Self-awareness and a deep willingness to keep learning are both necessary to risk the kind of action that leads to meaningful change. Here, Heather Casimere, reflects on the complexity and cost of wrestling with her own identity as woman of color during the wake of Charleena Lyles’ death.
The past few weeks have been challenging for those of us who find ourselves completing our first year here at The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology, and in more ways than the usual.
Many of us live aware of the systems of oppression that are set in place in this North American society of which we find ourselves a part. Many of us have never experienced being unaware of its realities. Others of us live unaware, un-acknowledging, or even participating (whether consciously or unconsciously) in racially oppressive institutions and systems. Regardless of where find ourselves on this spectrum, awareness was recently brought to our cohort in the form of a class in which we focused on Multicultural issues: specifically, the social construct of race and its impact on our American society.
We looked at the places, the people, the foods and experiences that we each come from. Each of us, unique individuals, come to this place with stories behind us. Realities that follow us. Dreams that move us forward.
This class caused me to think of some of the things that I have inherited, some of the things that I enjoy: Brown skin. High cheekbones. Stubbornness. Militancy. Creativity. Laughter. Sensitivity. Celebration of family. Good food. Faith.
Then there is the not so pretty reality of things I have inherited related to the skin color I was born with: Stereotypes. Systematic racism. Institutionalized oppression. Resistance, both from and towards the system of which I find myself a part.
In the wake of a class that was eye opening to so many, the murder of Charleena Lyles wrapped palpable grief around what was already a stressful season of finals, professional and personal work. Charleena, a 30 year old black woman, was several months pregnant. She called the police to report a burglary, in Seattle, the city in which we currently reside. And she was murdered in her home as three of her children were in the next room.
Some might defend the actions of the police when something like this happens. “She made a lower income. She should have tried harder. She was mentally unstable,” some might say. “She should not have put herself in the situation she was in, with so many kids. She should have made better decisions, and then she would not have found herself in this predicament.”
People can say so many things to justify why the policemen responded with the response that they did; why it was okay or even justified to kill a mother of four when she called for help from her own home. But the reality is that when a woman who is white calls police to her house for help, she is treated with respect and consideration. When a black woman calls for the same reason, for help, she is not always treated with the same care, the same respect, the same consideration. This is why black people tend to have apprehension when it comes to policemen. Because so often we don’t feel protected. When we call for help, we often have to warily be on the defense ourselves. We shield ourselves with apprehension because the assumptions that are held about our white brothers and sisters are not often held about us.
I was rattled by Charleena’s death, and not because racism is a new conversation in my world or because I am shocked by the actions of the cops. It’s just that in the midst of finals, work, and implementing new skills in both personal and professional areas, it hit me: in our society, our lives are not considered the same as others whose skin may be a different color, perhaps a shade or two lighter than ours. Charleena’s death hit me so hard because she was a slight, brown skinned, slender young woman; 30 years of age, who lived in Seattle. For someone to call the police for help and not survive the encounter struck a little too close to home for someone who fits so much of the victim’s description.
To paraphrase what was spoken by a fellow classmate of color in our Multicultural class: “I have good in me.” I would like to add to her statement: “Is there not as much good in me as there is in you?”
I have inherited many things. Among them, love of dogs. Love of water, and the ocean. Love of swimming hundreds of thousands of laps to calm my mind. I have inherited beauty and strength. I have inherited power that is near unfathomable, even to myself.
But I have also inherited an often unjust criminal system. Racial bias. And prejudice that walks before me into many rooms I have entered in my life. By the time I have arrived, bias has already been settled, welcomed. Bias has already taken its seat and gotten a drink of water. Even as I emerge freshly dewed, calmed from the pool, there bias waits for me, already cooled off.
My point here is: Charleena was more than just a name on a headline.She was not just a stereotype, not “just another ghetto black woman who should have tried harder.” She was not “just a lazy mother of four on welfare.” She was so many things. Charleena, perhaps, was a woman who loved to sing and paint and dance. Perhaps she loved dogs, or the water. Perhaps she liked to swim hundreds of thousands of laps in a pool. Having never met Charleena Lyles, I believe that she was much more than many of us will ever know. She was loved, and she loved.
I reiterate our classmate’s question: “Is there not good in me? As much good in me as there is in you?”
Look past the skin color. What else do you see?
We have to begin to talk about these things.