For those of you who subscribe to Netflix or see friends posting about race, you may know right away that this post is a direct reflection of my experience from watching Ava DuVernay’s mini-series When They See Us, a retelling of the 1989 Central Park Jogger case from the perspective of the five once convicted, now exonerated black and Latino boys. It is a tragic, remarkable, powerful, and extremely important story to be told.
When I started learning about my own race, my white skin, and what my white race means, I was in college. I used to think about race in regards to other people (black, brown, native, etc, but never me). I also used to believe racial tensions from history class were largely solved. Maybe there were a few bigots here and there, mostly in southern states, who wished ill of black families because they didn’t know any better, or maybe in the movies, but there were so few of them. I felt for sure I’d never meet one.
Then, I remember learning about the U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education that ultimately recommended (required) that public schools desegregate. That was 1954. That was also the same year my step-mom was born. She isn’t very old. That decision isn’t very old. I read more about the case details when I was writing my Master’s thesis and discovered that it took some states like Alabama decades to actually begin desegregating, and it’s still a task some schools don’t want to do.
In 2013, I accepted a job as an 11th grade English teacher in Minnesota. I arrived in an expensive dress from Banana Republic and little kitten heels, ready to change the world. I didn’t know then that I only knew about my own experience in the world, and in fact working in that building would change me instead.
I have taught in remedial reading classrooms with 100% students of color. I have taught in Honors English classrooms with 100% students who are white. Our schools are still segregated. My own life had been segregated.
When I was 16, I was stopped for speeding by a white male cop. It was dark- past curfew in fact- and I was maybe 40 minutes away from home. My sister and two friends were in the car despite the restriction my license carried of being able to only drive family members because of my age. I remember slowing down and pulling over on the left side of the road because I had been in the left lane and didn’t know to head right. K-Love, the Christian music radio station, was playing softly in the background, and I rolled down the window when the cop approached with no fear. I had already crafted a brilliant defense and excuse for whatever he was going to tell me I did wrong. I actually got voted “most likely to get out of a ticket” for my senior superlative a couple years later.
The officer took my license and walked back to his car. I chatted with the girls in my car and had my fingers crossed on my left hand that I wouldn’t have to pay that much money. I was saving a lot of what I earned working at Cold Stone, but I didn’t necessarily know what for. The officer straddled the median and handed me two cards through the window. The first was my license. The second was his business card. Instead of a ticket, he offered me well wishes and said something along the lines of “We want you alive and well for your next birthday. Slow down, and keep this in your glove compartment if you ever run into trouble.”
I’ve never had any reason based on my lived experiences to believe cops didn’t exist to protect and serve me.
But my students told me stories that didn’t match mine.
When They See Us tells a story that doesn’t match mine.
A few years ago, I wrote that just because I’m a teacher, doesn’t mean I’m a good person. I stand by that. Teaching is an honorable job that requires a lot of sacrifice and service and offers poor pay. But there are people who do a poor job of this job. The same is true for law enforcement. I’m not sure what drives someone to decide to become a police officer, to want to protect and serve their communities, but I’d imagine it’s something similar to what drove me into the classroom. I practice lockdown drills, ready to risk my life in a school shooting. I strive to de-escalate situations. I try to help solve problems my students face. Some cops are really good at those tasks. Some aren’t. Some teachers are really good at those tasks. And some aren’t.
So, what do we do with a story that begs the audience to sit in the discomfort of the reality of what happened to these five boys? Not adult men. Boys. Boys that were the same age as some of the boys I teach. Boys that have such few spaces where they actually get to be kids, live a childhood, make a mistake and get help for it, laugh and play because they live in a society that sees the color of their skin as a threat.
Everywhere I go, my skin sends a silent message: “She’s safe.” “She doesn’t look like someone who would be causing harm.” “We’ll give her the benefit of the doubt.” In fact, I am so unbelievably used to this feeling that I actually feel offended when my intentions or actions are called into question.
When society sees me, they see gentleness, innocence, purity. When they see me, they see someone whose life has value, and whose life is worth protecting. My life has always mattered.
When society sees black boys, they see criminals, guilt, danger, threat, sub-human. When they see black boys, they see people whose lives has less value, whose lives are not worth protecting. For generations, their lives haven’t mattered as much as mine.
I was socialized to “not see color” and think of racism as an ugly fact of the past. But now, I very much see color. I see how policies and actions are formed because of color. I see my own white skin as a color. I make sure my four-year-old sees her skin as the color white.
My biggest fear this summer has been watching my daughter, who looks like a mini version of myself, cross our street to play with neighbors who look similar to her while I am sitting on our porch making sure she is safe. I can’t even begin to fathom what black parents might feel sending their kids out into a world that doesn’t always see them the way they are seen at home: as beautiful, very human children.
When They See Us tells the story of five boys of color who are human beings and children. They have a variety of interests, like any group of kids, including playing trumpet, practicing baseball, loving their parents, dating girls, and hanging out with friends. What happened to them is inexcusable. What happened to them has happened to many other black boys who are denied a childhood and the privilege of a season of life to explore and make mistakes and be protected the way I am, the way my daughter is, the way white skin lets me exhale so often.
This mini-series is a must-watch, must-feel, must-think, must-question-your-beliefs, must-act for people who are white and have Netflix. If you don’t have Netflix, text your friend who does and ask to view it together.
A white friend of mine actually watched the first episode and asked me if I would spoil it for her saying, “Tell me some people lost their jobs.” What came up for me with her question was how very rarely I experience feeling powerless, unable to do anything about something/someone I care about, and how excruciatingly agonized the mothers must have felt for their sons. I ultimately told this friend no, I wouldn’t spoil the ending. Their families had to wait a decade or more to hear how the story ended, and we all need to share in a fraction of that pain. As white folks, we can help carry this burden.
Challenge yourself and your friends to spend time sitting in the discomfort of Ava Duvernay’s outstanding retelling of truth, of the lived experience of Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, and Korey Wise. And then challenge yourself to process it with other people, especially who are white.
See here for some lesson plans on the mini-series.