I have been crying on and off since May 26. Between the killing of George Floyd and Amy Cooper’s Oscar-worthy performance that could have resulted in New York City cops doing the unthinkable to another Black man, I haven’t slept much either.
I’ve talked to friends, joined one of the Minneapolis rallies protesting Floyd’s death at the hands of police in that city and fielded emails, texts and calls from folks expressing concern. But the one person I wanted to talk to most, I couldn’t. It’s ironic that when I felt my most vulnerable, my mother is the last person I could call, but I have good reason.
My mother is white. I am mixed race. A lifetime of growing up as her Black daughter has taught me that I can’t always count on her understanding. As events unfolded in my hometown of Minneapolis, a similar theme played out in many of my conversations, and it’s made me realize that my relationship with my mother is a microcosm of the relationship that most Black Americans have with white Americans.
From the first moment I watched the video of Floyd’s killing, I felt fear, anger, outrage and terror because I saw myself under attack. My mother felt sympathy. She felt sad for “them,” ― Floyd and other Black people killed in recent years by cops ― not fear for her own safety. Even though she was married to a black man and has two mixed-race children, she has never lost her ability to distance herself.
I’m nearly 60 years old, but even today my mother has a hard time accepting for what it is the racism I experience. When I bring it up, her first reaction, like so many other white people’s, is often to question me. “Why do you say racist?” she asks. “Are you sure that’s what they meant?” It is hard work to get her to see the world through my eyes, even when the facts are staring her right in the face ― or in the neighborhood where we both lived.
I grew up just around the corner from where Floyd died. I spent much of my childhood waiting for buses with my mother at the very same intersection where millions of people have now watched videos showing the life drain right out of him as a white police officer’s knee pressed against his neck. In the six years I’ve been back in Minnesota, a similar killing has occurred almost annually. I’ve been outraged every time. But the brutality of this death terrorized me.
My skin is not as dark or my hair as kinky as Floyd’s, but I felt all the anguish and terror that any Black person feels when witnessing a lynching. This was domestic terrorism, just as Cooper’s phone call from Central Park was a direct threat of violence toward a Black man who had the audacity to ask her to follow the law. I’ve known too many women just like her.
Many people assume that because they think I don’t look “as Black” as some other people, I don’t experience racism. Wrong. That’s why I’ve awakened repeatedly, haunted by the racist acts leveled at me over my life and career. The truth is that while I’m lighter skinned than my father, there is no aspect of life that isn’t potentially dangerous for me. I’m not speaking philosophically ― I mean literally.
I’ve been screamed at, called a ni**er and told to get out of my own neighborhood more than once. I’ve been refused the right to purchase a house, denied help with financial aid at a prestigious college, harassed out of jobs, homes, bars, churches, new age spiritual groups, furniture stores, the Girl Scouts, universities and schools as a student and a teacher.
I never met my great grandparents because they disowned my mother for marrying my father and having me. They rubbed it in by sending Christmas presents to everyone in the family but us. I spent half of my childhood silently watching these relatives open those gifts while expecting us not to make them uncomfortable as they did so.
I fought for over a year with my father’s nursing home because not one, but two of his roommates threatened his life. These white men swore at him, called him names and threatened to kill him daily. Only when I began talking legal action did the administrators finally move him to a safe room. Nothing happened to the perpetrators. During all of these incidents, only the man who called me the N-word didn’t pretend his actions weren’t racist.
Last week, once the images of rioters and buildings on fire hit the news, I heard from many friends. My mother texted me too, expressing her outrage and concern. Like many of the other white people I talked to, she seemed much more upset about watching the city burn than Mr. Floyd’s death. Others sounded the same, clearly more outraged by the threat to their neighborhoods and property than by the killing itself. My feelings were the opposite. That’s the crux of the whole problem.
“Many people assume that because they think I don’t look “as Black” as some other people, I don’t experience racism. Wrong... The truth is that while I’m lighter skinned than my father, there is no aspect of life that isn’t potentially dangerous for me. I’m not speaking philosophically ― I mean literally.”
As long as you can distance yourself from a lynching or any kind of racist attack, you can remain unafraid.
Most white Americans, regardless of their politics, respond similarly. They feel bad for “them,” but not afraid until their own streets are burning. Then it becomes personal because they don’t feel safe. I, too, mourn the burning on our beautiful, vibrant Lake Street in Minneapolis. It took decades to build. However, as we move forward, this question of personal safety is paramount.
If you think this question does not apply to you, try a little experiment. Think back to the beginning of last week. How did you feel when you first saw the videos of Floyd having the life drained out of him? Upset? Sad? Sick to your stomach? Think back to that night or the next day. Did you feel fear welling up in your gut or a tightness in your chest?
Now try to remember how you felt last Friday night after seeing footage and hearing reports of buildings burning and people throwing rocks or running from tear gas. Were you just upset ― or did you feel afraid? Did you start worrying about your own house or street? Did you start worrying about what could happen if the rioters came to your block? Did you have trouble sleeping? Did you get angry?
What did that feel like in your body? Be honest with yourself. No one else will know.
If you were more outraged by property being destroyed than the moment you saw or heard about the killing of Floyd, you see yourself as separate and different from Black Americans. That is the very essence of white privilege. It’s a luxury to feel safe in a city ― and country ― where people die regularly at the hands of those we pay to protect us. To feel sad but unafraid in your own community, even in the face of lethal violence against a fellow citizen, is only possible if you believe you are not at risk.
I have lived throughout the U.S. in cities, suburbs, small towns and rural communities. I have never lived anywhere without some fear of my white neighbors or the police. Never.
At this moment it may be wise for us all to remember that rioters who threw tea into a Boston harbor helped foment the revolution that founded this country. I studied U.S. history at a Minneapolis high school, but I had to move to South Carolina to learn that 100 years ago, most riots were attacks against Black people by white mobs. Conversely, the recent protests in Minneapolis and across the country have been made up of very diverse people. I believe most Americans want justice for Floyd, but even convicting all four police officers who participated in his death will not make our future safe.
There have been reports that white nationalists may have infiltrated some of the protests that have taken place over the past week, traveling to these demonstrations specifically to cause violence and destruction. Yes, there were local people of all colors participating in the violence, as well, but who really instigated much of that burning? And why? In the context of President Donald Trump’s tweets that inflame rather than calm and his threat to use the military to quell the unrest in so much of the nation, we must consider what this means for our cities and our country. And it isn’t just African Americans who are in danger.
With the coronavirus nipping at our heels and Trump pushing to re-open the country regardless of the potential death toll, our entire country is at risk. Billions of dollars that could have been used to help people find work and pay their bills have gone to corporations who are now busy playing roulette on Wall Street. What is going to happen as millions of people find themselves unemployed and unable to pay rent or mortgages for months or even years?
Our president may be crazy, but he’s no fool. When he said there were “very fine people” among the rioting white nationalists whose protest in Virginia resulted in the death of a young woman, he sent a clear message. When he tweeted “Liberate Michigan,” it was a test. Two days later his message to “Liberate Minnesota” and other battleground states helped spur his armed followers onto the streets to challenge our governor and others without any concern for spreading a killing virus.
Last Friday, Trump’s tweet, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” was strategic. He used a phrase that was infamously uttered in 1967 by a Miami police chief who went on to say, “We don’t mind being accused of police brutality... They haven’t seen anything yet.” That attitude is now evident in National Blue Lives Matter spokesperson Randy Sutton’s video on the Facebook page of BlueLivesMatter.
Imagine life a year from now, with Trump back in office and double the number of dead from COVID-19 while half the country is unemployed and many are headed into homelessness. How does that feel? I know how it feels in my body. We are all in grave danger.
Last Sunday I talked to my mother in person. It was my birthday so we met at a local park to celebrate. With my face mask firmly in place, I opened the card she brought me and we talked about the week’s events. Even though I have been hurt and disappointed in the past, I shared my feelings honestly and she listened. I spoke my truth because she is the only mother I have. As I felt the early summer sun soak into my bones, I heard her admit that she “doesn’t get it,” but she wants to understand. For me, this is where love lives ― in the never giving up.
“I spoke my truth because she is the only mother I have. As I felt the early summer sun soak into my bones, I heard her admit that she 'doesn’t get it,' but she wants to understand. For me, this is where love lives ― in the never giving up.”
Just as all of America is having similar conversations, my white mother and I, her Black daughter, promised each other that we will keep showing up and keep listening to each other. We also vowed that in the months to come, we would stand together and work to ensure that every vote is cast and counted. On this, we agree: If we don’t do all that we can to turn the tide, we may both have a knee on our neck.
My mother and I made these promises knowing that we are both of an age that makes us highly vulnerable to this pandemic. Still, we are willing to do the work because that’s how she raised me. This is what she taught me democracy is all about. My mother taught me why Black lives matter: because they have to. Because a world in which a man can be killed by the police just around the corner from our home is not a world that any of us should live in. Because neither one of us can stand by and watch the rights we fought so hard for go up in smoke. Because Floyd’s life matters just as much as ours does.
After a couple of hours, it was time to go. I helped her adjust her face mask, then she steadied herself with my elbow. As we slowly walked to the parking lot, I felt proud. I could not help but be grateful for all that she has taught me about right and wrong. She may never understand exactly what it’s like to live in my skin, but she is my mother.
She believes in freedom. And I am her legacy.
Kimberly J. Miller is a writer, performing artist, activist, businesswoman and a native of Minneapolis.