As a white female there are things in this world to fear. I have experienced moments of feeling threatened, followed, uncomfortable, oppressed, in both public and private spheres. However, from a young age, I have been taught that if ever I was to come into trouble, I just have to call the police and by virtue of my gender and the colour of my skin, they will be there to serve and protect me. Not everyone has this privilege.
If a white person found themselves in a situation where the police were called, but knew they were innocent, they can have absolute confidence that their innocence will not be questioned. If a BAME individual was part of an incident where the police were called, even in the knowledge of being totally innocent, there is no certainty that they wouldn’t be perceived as guilty until proven otherwise. Most kids get ‘the talk’ about sex. BAME children also receive ‘the talk’ on how to act when approached by the police so as not to aggravate or provoke a further issue.
The reports that have emerged from America in the last week are not ‘shocking’ or ‘hard to believe’, they are a harrowing reminder of the fact that we are living in a systemically racist society.
George Floyd begged for oxygen; he was denied the only thing that is truly free in this world. George Floyd was murdered, actually crushed by white supremacy. Kneeling on someone’s neck, slowly squeezing the air out of their lungs is a genuine form of torture. George Floyd knew that he was going to be killed. How can an individual be so derailed from any sense of humanity that he can tell a man to ‘relax’ in response to George Floyd crying ‘they’re going to kill me’?
Derek Chauvin, the police officer who murdered George Floyd, along with the others who stood by him are in no way excusable, but they are acting in the way that their fractured, oppressive society has deemed as acceptable. The patriarchal society that we are all living under has allowed white police officers to believe it is their right, and in many ways their duty, to react to and treat BAME individuals in this manner.
The onlookers who recorded George Floyd’s murder are as much complicit in the overbearing oppression of white patriarchy as the officers themselves. They did not do anything to forcibly save George Floyd. They attempted to plea for the officers to let George Floyd breathe but they did not overthrow the officers. This is due to the effects of white patriarchy harming every identity.
While they are clearly fearing for George Floyd’s survival, they are also too fearful of their own fate to intervene. They have no way of knowing that the officers would not also brutally force them to the ground. The very people who are put in place to protect them, inflict fear in them. It is this dominant power of the police that stopped people from acting and led to another black life being viscously stolen.
Christian Cooper asked Amy Cooper to put her dog on a lead as it would disturb the birds that he was out watching in Central Park. As she reported his ‘threatening’ remarks to the police, Christian Cooper was not just a man in the park, he was an ‘African American’ man. Amy Cooper knew the weight that came with naming his skin colour and in doing so she planted a warrant on his head. The dramatisation and panic in her voice is purely to get a reaction from the police, while Christian remains calm and in no way threatening at all. In fact, Amy is the one threatening Christian.
In any report to the police, the recognition of skin colour is perhaps the most bigoted thing a person could do, as if it was more of a threat because Christian has black skin. Would Amy have said ‘there is a white man threatening me’? I doubt it. Would she have even reported it at all if Christian was white? Or was the issue largely rooted from Amy’s internalised racism and subsequent anger at being told she couldn’t do something by a black man?
Amy knew that through highlighting Christian’s skin colour, her report would induce a greater sense of urgency in the police’s reaction. Who knows, if the police had found Christian in the park, he could’ve been treated with the same brutality and faced the same murder as George Floyd. Simply because a white woman recognised the power that she has purely from being born white.
People of colour do not have the privilege of this protection and its time white people recognised that. Amy Cooper attempted to capitalise off of her white privilege. Calling the police is a last resort, people deserve to feel safe, but for the right reasons. White people have weaponised calling the police, as Amy cooper did, using it as a threat is a violent act in itself and this needs to be stopped. If Christian had reported that a white woman was threatening him, it would have held next to none of the same gravity as Amy’s claims. Amy Cooper’s police call was a death wish.
Atatiana Jefferson, shot in her own home by a police officer while playing video games with her nephew, the eight-year-old boy witnessed his aunts murder. Breonna Taylor, shot eight times as police officers attempted a narcotics search, on the wrong house. These people were hunted and there are so many more. White people need to stop using the police as a defence mechanism. The police are just as much of a weapon as the weapon that all police officers seem to assume BAME individuals carry.
It is not that racism is becoming more of a problem, it is that awareness of racism is rising because it is being filmed. Technology and social media are both a blessing and a curse in this sense. Although it is important to show that mistreatment and violence occur every day, white people should not have to watch and share something to recognise that this is happening.
The indignity of an innocent murder is hard enough to comprehend. What is more undignified is that even with hard evidence of discrimination and murder, of actual footage of a human taking their last breath, ‘FBI investigations’ and court cases still occur. Chauvin has been previously investigated for three other shootings, one fatal, and yet he is still a valued, and protected, member of the force.
There is no doubt that those people were murdered, yet somehow the system allows for the perpetrators to attempt some kind of defence because they are police officers. Do you think if a black man knelt on white police officers’ neck until he was starved of oxygen and died that he would be given a fair hearing in court?
White people need to hold ourselves accountable for the actions of our community. It is not enough to share a video on a group chat and say, ‘how horrific’ or ‘can’t believe this’. Firstly, you cannot know how triggering witnessing a violent act can be to someone. Secondly, it allows for a fleeting moment of horror that is ‘unbelievable’ to be watched and then left. It is even less helpful to make throw away comments such as ‘lucky we don’t live in America’. Racism engulfs us in the U.K too and being unable, or unwilling, to recognise that is one of the largest faults in our society today.
White people need to educate each other. Conversation and discussion educate people and this topic needs to be spoken about now more than ever.
Speak to your friends, family, colleagues. Call them out when they say something out of turn. Challenge them. It will be uncomfortable but not as uncomfortable as ignorance. Not as uncomfortable as living with loss. Not as uncomfortable as having a genuine fear of the police, a system that is put in place to protect everyone. If you remain silent, you remain complicit within your oppression.
Once you stop ignoring that something is happening, it stops being hard to believe. Once you register that discrimination and inequality occur every single day through a prejudice hatred, it stops being so shocking. It is a white person’s duty to acknowledge their privilege and as Angela Davis said, recognise that “it is not enough to be not racist, you must be actively anti-racist”. Being anti-racist is not a radical act, it should be how everyone defines themselves as that is what equality is.
The necessity for white people to recognise the power that their voice holds, in equal measure of if you use it or not, is vital. To use it, in the right way, is to tackle systemic racism. To stay silent is to allow systemic racism to remain a stagnant status quo of society. With police brutality on BAME people being repeatedly reported, white people’s active participation in the dismantling of systemic racism is necessary and it is necessary now. Our silence is our complicity.
By Phoebe Rayner