Trying To Understand What It’s Like To Be Black In America

It did not take long for me to realize that the death of George Floyd was going to hit this country differently.

Despite there already being countless incidents of Black people dying at the hands of police officers in this country, something about seeing a white police officer kneeling on the neck of a handcuffed Black man who pleaded, “I can’t breathe,” before going unconscious and ultimately passing away minutes later while the officer kept his hands in his pockets the entire time was a breaking point for many.

Photo by Jakayla Toney on Unsplash

After seeing a number of high-profile police killings of Black people fail to lead to the indictment — let alone conviction — of officers in recent years, millions of people did not want Derek Chauvin to be another officer to get off without punishment. Yet, there are still an alarming number of (let’s face it, white) people who do not understand the outrage. To that, I ask, “How would you feel if every time someone who looked like you were killed by someone sworn to protect you, there were an endless stream of excuses justifying the behavior before any kind of calls for accountability?”

“There was no video.” Samuel DuBose would like a word, if he could have one.

“Well, we didn’t see the whole video.” Eric Garner would like a word, if he could have one.

“Well, they shouldn’t have been resisting arrest.” Breonna Taylor would like a word, if she could have one.

“Well, they shouldn’t have been associating with criminals.” Philando Castile would like a word, if he could have one.

Do you see the trend?

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, I started having nightly public, video-recorded conversations with friends of color to ask them what they were feeling and what life is like in their skin. It was a jarring experience, but an important and long overdue exercise in trying to understand what others really go through.

I had no idea that my former Little League teammate had to experience a woman repeatedly yelling the n-word at his father after cutting him off on the McDonald’s drive-thru line when he was 10 years old: “I heard conversations about this stuff … but when I saw that and it happened to my father, I’m like, ‘Wow, this is real.’”

I had no idea that one of my longest childhood friends — who is legitimately one of the nicest, most kind-hearted people you will ever meet — was racially profiled and forced to the ground by police when he was 16 years old: “It scared the shit out of me,” he said. “At the age of 16, you don’t really know your rights and I feel like the cops took advantage of that.”

I had no idea that a former high school classmate of mine felt she had to be “muted” as early as seventh grade: “‘Yeah, you’re Black, but you can’t be too too Black.’”

But that is precisely the point. When you’re white, you see life through the lens of a white person. You’re probably not having racial slurs thrown at you for waiting on a fast food line (if at all); you’re probably not being racially profiled for simply getting off a train (if at all); and you’re almost certainly not being told, “You can’t be too too white.”

Photo by James Eades on Unsplash

Now try to see life through the lens of a Black person.

How do you think it feels to see almost every white mass shooter detained safely by police, but in seemingly almost every encounter with a Black person the police’s instinct is to shoot first?

How do you think it feels to see countless instances of white people being detained safely by police after wielding knives at them, then see that a Black person was killed after a veteran white police officer could not tell the difference between a yellow taser and a black firearm?

How do you think it feels to see everyday reminders that it seems like your life matters less simply because of the color of your skin?

Many white people have not (or refuse to) begin looking inward to find answers to these questions, which is probably why they have already closed out of this post — if they even bothered to open it at all.

I’ve had a number of uncomfortable conversations with my family members about my social and political views, and this post will likely lead to more of them. I’m fine with that. What I’m not fine with is the presumption that I “feel guilty” for being white, hate police officers, or fail to appreciate the dangerous job police officers have.

I do not feel “guilty” for being white. What I do feel is a desire to reflect on some of the privileges I experience as a white person that people of color do not and try to understand what people who do not look like me go through.

I do not hate police officers. I have friends and family on the force, including two who will be groomsmen at my wedding. What I do hate is the “cop culture” of protecting your own regardless of the circumstances. I’m all for creating a family-like atmosphere within your profession, but I’m also for holding those “family” members accountable when they screw up.

I do not fail to appreciate the dangerous job police officers have. I am very well aware of the risks they face and the split-second decisions they sometimes have to make on the job. It is because of those risks and high-pressure situations that I fervently believe all police officers should be required to obtain a college degree in law enforcement and undergo extensively more training than they currently receive before being put on the job.

Photo by Koshu Kunii on Unsplash

The fact that I have to complete a master’s degree, 15 weeks of field experience, three different workshops, pass three different exams, and undergo fingerprint clearance just to be able to teach high school students, yet no college degree is required and sometimes as little as 10 weeks of training is needed to be a police officer and carry a firearm is, to say the least, disconcerting.

I also believe that police officers should be held accountable for their actions the same way a doctor is for botching a surgery or a bartender is for over-serving someone who gets into an accident.

Derek Chauvin was convicted of three charges yesterday for his role in the death of George Floyd: second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter, and could face up to 30 years in prison for his crimes.

That is accountability, not justice.

If justice had truly been served, George Floyd would like a word — if he could have one.

Photo by munshots on Unsplash

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Mike Zacchio

Unapologetic hopeful romantic, karaoke addict and tattoo enthusiast. Follow on all social media: @mike_zacchio.