I recently told a friend of mine that I have sometimes wished I were black, and as the words left my mouth, the expression on his face indicated to me that he was immediately offended. I knew I’d made a horrific presumption, and I felt compelled to find him a little later to continue our dialogue. I wasn’t really sure what I was asking, but he sat me down and asked me a question.
He said, “As you sit in that chair, do you feel like you would be where you are, as a black man, including your personality and everything you are today?”
I had to think about the question. I had to get past trying to find the right answer and really think about how I was going to respond. I did not know what my answer could possibly be, because I have never been a person of color. I have always been white.
On Friday, when I first heard the news of the verdict in the shooting of Philando Castile, I felt immediately sick to my stomach. For a year, I had replayed that viral video in my mind, imagining only one outcome. I had believed the officer would be found guilty of manslaughter. I thought it was an easily defined case. I felt as if I had come to know Philando through all of the news reports and the exposés of his life and through the stories his community had expressed of who he was in our society. But I had forgotten one simple truth: He was a black man pulled over for a routine traffic stop. He was suspected of being involved in a robbery, based upon his description. The only solid evidence that suggested he had been involved in the burglary was the color of his skin.
If that had been me, a white guy, with a gun pointed at my body by a peace officer, I am willing to bet that I could have said everything Philando expressed in the final minutes of his life and that I could have reached with my right arm and found my ID without the officer feeling compelled to discharge seven bullets into my body. This officer didn’t simply fire a couple of rounds; he fired seven times at point-blank range. And there in that moment, while his girlfriend recorded the whole incident, Philando Castile died.
Justice seemed evident in this case. I hadn’t even imagined that the jury would take as long as it did to come back with a verdict. I had only imagined that it would be an open-and-shut case — until I saw the jury selection. I knew that when we had a jury pool of more than 20 white people and two people of color, the case for Philando had taken a dangerous turn. I knew that when the officer was coached to cry on the witness stand, Philando’s integrity was in trouble.
I also knew that I couldn’t get out of my car as a white man and express my sorrow and rage to any person of color without coming off as patronizing. So instead I called another friend and told him he was the first person who came to my mind. This friend asked me if I was surprised by the verdict. I think I waffled my answer and said something like, “Well, yeah, I guess, well, no, well, I’m just sad.”
He agreed with my sentiments, then began to speak of the systemic failure of our society to recognize the inherent discrimination against the African-American culture. Interestingly, he didn’t blame the cop who gunned down an innocent man. Instead, he talked about how our society (his African-American culture) has to become proactive in changing the mind-set of how we cope with our discrimination. He immediately prayed that there would be no acting out and that a peaceful protest might occur.
I agreed with him and thanked him for letting me listen to his ideals, which I have always respected and believed in. I finished the call, sat in my car and thought about what I would do next. All I could think about was how sad I was with the outcome of the day’s events. All I could do was feel like a white guy trying to wrap my head around this horrific tragedy. I still don’t have any answers, except to say only that I’m sorry, Philando — I am truly sorry this happened to you.
Thom Amundsen, of Savage, is a teacher.