by Hermia Lyly
I lived in London during the summer of 2011 when England was rocked by the protests and violence that occurred after Mark Duggan was shot and killed by the Metropolitan Police. I still remember how frightening it was to travel around the city at night, unsure of whether my walk home would be peaceful and uneventful, or violent and destructive. It was a feeling that I had never experienced before.
As a woman, I have always had a heightened awareness of my surroundings at night, because I was taught that I was an easy target for men to attack. But this was something different. The London cityscape, which I thought was so beautiful and full of adventure by day, was transformed into a battlefield at night. Police officers dressed for combat gathered in bands, patrolling the streets and engaging in stand-offs and skirmishes with civilians wielding bricks, cricket bats, poles, or whatever makeshift weapons they could find.
I was amazed at how quickly London could transform from a bustling, seemingly peaceful metropolis to a dangerous, war-torn landscape. What I failed to recognize, from my privileged white perspective, was that this battlefield I thought only appeared at night during the unrest was actually surrounding me all the time. As a white woman, however, I had the privilege of ignoring it.
Let me explain: When the average white person looks at a city street, they probably wouldn’t see anything threatening about people walking by, the cars parked on the side of the road, a convenience store or two, and a police officer driving by. It’s business as usual. There’s no need to feel threatened because it’s very unlikely that any of these things will cause you harm. However, when a Black person looks at the same city street, it’s not as simple. (To be clear, as a white person, I can’t pretend to know what it’s like to have the viewpoint of a Black person. I am not claiming to be able to speak for Black people–nor am I claiming to speak for all white people. Rather, I am doing my best to use the information I’ve gathered from intently reading, conversing with, and listening to Black people describing their experiences, in order to imagine the differences between my perspective and another perspective.) The city street that looked so boring and peaceful to a white person might look very different to a Black person. The people walking by might make racist comments or call the cops if you’re wearing a hood and looking “suspicious,” the convenience store owner might follow you around because they assume you’re going to shoplift, and the police officer driving by is far more likely to single you out for a stop-and-frisk than the white people walking by. Furthermore, it’s also more likely that your interaction with the police officer will become violent, even if you are doing your best to comply. The same city street that presents little to no threat to a white person can present a myriad of threats to a Black person.
I am incensed at how many of my white friends look at the protests and uprisings occurring in Baltimore and say insensitive things like “rioting solves nothing,” or “we can’t excuse these acts of senseless violence and property destruction.” It is mind-boggling that these white people are too busy in their riot-shaming to think about the long history of police brutality that caused these uprisings. But then I remember that these white people have the privilege to ignore the evidence of the daily battle that people of color fight against racist police departments, racist government agencies, and racist societies. For a Black person, the uprisings in Baltimore are simply a more overt manifestation of the battlefield that they experience every day. For a white person, the uprisings are a jolting reminder that the peaceful, normal city street is only a facade, and that ignoring systematic racial oppression does not make it go away.
White privilege means that we are able to ignore the violence that the state commits against people of color. White privilege means that we can normalize war-torn landscapes in foreign–and typically non-white–countries, but the moment any kind of violence erupts in our own city, it’s a tragedy and an injustice. White privilege means that we fail to see the centuries of violence and abuse that has led up to the Baltimore uprisings, instead focusing on the damage that these uprisings have caused (while additionally forgetting that these damages are infinitesimally small compared to the damages that the protesters have suffered at the hands of a racist society). White privilege means that a white police officer can take off their police uniform and walk away from a riot, and nobody will know that they are an officer. My white privilege means that my writing may be considered more credible than a person of color’s writing.
By writing this piece, by a white person for white people, I hope to harness my unearned credibility in order to teach about white privilege. I hope that my rhetoric will help to illuminate privilege for the privileged and thereby lend a helping hand in the long, arduous process of dismantling racism.
So if you’re a white person and you’re tempted to shame the protesters in Baltimore for the violence that is happening, take a step back and recognize that this violence is nothing new. The only reason that this violence is making the news is because it has taken a form that white people can’t ignore. Instead of riot-shaming, try looking for the battlefield that you have had the privilege to ignore.
To educate yourself more about the history of racist policing in Baltimore and about the problems of racist riot-shaming in general, read the following: