Less than a week ago, Seattle police shot and killed pregnant, 30-year-old Charleena Lyles in front of three of her children.
Making matters worse, the Seattle Times published heinous headlines describing Lyles simply as a “knife-wielding woman” (they later apologized), and SPD referred to Lyles in a Tweet as a “suspect” (she called them for help). SPD also later posted a video of Sergeant Sean Whitcomb playing a first-person-shooter (!!) video game called Destiny while he casually answered questions about the shooting. (Update: SPD decided to end the livestream following public reactions.)
The crude, tone-deaf mishandling of the events that unfolded in the aftermath of Lyles’ completely avoidable murder has been a continuation of the initial act of violence, especially for those in the immediate community. Unfortunately, institutions like SPD and the Times aren’t the only ones jockeying for control of the master narrative; white folks everywhere–even and especially “good, liberal” ones here in Seattle–have contributed by chiming in on social media conversations to insist that this shooting (and the countless others leading up to now) wasn’t about race.
Why do we feel so compelled to do this? What is at stake in making sure the official story of Lyles’ murder is about the knife or her mental health profile or whatever other red herring–anything but race?
Let’s start with some background. We know that police have proven themselves quite capable of disarming weapon-wielding white folks. In fact, SPD disarmed a man brandishing knives downtown as recently as March of this year–just three months before Lyles’ death. Last month in Portland, a man waving bloody knives while yelling racist slurs after having stabbed several people on a train was taken alive by police. Meanwhile, last week SPD shot and killed Tommy Le, who was wielding (wait for it) a pen.
“Why is it white people struggling with mental health leave police encounters alive with assistance but black and brown peoples struggling with mental health are routinely executed? Why is it that white ‘suspects’ who have committed acts of violence are routinely apprehended alive but so many unarmed black and brown peoples have been killed?”
Tests like Harvard’s Implicit Assessment Tests (take this now and often if you haven’t already!) show us that implicit bias is alive and well and probably plays a pretty big role in the discrepancy Oliver describes. The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reports:
“[A]bout 70 percent of those who took a version of the test that measures racial attitudes have an unconscious, or implicit, preference for white people compared to blacks. This contrasts with figures generally under 20 percent for self report, or survey, measures of race bias.”
Very simply, how racist we think we are is not the same thing as how racist we actually are. In the words of Anthony Greenwald, one of the test’s creators, “[w]hen you are unaware of attitudes or stereotypes, they can unintentionally affect your behavior.” Every single white person in this country has been soaking in cultural programming that conditions us and primes us to have these biases.
Here’s the deal: If we aren’t aware of our biases, if we aren’t deliberately working to deprogram ourselves, we walk around in the world doing unintentional and very real harm. Heck, we do harm even when we are working actively on deprogramming. The problem is, this harm is amplified when we bring our unexamined implicit bias with us into places like classrooms, courtrooms, and police forces. (Let Jerry Kang tell you all about it in this video.) The good news is we can at least reduce the harm we do by being more self-critical and self-aware.
The bad news is that it’s pretty uncomfortable (spoiler: we’ll survive). Most people–especially those of us with privilege–are made pretty uneasy by the idea that we don’t really know ourselves, which is why many of us work so hard to avoid self-knowledge. It turns out ignorance is at the heart of privilege, and it’s an awfully cruel luxury. The survival of people of color often depends on how well they know white folks and meanwhile we think our survival depends on avoiding discomfort.
Ijeoma Oluo gives the idea of survival and self-knowledge a searing, nuanced treatment in her February 2017 article, “White People: I Don’t Want You to Understand Me Better, I Want You to Understand Yourselves:”
“Your survival has never depended on your knowledge of white culture. In fact, it’s required your ignorance. The dominant culture does not have to see itself to survive because culture will shift to fit its needs. This shift is cheaper and easier when you don’t look too closely at how it’s being accomplished — if you never ask who is picking up the check. And no, you hardly see us at all — even if you love us. You can’t; we don’t exist as whole people in most of the places that you have been getting your information from.
“And as much as I’d like you to see me — as much as I’d like systemic racism to simply be a problem of different groups not seeing each other — I need you to see yourself, really see yourself, first. This is the top priority.”
So in our ignorance, we white people basically walk around releasing a constant stream of toxins at people of color, and most of us don’t even realize it.
That’s partially because we know we aren’t supposed to be racists: We know racists are bad people; we know we are not bad people, so we know we cannot possibly be racist. (See John Metta’s “I, Racist” for further unpacking of this idea.) If someone asked us to self-report if we were racist, most of us would respond with an emphatic no. This is what Oluo calls “entrenched self-delusion.”
Except we white people can’t just decide our way out of participating in and holding up white supremacy. Social conditioning and implicit bias prevent that; this is what some folks mean when they say that all white people are racist (we are). Regardless of our own self-image as non-racist people, we can and do still commit racist acts. Like, a lot.
And so here we are: Confronting the inherent racism in Charleena Lyles’ murder at the hands of police opens the door to the possibility that the rest of us probably hold similar biases. Charleena Lyles’ murder is what happens when you take centuries of implicit bias created by white supremacist conditioning and put it in body armor and give it weapons, impunity (Washington State has the most dangerous and regressive use-of-force laws in the country), and the option to choose not to carry non-lethal tools like tasers.
I’m not telling you anything new. As Oluo observes:
“People of color have been begging you to see what you are doing and why. We’ve been begging you to see what you came from and the true legacy you have inherited. We’ve begged you to see your boot on our necks as long as it’s been there.”
If we want real, lasting change, we must start by listening to people of color and believing them when they tell us what they’ve been acutely aware of all along: Yes, it’s about race. Yes, our programming kills them. Yes, our programming props up oppressive systems. Systems, after all, are designed by and made up of people with biases. Our systems kill.
It’s up to us to raze those systems to the ground.
There are a lot of ways to go about that, but one way is to begin by setting fire to our own conditioning. I hate to break it to you, but it’s going to be a slow burn and it needs to be a fire that never goes out. We will never be able to put down our torches and feel satisfied that the whole house has been burnt to ash because new rooms will always appear as the house continuously tries to rebuild itself.
We must look inward. Be vigilant. Believe Black women and femmes when they tell us that Charleena Lyles’ murder was about anti-blackness and the militarization/institutionalization of our shared implicit bias/cultural programming. When we argue, we do more harm. When we resist and deny and insist, we perpetuate the structural violence of racism.
We “good,” progressive, leftist white people in Seattle probably have more invested in the idea that we are not racist than the average US American, and that makes us and our “entrenched self-delusion” more dangerous than we could ever know.