It's not easy for me to talk about my own fears of the police, and I know not everybody can relate. But I was heartened that my story got some of you thinking about your own place in society.
In these columns, I often ask you to see the world from my point of view, to walk in my shoes or those of the people I write about. But I have some responsibilities too. And one of them is to try, as best as I can, to acknowledge the life experiences and perspectives of the people who read and respond to my work.
Last week, I wrote about the mortal fear of the police that rose up in me during a routine traffic stop on Capitol Hill.
I’ve come to expect a certain amount of pushback from readers, online commenters in particular, who take issue with my stance on matters of race and racism — the fear of it and the fact of it in our society.
Boy, did the haters and doubters deliver. I had one reader email me to say that if I was going to go through life in a state of fear, I should move to another country.
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Don’t count on me running away from my country, my fears or that kind of resistance to the truth of an entire people’s experience.
This country belongs to those impacted by inequities in law-enforcement and the justice system just as much as it belongs to people who insist on believing that unfairness in policing and the justice system is either a fantasy or not worth getting bothered about. We’re stuck with each other, like it or not.
I didn’t write last week’s column for African Americans, Latinos or members of other identity groups that have historically faced harassment and undue violence by law enforcement — and who disproportionately endure it today. I wrote it for people who don’t know that particular terror, who are not statistically more likely to face unjust treatment by the police and who may not have thought to imagine what that must feel like.
I wrote it, foremost, for white people.
Many white readers wrote to me directly, with depth and insight, about their lives and their status in society. It must be said that not even all of them agreed with my column’s framing or assumptions.
I was especially struck, though, by readers’ emails about coming to terms with the privilege that their whiteness grants them.
“Being Caucasian as I am, and especially as a male … you absolutely get away with things that an African American couldn’t, and I’m just talking about the basic dignities of being a human being here,” wrote one reader who said he’s lived in Seattle for 24 years. “It’s still such a sick and unjust world in so many ways, and having to worry, rightfully so, about being gunned down by your own employees, yes, the police are your employees, simply due to the color of your skin certainly doesn’t help matters much either.”
Another wrote: “I am a white woman with a 13 year old black son. I am honestly terrified of the day when he starts to drive independently. I already have the business card of a well respected criminal defense attorney that I keep in my wallet, not because I am worried about something my son might do, but something that he might be unjustly accused of or blamed for.”
This reader, who also identified herself as a white woman, shared her own recent traffic-stop experience: “It was super scary to be questioned by a no-nonsense white man with a gun and a flashlight in my face. I was very aware that my skin color was working in my favor when I was able to reach into my coat pocket for my ID without fearing for my life.”
“Like you,” she wrote, “my incident made me realize that the heightened intensity of my police stop is society’s fault. I would add it is white society’s fault. I was so relieved I was white and so aware that the way the officer did his job couldn’t be separated from the society that trained him.”
Another sweetly wrote, “I am so very sorry that you have to feel this way … in my 88 years of a “white” life, I feel so fortunate and protected.”
But really, you don’t have to walk a mile in my shoes or anybody else’s to understand the burdens and frustrations of the people they come from.
Read. Listen. Reach inside yourself with questions you’ve never thought to ask yourself. Question my take on social justice if you need to. I know I do — before, during and after writing each column.
My intent with last week’s account was not to make white people or anyone else who reads this column feel bad for me, or about themselves, because I felt afraid of the cops. My situation turned out fine.
My hope is that readers feel a sense of shared responsibility to consider the wrongs of the past — and face up to the wrongs of the present, those committed by the authorities as well as those of us who are not sworn to enforce, uphold and interpret the law.
One of the readers last week wrote in to say, “I hope the catharsis of sharing this experience gives you some peace of mind and reinforces the belief that good does — and must — prevail!”
Still working on my peace of mind, but right on.
Editor’s note: The comment thread on this column has been closed because comments on Tyrone Beason’s columns often violate our Terms of Service.