Following Trayvon Martin’s death, when Portland Oregon was home, my wife, a friend, and I put together Portland’s March for community unity. Although Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida, there were multiple youth of color who were killed in Portland by people, both police and civilians, who believed them to be threats.
My wife and I are white women who have worked to understand the depths of racism, which continues to haunt this country. Our friend is a black woman who raised three successful, kind-hearted sons by herself. Her sons have experienced white people thinking of them as threatening, including police and civilians.
A few weeks ago, I received a text message from my friend about an incident on the public bus she rides. I encouraged her to document it. She wrote the following,
I ride the number 6 bus almost every day, at the same time. Each day I see two young black boys around the age of 14 get on the bus. They seem to be best friends, because they always sit together. Today, a white man about the age of 35, standing a few rows behind the boys started yelling that the boys had a gun in their backpack and that he felt threated by them. He proceeded to tell them that he wanted to search their bags for the gun.
The boys were so frightened that they allowed the man to search their belongings and their persons. Eventually one of the boys told the man that he had no right to search them and to leave them alone. Although he had not found any weapon, the man started yelling, “See, they’re threating me, I feel threated, I’m scared, they have a gun, I saw it!”
I stood up from my seat and yelled at the man, “Get the fuck away from those children. You’re antagonizing them and you know it. You’re a bully. And they don’t have any guns.” Then another woman started yelling at the man to leave the children alone.
One of the boys was yelling, “He’s quoting Stand Your Ground Law, he can kill me because he feels threatened. I haven’t done anything….” Then the man said to the boy, 'That’s how niggers get killed'.
I went over to the boy, put my arm around him, and kept telling him that he was alright. The driver told the two boys to get off the bus and allowed the man to continue to ride.
The commentary by passengers after the boys were forced off was both telling and interesting. White people started laughing and saying “What a bunch of silly drama. How stupid was that? Maybe those boys really did have a gun. I don’t see what all the fuss was about. I just want to get home”. The Black people were silent… too stunned and angry to talk. We need to get it together America.
We live in a culture of fear and suspicion. When I am on the train platforms of New York or at an airport, the announcements constantly encourage us not to stand by if we see something suspicious, to report it.
We live in a county where young men (mostly white) are shooting multiple people, including children. Some think that the man on the bus and George Zimmerman were simply performing their civic duty.
The white people on the bus did not seem to understand the significance of what they saw. During this incident on this bus those boys did not get killed. They called it ‘silly’ and just ‘wanted to get home.’ This is exactly what white America needs to understand. This event is significant. This event can be utilized for purposes of dialogue and understanding. In fact, if the black people on my friend’s bus were given a chance to speak about what they saw, and white people were willing to listen to it, we may get somewhere.
I asked my friend why she thinks young men of color are more at risk of being profiled as dangerous threats? She replied, “White people don’t see us.” I had no idea what that meant. I began reflecting. With my friend’s sons, I know stories about them from when they were young. I spend time with them when we visit Portland. We have shared our feelings with each other. I realized that my tendency would be to not ‘see’ the young men for who they are. I would not know their distinct personalities and feelings. It would be easy for me to simply see them as young black men, as if that sums them up. I cannot imagine seeing one of her sons as threatening because I know them.
My wife and I are fortunate to belong to a diverse religious organization, where forming friendships with people from a variety of cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds is priority. In order to make diverse friendships, we need to consciously step out of our comfort zones. Most of my best friends are liberal white women. That is not a bad thing. I love my friends and I am grateful for them. But for me it is easy to make liberal white friends.
Truly knowing someone is different than working with them. It is different than riding the bus with them. Knowing someone means that thoughts and feelings are shared, and understood; that respect grows and fear is eliminated.