I was grieved this past week over the news of another police shooting of an unarmed black man. Another hashtag, another family burying a loved one, another senseless loss that could have and should have been avoided.
People are always quick to pick a side in these situations, speaking out in anger, pain, fear, and defense. The truth is that no one will ever know exactly what happened that horrible day except for the officers on the scene. It’s a heart-breaking and confusing mess. We can go back and forth and argue about details all day long, but I think the most important one is this:
The officer who shot Terence Crutcher said that she had never felt so scared in her entire life.
The man was unarmed, and she was surrounded by other cops- yet she still had never felt as scared as she did in that moment.
I don’t want to speculate that I understand what it’s like to be a police officer and to consistently put myself in harm’s way day after day. I don’t want to be a part of the feeding frenzy and yell that all officers are malicious and racist. I’m also not naive enough to believe that this is a simple issue with simple answers.
I believe that her fear was real. I believe that she truly felt afraid and felt the need to protect herself and her fellow officers.
But why did she feel so afraid?
While the issue of police brutality and unarmed black men being killed at alarming rates is complex, there is a single-story narrative at play here, and it’s costing people their lives.
Black men are violent. Black men are dangerous. Black men are going to harm you.
It’s the danger of a single story.
Where instead of being able to look at people as individuals, we are affected by what we have been conditioned to believe about different races and therefore project stereotypes onto every person we meet. The singular story strips people of their individuality and makes it okay for us to refuse to treat them with dignity and respect.
The problem is that there is no one-size-fits-all narrative for people’s lives. Their stories, needs, experiences, highs, and lows are all different and unique and special. But having been told a single story our entire lives breeds fear, cynicism, and prejudice and makes it easier to say “he deserved it” rather than feel compassion and empathy for a man executed in the street and his family that now has to figure out their new normal.
I do not believe that most people are outright racists. The majority of people that I know would consider it absurd to think that one person is better than another because of skin color. We live in multi-cultural communities and go to multi-cultural churches and schools. We have friends of every race and invite people who don’t look like us into our homes and around our dinner tables.
But that does not mean that we have not been affected by systemic racism and the way that certain races have been portrayed to us our entire lives.
Let me give the ladies an example. If you are leaving a store at night and see two men, one white and one black, in the parking lot, which man makes you hold your purse closer to you? Which man causes you to walk a little faster, makes you wish you had parked closer?
If your initial instinct is to fear the black man more than the white man, then you have been affected by systemic racism. Because something along the way told you to believe that the black man was more dangerous. You saw it in movies and through media and news reports your entire life and therefore have preconceived ideas about the black community without even realizing it. (This does not apply if you or someone close to you has been the personal victim of a crime by a certain race. Trauma/personal experiences will always affect our belief system more than anything else. And in that situation, the fear is valid and warranted and should be handled with care.)
Systemic racism is in the foundation of every single area of our society and has molded our thinking without asking our permission by telling us a single story narrative and treating some with respect and others with disdain.
It’s not okay that black men are described as “thugs” while white men are “loners.”
It’s not okay that we are told of a black man’s past in order to justify his execution while we are told of a white man’s potential in order to justify his lenient sentence.
We can be genuinely kindhearted, loving people and yet still have beliefs and prejudices deeply rooted in our hearts from years of being conditioned to believe a certain narrative, and we have to be willing to acknowledge that. It does us no good to dig our heels in defensively, determined to prove that we are not racists and have not been affected by systemic racism. Because nothing will change until we actually believe that something needs to change.
We have to be willing to examine our hearts and deal with what we find, uprooting seeds of prejudice and racism rather than throwing more dirt on them by saying “but I have black friends.”
The danger of a single story doesn’t just apply to the racial problems in our country. We can see it played out in many different hot-topic issues right now.
All black men are violent.
All police officers are racists.
All refugees are terrorists.
All immigrants are criminals.
All welfare recipients are lazy.
Everywhere we look we can see how we are being fed one idea about a group of people which causes us to unfairly judge and to refuse to offer support and care to people who are genuinely in need.
But friends, please beware the singular story being presented to you. It’s never that simple. Every single person you meet is unique and deserves to be treated humanely.
It’s easy for us to look back in history and imagine who we would have been during social justice movements. But the truth is that we don’t have to just imagine that anymore because right now, we have a chance to answer that question everyday in the way that we live our lives. In a world full of chaos, pain, and oppression, who are we going to be?
The fear-mongers, the cynics, the ones who refuse to step outside of our personal boxes and look people in the eye and see them for who they really are?
Or are we going to be the advocates, the friends, the ones who broker peace.
People are in pain. The vulnerable are being oppressed. Lives are enslaved. And everyday through our choices, friendships, mindsets, thoughts, and actions, our lives are answering the age-old question of “who is my neighbor?”
Are we letting single-story narratives taint how we view others, or are we wading through the bias and prejudice in order to see someone the way that Christ sees them? Because the cross of Jesus demands a different kind of response from us. It demands that we always respond with love. And real love is never passive and silent, but rather it is active and fights back, not against people but against systems of oppression and injustice.
So let’s be people who are committed to examining our hearts, having hard conversations, and uprooting hidden seeds of prejudice that are secretly affecting our thoughts about others.
Let’s be people who are more outraged by systemic oppression than we are by athletes not standing for the national anthem.
Let’s be ministers of reconciliation in every sphere of life, building bridges for others to see the hope and mercy and love of Christ.
Let’s be people who refuse to dehumanize and demean others.
Let’s be people who look people in the eye and see them for who they truly are, people that Christ died on the cross for.
And may we always always always be people who reject the single-story narrative and truly listen to the pain and heartache of others.
Because just because someone else’s personal truth isn’t yours doesn’t mean it isn’t real.