From One Middle Class White Person to Another: Why We Struggle to Get It

frustrated guyMy social media feeds are abuzz this morning with a host of middle-class white folks who are aghast that there was a brief period of rioting/looting again yesterday in Ferguson.  Their sentiments are something like this:

“They got what they wanted – for the Ferguson police to step down –  and they’re STILL rioting??!!”

To those who find themselves thinking this sort of thing, I would like to suggest that you are catastrophically deficited in your understanding of what has transpired.  You just aren’t getting it.

Reality check: Unless you have spent an exorbitant amount of time living in a black community, interacting with black people, working with and for black people and communities, and have had an excellent formal or informal education in race and ethnic relations in the US, you really do not know how to conceive of the world, including and especially relationships with authority, from the perspective of a black person. I could check a few of these boxes myself, and I still confess my own magnanimous ineptitude – many black persons’ experiences of the world are just that much different than mine.

Let me try to explain as it relates to Mike Brown.

As a middle-class, white person, the fact that I have to try to imagine what it would’ve been like if a police officer rolled through my neighborhood and shot me or one of my teenage friends is telling in itself.  It means I do not have a frame of reference or standard of comparison from which I can draw to construct Mike Brown’s story in my own life. For many black persons living in primarily black communities, imagination is not required – just memory.  They know what this is like from regular, habitual prior experience.  It doesn’t always end as tragically as it did with Mike Brown, but it generally ends badly for them in some way.

neighborhoodWhat’s more, the fact that I cannot imagine it actually happening to me is even more telling.  The whole thing is literally inconceivable for me, and I am utterly confident that this reality is informed by the fact that I am a middle-class, white male, from a middle-class, white suburb.

Every time I try to picture my teenage self walking down the street near my house with one of my friends, and a police officer pulling up and telling me to “Get the f*** on the sidewalk” or “Get the f*** out of the street,” the entire rest of the narrative breaks down.  For starters, I never heard a police officer talk like that in my community.  Never – not even once.

But even if he had done so, in my neighborhood, near my home, he would’ve had to surgically remove my father’s foot from his posterior.  If you think I am joking about this, you do not know my father very well. 

If my father wasn’t within ear-shot, I would’ve categorically made a stink until he was, evoking language about “detainment” and “lawsuits” and probably some reference to my father’s political station.

Do you see what I’m driving at here?  The entire narrative is completely different.

In my community, police did not have the kind of assumed totalitarian authority that they do in poorer black communities.  A police officer in my community would never have presumed to enter a residential neighborhood and speak that way to young adults without expecting to be held accountable by the community, and generally speaking, right then, right there.  To say that power was much more equally distributed between the people and the authorities is perhaps the understatement of the century.  And the rest of the narrative is therefore impossible to tell. 

Some have suggested that none of this is relevant, that all we need to do is find out the facts and let the courts do their thing.  Some others have suggested that it is relevant, but still a separate issue from the need to just find out the facts. 

The idea that we think the race narrative is not a point of contention, or a separate one, is precisely what I’m driving at. You cannot abstract the experience of Mike Brown from his race, from his community, and/or from their collective experience with authority, any more than you can abstract my own.  Again, when I try to tell his story from the perspective of my race, in my life, in my neighborhood, in my community, a hundred thousand variables make the story completely unviable almost from the beginning.  Chief among them are race and socioeconomic factors which drive the distribution of power. 

It’s not that I don’t understand what people mean.  It is of course important to try to factually determine what transpired. 

teesBut what we fail to realize is that the larger narrative I’m referring to deeply impacts the way we tell and understand the facts. The assumptions I carry with me about the nature of police, about whose story is more plausible, about Mike Brown’s likelihood to have assaulted the officer, the fact that I would even use the words “assaulted the officer” – all of these draw upon my experiences.  And as a middle class white person, my assumptions and experiences do not coincide in large ways with the realities many black persons face on a regular basis. 

As a rule, this is true for most middle-class white people.

For those of you who are running to the Google machine to search for examples of how middle class white persons have been maligned by the police, of course there are some instances of this.  But they are infinitesimally small and statistically insignificant when compared with the sheer volume and frequency of our black counterparts, especially given that they only comprise 12.6% of the population.  To deny this is to literally ignore the entire history of race relations in this country and the systemic and institutional injustices they’ve resulted in.  

This larger narrative is the driving force behind the rioting. 

This is the narrative that other marginalized peoples recognize immediately, but folks who’ve never faced real systemic injustice are asleep to.  

This is the narrative that must be told whether or not Mike Brown stole a box of cigars, because bullets are not due process.  His story points not only to that injustice, but the all of the injustices that have occurred for black persons.

This is the narrative that should engender your outrage and your compassion, not your condescension and indifference.

It certainly has for me.

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Author: Ryan Thomas Neace

Ryan Thomas Neace is a counselor, professor, husband, and daddy. Please contact him for counseling via skype or in-person at

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