By Eric Peterson, Senior Consultant
I am not a “good white person.” I try to be a good person and I am certainly white. But my whiteness is an identity that is impossible to shake, making me prone to the same traps, blind spots, and biases that most white people carry.
Ironically, one of these traps is the “good white person” trap. It’s tempting to absolve my well-intentioned self of the institutional racism that infects our society. I listen to voices I respect, voices that belong to people of color. I understand their perspective, and I argue with white people (the “bad” kind, who don’t “get it”), telling them that their perspective is limited by their privilege. There is nothing inherently wrong with this pursuit; in fact, there is much to suggest that it is helpful for anti-racist whites to involve themselves in the dialogue. What can be dangerous is getting too comfortable in the role of the “good white person.”
The recent riots in Baltimore following the death of young Freddie Gray (yet another young black man killed while in police custody) is an ideal environment for falling into the “good white person” trap. While white friends and acquaintances on social media and elsewhere decry the crazy, lawless, attention-seeking, animalistic rioters, “good white persons” such as myself eagerly jump into the fray, injecting phrases like “a long history of systemic racism” into the conversation in an attempt to help them understand what could lead people to such destructive, seemingly incomprehensible behavior.
And then “Hero Mom” comes along.
Toya Graham first came to my attention when she appeared on my Facebook feed. The now-viral video in which she beats her young son about the head and shoulders was posted on my friend Ryan’s wall. It just so happens that Ryan is African-American, and his friend captioned the video with, “Why does this remind me of you?” Ryan’s almost-immediate response was, “Because I’d do the exact same thing if I were her.”
I was curious, so I clicked on the video and watched. And I’m sure I saw what most white people saw: a mother, acting out of anger, punishing her son for his bad behavior. And I chuckled. It was funny, a light moment in the relentless images of pain and rage I had been witnessing, and proof that not all black residents of Baltimore agreed with the violent turn that the riots had taken.
Because that’s the story, right?
Well, it might be my version of the story, but it’s not the story seen by most of the black people who watched the same video. And it is not the story that Toya Graham herself tells.
The story that many saw was a woman acting out of fear, not anger. She wasn’t punishing her son; she was protecting him, knowing that his presence in the middle of a full-scale riot was endangering his life. It was not his bad behavior that provoked this assault, but the violent, lethal behavior to which poor black boys in Baltimore are repeatedly subjected. When interviewed the next day, Graham simply stated, “I don’t want him to be a Freddie Gray.” In other words, there is no evidence that she, like many white people, is baffled by the actions of the rioters; in fact, she voiced the very name that provoked the riots to begin with. She did not want her son to do something that would put him in danger of suffering the same fate that Freddie Gray did.
I had another “good white person” moment the next day when I saw a photo of a group of black men standing in front of a line of police officers in full riot gear.
The caption given to the photo was “a group of Baltimore residents protecting the police during riots,” or something like it. And I’ll admit, it confused me. Wasn’t this entire conversation about racism and misuse of force among police officers? Why would these men be protecting the very cops who symbolized the senseless death of Freddie Gray?
A conversation with my friend and colleague Rosalyn allowed me to see what was really happening here. “They were saying, ‘Throw a rock. Throw a rock,’” she explained. “’Because if you hit me with a rock, I know where you live, and I can whoop you tomorrow. You hit one of these policemen with a rock, and you’re dead.’”
In other words, they weren’t protecting the police from rocks. They were protecting the young men with rocks in their hands from being killed. It’s almost embarrassing to admit that this perspective had never occurred to me – me, a “good white person,” or so I thought.
So it’s clear that—while I will continue to try to be as good a person as I can be, day after day, year after year—“good white person” is not a destination at which I will ever arrive. There is no end to this journey, where I’ll be able to relax and look at the world through a lens unclouded by my whiteness. It doesn’t mean that the journey shall cease, that progress shall not be made. It just means that a little humility along the way makes the road easier, not harder.