With the recent fatal shooting of Michael Brown, the unarmed 18 year old from Ferguson, Missouri, and the brutal beating of Marlene Pinnock on the side of a Los Angeles freeway, one begins to wonder if police brutality is not unusual, as we previously thought, but has instead become the new social norm. But, what if the relationship between police officers and people who happen to have a skin color other than white, has always been strained, and American citizens are just beginning to be made aware of this fact on a large scale? Social media has certainly made us all more aware that discrimination against minority groups continues to occur. However, if we look into our own lives, I am sure we can all recall a moment where we were made aware of discrimination.
I remember when a coworker once told me about his experience with the police. Steve was thin, soft spoken, and Black. He told me that whenever he was pulled over while driving, regardless of the reason, he would roll his window down, remove the keys from the ignition, and raise his hands in the air, just so there would be no confusion when the officer approached his car window. Confusion? What sort of confusion could there be surrounding a traffic stop? Apparently, there was room for a lot. Steve’s experience, and that of many other minorities, raises many questions about our culture. How and why does this sort of discrimination still exist? Have we become caught up in a cycle that continuously perpetuates the oppression of minority groups through police violence and brutality? Bobbie Harro discusses these cycles of oppression in her text, “The Cycle of Socialization.” Harro writes that we are socialized from birth to subscribe to a specific set of social and cultural rules. If we happen to be a member of a group that benefits from these social rules, “we may not notice that [the rules] aren’t fair. If we are members of the groups that are penalized by the rules, we may have a constant feeling of discomfort” (Harro). My coworker Steve knows what it feels like to be a member of a group that is penalized by the “rules;” he feels the effects of racism in even the most mundane situations.
Unfortunately, a cycle in which police officers use excessive force, or take unnecessary violent action in a situation, has been created in our society, and it became “normal” when we were no longer surprised to hear stories of police brutality on the news. Our reaction has instead become one of grim disappointment. Harro writes that in situations like this, “it is easiest to do nothing, and simply allow the perpetuation of the status quo” (Harro). However, we cannot simply do nothing. By continuing to participate in the cycle, with our silence confirming our participation, we “reinforce stereotypes, collude in our own demise, and perpetuate the system of oppression” (Harro). No one person should live in a society that oppresses him or her. Michael Brown, Marlene Pinnock and my coworker were, and are, unfortunately, participants in a cycle in which they are the oppressed. Whether justified or not, should an unarmed, 18 year old boy have to die during an altercation with an officer? Was there something else the officer could have done to deescalate the situation before he decided to shoot to kill? Something needs to change, but what?
The first step in breaking this cycle, or any cycle, is to break the silence. We must begin to speak out against the things that we feel are corrupt. As Harro states, “Our silence is consent” (Harro). We cannot simply sit back any longer. We cannot remain passive participants in a culture that demands activity. We must at least speak up and voice our concerns, even in the small, or seemingly innocent situations. For example, next time someone makes a racist, or a derogatory joke about any social group, speak up. Tell them that what they are saying is inappropriate because these jokes say, “It’s okay to dislike or make fun of this group of people. Their feelings do not matter. Essentially, they do not matter.” When we perpetuate the idea that a particular group of people does not matter, we end up with situations like that in Ferguson. While you may not be able to convince the joke teller to change, you may be able to break the cycle for someone else. Maya Angelou once said, “ the plague of racism is insidious, entering into our minds as smoothly and quietly and invisibly as floating airborne microbes enter into our bodies to find lifelong purchase in our bloodstream.” Maya Angelou is right, and racism in the form of a “joke” is just one of many seemingly innocuous ways we continue to allow racism to be a part of our cultural and personal “bloodstream.”
I have two friends, a couple, who took their son to the zoo. Laughingly, my friend recounted a situation that happened with her son and husband. Some Mexican landscapers were working near an exhibit they were observing. Her husband said, “Look, and there you can see the Mexican in his natural habitat.” I was horrified, and said so. She said, “No, it’s okay, we are Mexican, we can say those things.” No, you cannot. The rest of the day, every time their son saw a Mexican, he would mimic what his father had said. Through a joke, their son was being conditioned to believe that Mexicans are landscapers, and not only that, but that they are also like animals in a zoo. This one joke had dehumanized a human being in the eyes of a child. You can see how the cycle of racism is perpetuated with the telling of a joke. Now, a young child, on some level, believes that an entire race of people is less than human. Had someone in the vicinity said something then, letting them know that the joke was inappropriate, what would have happened? Would the cycle have been broken? Maybe. Maybe a young boy would learn a lesson from a brave stranger who decided to speak up. We should all strive to be that brave, because then maybe situations like the one in Ferguson will cease to occur.
Harro, Bobbie. The Cycle of Socialization. New York: Routledge, 2000. Print