“One cannot make a good choice when historically, both choices end badly for people of color.”
In early August 2019 in Canton, Miss,four of my family members—two cousins, my 9-year-old son and my 6-year old niece—and I piled into the car and headed home from an event during our family reunion. It was just after midnight because we had stayed to help clean the church with a few others.
Nobody was sleepy, so as I drove, we laughed and reminisced about the great night we had just experienced. It was dark with no other cars in sight, which was typical. I had ridden or driven down this long, dark road my entire life.
But then, out of nowhere, we saw five police officers: two standing on either side of the street alongside their cars and one standing in the middle of the road, next to his car. Yet only one car’s headlights were on. This struck me as odd because it was extremely dark, characteristic of a great country night, a time of day I had grown to appreciate and find peace in, over the years.
I could see the headlights, so I slowed down. It was eerie. One of the police officers, a white man, aimed a flashlight down to the ground. A myriad of stories about how police officers stop people of color who never live to talk about it, circling in my mind, people like Philando Castile and Sandra Bland. I grappled with whether to stop and risk being hurt or killed or to keep going until I could at least get to a streetlight and still be possibly hurt or killed.
So I chose to straddle somewhere in between, which could be considered a rolling stop. As the white officer started toward the car, he yelled. I do not recall what he said, but in that moment I knew I would have to make a definitive choice, so I stopped. He asked if I had seen his hand waving under the flashlight, signaling me to stop. I wanted to say, “It’s dark out here in the country with no streetlights in sight, and I am supposed to see your hand moving under that one light? I did not.”
But I said “no,” forcing myself to keep it short. He took the flashlight, scanned everyone in the car, which means the three terrified kids, age 9 and under, had a flashlight waved in their faces. My niece started to cry, and my son said, “Mom, I’m scared.”
The police officer asked me for my license and registration, but while flashing my license and confidently-yet-cautiously reaching toward the glove compartment, he mumbled, “Go on.”
To this day, I have so many questions: Why were they there? Why didn’t they choose an area that was better lit? (There was a streetlight about a mile or two both ways.) Why did he change his mind about seeing my registration? Would it have been different if I was a Black man? And the big question: What would have happened if I was alone?
This one incident changed the way I would see that long, dark road forever.
I know some people will read this and wonder why I did not just stop in the first place, as it seems like the obvious good choice. My answer: One cannot make a good choice when historically, both choices end badly for people of color. We are faced with systemic racism and dehumanization every day, causing racialized trauma.
Then, we are forced to decide on the choice that could yield the least amount of hurt. Today, this trauma is being exasperated as we watch images of police officers killing Black men. Which is why I straddled between the decision to stop or continue until I could find light.
Seeing an image of someone I love brings a smile to my face; seeing an image of a beautiful sunset just beyond the water makes me somehow feel relaxed; seeing images of ice everywhere somehow makes me feel cooler. The same way these images elicit an immediate and physical response, an image of a Black man handcuffed, on his stomach, on the ground, face planted, and three cops on top of him and one with his knee in his neck and hands in his pocket, elicits a response that is impossible to describe.
There are no words that can delineate the numerous feelings I have, even today, after seeing the image of George Floyd numerous times.
The images of Black and Brown men being killed at the hands of white police officers pierces my heart. But the tide is shifting, and the work that people of color and their allies have been doing years prior, is positioning us to transform a system that has racism laced all throughout its structure. However, it is going to take everyone: White people, too.
Here are some steps our White allies can take:
- Find out if people of color you are near are OK. Ask if they need space. If they do, let them know you will come back to check in with them. Everyone processes things differently and should be allowed to do so.
- Early on in an encounter with Black and Brown people, acknowledge three things: systemic racism is real; White Privilege is real; Black and Brown people’s lives matter.In any response to “Black Lives Matter” or a discussion regarding the Black Lives Movement, never say, “Every one’s lives matters” or “Blue lives matter.” We know they do; we’ve been forced to read about it and live it our entire lives.
- Don’t ask about Black on Black crime.
- Do a self-assessment. Check your implicit bias. What do you really think about people of color? Do you remain indifferent? Figure it out. If it needs changing, change it.
- Have every organization you are affiliated with make a statement
- Do your homework! Black and Brown people will sense when it’s nothing more than lip service. (See resources below.)
- Practice cultural humility and normalize not knowing. No matter who you are and what your experiences are, a white person will never truly know what it’s like to be a person of color. If the person you are engaging is not receptive to your inquiry or willingness to help, they are not there yet, and that is ok. Remember the trauma, walk away and do not take offense. If you really want to do something, you will find the right person or people,and there will be a right time.
- Talk to your children about racism so they do not repeat it.Help them to develop the capacity to handle conversations about racism and how to handle situations they see involving racist acts.
- The Juanita Sims Doty Foundation is working hard to transform systems; disrupt the dehumanization cycle and bring awareness to racialized trauma. Join us. Call us at 601-882-9127 and donate on our website.
- “Stamped From the Beginning”by Ibrim Xendi
- The 1619 Project (New York Times)
- Forward Promise – Disrupting Dehumanization and Affirming the Humanity of Bymoc and their Villages
- Disrupting Dehumanization
- “Coming of Age in Mississippi” by Annie Moody
- Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is
- An Example of Privilege for Gamers – A List of Anti-Racist Books
- Books on Race, Privilege and Being a White Ally
This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an essay for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and factcheck information to [email protected] We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.