanford later hired me, and I have risen through the ranks to become a chaired professor and a senior associate dean.
A couple of years ago, I had to pay to have that arrest expunged from my record to get an international visa. For me, this was a minor, yet infuriating, inconvenience. But under different circumstances it could have been a major life impediment.
These are not stories I tell often, and I’m not looking for sympathy. My experiences are more benign than those of many others. I share this to help people understand that none of the events that have recently sparked outrage are threats that I wasn’t already familiar with. I incorporated them into my life long ago; they guided many of my personal and professional activities. So, I’m doing about the same as I have been for the past 38 years.
The question I would pose to my white friends: Are you okay? Are you okay after seeing a Minneapolis police officer casually pressing the life out of George Floyd? Are you okay after learning that police rushed in and shot Breonna Taylor, a woman not accused of wrongdoing, in her apartment? Are you okay after watching three white men chase and kill Ahmaud Arbery? Are you okay after watching an apparently liberal woman functionally weaponize her whiteness in Central Park? I know that many feel terrible that such atrocities continue to happen. I don’t know whether people understand that, because they are white, they are subject to the same forces that produced Derek Chauvin, the officers in Kentucky, those men in Georgia and Amy Cooper in New York.
Maybe you believe you have nothing in common with those people, that good intentions, tolerant upbringings or enlightened parenting will protect against such corruption. Maybe you believe the diverse activism on display nationwide will make things right. But sincere concern and time have not fixed our problems. They are not enough to protect any of us from the influence of the malignant system we all live in.
A significant part of my professional work has involved researching the psychological consequences of being white in this country. I and others have found that whites have deep discomfort with the realities of whiteness in America. When faced with evidence of white privilege, white folks report more life hardships. Of course, white people, like everyone else, face genuine hardships, but these hardships do not negate white privilege. Consider the difference in responses to the suffering of black people during the crack cocaine epidemic and that of rural whites during the opioid epidemic. One resulted in criminalization that devastated black communities; the other generated calls for an empathetic social response to those trapped in circumstances not of their making.
The question going forward is whether people suppress the desire to deny this problem or distance themselves from it. The forces that created the monsters so many now decry also help to generate white privileges. Talk alone will not dismantle a system that has torn at all Americans — body, mind and soul — since this country’s inception. It’s time to educate friends and family, and demand more of leaders. It is time to be more than a cheerleader or ally and find ways to make permanent change.
This will not be easy. The price of justice — the loss of privilege — will be a painful shock. But the privileges of dominance come at a steep moral and psychological price for whites and cause others significant harm. As Frederick Douglass said, without struggle, there is no progress. Let’s struggle together for our collective soul.