An Open Letter to My Friends and Family
During an exchange on Twitter yesterday, I was accused of”defend[ing] the police” as I remarked about how much worse things could have been in Salt Lake City during the May 30th riot. The commenter, referring to a video of an SLCPD Officer who pushed an elderly man down (perhaps accidentally), stated “I’m not sure…how to engage in a conversation with you.” My son and I happened upon the scene after returning from a day at Rockport Reservoir with my partner and her son; we spent several hours witnessing the event and observing from a distance. I couldn’t quite pin why this interaction bothered me so much, but in the late hours of the night, it came to me; I’m not sure how to have conversations about difficult social matters with you all either.
Over the years, I have grown and changed. The man I was in my early twenties is not the man I am today. No longer lost and seeking meaning through the trappings of religion, I have found a clear path and a set of foundational values that guide me down it each and every day. In conversing with some of you, I know that many of you are on your own — different — path. My progressive work and ideology is often in contrast with the more conservative values of many people I care for.
Several poeple remarked to me yesterday that they don’t understand the violence they were seeing around the United States. “Don’t understand” can be another way of saying “don’t agree,” but this morning, I reazlized that people truly cannot comprehend the reasons so many people are so angry. That comprehension only comes with being witness to the suffering of others or becoming empathetically aware of the injustices of the American system. My work, of course, thrust me immediately into this world of injustice as my education and career kicked off within the walls of the Utah State Prison.
This experience, as well as the experiences I’ve had working within the world of non-profit substance-use disorder treatment subsequent to it, opened my eyes to the fact that America is not as true and just as I was taught it to be. I saw clearly that racism and other forms of social injustice are alive and well in today’s America; it just looks different than it did. During and since this time, I have heard countless stories of “driving while black,” “shopping while hispanic,” etc. It was only through these stories, that the things I learned in my education became real.
There are, in fact, real risks in growing up as a person of color in America. There is literal danger in being gender atypical in America. The book There Are No Children Here, was my first introduction to what life in inner-city America looked like and through my work, I have learned that inner-city America exists even outside inner-city America.
As a white male, an acknowledged part of the American majority, I cannot even being to comprehend the fear of being pulled over for apparently no reason at all. I cannot comprehend the impact that growing up in a family riddled by intergenerational poverty has on developing children. I am fortuante to understand my privilege and I cannot deny that these are experiences that many people in the United States face each day, while I have evaded them completely. Even as a young man, making mischief and running amok, I can tell you that I benefitted from the color of my skin. I was held at gunpoint by police – face down, knee in my back, and barrel of a shotgun at the base of my skull – at the age of 17 for engaging in some really risky and stupid behaviors. Even then, surrounded by officers that arrived in 6 different cruisers, I was let go with a slap on the wrist with no charges filed. Nobody even called my parents! Do you think I’d have had the same outcome if I had brown skin?
Why am I writing this? Well, for two reasons I guess. Writing has always been cathartic for me, so it helps me process what is happening right now. The other thing though, is that I feel disconnected from many of you. I feel there are topics we cannot broach and “places we shouldn’t be going” in our conversations and I’m sad because of it.
I get it: many of the people I love had not had the same experiences I have. I was raised in a different era and was never exposed to the direct aftermath of segregation; it was ‘before my time.” I was never imbued with the mistruths of that era; rather, I was witness to it in a way that often did not make sense to me. I clearly remember my maternal grandfather, whom I loved very much, saying repeatedly “there are too many coloreds on the basketball teams these days.” I didn’t fully understand his sentiment as I was a young child at the time, but as I grew older, it became apparent that there were strong racial beliefs in my family and, for a time, I even bought into them. I carried strong ideas about morality and race relations into my education, where I was promptly eviscerated and those ugly guts shown directly to me; I did not like what I saw.
So here I am, writing aimlessly at the age of 43. As I sit here, I think about how many of you voted for Donald Trump and what that means. I wonder if you still belive his lies and ingest the poison rhetoric he spews. I wonder how critically you think about the experiences of others who continue to be oppressed by the American system and if you really believe that America is becoming “great again” through the fear and hatred being spread by the current administration and spun by the media that you were taught to trust (but who are now almost wholly untrustworthy).
If you’re sad that America isn’t what you were taught it was, I can say I understand; I am too. If you’re frustrated because you don’t know what to do to help make things better, I can say I understand that as well; I am too. Though I suspect we may believe that our country is not what we thought it was for diffrent reasons, I hope to at least find common ground there. That said, “liberty and justice for all” is a promise to all people; not just white folks; not the affluent; not just for those who rape and pillage our land’s resources with no regard for the future consequences of doing so; not just those who mistakenly believe that they “pulled themselves up from their bootstraps;” not just for Christians; not just for the carnivores; not just for those who have served in the military; not just for those who have never been punished for the crimes they have committed; and certainly not just for those who have benefitted from the very system they choose to undermine and complain about. No, it is a promise to all people and if you can’t see that the current State has failed far too many Americans, then perhaps it is likely best that we don’t talk after all.
Of course, knowing you all and your good and kind hearts, I hope that we do have common ground. It may be but a small patch of ground, but it is there. I hope that the events of the last few weeks have caused you to take pause and consider what the hell is actually going on in the world and in our country as you consider the following quote by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:
…I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.Dr. Martin Luther King, “The Other America,” 1967
I hope that after some consideration and perhaps even personal consternation, you will see as I have, that there is still much work to be done. My grandchildren may benefit from the actions taken by the “vocal minority” if my children get to work and are able to so unencumbered by the dogma and unsubstantiated racist rhetoric of the past; if they are not allowed to begin setting things straight, my grandchildren will continue to pay for the mistakes of our past. I hope that when the time comes, we can discuss and converse about the future of our country in a way that evokes not defensiveness but consideration for the well-being of all people, not just those similar to ourselves.