It’s difficult to truly understand someone else’s point of view. We don’t see the moment-to-moment details of their lives or process information and experiences the same way they do. Even when we’re very close to someone, it can be hard to know what they’re going through, or sincerely listen when they speak out.
These are complicated times. For me, I try to find a clear truth that I can wrap my head around. Not to oversimplify a complex issue, but to give me a litmus test for cutting through the confusion to find a relatable core.
Last year, I was watching a documentary about the great jazz vocalist and civil rights activist Nina Simone. In it, she made a simple statement that grabbed me and took hold. She said that a people who live in fear cannot truly be free.
In the time since, I have thought of her words often–especially as of late. They have helped me consider how my experience as a white male is different from those who don’t look like me.
Most of my life is free of fear. Sure, there are times when I am afraid that something bad will happen to me or someone I care about. But those are the exceptions, not the rule. When I am driving down the road and I see police lights flashing in my rear view mirror, I feel a rush of panic that I might get a ticket. But it doesn’t occur to me that, if I get pulled over, I could lose my life to a misunderstanding.
People of color do not have the same experience I do. They can’t afford to take such moments for granted.
To them, the simple act of pulling over for a traffic stop is fraught with terror. How could it not be? A cursory glance through the litany of killings and wrongful arrests under such conditions is horrifying. If you’re a person of color, of course it has to be at the forefront of your mind that you could do everything according to your legal rights and still end up dead.
When my daughter is old enough to drive, I will tell her what to do if a cop pulls her over. Be polite, be honest, provide the requested information, and maybe if you’re lucky you’ll get let off with a warning. I’ll be nervous like any parent whose kid is out on the road alone for the first time. But that nervousness will fade, and I’ll start to take for granted that she’s reasonably safe out there. I realize how fortunate I am that I’ll have that experience, because parents of black children do not. They have to be afraid, not just that first day, but every day thereafter.
If you are forced by the circumstances of society to experience persistent fear in the course of everyday activities, you are not truly free.
You might respond that a traffic stop isn’t an everyday activity for most people. Well, statistics show that it’s much more common for people of color than for those of us who are white. But I’m not just talking about that. Walking through your own neighborhood at night, shopping in a store, and so many other basic activities many of us take for granted have an element of fear and wariness for some people but not others. Will you make it home safe? Or will you end up on the ground for more than eight minutes with a knee on your neck?
Why do hate groups like the KKK use fear and intimidation as weapons? Because that’s their way to sidestep laws and constitutional rights that promise equality on paper. It doesn’t matter that the law says you are equal if, as you live your day-to-day life, the circumstances you encounter prove that you are not.
There are people I know personally who clench their teeth when they hear the word “privilege” being used in reference to their race. These are folks who survive paycheck to paycheck, so when they hear someone say they’re privileged, it sounds like an attack. But it’s not about living in luxury.
The “privilege” that we’re talking about is much simpler, much more basic. It’s the ability to live a life free of persistent and systemic fear.
How crazy is that? It’s utter madness that we should have to think about such a fundamental human condition as a privilege. It should be the norm. For everyone.
I have never, due to economic circumstance, been forced to live in a dangerous area with a high crime rate. Many others are not so fortunate. Such places are filled with good people who live every day in fear. It doesn’t matter where the violence is coming from, cops or gangs or something else. There are more and more documented cases of psychological trauma being suffered by American citizens who live in those conditions, hauntingly similar to the kinds of mental health issues reported by veterans coming back from war. There is near universal sympathy for soldiers who struggle with PTSD, but almost none for civilians who hear shots ring out day after day outside their own homes. Just imagine what that would be like. What it would do to your psyche. To your trust in others.
When you’re poor, you have so much more to be afraid of. And a people who live in fear cannot be free.
When I listen to a person of color describing their experiences, there is no way I can fully comprehend what they go through. But I try to picture myself in their shoes, and I ask myself if the conditions they describe would cause me to live my life in fear. Not just a fearful moment here or there, but a persistent cloud of dread that causes you to constantly be on guard because you never know when you or someone you care about could lose their lives.
That’s the reality of racism. Through a myriad of ways–some overt, others subtle–systemic and relentless fear is imposed upon an entire group of people. We don’t all experience it, so we should try to listen to those who do.
No one should suffer that kind of fear. If we agree on nothing else, surely we can find common ground on this, can’t we?
A people who live in fear cannot be free. Agreeing with that won’t fix the problems we’re facing. But if we were to use that one simple principle to guide our decisions when it comes to taking action to help victims–not just of racism, but of domestic violence and a host of other plagues on our society–then perhaps we’d have more empathy toward others and would make better choices for our shared future.
When you see someone peddling fear–whether it’s in the media, at the dinner table, in government, or from the pulpit–recognize that they are trying to use that fear as a weapon against others. Maybe even you. Don’t let yourself, or anyone else, become a victim of it. And ask yourself if you’re guilty of letting that fear manipulate you into doing the wrong thing instead of the right thing.
Note: I couldn’t find the exact quote that inspired me, but I found this clip in which Nina talks about feeling free. I think it conveys the same sentiment.