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Being color brave

Sandra Bland was taken into custody after failing to signal a lane change.

She died in custody a few days later. Though she’d tried to post bail just two hours before and would soon be starting her dream job, she was reported as having committed suicide.

I would have taken this story at face value a few months ago, but something happened to change that.

I was between jobs a couple months after events in Ferguson, Missouri inspired a series of protests across the nation. While my children slept, I browsed Twitter, Instagram and Vine for firsthand accounts of both protests and police brutality. I became increasingly agitated by the stark differences between firsthand–yet somehow “unofficial”?–accounts and the secondhand news media accounts treated as official. To hear the secondhand accounts represented as truth infuriated me. I also felt guilty, because I’d never before thought to question reporting I’d more or less taken for neutral presentation of fact; the problem was doubtfully a new one.

As I stood on the precipice of understanding that America’s race problem isn’t just one of redneck outliers, I watched horrifying videos. If others in this country were forced to face brutal realities just for stepping out of their homes, I could fully recognize that brutality and the braveness of stepping out regardless.

So I read. I reflected. I watched death reels. I watched countless Black men be shot by police officers in split-seconds, well before they could have even processed officers’ requests, let alone comply. I watched an unofficial, horrifyingly lengthy list of people killed by police grow–daily–and affixed images and histories to the victims, noting how many of them were people of color killed in the middle of ordinary daily activities. And I read with growing horror about how officers seldom experience any kind of repercussion, no matter how little objective basis there was for their immediate resort to lethal force.

I changed my icon to that of a Black lady for a single day and noticed, cringing, how many people said things like, “You people need to take accountability for your actions!” As I saw a whole range of complex issues from which I’d previously been shielded, the people making such statements saw individual accountability as the issue. It was privilege they speedily reject as fiction that enabled them to do so.

I stopped reading. I stopped writing posts like this one. I started avoiding Twitter, because a sense of distress crept over me whenever I saw the terrifying new stories about brutality I couldn’t change. I felt traumatized both by the news, and by my utter inability to translate the dozens of hours of reading I’d done into a succinct, coherent narrative that would make my White friends exclaim, “Oh, man! There really was a problem all along! What can we do to fix this problem?” (Blink offers some great suggestions. Please read it.)

On Friday I watched a TED video about being color brave, not color blind. You can watch it here.

It inspired me to revisit a letter I wrote friends in December. Revisiting that letter prompted me to share it here.

You might not read it. If you do, you might not agree with it. But it’s important with me to share it, and to open up the forum for you to ask questions–or consider alternative perspectives, even if you say nothing–that must be asked before needed change can sweep across our country.

Inspired by Mellody Hobson, I choose to be color brave. My words might disappear into the ether, but by offering them, I grow braver.

Fearlessness is overrated. But bravery? Proceeding despite unease? Yes, please.

I want to be brave.

The powerful words of Andrew Hawkins


Even if you skip the non-bolded text below, I hope you will look at the bolded text and follow the link.

This is a one-time thing. I will not be inundating your inbox with emails like this, but will happily–if slowly!–engage in follow up discussion if you seek it.


I’ve spent a lot of hours reading up on Ferguson recently. Ferguson, as y’all are probably aware, is about more than one young black man in one town.

Several times a week in the United States, I now understand, an unarmed black man is shot (or otherwise killed) in a situation that doubtfully required any force whatsoever. This has been an accepted fact of being a person of color–particularly black or Native American–in the United States. What’s remarkable about Mike Brown isn’t that he was killed, but that his death wasn’t accepted as part of the price of being of color in America. A movement was begun, and it was referred to as “Ferguson” because that’s where the sparks ignited instead of flickering away.

Just an hour or two reading up on Ferguson acquainted me with the basic set of responses to Ferguson. These are accurately summed up in the American Racial Incident Bingo card here:

Another prominent deflection is to characterize Ferguson protestors or sympathizers as anti-police as if any police action is permissible without question by virtue of badge possession. Statements like this are profoundly difficult for me to pass by without response, but I do pass by without response because I don’t think my response–or necessarily any response–is apt to promote change in such a context. But I’ve been looking for a good response by someone else, without finding just the right one … until now. I wanted to share it with you because it’s short, eloquent and spot on. Unlike this email.

For context, twelve-year-old Tamir Rice and 22-year-old John Crawford III were shot and killed by police in Ohio. Ohio is open carry state, which means carrying guns in public is sanctioned … provided you’re white.

Tamir was shot within two seconds of police arriving at the park where he was playing with a toy gun; police, not realizing the incident was captured on video camera, concocted a tale not close to supported by video footage. The officers failed to provide aid, which was only provided by an FBI agent who happened to be in the area four minutes after the shooting. Tamir died in the hospital sixteen hours later.

John was carrying a for-sale BB gun in an Ohio Walmart. He carried it while shopping for other items. He was gunned down by police almost immediately upon their arrival at the store. Police described him as acting in a threatening manner; again, videotape revealed otherwise. Police afterward interrogated his girlfriend as if she was a suspect and only revealed John had died ninety minutes into their interrogation.

Police are very, very seldom indicted in these cases, even when–as with Eric Garner’s death–video evidence makes completely baffling how exercising lethal force was “reasonable.” This recurring lack of indictment is a shocking injustice that impacts every single U.S. citizen who would wish justice be served for them, their friends and their family in incident with members of the police, which is to say, regardless of the color of their skin.

Football player Andrew Hawkins, cognizant of all these facts, wore a shirt urging justice in both cases. The Cleveland Police Union demanded an apology. Andrew’s response was beautiful:

Could I have posted this as a blog? Yes. But my blog tends to reach people vocally of like mind, people already demanding change and desperately searching ways to effect it. I wanted to send this as an email in case you’ve been overwhelmed by the amount of text out there, the amount of outrage, or a sense of helplessness in the face of wrongs too profound to quickly or easily change. I don’t want to only preach to the known choir, because that feels dangerously close to the terrible neutrality cautioned by Desmond Tutu:

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.

With love and hope,

p.s. No, this isn’t about my husband or my sons. It began that way, but grew into more as my understanding grew. No parent anywhere should reasonably fear the sanctioned killing of their children.

  1. July 19, 2015 at 10:48 am

    Reblogged this on American Soustannie and commented:
    I had in mind to write a post today, because it’s been way too long. Then … I read this. And nothing I have the energy or the time to say measures up.

    Please read it. Think about it. Click the links. Something has to change, and it starts with you – and you – and you – and me – and you.

    Oh, and by the way, I am routinely stopped for various traffic violations. The routine goes as follows: Cop peers into car. Sees apologetic middle aged white woman and a couple of cute dogs. Says, “Ma’am, slow down now. And have a nice day.” The end.

  2. July 19, 2015 at 11:57 am

    I am with you.

  3. July 19, 2015 at 12:04 pm

    I believe it means a lot that you’ve written this and made it public. Let me give you a parallel situation, because it’s one I can speak to personally. I’m white, but I’m also a lesbian, and the overwhelming number of straight people who’ve posted and publicly shown their support for gay marriage, and for the rights of gay people to live open lives, like anyone else, has moved me deeply. And, I think, has helped change the tone of the country. In the same way, the safety of African-Americans can’t be just their struggle, it has to be claimed by all of us.

    • July 19, 2015 at 3:14 pm

      There’s something I want to say to this, but after hours to reflect, I still can’t find exactly the words I’m seeking. There’s something so hopeful in your words they make me want to sing. Why? I can’t pinpoint it. But they do, and I love your concluding words: “it has to be claimed by all of us.” YES.

      • July 20, 2015 at 12:41 am

        What a lovely response. Thank you for letting me know.

    • August 15, 2015 at 6:34 pm


  4. July 19, 2015 at 12:16 pm

    Thanks for sharing all this — really put in context your comment (on my own post) about watching all the videos. And I agree entirely about how traumatizing it can be just to watch the social media rolls after another event like this.

    I worry about my Black friends, especially those who are activists or themselves survivors of other trauma, and what the effect on them must be of seeing those visuals over and over. I post a lot of social justice-y things on Facebook, and I try to be very aware and circumspect about what the visuals are, when I link to an article, or if a video will play instantly, if someone clicks the links.

    Stories of women who’ve been battered in situations of IPV go viral sometimes too, with horrific images/video that for a while gets plastered everywhere. More likely to be a Black woman or other WOC in those cases, as well. And I just can’t.

    • July 19, 2015 at 3:11 pm

      At first I started watching because I was sure, absolutely sure that the victims must have done something suspicious. My heart sank further with every one I watched, when I saw that wasn’t so. Not remotely. In fact, my husband and I watched Key and Peele last night; S5E2 has a great sketch that was so spot-on I laughed while simultaneously fighting tears.

      The more I watched and the more I understood, the more I grew angry with people using those sensational images so casually. It felt like, oh, hey, no biggie, just another dark-skinned person gone! It felt so casual I couldn’t handle it even once more. How terrible to be unable to escape graphic violence against people who could be you, your brother, your sister, anyone you love! My last Tumblr post (“No more will I consume death“) explained why I’ll no longer watch such videos, why I’ll turn them on if they start without my consenting to watch them, and why I now often unfollow when someone includes graphic images without warning.

  5. July 19, 2015 at 1:24 pm

    How I wish that justice wasn’t situational.
    How I wish that justice didn’t depend on colour. On income. On sexual orientation.
    How I wish that justice could be served. And seen. Worldwide.

  6. July 19, 2015 at 5:23 pm

    Thank you for sharing the TED video. I try to be color brave here in the Deep South.

    • July 20, 2015 at 9:54 am

      I feel like that would be harder there than here in L.A., where I have witnessed racism but most would not tolerate it overtly expressed. Thank you for reading, watching, and weighing in.

  7. July 20, 2015 at 9:28 am

    Color brave – what a wonderful concept.

    I am disturbed, though, at the number of people who seem to be assuming, with absolutely no proof, that the police murdered this unfortunate young woman in cold blood. Because if she did not commit suicide, that is the alternative. I find the ease with which that mental leap has been made to be very saddening.

    • July 20, 2015 at 9:50 am

      If you absent it from a national–and, in this case, local–context easily discernible by googling and spending a couple of hours reading, yes, I suppose it could seem like an incredible leap. With that context, which is critical, it’s impossible not to consider the possibility of foul or at the very least negligent play. Before November, I had no clue about the greater context; now, I am almost envious of those who turn away and, so turned away, say it simply isn’t there.

      • July 20, 2015 at 1:18 pm

        Thanks for your thoughtful reply and email, Deb. I certainly don’t question your passion, your research or your concern, sweetie. But I hope to God you’re way, way off base.

  8. July 21, 2015 at 8:58 am

    It boggles my mind that there was no justice in either of the Ohio cases.

  9. July 21, 2015 at 9:31 pm

    That you for this one Deb. I have been pondering what to say. The rise of in the deaths of women in custody, with no voice is astounding. Sandra is the forth. The ease at which this is going under the radar, is terrifying.

    If we don’t all begin to say no more, it will never end.

  10. July 22, 2015 at 12:29 am

    Reblogged this on We Hold These Truths To Be Self-Evident and commented:
    Wonderful and written from the human heart of divine wisdom. You put many things in words that I’ve found difficult to express. Thank you, Deborah.

    • July 22, 2015 at 7:37 am

      Thank you for sharing this. I keep thinking about how I could have improved it, but really … waiting for perfection to proceed is a surefire way to never get anywhere.

  11. August 7, 2015 at 6:21 pm

    Well said, Deb. Well said. The twitter pic change was a very small, yet enlightening kind of “experiment.” Thanks for this read.

  1. July 23, 2015 at 8:41 pm
  2. August 9, 2015 at 5:03 am
  3. July 7, 2016 at 5:53 am
  4. September 20, 2016 at 8:06 pm
  5. June 16, 2017 at 1:01 pm

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