I'm Otherthan White & My Feelings About the Murder of Mike Brown

Originally posted on December 4, 2014 at Huffington Post Gay Voices. If you like this post, please hop over there and tell them by clicking the like button.

I haven’t written much about race issues, mostly out of respect for the black community. Even this term sounds wrong as I type it out. Is there a single “black community”? Is there just one “gay community”? Sure, if you are talking about the Castro in San Francisco, Chelsea in New York City, or Hillcrest in San Diego. But are all LGBT people in America one community? No. Neither, I suspect, is there a single “black community,” unless we are talking about a particular area, like, say, Ferguson, Missouri. So out of respect for black Americans, then? After all, what the hell do I know about being black in America?

On the one hand, zero. I am not black. I am one of those Americans who tell people they’re Irish because it sounds more interesting than “white.” I knew I would go to college. I can reasonably believe that if I work hard enough, I will be successful and can support a family. I don’t have to live in fear of the police stopping me as I drive home to my nice, predominantly white neighborhood. When I go into a shop, I don’t have to worry that the employees will follow me around on the suspicion that I will steal something. Even with my mohawk. Zero.

On the other hand, I experience being “otherthan” each and every day of my life. Otherthan being married to a man, because I am a lesbian. Otherthan being like “every other lesbian.” (Do all lesbians look alike except for me?) Otherthan looking like a “regular, normal” woman, because I am too tall, too big, too masculine, too butch. Otherthan identifying as a Christian, Jew, or Muslim, because I am an atheist.

Is any of this like being black? No. No. No. A hundred times no. I offer these otherthans only to say that, within my white privilege, I experience daily “otherness” that might give me some hint of what black Americans face each and every day, at least as far as being otherthan white. I don’t feel like I’m part of the big, white, oppressive system — and yet I am. I’ve had amazing friends in the past few years who have helped me see this better; while it might not be my fault, I definitely experience the privileges that come with being white, middle-class, and educated.

But in my privileged, albeit otherthan, place, I have been profoundly affected by the killing of Michael Brown, the grand jury’s decision not to charge Officer Darren Wilson with any crime for the death, and the reaction afterwards. As a lawyer and a former prosecutor, I am trying to understand why the process worked so differently for Wilson, a white police officer, than for otherthans accused of similar crimes. As an intelligent person who understands the system, I cannot fathom how the prosecutor could have handled the case in the manner that he did, nor why he did not recuse himself. If ever there was a time for the process to be fair and as impartial as our system will allow, this was it. But it wasn’t.

As an otherthan white person, I am trying to understand. Trying to process. Trying to synthesize my feelings. I hope this does not make me sound ignorant about race in America. I do not believe that I am; that education started for me many years ago. I distinctly remember an accomplished black lawyer telling me he got hassled by the cops, routinely, in his Brooks Brothers suit. Upper-class black girlfriends of mine share stories of being profiled as potential shoplifters by retail employes, and of the repulsive comments they receive from strangers at a shockingly high frequency. I know about the way my friends whose families are not all-white or all-black are treated. There are so many of these stories that anyone who listens to them gives up the naïveté (“That still happens in America?” asks the wide-eyed white child) immediately.

I note that my black friends and family are not speaking out much on social media. They are silent. I imagine the pain is too much. I haven’t reached out because I don’t especially like it when straight people reach out to me after a gay hate crime or injustice. It is not my friends’ job to help me understand. It is my job to gain understanding. So here I am, part of the problem, I know, but not feeling quite like that.

I want to be part of the solution.

What can I do to help? What can I do to combat racism? How can I make a difference? I’m not stupid; I know that the civil-rights movement needed white Americans to see and abhor what was happening to add weight to the fight. A minority cannot win rights from the majority without some help from the majority (basic math). So it was in the ’60s, and so it has been the past decade with gay rights. We wouldn’t have gay marriage in 35 states and D.C. if it weren’t for the support of our straight friends. (Thank you, by the way.)

But as one person, what can I do to help? This is my struggle. I realize I have a tiny podium to share things and try to impact others. I have done that. But what about as I move through the world? As I handle my daily life? How do I say to the black and white Americans I come across that I abhor what is happening and want to be part of the solution?

Last week I read the “Other America” speech that Martin Luther King Jr. gave at Gross Pointe High School in 1968. This is the speech where he says riots are bad but he could not condemn them without also “condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society.” It has been cited a lot in the last few days. In it King calls for an acknowledgement from all Americans that we have a race problem in America.

Well, we have a race problem in America.

We do. We have a system that is skewed. The cards are stacked against black Americans, and the statistical proof of this is sickening. But many people do not (cannot? will not?) see it. This was never more apparent to me than in the past few months. I have spoken to otherwise intelligent, wonderful people who did not hesitate to disparage an entire race. I have moved through work afraid to say anything about Michael Brown for fear that my colleagues might say something to make me respect them a little less. I scroll through Facebook nervous of what I might see.

But how does an otherthan effect change? We can’t wait for voting; besides, basic human rights are not to be voted on. We need “the people” to agree that the system and the rules of the system are geared toward protecting whites, ensconcing them in privilege, supporting them, and helping them flourish. We need the people who don’t see the problem to read and see, to listen and hear.

The laws need to change to provide protections. We need race training for all law enforcement, though I’m not sure how we teach someone that all life has equal value when that idea should be innate; an end to racial profiling; the demilitarization of our police; and lapel cameras on all law enforcement officers.

All these things need to happen, but before they do, the opinions of the majority must change. Right or wrong, it works this way.

So what will I do? I will keep using my podium. I will continue to teach my children about equality, that all stereotypes are bad, that they should question a system that benefits them solely because of their race, and that they should choose friends based on the quality of their character rather than the color of their skin. I will share with the people in my life. I will do so gently with people I like or love, and respectfully with the rest. I will not stop loving or liking them just because they might need help to understand. If we only talk with people who agree with us, we are preaching to the choir. When I pass black and white Americans on the street, I will look them in the eye and smile. I will continue to look for biases inside me. I will keep reading. I will listen to anyone who tells me I am missing something and read things that people suggest I read.

If you have any suggestions for what else I can do, share in the comments. I am listening, as are a lot of white Americans today (and, hopefully, tomorrow and always).

It is butch to stand up and say, “Enough! This otherthan wants to be part of the solution rather than the problem!” Be butch.

8 thoughts on “I'm Otherthan White & My Feelings About the Murder of Mike Brown

  1. Tristan/Butch!!

    What a GREAT post. This is the stuff I used to love so much from you – fresh, raw, from the heart, thoughtful and ain’t nothin’ commercial about it.

    THANK YOU for being a voice of sanity and compassion in a sea of craziness around the issue of racism and the murder of Mike Brown. In bringing it down to your personal stance, thoughts, feelings and ideas for action, you make a scary-big issue tangible and you give us license to take some personal power and actual steps towards being a part of the change we want to see in this world. (. . .Or at least this country.)

    Thank you for writing courageously, for thinking courageously in the first place and for being willing to (and inspiring to others to) act courageously; we are living in times that call for courageous action. I am impressed and heartened.

    And most likely, no matter how much others might think a person ‘fits in’, pretty much EVERYONE – on some level in some way – feels Otherthan. . . so let’s join in Otherness. . .May each of us who reads your words, Tristan, take from this post an inspiration to step forward and stand up for something we feel deeply about. Let’s do it! Let’s make the changes we know are right – Gay, Straight, Big, Small, Black, White or polka dotted – we are all in this together.

    Thank you, Tristan, for being one of the CATALYSTS for us all.

    Love Always,
    butchfemmelistings/wordpress (I’m gonna reference and tweet your post!)

  2. I related to your hesitancy to even discuss this issue – being white and prosperous (at least not homeless)! I usually feel that to comment is presumptuous but I like Maya’s thoughts and the term “Otherness” resonated. Its a good title for a movement that we can all be part of to make change.

  3. Speaking as a veteran Otherthan who also supports the black community as something set aside from reality as we know it, I have to say your essay is one of the most cogent and readable I’ve seen in a long time.

    I am a native and lifelong resident of Texas. My upbringing was completely mainstream, middle class, Christian, WASPish. The SCOTUS Brown v. the Board of Education decision was made when I was a baby; yet, I did not see any public school integration activity until I was twelve. That is the way of the South then, and now, as nearly as I can see. The adults in my family stressed that I must be nice to the black children if they came to my school, but I was not to bring one of “them” home. I remember my parents voting and talking about poll taxes. I also remember that my father had no qualms about telling me WHY the poll tax was required. He knew it was to keep poor black people from voting. Well, shame on all of them. But more than that – shame on the people of MY generation who have doomed themselves to repeat this behavior despite hearing information to the contrary.

    Twenty years ago I was in college for the umpteenth time (did finish finally). In my studies I penned an almost refereed/published article about the comparative lack of services to HIV positive persons from the black community. That would be, to be fair, either a total lack of service or the impediment of access to services by location. The majority, if not totality, of HIV/AIDS services in Dallas, Texas at that time were located in the teeming middle of the gay community. The poorest and least able of the black community (still segregated, mind you) lived a good twenty miles away. Many of those people had no cars, lived on small paychecks or disability, and received their primary medical care at the county hospital.

    I was incensed. I wanted to help. Guess what. Nothing I could do in an obvious manner was wanted. And I had to have that same little meeting with myself that you described in your essay.

    Now I realize that the best thing I can do is to be the best Otherthan I can be. It’s about how I live my life and how I relate to everyone, not how much directed social action I can be involved in. I have to remain one of the great unsung helpers. No kudos for me, thank you. (no pun intended) And I am happy with this realization. Happy for me, and immeasurably happier that I find a kindred spirit living halfway across the country from me. I believe there are many of us, and I believe in the many of us to effect change. It’s a matter of putting that positive thought energy out there and a matter of NOT going along with the status quo.

    Thank you for your wonderful remarks, Tristan. I will be looking for your future posts with great expectations for great reading.

  4. I relate to your hesitation to write this as well, while I’ve been mulling over in my head what I want to say about this atrocious crime, I’ve been afraid to sound ignorant in my knowledge of the black communities and their feelings surrounding this incident. Of course they are angry, and no amount of apology could fix that. You are right on the money that we need real change and real dedication to learning and taking apart the very broken system we have here in America surrounding race. Thank you for speaking out on this topic. It took great courage and writing skill to do this as you have here, very well done. I look forward to more. Peace ~MB

  5. I have to disagree with you regarding Ofc. Wilson. He was trying to do his job!! This 17yr old criminal was 6’2″ 300lbs who just robbed a store and attacked the Policeman physically & verbally, reaching for the officers gun!!! Why haven’t we heard from the store owner? Who called the police & why? The officer was trying to protect the Victim & the neighborhood from crime.

    • Rita, first, I respect our right to disagree! Second, Wilson is the same height and almost hit (or did hit) Brown with his car door. Third, we don’t have the death penalty for stealing a pack of cigarettes. You can break all kinds of really heinous laws and the police don’t have the right to shoot you for it.

      And, Brown was running. You aren’t supposed to get shot for running. He’d not been convicted of anything or even arrested. What Wilson did is wrong – just as what an officer does every 28 hours when the officer kills a black person is wrong.

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