CAPC Oakland

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White Humility in a Time of Black Rage

This letter was written by Louise Waters (Gary Yee’s partner) to the community of her father’s church, University Lutheran at Stanford, in response to the conversations around racial justice and learning. She shared it with our community as well as a space in which to learn and reflect.

Dear Church Family,

I have appreciated all of the articles and conversation going around about racial justice and the role of white people in dismantling racism.  I have not participated in the conversations for many reasons including distance, preoccupation, and to be honest, the fact that this work has been a major part of my professional and personal life for over 50 years and I have been through these same conversations many, many times.  Because of this history, I am experiencing today viscerally. 

I am writing because we have learned from the gay rights movement that when narratives go from intellectual to personal and from something affecting others to something impacting people and places we know, deeper change happens.  I have not written this before but you are part of my community and, as a white woman, I feel that sharing my life learnings with you is the right thing to do as we all grapple with the role of white people at this moment in history.

On June 12, 1972 I married Harry Waters on the lawn of Branner Hall.  Unbeknownst to us, that was 5 years to the day of the Loving decision invalidating laws banning interracial marriage.  It was four years from when we met during Frosh week at Branner, Stanford’s first co-ed dorm.  Harry’s mother was a maid at Guthrie House.  In the spring of 1968, after King’s assassination, she heard Stanford was reaching out to Ravenswood High School, across the freeway, looking for smart Black students.  Harry became one of Stanford’s first significant cohort of African American students (30) and we became one of the few and early “out” interracial couples.

Over the years, I learned Waters’ family stories.  His sharecropping grandmother who bled to death because no doctor would tend to her cotton-pierced artery.  His father who joined the Great Migration to San Francisco shipyards looking for opportunities unavailable to Black veterans in Georgia.  His excitement of moving from Hunter’s Point to East Palo Alto when block busting opened that market – and the realization of its limits when he entered Stanford prepared with Ravenswood’s top math class, Geometry.  I also had a continuing view into how he had to navigate the white world as a Stanford student, Cal State professor and father.

But my biggest insights into the lived experience of people of color in this country came through my children.  I have two light-complexioned sons and a daughter who is somewhat darker.  We lived in the very integrated, diversity of Union City, California.  I start with this because color and gender are significant variables in racial experience.  Our location was a best-case scenario.  All of my children have wonderful childhood memories and a richly diverse circle of friends.  And all were impact by stereotypes and at times racism in one way or another.  Numerous times we would be shopping and my daughter would reach into my purse for the car keys, take something out of the shopping cart or put something in, or have some other ordinary interaction with me.  Not infrequently, clerks or security people, rather than assuming she was with me, would assume she was stealing.  She developed the habit of starting public interactions with me with the word “mom” to stave this off.  My oldest son’s experiences with the effects of stereotyping were more subtle and revolved primarily around the surprise and assumptions he encountered as the only African American boy in AP classes and one of the few in debate.

It was my youngest son from whom I learned the tougher lessons about being a Black teenager and young man.  To understand this better, let me help you visualize. The public figure Ryan most resembles is Steph Curry.  He is the same size, complexion, and has the same non-threatening, nice-guy demeanor.  However, he has had a gun drawn on him by police four times and has experienced physical roughing up.  None of these encounters resulted in arrest, fine or citation.  I knew some of them in some detail, but it was not until we had a long talk after George Floyd’s murder that he told me fuller details.  He shared how afraid of police he still is, as a 37-year-old father who has worked closely and collaboratively with police officers.

The first encounter was in elementary school.  He and his older brother had come home early for some reason and were in the front room watching TV.  A neighbor heard someone inside, knew we were at work and the kids were at school, and called the police.  They entered through the unlocked door.  When they heard movement in the front room they drew their guns.   Up to this point there was nothing particularly untoward.  Then the boys walked out and identified themselves (reinforced by their pictures all over the walls).  One officer put his gun away and took out a note book.  While he was writing, the other kept his gun trained on Ryan. Ryan’s realization that in some way he was considered a threat began then, at age 8.

A later incident occurred afterschool as Ryan was picking up a friend outside of his high school, idling in a no -stopping zone.  An officer pulled up and got out of the police car.  Stupidly, Ryan also got out, thinking the officer wanted to talk to him.  Instead the policeman puller his gun, grabbed him, pushed him against the car and began swearing.  Luckily Ryan remained calm and de-escalated it.

Another incident happened in his 20s when Ryan was a college student at NDNU in suburbanBelmont.  He was approaching campus at dusk and was pulled over.  Although unaware of any violation, he remained in the car with hands in the 11:00 / 2:00 steering-wheel position that his dad had taught him, narrated his movements, and got out only when the officer asked.  Because it was a busy street, he instinctively stepped onto the curb.  Immediately the officer pulled his gun and started yelling at him to step down.  Not understanding what was wanted, he crouched down.  The officer got agitated, pointed the gun at his head and continued yelling to step down.  At this point Ryan realized that as a 6’2” African American man, he presented a threat that was accentuated by being on the curb – and by the fact that the officer was short.  He stepped down and showed his student ID.  There was no traffic citation or fix-it ticket.

Closer to church, in his late 20s he went to the County Court House near California Avenue to visit the records office.  While standing at the elevator in an empty lobby, a police officer came, stood beside him and then elbowed him sharply in the side.  Ryan did not react.  The elevator came and the officer got on.  Ryan turned and left the building.  When he told me some months later it resonated with the phone calls my mother received in the 90s during the era of the College Terrace rapist and numerous break-ins.  Multiple times when we were visiting, a neighbor would call, telling her to advise Harry to be careful walking around.  He might be stopped by the police.  Whether this was an accurate portrayal of the police or simply a projection of the woman’s fears, the calls made clear he was not part of the community.

These experiences have taught Ryan that at no time can a Black man afford to be perceived as a threat by police or react to provocation in any way.  This was reinforced by explicit lessons from Harry – the famous “talks” given by African American fathers to their sons.  One occurred when he took the boys and one of their white friends to an Oakland A’s game.  On the way home, the friend was hassled by some drunken white fans and responded in kind – ending up getting punched.  Harry had to separate them, protect the friend and get them all off the BART.  He was livid.  The friend had put him in a precarious position.  As the adult, he had to assure the safety of his guest.  However, as he laid out to his sons afterwards, had the cops been called and rushed in, they would have perceived him as the threat and the instigator, potentially with no time for explanation.  My sons clearly remember the talk and his warning that no matter how righteous the reason, they did not have the freedom to respond as their friend had. If they did, the results could be deadly.

Today Ryan is a father living and working in Oakland.  For seven years he was a frontline conflict resolution, behavior intervention person at a deep East Oakland high school.  He saw numerous overly aggressive police interactions with young Black and Latino men.  And at the same time, he worked closely and positively with many law enforcement personnel.  In that kind of role he was not afraid – but as a civilian he was.  This continues to be the case.  He is now a job training supervisor for young adults who did not complete high school.  The day Floyd was killed, he was processing it with his supervisor, an African American woman with a long history in the community.  She told him how recently she received an urgent call to intervene for some of her students.  They had been visiting the house of a friend where an unconnected, drug-involved person was staying. The police raided and pulled everyone outside, handcuffing the students and pushing them to their knees.  They also pulled a teenager from the shower and had him cuffed, naked, in the front yard.  When she arrived, the action was over, the suspect had been arrested, and the police were writing up the incident.  But the students were still on their knees and the teenager was still naked in the yard.  She told Ryan she had seen many similar situations over the years.  Whether intentional, or simply fear-based, it was a public demonstration of police power.   And any physical or verbal reaction – even pulling away from the pain of the grip or a rock under the knee, could be seen as resisting arrest with potentially fatal results.

The take aways?  First, the possibility of police violence for Black men is real and can happen in the blink of an eye when a white person or a police officer feels threatened.  For Ryan it was only a few times in 37 years – but those are indelible.  For my oldest son and late husband, there were no threatening police interactions (that I know of) but there were more subtle occurrences and, like every African American man in America, the knowledge that such interactions could occur.  For Harry this meant continually being conscious that he was a large, athletic Black man who was intimidating to many white people.  As a professor, he consciously wore sweaters as to soften his image. He had his checks and credit cards printed as Dr. Waters, not to show off, but to signal hotel clerks and other service providers that he was “OK.”  He made 3” buttons with each of the kid’s pictures on them and wore these on his jacket to humanize himself – especially when he rode his motorcycle and wore his army jacket.  And at Cal State he held office hours in the library because he did not want to meet with female students in his remotely located office.  My sons are careful where and when they jog.  They do not wear dark glasses when visiting in Palo Alto.  If going to buy something on Craig’s List, they avoid wearing certain clothes, text while driving up, and meet the person outside the house -especially if it is in the suburbs. 

As an upper middle-class white woman, without my experiences as a wife and mother, I would have no experience with the toll of living life constantly on guard.  And I would not have felt the pain of knowing that there is nothing I can do to protect my family or prevent deadly interactions like that in Minneapolis.  Far more common, I cannot control the racists fears of women in the central parks across the country who look like my younger self.  This has been driven home to me daily because I regularly experienced the world in two starkly different ways – often within moments of each other.  I could enter a store with my family and be noticed by everyone.  This did not have to be negative, it was just a consciousness of being constantly on display.  At times it was even comical – like one cashier I remember who was extra friendly when I was with my husband but did not recognize me when I went back alone – over and over again for 10 years.  But I knew this was not permanent.  I could be anonymous whenever I wanted to be.  If was sick and frumpy, I could choose to leave the kids at home and go down to Rite Aid and no one would notice me.  I could never be invisible if I were with anyone in my family – but I know that I am the only one in the family that had that choice.

Seven years ago my husband died.  By then the children were adults and for the first time the reality of race did not confront me daily – either directly or through their experiences.  I was an ethnic studies teacher and have spent my career focused on race, poverty and education.  I know the scholarship and the data.  And I have been part of an interracial family for 50 years.  But that is not enough.  Not too long ago, one of Harry’s nephews, a tall, dark, police officer from Washington, came down for a family gathering.  We were to meet at my house in Union City.  It was hot and I was running late so I texted that the garage door was open and to go inside.  I got there 15 minutes later and he and his sister were sitting in the car.  Unthinkingly I said, “Why didn’t you go in?” They started laughing and he said there was no way he would go into a garage beyond his block. I was chagrined.  I knew this and a few years ago I would not have made such an insensitive suggestion.  However, without daily, personal, encounters with the realities of race in this country, it is easy to slip back into white complacency and unthinkingly see the world we experience as the world that everyone experiences, – no matter our intellectual understanding or personal history.

 So this week has been visceral for me.  I have been struggling to find my role, and decided one step was sharing my learnings as a white woman in two worlds, glimpsing but not fully living the reality of the Black world; blending in but seeing the white world through lenses few of us are forced, or privileged, to wear.

I have shared the experiences of my family specifically because they do not match the assumptions about a highly-educated, middle-class, interracial family like mine, living in a Bay Area city with 80% residents of color.

I have shared the ease with which I can unconsciously forget, step away, and slip on my white blinders – even with the personal and professional insights I have gained.  And I reflect with embarrassment how much less I saw as a progressive Stanford student at the height of the civil rights movement.  One so sure she knew the answers – which were simple. I still don’t and they are complex. I am humbled.

I applaud your reading, research and reflection.  That is the basic responsibility of white people who care – AND – I urge humility because this is a journey of understanding that must last a lifetime.  We will make mistakes, feel hurt, and be embarrassed.  My hope is that you will feel privileged when this happens.  How blessed am I that my nephew told me why he sat in the hot car.  How fortunate that he felt I could handle the truth and didn’t protect or dismiss me with “No worries, I just wanted to enjoy the air conditioning.”

Louise Waters

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This entry was posted on June 24, 2020 by in Community.
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