Editor’s Note: Melissa DePino is principal of Leapfrog Group, a communications and marketing firm for nonprofits. She is a former English teacher and the co-author of a novel, “Pretty Little World.” The views expressed here are solely hers.
On Thursday, I was thrust, or rather, I inadvertently inserted myself into a national conversation about race. Me – a middle-aged, upper-middle-class white woman who has never had to worry about where I go, what I do, or how I act. And now that I’m here, in this conversation, I have a few things to say.
Most importantly, none of this attention I’m getting for tweeting the video that showed the horrific treatment of two young black men in Philadelphia just doing what we all do at Starbucks – sitting and talking quietly – should be about me or any other person who does not experience these kinds of indignities, threats of violence and discrimination every day. Yes, I was the vehicle to spark a new chapter in the conversation, but it doesn’t matter how I feel or what I experienced. How did these two men feel as they were arrested? Why did this incident happen? What can we do to make sure that incidents like these – and worse – stop happening? These are the questions that matter.
When I posted the video, right after the young men were taken out of the cafe in handcuffs and as they were being put into a patrol car, I did it because it felt like the right thing to do in that moment. I didn’t expect it to go viral; in fact, I didn’t expect it to get much attention at all.
Things like this happen to black and brown people in this country every single day, and they talk about it, tweet about it, and write about it, but for more reasons than I can discuss intelligently in this small space, people who look like me – white people – often don’t see, hear or believe their stories. And what’s even worse is that it often takes a black or brown person experiencing this type of painful situation – and having it exposed it to the world – for many of us to even get involved, which in and of itself is part of the larger problem.
After my tweet went viral, a well-meaning friend of my generation, who believes herself to be racially unbiased, said to me, “I’m shocked. I never knew that still happened until I saw your video.” My first thought in response was: Really? And my second was to wonder: What was it about this story that broke through to her when other stories didn’t?
Was it the fact that the video was taken by someone she trusted, someone who looks like her? Was it that she doesn’t enter the much-needed conversation on race because she’s afraid or uncomfortable? Is it because she thinks that it’s not a problem that today, in America in 2018, counts as her problem? These are also important questions, and I don’t have good answers.
I’m happy that posting the video allowed her to see the reality and believe it. What I’m not happy about is that it took exposing the trauma and shame that these young men experienced for her – or me, for that matter – to get involved. But now that she, and 10 million (and counting) other people have seen it, I hope that they will actually start listening – not to me, but to the people who experience the painful and destructive effects of implicit bias. This bias may perhaps be an even more insidious version of racism than our parents’ or grandparents’ version – if there’s actually even any way to compare, which there likely isn’t.
People keep asking me what I hope will happen now, and I do have something to say about that. I hope that many more of us will say something when we see something, educate ourselves and join in an honest – even if it’s painful or uncomfortable – conversation about race, a conversation that needs to happen and is long overdue.