In the midst of all the social upheaval rocking the country following George Floyd’s vile death, a friend suggested I watch a Utube video of Dr. Robin DiAngelo discuss her new book “White Fragility.” Dr.DiAngelo starts with the same premise I use in my police ethics course—we are all racists. It’s not our fault I tell my students, it’s in our DNA, it’s in the textbooks we read and the air we breathe. What is our response to that intrinsic racism is what counts. Dr. DiAngelo suggests that progressive white people are the worst racists since they don’t even recognize their complicity. When I heard her voice that opinion I immediately thought back to a personal experience that I must admit, proves her point.
Dr. G, d’ya know, you’re racist.” Her head tilted slightly, but she looked straight at me, didn’t flinch. Her dark eyes didn’t avert my return glare. Her classmate Glen, a young black man, stood next to her.
“Now why would you come back here after class and say that to me?”
“That story you told us. Don’t you know what the story said to our class?”
My shoulders bounced up and down, then, feeling lopsided, I rocked on my heels. I opened and closed my mouth before asking, “The true story from my days on the Atlanta Bureau of Police? That killing, even a legitimate police killing, was a painful and chilling experience? That the officers who shot and killed a perp in the commission of a crime were not emotionally unscathed from their action; that justified shoot or not, they had to process and recover? I said it wasn’t a turkey shoot, they had taken a life.”
“Yeah, that too. But what I, Glen—and all those white students—heard was white folks were good and cops and black folks were robbers and crooks.”
I thought hard for a moment. Yes, I had said white officers were behind the two-way glass, part of the stakeout teams covering local convenient stores. Yes, I had said the black man stood pointing a sawed-off shotgun at the cashier. Yes, I had said that the White officers’ faces cracked into fine lines like a piece of broken porcelain.
Guilty as charged. My emotions toggled from anger to feeling deflated. I was incredulous that Veronica had confronted me—called me out. I was a good teacher, I cared.
Block by block I built an emotional fence to protect me from her accusations. Veronica’s face softened. There was no anger in her eyes, no challenge on her lips. She looked at me expectantly and then I knew, the emotional tsunami that was swamping me was because I had let her down.
“Do you really think I’m a racist?”
“Naw, if I thought you were I wouldn’t have said anything.”
But of course I am and I have to work at it every day, every day, so that I don’t add to the harm racism does to people, to society, to the planet. We all do.