Conflicted: A Black Journalist's Reckoning With Her Race, Family And Police Brutality
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Listen to the radio version of this essay:
Like many people, I'm hurting right now. All the intertwined complexities that make me who I am — my family, my skin color, my white husband, my career — are in conflict. My heart aches. My mind is muddled. Anger and rage pulse through me. I pray for peace. I'm tired. I'm confused. I'm sad. It's as if all the pieces of who I am have converged and imploded.
I'm a proud black woman, a member of a group that has been brutalized by police and historically mistreated. I'm also a journalist, a so-called "enemy of the people" who it's been suggested should be lynched like blacks were for decades. I come from a law enforcement family, the very people protesters across the country are accusing of racism and injustice. And I'm married to the kindest man you will ever meet, who happens to be white.
* * *
I was born in Ocala, Fla. I'm the middle child of three. My skin is dark. I have one dimple on the right side when I smile. My mom calls it "half a set," most people came with two, she tells me. It makes me unique.
As a child, I didn't fear law enforcement. They were family. Mom was a juvenile prosecutor. My uncle is a retired Gainesville police officer. In my kid brain, my family was literally like the TV show "Law and Order," a show that my mom, little sister and I watched during many weeknight dinners. My mother, Dandreinne, was quick-witted DA Jack McCoy. My uncle, Eugene, was wise-cracking detective Lennie Briscoe.
My family legal heroes faced far more challenges than the characters that entertained us on TV.
My mom graduated from college with a baby at age 21. Fourteen years later, with two more daughters, she finished law school and passed the bar exam on her first try. I remember cheering for her at her graduation and my kindergarten class coloring her a "Congratulations" banner in magic marker. Despite her job prosecuting juvenile offenders for a living, I never feared the criminal justice system. I didn't know how the scales of justice historically tipped in favor of white defendants from "good homes" or who were "just good kids who made a bad decision." I looked at my mom and I saw justice, fairness and equity.
As I got older, my uncle told me stories of the adversity and downright racism he faced as he rose through the ranks of the police force and earned the respect of his colleagues. As a teenager, I took his stories as an example of being able to work past the divisions of white and black. I saw my uncle — and most of his fellow officers — as "good cops."
It wasn't until I was older, in my twenties, that I started realizing that the lines between good policing, public safety and police brutality are far more hazy. Far less clear.
I lived and worked in Baltimore when Freddie Gray was beaten by police en route to the police station and subsequently died. I saw the city erupt into divisive chaos. But the watershed moment for me was when my niece, about 9 years old at the time, came home from school and told my older sister that she was scared of the police. Trying to explain to a wide-eyed black child that there are "good cops" like her uncle, who keep her safe and protect her from "bad guys" and that there are "bad cops" who do "bad things" when they shouldn't was one of the most heart-wrenching conversations I've ever had.
The more news I cover, the more I read and try to understand, the more I realize that the police and the criminal justice system are disproportionately skewed to punish and control blacks, especially black men. The reporting I have done on police brutality, mass incarceration, the war on drugs, inequitable access to quality education, health care and housing has opened my eyes to a side of the world I hadn't been exposed to as a child.
Thinking back on it now, I can better empathize with my niece's fear that day. With her tears and trembling little hands as she described how she was afraid the police would shoot her or take her away from her mom and dad because they thought she did something wrong, even if she hadn't. I can understand her palpable terror because mine grows with each passing day as the list of black men and women who have been slain at the hands of police grows. The #SayTheirName movement on social media, which aims to not let the victims be forgotten, has become a test of emotional endurance and mental perseverance for me. There are so many lives, so many memories to honor that I can't keep up.
* * *
George Floyd's death came just months after the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a black man jogging alone in Brunswick, Ga., when he was pursued by two white men, strangers to him, in a pickup because he allegedly fit the description of a burglary suspect in the area. Arbery was shot, and, it now appears, hit by a car. The chase and shooting were captured on tape by a third man, an alleged uninvolved bystander (who has since been charged with felony murder along with the vigilantes who chased Arbery). Arbery died on Feb. 23; his death has been referred to many times as a "modern-day lynching."
I thought of my great-granddaddy who lived in the South knowing the real probability of bigots in white robes planting a burning cross on his front lawn. I thought back to my mom and her brothers who switched high schools when de jure integration forced administrators to bus in black students like them. Arbery's death pierced something deep inside of me.
Then, George Floyd's death and Amy Cooper's bigotry twisted the knife.
Floyd's killing by a white Minneapolis cop, who knelt on Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes, was horrific to watch. I literally watched a black man suffocate to death on a national news broadcast. The same day, I saw the cell phone video taken by black NYC birder Christian Cooper posted to social media. He had recorded Amy Cooper, a white woman who reacted belligerently toward him when he asked her to leash her dog as the park rules mandated. She called 911, her voice suddenly hysterical, claiming an African American man was threatening her.
I look at the police officers who killed George Floyd, and see a new type of racist who aims to blend in. Racists who don't don pointy white hoods or yell, "The South will rise again!" They can be anybody. Casual racists walking their dogs in the park. And some who, sadly, wear a new uniform, with a badge and a new rallying cry: "To protect and serve." I know that not every cop is a racist. But these bad actors, and those who don't speak out against the racist actions of their brothers in blue, are just as much part of the problem.
I look at the so-called "Karens" of the world, from Barbecue Becky to Golfcart Gail and most recently Amy Cooper, and I fear the scornful eye of these white women who don't know me but still see me as a threat. What if they call the police for my just existing in the same space that they do? What if that encounter goes wrong?
Right now, for some angry black protesters, white people — especially cops — are oppressors, responsible for years of sustained systemic racism that can only be solved with drastic action and violence. There is an urge to make their voices the loudest in the room so they can't be ignored anymore. I understand their anger. But I'm uneasy about burning the communities — the eateries, the corner stores and small businesses our neighbors invested life savings in to build and work everyday to keep afloat — to the ground.
* * *
I'm angry and disgusted and hurt too by institutional racism perpetuated by white privilege and by whites who don't even realize that the mere fact that their skin is lighter than mine gives them a leg up in life. But again, none of these emotions are simple. I'm a black woman married to a white man.
In my mind, I've been thinking a lot about the 2001 teen romance flick, Save the Last Dance. Since it's been a minute (19 years, to be precise), let me refresh your memory: A white prima ballerina is plunked in a poor Chicago neighborhood after her mother dies and she goes to live with her dad. She falls in love with her new black bestie's brother, who teaches her about hip hop for her Juilliard audition and must choose between his drug-dealing homeboy and college.
There's a scene in which Sara, the white newcomer, says to Chenille, her sassy new black friend, "There's only one world." Angrily, Chenille replies, "That is what they teach you. We know different." Since I can remember, I have known different.
I grew up middle-class in a nuclear household in a nice house in the suburbs. I went to private Catholic school — mostly attended by the kids of my midsize town's affluent movers and shakers — beginning in sixth grade. I was one of the only black kids; I stuck out. My booksmarts helped me assimilate socially, but never culturally. I knew that our family Sunday dinners, where the lot of sisters and aunties and everybody feasted on oxtails with gravy and sweet potato pie, at grandma's house, on my great-granddaddy's ancestral land, were something that these white kids at my school with their trust funds and Wonder bread sandwiches could never understand or appreciate about me, about being black.
But now, my world is more complicated.
Half my family is white now. I married a lovely man from rural Kansas. As he's seen me crying uncontrollably the past few days and tried to comfort me, he wrote me a letter on June 2, his birthday. I was touched and overwhelmed when he gave me a present. It's beautiful and priceless, and I hope that it can help someone, even just one person understand the "why."
Why does this matter? Why are black people angry? Why are we hurting? Why are we mentally and emotionally spent?
You can find the entire letter here — but here's the part I want to share:
Like any worthwhile husband, I want to care for you and make you feel secure. It's my job and, probably, my love language. Seeing the latest cycle of racist words and deeds — Ahmaud Arbery chased down and killed by a nosy neighbor with a shotgun, Amy Cooper Karen-ing to the extreme, George Floyd's last minutes — I'm seeing how hopeless that mission looks. And that's a hopelessness that has become routine for you. My finally recognizing that is why I'm drained right along with you.
As we get closer to having kids, I heard you say recently, "I don't know if I would have what it takes to keep a black boy alive in this world." That flash of your dread will forever stick with me.
I don't dread the future. I hope for something better.
I pray everyday that when my children come into this world, I can help them navigate it. I can teach them how to survive it. I pray that we are all in a better place by then. And that this moment means something more than days of protests that fade away until the next tragedy.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Dana Amihere is the proud daughter of a Ghanaian immigrant father and an American mother. She attended the all-female Wesleyan College after being inspired by the strength and resilience instilled in her by her grandmother, mother, sisters and aunts. She's been married to the best ally and friend she could ever ask for since 2017. She became a journalist to shine a light on the communities and voices that might be overlooked or not deemed worthy of attention because of their status, income or skin color. She's excited and humbled to be sharing her own story now.