What does it feel like, to live in fear? Not the short-term fear, that an oncoming car won’t stop in time. The long-term, constant fear that you, through no fault of your own, are a target for violence. Just because of who you are.
It happened to a 65-year-old woman in New York last week. An unknown man knocked her down, kicked her in the stomach, stomped on her face, then casually strolled away.
The woman was Asian.
She’s expected to recover, physically. She will never recover emotionally.
George Floyd will never recover. A white police officer held him down, face pressed into the pavement, with a knee on his neck, for 9 minutes and 29 seconds.
Floyd was black. So were Sandra Bland, Eleanor Bumpurs, Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor, and dozens — no, hundreds — of others.
A jury in Minneapolis will have to decide if the police officer, Derek Chauvin, committed murder in George Floyd’s death. Or if, as his defence contends, he was simply doing the job he was trained to do.
Which strikes me as the most sweeping possible condemnation of racism in American law enforcement.
Please don’t tell me that George Floyd was a less-than-admirable character. Chauvin’s police record of suggests that he wasn’t either.
Personality characteristics are irrelevant to the charges.
There is no question in my mind that Chauvin acted deliberately. Try resting all your weight on one knee for over nine minutes. It’s painful. To do it on the neck of a large man, struggling, to keep on doing it while the victim is gasping for breath, calling for help, requires more than just performing one’s duty. It requires malice bordering on sadism.
As does beating up a 65-year-old Asian woman on the sidewalk.
Most of us who are white males, like me, have no idea what it is like to spend your life knowing that you’re at risk. To feel unsafe walking to the bus at night, after work. To feel people staring at you on the street or in the classroom. To hear jokes that imply you’re genetically stupid (or, conversely, born smarter), or a sexual object, or inherently untrustworthy. To realize that your conversation partner is reading your cleavage, not your lips.
(Aside: I wonder how many men would feel comfortable carrying on a conversation while women stared at their crotch?)
Those are, too often, the reality if you are Black, Asian, Indian, or Indigenous. Or gay. Or female. Or any combination of them.
I would have thought that women may have a better sense of these hidden prejudices than men.
Maybe not. I asked a mixed group of friends if any of them had ever experienced a situation whether they faced discrimination, just because of who they are.
Not one of them could.
One of them suggested that perhaps I had that experience, because I spent my first 10 years as a white child in coloured India. But we were not discriminated against. We were a privileged minority.
The closest I came to automatic discrimination was in Johannesburg, during apartheid. I had strolled down Jo’burg’s main street, past plate glass windows where white mannequins posed in beguiling costumes and air-conditioned buses picked up white shoppers in miniskirts and stiletto heels.
Then I wandered into some back streets. Black streets. Where battered buses transported people of colour. Where sooty warehouses with broken windows loomed over potholed pavement. Where gangs of black young men wandered idly — jobless, aimless, hopeless.
And I knew that if tempers flared, if riots broke out, no one would ask about my political convictions. Or whose side I was on.
I was white. I was enemy.
I didn’t stay long.
Unless you have actually been in a situation where you are stereotyped as an object, you cannot imagine what it’s like.
We will not cure the endemic racism of our society until we can overcome that failure of imagination.
Until, for example, we’re genuinely surprised to notice that David Suzuki — probably the world’s foremost environmental advocate, maybe surpassing even Greta Thunberg — is Asian. Until we feel anger as if it was our family that got uprooted from the B.C. coast and moved to a concentration camp inland. Just because his ancestors, three generations before, came somewhere else.
Because it if could happen to him, it could happen to us.
And living in fear is wrong. For anyone.
At the very least, this week’s news stories should make us examine our own unexamined attitudes towards others.
Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author and freelance journalist. He can be reached