On Prejudice and Privilege

3 very public deaths in the last few months by police. this past week 2 decisions by grand juries have come back without indictments of the officers. victims are a 12 year old, an 18 year old, and a 43 year old father of 6. in at least 2 of the cases, the police officers were white and the victims/perpetrators were black.

so the whole nation is up in arms. actually, there’s controversy about putting arms up in a surrender posture in solidarity of one of the men who was shot. it has been said that this is hypercritical of the police force.

there have been riots. there has been much anger and sadness. and some grief and fear. apparently everybody’s #drunkuncle showed up for thanksgiving and went all full racist on the topic.

i’m grieving for the deaths, because they seem violent and shocking and preventable. i’m grieving for the families who are without their kids and dad and husband now. i’m grieving for the police officers involved who have to live with this now, always. their careers and lives will never be the same and their dreams may never be unhaunted by it.

but i’m also grieving and worried for our country. it seems like everyone immediately “us’d” and “them’d” and took a side and firmly planted their feet. where is the big “us” who just lost some of its people? some of our children? aren’t these our kids, too? and if these deaths could have been prevented by some small changes in protocol or perspective, isn’t that what we all should be shouting for? why wouldn’t we all be on THAT side?

i’m one of a kabillion voices weighing in on this right now, and i apologize if you’re heart and mind are tired of the topic, but i have a theory.

our actions are influenced by our perceptions, which are influenced by our prejudices.

what we do in response to a stimuli is based on how we perceive that stimuli, and how we perceive it is based on prior experiences we’ve had with it or assumptions we’ve made about it.

so, let’s say that i am a police officer and i carry a weapon for my job. i am instructed to use this weapon to ‘neutralize’ threats. so, what’s a threat? well, it’s anything i subjectively decide is a potential danger to another civilian or to myself. my perception of this threat is influenced by any underlying prejudices i have.

so let’s say, based on my inherent prejudices, if i see a white man walking down the street, he carries a threat level of 3/10 for me. let’s say if i see a black man walking down the street, he carries a threat level of 5/10 for me.

so, if my threshold for discharging my weapon based on my perceived threat is a 10/10…do you see how much closer the black man is to getting shot than the white man?

i’m not a police officer. i don’t carry a gun. thank Jesus i don’t have to make those insanely difficult decisions and worry constantly about my own safety…and the safety of all people everywhere, always. they have a big job. bless them.

but i am in medicine. my prejudices will color my perceptions, which will effect how i treat people. am i more likely to dismiss pain on one patient versus another? overlook a diagnosis because of a preconceived notion? very possibly. does someone’s color, language, sex, sexuality, size, eyes, hair, voice, trigger something in me that will have me responding differently than i would to someone with different characteristics? yes! very possibly yes.

so i have to check my prejudices. i owe it to my customers. it could save lives.

because i’m a weepy mombie, the story that bothered me closest was the 12 year old’s. he was playing with a toy gun and when the police pulled up to respond to the potential threat that had been called in by a neighbor, they immediately shot him twice in the stomach and killed him.

henry likes weapons. swords, fake guns, ‘shooting swords,’ whatever. could he not easily be the 12 year old who is seen as a threat for playing with a toy gun? couldn’t that be him in a few years?

well, kind of. but we all know it probably wouldn’t be.


well, he’s white and he’ll be playing in a nice park.

what did he do that was special to keep him safer? to make him appear less of a threat?

he was born the way he was, where he was.

i don’t know that we’re actually ever fully aware where we stand on the privilege scale. our reality is what we’re born into and we don’t know any difference along the way.

but we know how we’re treated. we gather quickly how we’re perceived. whether we’re seen as a beautiful flower of the universe or an ugly weed. a benefit to society or a threat.

i know i am extraordinarily privileged. i was born white. that matters a lot. i’ve never been accused of shop lifting. even when i was a sketchy teenager, i apparently wasn’t that sketchy, because i don’t remember ever being followed around a store, not trusted. every time i’ve ever been pulled over by a cop it’s because i was, in fact, violating traffic. i was born with money, into an intact family, in a safe neighborhood, and sent to great schools with current books and college expectations. i never wondered where my food would come from or if i would be attacked on my way to school. overall, i knew the adults i encountered had my best interest in mind. so i was rich and i was white. and then i was also straight. so when i fell in love with my person in high school and college, my biggest debate was whether it was the right time, whether i liked him enough, and then how to put together the details of my wedding. my legal wedding. i never worried i’d get assaulted or insulted for my partnership. i never would lose a job or housing arrangement over it. i do face some uphill battles in being a female, but compared to the world and the world in history, i’m one lucky sumbitch there, too.

i think it’s important to recognize where we stand on the perceived threat scale based simply on our characteristics. and then critically analyze our own internal threat scale to see where people fall and why.

maybe we can save some of our people. we have to try, right?

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