When I turned 16 and started driving, I was afraid of speeding tickets. I hated the police in an abstract way because I hated having to follow the law of the road. I wanted my rebellion and my 80 mph on the freeway.
Since getting my license, I’ve been let go with a warning more times than I’ve been issued a ticket. For someone who spent her twenties consistently speeding, driving recklessly, and generally not caring much about whether I was breaking the law or not, I’ve been pulled over a negligible number of times. And on the off-chance I saw police car lights flashing in my rearview mirror, I never feared for my life. Not once. I was never scared of the police—I was just concerned about the repercussions of a traffic ticket.
So, when I started to see video proof of police brutality towards people of color—particularly black people—I was horrified at first, but then I was skeptical. What had they done to incite this behavior? What was missing from this video? How could officers actually treat people like this?
To me, it felt like there were two kinds of police: the ones I saw on video and the ones I met in my life. I realized, then, that part of my white privilege was being able to trust police to have my best interests in mind; to trust that they assumed my innocence; to trust they’d be rational when dealing with me. Once I recognized that my experience with the police wasn’t universal, I started to listen, to recognize my privilege, and to believe people of color. I wish I’d realized this earlier, but that’s the insidiousness of privilege: It’s so entrenched that you don’t even realize it’s an advantage.
Systemic racism, police brutality, the very real disadvantages that people of color face—all of this can be hard to make sense of, especially if your experience with authorities has been vastly different. As someone who’s been championing social justice causes for more than a decade, I thought to myself: If I was this ignorant, this blinded by my own experiences, other white people must be, too—probably even more so.
There are white people in this country who are overtly racist, and frankly, these people are so far gone in their hate that it’s nearly impossible to change their minds. But there are also a lot of white people who only know their own experiences, and have a hard time understanding that two realities exist in America: White Reality and Everyone Else’s Reality. It’s hard to conceptualize that skin color is a hierarchy in the U.S., and that just by being white, we’re given advantages we don’t even recognize as advantages. It’s a wide dissonance to bridge.
For white people, having an unfair or terrifying interaction with police is an exception to the rule. Police killed a 13-year-old black boy named Tyre King earlier this month because he had a BB gun that supposedly looked like a real gun. Can you imagine the police killing a 13-year-old white boy for having a BB gun? Can you imagine having car trouble, and officers show up to shoot you for no clear reason? Can you imagine being a suspect in a crime, and instead of having your due process in court, police just kill you and take away your rights? Can you imagine telling your children to keep their ID in the cup holder of their car, so police never assume they’re reaching for a gun? Can you imagine having to give these warnings to your kids, worrying that when they leave the house, they might be abused by the very people meant to protect them? Can you imagine this happening to anyone in your family? Can you imagine how angry you’d feel at how unjustified it all is?
White people can be ignorant of the experiences of people of color because we don’t have the same ones. We assume our experiences are universal, that there’s nothing different about how the world interacts with us. Yet, white ignorance is preventing progress. It’s helping bad cops get away with murder. It’s letting racism and hate win, over and over again. Too many people of color live in fear while we keep denying their truth. It’s psychological warfare—and it needs to stop.
The biggest barrier to empathy is when we think we need to relate to someone to be empathetic towards them, that to change something, we must be the affected ones. But we don’t have to be—we just need to listen.
So, white people: Just because you haven’t experienced something firsthand doesn’t mean it’s not true. If you can watch videos of police-involved killings, listen to personal experiences from people of color, and not feel that there’s a grave injustice happening, then you’re being willfully ignorant. And if you’re unwilling to see beyond your own limited life experience, I’m ashamed to be associated with you.
Jamie Varon is a writer and designer living in Los Angeles.