Why I can't say "I can't imagine"

Author: Carole Chabries

Published Date: 4/12/2021

Categories: Liberal Arts Matter

portion of black lives matter sidewalk mural at milwaukee art museum
Portion of Black Lives Matter sidewalk mural at Milwaukee Arts Museum. Photo courtesy of c. chabries.
Murders are abhorrent. We don’t need to know the victim to decry the actions of people who intentionally kill human beings. Reflecting on the power of personally knowing the victim of police brutality and homicides, a colleague wrote me this morning: “the personal connections are painful but help folks humanize all of this madness.” I’ve been thinking about that ever since  – about how knowing people humanizes them, and also how insufficient personal knowledge is in the face of our national anger and outrage.
As the daughter of a long-serving officer of the law, I have been both willing to believe that there are police officers who are themselves criminal, and unwilling to concede that all police officers are bad. I have mourned the lives lost to police brutality and simultaneously refused to condemn all officers with blanket statements that would implicate even those who fight to do right within their departments and precincts. I am still unwilling to make generic proclamations against the police because I personally know police officers who are decent human beings with good hearts, who have committed their lives to public safety and the well-being of those of us who live in the US.  
But police culture. Not individual police officers. Police culture.
In the days following the murder of Philando Castile – known affectionately as Mr. Phil to my kids and their schoolmates – my family mourned publicly and privately with our beloved community at J.J. Hill Montessori in St. Paul, MN. Within a week we had moved to Columbia MO, and the first night we spent in our rental we watched in terror from our living room as the police pulled over a young man for driving while black. My kids were in tears with fear he would be shot. I downloaded the ACLU app to record the event. That night, that man lived.
Yesterday, Daunte Wright did not.
I am immensely privileged by my whiteness. For many years I also knew I was protected because my father was known and respected in the streets where I was driving. I once received what I’m told was expedited emergency medical treatment because I was the chief’s daughter. My dad has retired, and my family and I live several states (and a time zone) away. Here in Milwaukee nobody knows my dad’s name. This makes my kids less safe in Milwaukee than I was as a young white woman in Salt Lake City, but they are much, much safer for their whiteness than many kids in Milwaukee. Safer than many of their classmates and friends.
My white daughter will learn to drive next year. I want to say “I can’t imagine” the terror mothers feel when their black sons get behind the wheel and drive away. They might be going to wash their car. They might have girlfriends, partners, friends, or children with them. They might even be wearing a uniform. They are not safe.
I want to say “I can’t imagine” the terror those mothers feel, but truthfully, I am required to imagine their terror. I am required by the gift of our shared humanity, and I am required by my privilege, to empathize with those mothers, their sons, their families. I am required by the regular reminders of police culture to imagine the horrors of living in constant, regular, justifiable fear of the police. I am required to demand more, to demand better: to demand justice in place of that fear.

All of this – my good luck and privilege situated in the US culture of racism, injustice and brutality – presses on me, on all of us, to fight harder for education. Why education? Because like so many children, I learned empathy in the classroom, where teachers introduced me to the horrors humans have waged against each other through brutality, hatred, misogyny and racism. In high school I was introduced to the complex and competing histories behind events and eras, such as the United States’ Civil War, Jim Crow, and manifest destiny. College professors introduced me to comparative cultural analyses as I read feminism, queer theory, and the literary works of writers from other countries as they explored their cultures, so radically different from my own.

Education is not a quick fix for anything, especially for racial hatred. But education – in particular, a liberal arts education that promotes cross-cultural, trans-historical knowledge and understanding – helps us see through what is being normalized in front of us: the racist, hate-filled and publicly-sanctioned violence against Blacks in the US. These are urgent conversations for us to have on our campuses, in our classrooms, with our colleagues, and with our leaders.
We are required to have those conversations. We are required to show our students how to understand, contextualize, and act on the violent police culture in the US. We are required to help students understand that we all have roles to play in transforming the US if we have any hopes of a better – equitable, just, and anti-racist – world. We are required to speak on behalf of the 170+ names on Renée Ater’s list of black people killed by the police since 1968, a list that is almost certainly incomplete due to the way police homicides have been historically reported.
We must imagine others' pain.
We must be motivated by that empathy to act.
We must care for each other.

We are required.
Panoramic View of campus