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Tyre Nichols died by a system that protects me and my White life

Editor Teri McDowell Ott reckons with the role White women have played in America’s violent, racist history. She invites Outlook readers, specifically White readers, to own their fear, face hard truths and act in solidarity for the liberation of all God's people. 

Photo by Mark König on Unsplash

I have never seen video footage of someone who looks like me – a White woman – or someone who looks like my White son or daughter being beaten, handcuffed, thrown to the ground, kneed on the neck, tasered, or even pulled from their vehicle by police officers. My parents never had to give me “the talk” — advice to place my hands on the dashboard when I am pulled over, to not make any sudden moves. I do not fear for my physical safety when I am stopped by the police. In fact, I am confident I will be protected. If I were to cry for help, I trust the police would heed my call. Our policing system was built to protect me, my White way of life, my White property and White neighborhood. This system has been sanctioned by governmental legislation and grown more powerful with militarized police units like Memphis’ “Scorpions” and military-grade weapons — all of which I only witness through the safety of my television screen, watching video footage taken by Black citizens in Black neighborhoods. Even Black police officers, like those that killed Tyre Nichols, have been indoctrinated in this system of White protection and privileging.

Tyre Nichols. Photo: Facebook

In a recent Outlook meeting, Managing Editor Dartinia Hull and Director of Community Engagement Shani McIlwain talked about their exhaustion, anger and pain over the brutal killing of yet another young Black life. Dartinia has been trying to write something in response to Tyre Nichols’ killing. But the words, she said, are coming slow. Shani, whose laughter can brighten any room, was somber. Both are tired of a tragic news cycle they don’t have the freedom to escape.

Our conversation led me to ponder the racial history with which White women like me need to reckon. History that should not be whitewashed or censored. We must reckon with our past so we can begin the hard work of repairing the harm we have caused. Concern for White women’s safety – for my safety – has been used to violently and sadistically brutalize Black bodies. Emmett Till is the most infamous case of the tragic saying, “When the White woman cries, a Black man dies.” White women like me are still empowered and emboldened to cry out in “fear” so the authorities will come to protect us. The 2020 video of Amy Cooper calling the police on Christian Cooper in Central Park is a blatant contemporary example of White women using this White supremacist system to our advantage.

Let me be honest — as Dartinia and Shani shared their pain, exhaustion and anger during our meeting, I felt the creeping, uncomfortable rise of fear’s ugly head. It’s important for me to name this White fear of Black anger and how it tempted me to protect and defend myself even from good colleagues who I trust and deeply respect. Dartinia and Shani did not implicate me personally for the atrocities they and their Black siblings endure. But my fear rose, nonetheless, because they could have implicated me. I am the beneficiary of a system that protects me while oppressing them.

Because of this protection, I have gone about my days saddened by the news of Tyre Nichol’s killing, but I am not exhausted, not overwhelmed, not irate or raging, not glued to every new detail of the crime released, not texting my friends to ask if they will or will not watch the video. My White cocoon of protection distances me, granting the freedom to carry on, meet my deadlines and check off the boxes of business as usual. My life was not interrupted as Dartinia and Shani’s was — until this conversation and my reflection on it afterward.

Activist and author Bryan Stevenson says you’ve got to get proximate to suffering to make a difference. As beneficiaries of the oppressive systems we have built, White people need to be disrupted. We need to understand our complicity and not allow our White fear to throw us off God’s faithful, just path. In fact, we need to get angry and be appalled. We must cross the boundaries and barriers built to keep White people ignorant and unfeeling of injustices perpetrated on our behalf. We need to repent, reckon with, and do the work to repair the harm we have caused our Black siblings and ourselves because our policing system, our carceral system, our economic system, our educational system are sinful systems in which we are all trapped. The liberation of all God’s people requires us – requires me and every White person – to shoulder our share of the pain and disruption. It’s not enough to care. We must face the risk and take on the work that lies ahead.

This work begins by educating ourselves about White supremacist systems; the ongoing, historical and long-term reproduction of racist beliefs, policies and practices in this country. We cannot disrupt and dismantle racist systems that we refuse to see and fail to understand. This work includes acknowledging the role White fear of Black rage has historically played in the building of these White supremacist systems that subjugate, terrorize and control Black people. This work includes dispelling our fear by building relationships with our Black siblings — listening to them, loving them, allowing our safe lives to be disrupted by their pain. This work includes using the power, privilege and platforms granted us by these unjust systems to prioritize the needs of those whom they oppress.

Use your vote. Use your voice. Use your pen. Use your White body. Show up and stand beside those who are in this work because their lives – literally – depend on the justice they seek. All our lives depend on this liberating work — even the lives of police officers. As civil rights activists Fannie Lou Hammer, Martin Luther King Jr., and Maya Angelou have all said in different times and places: None of us will be free from a system that sanctions violence until all of us are free.