My brother-in-law is black. Until yesterday, the fact that his skin colour is more than a few shades darker than mine seemed insignificant. Until yesterday, my brother-in-law was simply my sister’s husband.
My brother-in-law is kind and loving and giving. He has a heart as big as his booming resonant voice. His laughter is contagious. He adores my sister and dotes on her sons. He checks on his parents and our mother daily. He works long, brutally physical hours as a labourer. He has a strong work ethic and more times than not works overtime. He owns a home and a car. Two out of their four collective children are graduating from college this spring, and the other two begin higher education in the fall.
My brother-in-law is new to our family, having only married my sister two years ago. He came into our lives with a refreshing sincerity and exuberant joy. Sure, we were nervous and wondered how they would navigate the complexities of their interracial relationship in the Deep South. We worried they would find themselves ostracised simply because of their colour. We were concerned that small town South Carolina wasn’t quite ready for them.
My sister and now brother-in-law decided to marry. We are fortunate to belong to a truly loving and supportive church where they have been welcomed with sincere love and kindness. They made a home. They continued to raise their children. We all allowed ourselves to forget the differences in our skin colour.
Racial discrimination and profiling are not new. We were aware and watched in horror as the events unfolded in Ferguson and New York. We discussed Trevon Martin. We tried to ignore the obviously racial slurs against our President. We assured ourselves that this was a problem driven by ratings hungry media. We didn’t want to believe how pervasive a problem we were facing. We didn’t want to see that this could happen in our backyard.
Yesterday, I Skyped my sister for a marathon on-line catch up session. I have since moved away from South Carolina to England, and we treasure our high-tech sister time. While chatting away, my sister looked up to see that a story from not far from our hometown was being featured on the national news broadcast. I watched as she gasped, put her hand to her mouth, and started screaming “Oh My God!” Her tears were instant. Pure, raw emotion reached across the miles to grip my heart. “It could have been him (her husband),” she repeated over and over in her gut-wrenching mantra of grief.
What she saw was uncut footage of a fifty year old black man being shot eight times in the back as he ran away from a white policeman in North Charleston, South Carolina. Let me repeat. He was running away from the policeman and shot in the back. The victim had been pulled over for a non-working left brake light, and was found to have an outstanding warrant due to unpaid child support.
I could not stop shaking. I felt nauseous. My sister was devastated. She started telling me then how her husband doesn’t go out much. How he has to be careful where he goes and worries that he will be targeted simply because he is in the car with a white woman.
In my hometown.
Surely this could not happen where I was brought up. One of the articles I read while talking to my sister mentioned another case being brought to the courts from my own hometown. I simply could not believe it. Apparently on the same day the policeman in North Charleston was arrested and charged with murder, a white public safety officer of the local police department in my hometown was arrested and charged with a felony charge of discharging a firearm into a vehicle, killing the occupant. The occupant was an unarmed 68-year-old black man.
In my hometown.
Until yesterday I dealt with racial comments and slurs on social media by simply un-friending the worst of the culprits and ignoring those I felt were not as offensive. I made sure my news feed was cleared of the worst offenders. I would not engage with those who said offensive comments in my presence choosing to nod and smile and walk away or change the subject. I did not forward posts or “cute” emails showing our President in an obviously negative racial light. I allowed others allowances for age or ignorance or “because it is the South”. I put politeness first. I gave everyone the benefit of the doubt. I excused any of my own behavior that was less than acceptable. I was part of the problem.
I bought in to the stories about Martin Luther King not being perfect as if this somehow this diminished his remarkable legacy. Those same people who dismissed King for marital infidelity, seemed to accept Jefferson, Roosevelt and more recently Mark Sanford. I stood by quietly as increasingly policemen are seen as automatic heroes simply because of their occupation. I watched as increasingly the word of the policeman is law, whether or not they follow the law itself. I didn’t question enough. I didn’t push back enough. I didn’t scream at the top of my lungs that we need to stop this madness.
I realized yesterday the rules are different for my brother-in-law and my husband. If my husband decides to go out in public in an undershirt or unshaven, he is allowed his Wal Mart moment of indiscretion. If my brother-in-law goes out in public dressed similarly, he is a thug. If my husband misuses language or makes a grammatical error, we can chalk it up to being cute or funny. If my brother-in-law uses less than perfect English, he is ghetto. If my husband were at a gas station at 3 am, no one would give him a second look. My brother-in-law would be observed with suspicion and even fear.
Until yesterday, we didn’t give my brother-in-law’s work appearance a second thought. After yesterday we realized his hoodie or knit cap worn to keep warm on his job could pose a problem for him as a black man. We worried about him being out at 3 am or midnight. He works swing shifts. We wondered what would happen if he had car trouble in the middle of the night. Would he be safe? We forced ourselves to think about what it must be like to walk in his shoes.
Until yesterday I believed the problem was blown out of proportion. I flinched any time the “race card” was being used. I wanted so badly to believe that our country, in the year 2015, had evolved enough that men did not need to fear for their lives simply because of the colour of their skin.
I will not sit idly by anymore. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream. In his most famous speech he said, “my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character". It is time to stop dreaming and start doing. King asked that we “go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed” He asked that we” not wallow in the valley of despair.”
Today it starts.