Conversations with my dad were not always so productive. Throughout the early years of my awakening to racial injustice and my complicity, my attempts to talk about what I was learning with my father usually left me frustrated, angry, or silenced. The overall result was a sense of alienation within my own family.
That was close to 20 years ago, and much has changed. The seeds planted along the way, when dropped and watered tenderly, sprouted. The fruits of that labor are now apparent. The decision to share this story is in response to how many people I encounter who are in the beginning stages of their journey.
The story I want to share is not about a glorious “a-ha” moment, and it provides no magic bullet for how to wake up a family member. Nor is it meant to be a self-congratulatory expression of “Hey, look what I accomplished!”
Instead, it is a window into one daughter’s long-term, messy, imperfect, and altogether inadequate attempts to connect with her father and nudge him closer and closer to an anti-racist practice. My hope is that it provides lessons for those who are similarly striving.
The story begins with my dad calling to propose a Zoom call for my birthday. It is June 2020. We are in quarantine in different states, and the protests against police violence are sweeping the country.
While we spoke, my mom jumped on the call to tell me about a white friend of hers who had recently posted on Facebook about her son. The 30-something white son had been exercising near a stadium in Orange County, CA. Some police officers accosted him and told him he “fit the description” of a suspect who had been trying to break into cars. The son, reflecting on the experience, said he believed the outcome would likely have been worse if he had been Black. My mom told me this story to highlight that her friends were talking about white privilege.
When she finished, I asked a couple of questions for clarification. I was confused about what the word, “accosted,” meant. The police had not physically assaulted the white man, just questioned him strongly.
At that point, my dad interjected. He acknowledged that privilege might be part of the situation, but he said that we always needed to keep in mind that sometimes people were just, in his words, “in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
I bristled. Where was he going with this? I gave him room to explain.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
His explanation was not altogether clear to me. He seemed to have interpreted what my mom said as an overgeneralized statement about all cops, everywhere, discriminating in every instance.
I asked him to clarify what the purpose was in him interjecting his comments. I told him I did not hear my mom say anything about “all cops, all the time.”
To my father’s credit, he took a breath, thought for a moment, and admitted that he was feeling defensive about people painting police with the same broad brush. After all, he had been a cop throughout my childhood.
This allowed me to make a connection. I reminded him of a moment when I had reacted defensively to a Black friend during a dinner when she experienced something our white server did as racist. As I evaluated the charge of racism (not a useful thing to do), I put myself in the place of the white woman. This caused me to react as though the accusation was against me. (I wrote about the experience in my book, Witnessing Whiteness, which my dad has read, and so I knew he was familiar with the story.)
This is a very common situation. When white people hear a story about racism, we tend to imagine ourselves as the accused in the situation. We end up identifying more with the person enacting racism than the person who experienced or witnessed the harm. This often leads us to take on a “devil’s advocate” stance, essentially acting as the defense attorney, defending both our imagined self along with the person charged with the offense. I recalled this dynamic for my dad.
Notice what I did not do. I did not attack during what would rightly could be called a “white fragility” moment. Instead, I used a story of my own previous error as a way to offer a gentle correction.
To my father’s credit, as I told him what my experience had taught me, he received the message.
This allowed me to refocus the conversation onto the harm done to Black bodies, while also naming the importance of ensuring that we do not allow defensiveness to derail conversations about police abuse.
Once refocused, we talked for about another 25 minutes. The exchange covered the gamut, the need for change throughout the system, the problem with the “bad apple” analogy, his hope that things will be different after November, and my deep pessimism that we can rely on enough of the (white) voting public to recall the cries and demands for justice to guarantee success in the next election.
I experienced my own reactivity (which is common) when I heard my dad put forward an optimistic view without acknowledging the activism and organizing necessary to make changes actually happen.
Admittedly, this prompted a mini-lecture from me, thankfully one grounded in solid research and personal reflection.
I lamented what I recognized as clear connections between militia groups, unidentified federal agents deployed in D.C., and evidence of local police wearing patches and displaying hand signs that demonstrate their alignment with right-wing extremists. I also reminded him of the details of “my day with the far-right” at my mom’s church. This is the event where I realized for the first time how entrenched far-right Christian groups are with an ideology that will lead them to continue supporting Donald Trump, regardless of the havoc he wreaks on the nation through his racism, sexism, narcissism and autocratic leanings. I am much less optimistic about what will happen in November than my father.
When I finished, he said, “All is not well.” I agreed.
He agreed with my analysis of the need for ongoing pressure for change to happen. He then began his own mini-lecture. Drawing upon his experience in law enforcement, he spoke of city oversight, contracts, unions, and how tied they are to politics. As we went back and forth, I recognized that his intent was to tell me how complicated it is and what it would take to enact solutions. I continued to agree that this is why we need overall systemic change, and that only then could the “good” cops be left in place after all the “bad” ones were pushed out.
My intent in using the language of good vs. bad cop was purposeful. It acknowledges that my dad reflects on himself as having been one of the “good guys.” I know most people perceive the trope of good vs. bad apple as a fatally flawed way to view the situation. However, I used that language as a way of getting somewhere.
As we continued, and he mentioned the challenging history of racism within the police department as well as the city politics involved, he commented that we might need to find some other way to do things…like maybe some community-based something or other. Something different.
At one point, I laughed and said, “Careful, Dad, keep talking like that and people might start calling you an abolitionist.”
The fact that I joked with him that way was significant, and intentional. It nurtured the seed of imagination, an imagination that allows that our societal structures might need to be radically different for real change to occur. This fact alone made it worth connecting my father’s spirit of creative thinking with the police abolition movement, even though there was a mile-wide gulf between them.
I left the issue of police abolition there, with seeds planted.
This part of the conversation would not have happened as it did had I not decided to attend a presentation on police/prison abolition a couple of years prior. The facilitators that day prompted me to imagine. They planted a seed that had germinated into a longing for a society in which we have abundant social supports and deep connections, such that traditional (and historically racist) policing systems are no longer necessary.
A significant pouring of water would come just days later, as this conversation with my dad took place about three days before the “defund the police” rallying cry was picked up by the national mainstream media.
The conversation was not over, however. We moved into a reflection on the past and the present. Earlier in the conversation, my dad had referenced increased militarization of the police in the years following his involvement. He has been away from law enforcement for over 30 years. It felt reasonable to use that fact as an opening, one that allowed for some distinctions.
My father has always told stories of how he managed to do his job without being aggressive. He is proud of that fact. In the last few years, he has been more open to discussions where he admits that this was not how other colleagues necessarily approached their work.
I had a choice. I could have pushed on that open door, asked him more about why he stayed in the force, hoping to find out when and how he raised his voice in protest. I could have pressed him on why he did not do more, if there was more he could have done. Earlier in my anti-racism development, I would have posed questions intending for him to feel some guilt or shame, express some remorse.
Instead, I reminded him of a man, a former police officer I met at an AWARE-LA meeting about 8 months prior. This man had mentioned his concerns about our societal polarization, how hard it is to find a police officer who is not a Trump voter these days.
“I can’t even imagine that,” my father said.
“Really?” I said. I asked him to consider his current ex-cop friends. How many of them support Trump? All of them.
He then began recounting stories of his time as a cop, and one thing became extremely clear. My father never felt like he fit in with his colleagues. As he spoke of various choices that he made to avoid taking on certain jobs, or how he refused to do things like the others, it became clear that he was articulating the attitudes and actions of a culture that he fundamentally rejected.
At this point, with him recognizing more profoundly perhaps than ever before, how much of an outlier he believes himself to have been, we could talk about what it means if only a small percentage of the police force shares his values.
It was because of all the work he and I had done together over the last decade, talking about privilege through the dropping and nurturing of seeds, that I was able to say the following:
“Just like there is a white culture that we can recognize, even if we don’t want to see ourselves related to it at first, there is a police culture that isn’t healthy, that needs to be changed. And just like white culture has been created out of unequal systems that need to be changed, so the culture of policing needs to be changed.”
“Well,” my dad said. “You’ve given me a lot to think about.” He chuckled.
Pressing issues required us to end the call soon thereafter, but not before I got one last thought in.
“Dad,” I said. “I know you have to go. But, I just want to say one last thing, just to say it. Just think about how powerful it is when someone who has had experience in a job, knows its challenges, steps up and says things aren’t okay, that its structure and culture needs to change.”
We left it there, with one more seed planted.