Skin color and police force have defined this month in my community. Many of us feel that one is undervalued, the other used in excess, and opposing views on these topics have become uncomfortably heated on social media and in conversations. Unfortunately, the impotency of many heated exchanges has paralyzed true communication and stretched the divide, most notably among white friends and family.

I haven’t struggled to find my position on the topics, but I have struggled to find my voice, an effective voice.

I’m putting my skin in the game.

In my middle-aged whiteness, I’ve reached back to my own experiences to find truths in current events.

I know skin color matters.

Flash back 39 years ago. I was head lifeguard of the city pool of a small town. I had a twenty minute commute to work on a rural highway, up a Smokey foothill, and I loved to speed.

The inevitable happened: one afternoon, a sheriff deputy pulled me over. I was doing about 90 mph in a 50 mph zone.

What didn’t happen? I didn’t get a ticket, not even a written warning. Just a verbal, “You need to slow down on these highways, missy.”

I know my skin color mattered. The blond hair and golden tan were fortuitous as well.

I know some policemen use excessive force.

Flash forward 20 years from my unticketed speeding stop. I was a young mother, leaving a city park with my 7, 4, and 2 year-old children. We were leaving the way we came in and the only way I knew out of the park.

A cop held up his hand to stop me. I rolled down my window, “I’m just trying to get out.”

“Turn around!” he screamed. My kids were alarmed.

“But I need to . . . !”

“I said turn around! Now!”

“But how can I . . .?”

He slapped his hand on my windshield, next to my inspection sticker and inspected the date. (Whew! It’s current.) His face was red as he screamed louder and louder. My kids joined in, screaming, crying, terrified by this man in blue with one hand on a gun and another slapping my windshield and pointing us in the other direction.

I submitted, turned around, pulled over a few minutes to collect myself.

Let’s take a moment to review the situation: a suburban park an hour before a football game, cars and people only beginning to arrive; no protesters, no picket signs, no dangers. Yet this cop was unhinged.

After a few minutes of assuaging my nerves and crying children, I saw cars entering from another direction, a second entrance I didn’t know about, that little bit of information the officer didn’t listen long enough to know I needed.

This minor, avoidable incident petrified my children. Incensed, I called the police department to report it. “You’ll have to come in to file a report.” So I went.

The visit to the police headquarters was infuriating and fruitless. The officer listened impatiently to my complaint, handed me a form, then dropped an album in front of me. Photos of every single member of the police force. The officer knew I couldn’t possibly identify the screaming white cop I had encountered among the hundreds of photos of mostly white cops.

“You could give me a list of the officers who were on duty last night.”

“No I can’t.”

I pushed away the heavy album and explained, through tears and much less eloquently than I’m recounting: “I came here to file a complaint, not a formal report. I came here to let you know that your officer was unnecessarily forceful, he wasn’t listening, and, as a result, my children are traumatized. I came here hoping someone could explain to him that his behavior was out of line. I came here in hope that I could make a difference in how he handles his next encounter.”

My incident was trivial, but suggestive.

Most policemen don’t but I know that policeman used unnecessary force. But the Force did not want to engage in real conversation about it.

Furthermore, I know my skin color mattered, again. It’s speculation, but not ludicrous to imagine that my perceived impertinence would have had a less trivial outcome for a black parent.

Sadly, this statement is not facetious: “I’m white, so I lived to write the story.”

The disastrous marriage of racial prejudice and excessive police force is nothing new in this country. The problem isn’t escalating. The difference now is that the ubiquitous camera and the activist movements are pulling away the veil and exposing the inequities and crimes. We have work to do. All of us. This work requires unity and conversation.

Stay in the Conversation

Staying in the conversation is strenuous. Standing in the middle to work through a conflict is challenging, sometimes confusing. But bringing our voices and efforts together is the only way through.

If the conversation and the conflict aren’t over and you throw your hands up (“I’m done!” “I’m over it!”), you also surrender your voice and will not be part of the conversation or solution.

What is conversation?

This is what it’s not. It’s not a bumper sticker. It’s not a tirade of insults. It’s not a clever tweet. It’s not a series of Facebook slaps. It’s not one-sided.

Conversation is a communicative exchange, a give and take. Two sides. Two tasks. Listen. Speak.

The Center for Nonviolent Communication offers information and training in what is sometimes called compassionate communication, a process developed in the 60s. The NVC website details its mission and principles. Their communicative model is the takeaway that could help guide us through conversation around conflict:

Skin in the Game

The LISTEN side of this NVC model is painfully absent in most “discussions” about race and police abuse. I’ve steered clear of most interpersonal and social media “conversations” on the topic, not because I’m unsure about my position, but because most seem to deteriorate into an escalating series of taunts and feckless but oranges!, but apples! but elephants! comparisons.

For my part, I’m listening, lifting my voice in prayer and peace as I seek real conversation. I want more communicative and unifying conversation, so I offer these four tips for jumping into, out of, or clear of a conversation.

  1. If you’re not informed, steer clear. Listen and read before you jump in. If you haven’t done your homework, you don’t have any ground to stand on as you express an opposing view. 
  2. If you have something to offer, express it with respect, empathy, even love. Dagger tongues and poison pens never advance a conversation or solution, especially not on social media platforms.
  3. If the conversation is about apples, don’t jump in with oranges and elephants, unless the point is fruit genus (malus vs. citrus) or size (apple vs elephant mouth). Tackle one conflict or issue at a time.
  4. If the other parties diminish the conversation by trying to sustain it with barbs and misinformation, jump out! My dear cousin recently advised my daughter during a FB conversation scuffle with a quote that Brené Brown shared on her website: “Don’t try to win over the haters. You’re not the jackass whisperer (Scott Stratten).

Empathetic and Responsible Reading and Listening

I saw a meme last week that said: “We’re drowning in information but starving for wisdom.” Seek out thoughtful, factual articles and commentaries.

Racial Equity

  • If you’re asking yourself, “What can I do?”, this post by Justin Cohen offers good advice for white folks who want to be an ally.
  • If your response to Black Lives Matter is All Lives Matter! or Blue Lives Matter!, there is a misunderstanding, and chances are you haven’t visited the BLM website or read the guiding principles. This is a not a “we matter, but you don’t” movement.

Police Misconduct

  • This article explains General Honoré’s thoughts on the militarized response in my city. I was appalled that this is what protesters faced at the conclusion of their peaceful march.
  • That said, I’m not anti-cop. Our police forces have an exacting, thankless, and underpaid job. That doesn’t excuse misconduct. I am anti-misconduct. I expect the police force to own and address the problems in their ranks, and the law to hold officers responsible for misconduct.

Coming Together

  • Real conversations aimed at uniting us are happening online and in real spaces. Join in. Put your skin in the game. Listen with empathy. Express yourself honestly. Come together. Be part of the solution.
© Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2016