White Folks Facing Race: Safety Through Compassion

Emily Vincent
7 min readApr 18, 2023

Hi Friends,

It has taken me time to write this, as I have grappled, as I’m sure every person who cares for children has done, with the reality that they face danger, even in places that should be safe. I also realize that I am somewhat new to this experience since my children are white and that schools and the education system in general is structured in a way that my white children are more likely to feel safe at school than BIPOC children.

As tempting as it is to imagine that others are to blame for gun violence in schools and in our communities and that those individual others should be removed/expelled/jailed/excluded from our communities and that that is what will keep us safe, that is exactly the opposite of what we need to do. First, gun violence is systemic and needs to be reported and understood as such. The normalized gun violence threat has been present in BIPOC communities for longer than many of us realize and does not receive the public attention and advocacy it deserves.

The response to shun or isolate anyone we perceive as threatening is a long-standing strategy to divide and control members/groups in our communities. When schools or districts respond to threats by criminalizing students, our schools and communities become less safe. Often, those who are most likely to perpetrate violence are those who have already been excluded or sent away. These strategies of division undermine the village or community that must be strong in order for every member to be safe and valued.

The overculture we all live within, the powerful structures around us, inundate us with messages that divide and control us. Garrett Bucks wrote about this in January, saying:

“We have been told — both by what we are asked to pay attention to and what we are asked to ignore — that everything is basically fine, save for occasional aberrations.
“We have been told that we can move forward with a system built on stolen land and lives, that those sins require mere acknowledgment rather than redistribution.
“We have been told that it is inevitable that a small number of people get to be very wealthy and that a much, much larger number of people have to be poor.
“We have been told that all that poverty is only a problem if poor people don’t stay in line.
“We have been told that crime happens on the street and not in boardrooms.
“We have been told that criminals are irrevocably bad people who are not your neighbors and that you and your more worthy neighbors will be safer with just a few more cops, just a few more jails, just a few more televised reminders of who is to be feared.
“We have been told that none of this dehumanizes us — those that are surveilled, those that are loaded up with fear, and those with badges who are asked to embody an entire nation’s isolation and inhumanity.”

The solutions to fears around safety are much more time consuming and challenging and infinitely necessary. It has everything to do with how we care for each other and understanding interconnectedness. It is unavoidable in our society that another person’s struggles will stay contained and that their challenges will not affect us. Advocating for a shift from over-policing to robust public services is one way to ensure that everyone can feel safe.

This means that even when we disagree, even when we cannot understand why someone else could possibly believe whatever they believe, we must do the compassionate work of validating each other as human beings first, and then seeking to understand each other. Each one of us has come to our values and understanding of the world through our individual perspectives and experiences. Listening to each other, having open conversations to learn about each other and WHY we have reached these conclusions is the path to finding common ground and creating meaningful change.

I should be really clear here about the difference between compassion towards the humanity of another person and addressing harmful behavior.

We talk with our kids about this often, that we love them unconditionally, but that we don’t like their behavior sometimes, and that those are two different things. One of our kiddos was struggling with controlling her feelings recently and she said through her tears, “You don’t like me!” It was both heartbreaking and easy to respond to, to reassure her that her behavior did not define her or determine how much we love (and like) her.

Sergio Peçanha writes, “It is natural to want to brush off those who fall for the kind of lies spread by the Jair Bolsonaros and Donald Trumps of the world. It’s an understandable defense, but it won’t make the problem go away. What if, instead, we pull them in closer? Draw them to us. Look them in eye. My sister-in-law’s wish for a better country is real. Her pain is real.”

Our binary thinking leads to polarization and undermines compassion because it leads us to believe that there are only two options, often divided between good and bad. Binary thinking is an essential part of white supremacy and contributes significantly to dividing and controlling people in our society. Our politics and the way the media has contributed to the perception that “the other side” is evil has made binary thinking even harder to resist.

From Garrett Bucks again, “depending on your political beliefs — you’re supposed to sympathize with Black people drinking poisoned water in Flint, Michigan or White people drinking poisoned water in East Palestine, Ohio, but not both.”

Since I know most of the people likely to be reading this are progressives, let’s do an experiment. Imagine a gun owner in your head. Feel your body respond and make assumptions about this imaginary person. What characteristics does this person have? How does your narrative about this person change if I tell you that they are a white woman? How does your narrative change if this person is a black woman? How does this narrative change if this person is a veteran?

Every single one of these imaginary people have experiences and perspectives that have guided their decisions through life and every single one of these people is likely doing the best they can with the circumstances they have faced. Every single one of these people deserves our compassion as a fellow human being and every single one of these people deserves to have their needs met.

If we want to live in a world in which everyone is cared for and has what they need, we have to be able to imagine the world we are working towards. That’s where hope comes from. We also have to know where we have been, unflinchingly aware of our past failures and successes.

Theodore R. Johnson writes,

“Our politics seem increasingly to demand all of one and none of the other. But reasonable people, whether pride or reckoning resonates more with them, can sincerely ask: How can we take pride in a nation with a history of such injustice and unfairness and inequality? How can we reckon with a nation that we refuse to take pride in? The truth is, the two are inseparable. Pride includes a faith in the nation’s ability to learn and improve and atone. Reckoning implies faith in a fundamental goodness to which the appeals of justice can be made. … Nearly every American alive today descends from a race, ethnicity or nationality that was excluded in some way, at some time, from the full rights of citizenship and barred from participation in our democracy. … But the nation we have today, with all its imperfections, is a product of the energy and work of previous generations who insisted that the nation do a better job of living up to its promises. We should be proud of those who came before and bent the nation, often against its will, toward equality and justice.”

So much polarization is happening right now (as it has before) linked very tightly to white parents. One more from Garrett Bucks,

“It may not be new, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not in a moment right now. If you are a parent in a state that has a Republican controlled legislature, you have been invariably assaulted this year with a slate of legislation purportedly enacted in your name: Book bans, attacks on trans kids and adults, public school-eroding vouchers for increasingly wealthier and Whiter populations, assorted anti-Critical Race Theory nonsense. And even if you’re a good liberal White parent who wouldn’t be swayed by all that far-right red meat legislation, there is no shortage of appeals to your self-interest as well: Article upon article about how the “defund the police” movement went too far and how your kids now aren’t safe, the whispered assurance from friends that you’re not really selling out if you enroll your kids in private schools or in a ritzy suburban district, the pervasive (but implicit) myth that parenting while privileged is all about maintaining your own family’s class and racial position.”

If you see yourself in any of this, have compassion for yourself, too. Acknowledge what you want to change and work towards growth. Everyone makes mistakes in this work because we’re all conditioned to participate and perpetuate the systems in place. Over time, they have changed in a more inclusive direction, but only because of people like us who are pushing the boundaries, practicing compassion, and finding our way forward together.

Emily
Listen. Amplify. Follow. In Solidarity.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:
- I want to highlight “10 Young Racial Justice Activists You Should Know
- And great news! “Perfectionists: Lowering your standards can improve your mental health
- Here’s a lovely example of what solidarity can look like.
- I really enjoyed another article by Theodore R. Johnson about why discussing race is essential to our love of America.

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