If you have not heard about the shooting of Charles Kinsey while he was working with a 23-year-old autistic patient who was playing with a toy truck, read and watch the video before you proceed with this. Caught up? Okay good, let's talk.
My friend Jon Harper wrote a piece recently challenging us to discuss the uncomfortable and begin to have meaningful dialogue with one another about the issues that are plaguing our nation. We have had many conversations about ethnicity (not race, there is only one race, humans!) and how our ethnicity impacts how we approach the world. After learning about what happened with Mr. Kinsey, I can no longer sit silently. Here we go...
See, I am a mental health professional. I run a special education school for students with mental and emotional issues. My school population consists of students with many difficulties and we also have students who are on various parts of the autistic spectrum. I am a part of most of our behavioral and emotional crises that our students experience. These issues do not only happen within the walls of our school, but they also happen in our community.
While dealing with the situations that happen outside of school, I have thought about how things must seem to an unknowing bystander. There are protocols in place and staff have discussions about best practices to ensure the safety of all involved parties. I can tell you, without hesitation, that I have NEVER thought about our safety from a police perspective. Maybe it's because we have an amazing local police department that knows our population and supports us in every way possible. Of course this plays a role, but I think there are deeper reasons for my perceived safety in these situations.
Just yesterday, hours after reading about the inexcusable events surrounding Mr. Kinsey and his charge, we had our own issue with an autistic child. We were on a trip and things escalated to a point where a child was placed in a therapeutic hold in a public place. With the help of staff, we were able to resolve the predicament, but not before outside observers witnessed the events.
I was the person who administered the hold for the student and my mind was immediately swarmed with thoughts about our safety. How would this situation look if local police (we were outside of our community) arrived on the scene? How would they approach us when they saw what was happening? What would they say? How would they react? Would I have to worry about our safety from them? Would I stop what I was doing?
I have never been fearful of my safety before when working with students outside of the confines of our school, so why think about it now? Surely, the events with Mr. Kinsey stirred some feelings within me. Does the color of my skin impact my level of fear? As a white male, the only times I ever have been nervous around police is when I have done something wrong. I surely have never been fearful while performing my job responsibilities around officers. I know that I am the professional and expert when it comes to working with my students, and I trust (and have received from) police support to handle the situation the way we see best.
And then a much more profound question crept into my head. How would this situation look if I were a black male, acting and responding to the events in the same way? I then went deeper. How would I be addressed if I were a black male in every situation that I have been a part of outside of school? Would the interactions have been exactly the same? Would I still receive the same level of support that I did as a white man? Would I still be given the benefit of the doubt and be given time to explain the situation before police took action?
After not being able to create satisfactory answers in my head, I then placed myself in the shoes of Mr. Kinsey. How would that situation have been different if I were working with that young man instead of him? How would I, as a white man, respond to officers with guns drawn while I was just doing my job? Would officers have approached with their weapons pointed at me? Or, as has been my experience, would they have taken the time to speak with me about the situation before reacting?
Most of the questions that I am asking have no answers with no possible way to make inferences; however, there is one question that I can definitively answer. If I were a white male in the place of Mr. Kinsey, there is NO way that I would have reacted in the manner in which he did. My response and reaction would not have been to surrender to police by laying on my back with my hands in the air. I probably would have tried speaking with the police and explaining the situation, just as he did. As a white male, I do not think I would find it necessary to fully surrender before having this conversation. I could be wrong and my actions could have resulted with me experiencing the same fate as Mr. Kinsey, but for some reason, I doubt that.
There is something deeply troubling about my hypothetical response to this situation as a white male compared to the actual response of Mr. Kinsey, a black male. There is something even more troubling that a black man who has completely surrendered and is of no threat to police finds himself on the receiving end of a bullet. There is still something even more troubling that our black (and Hispanic) brothers and sisters find themselves dehumanized out of fear for their own safety.
As I have said, as a white male, my response would not have remotely resembled the actions of Mr. Kinsey. Everything he did and said was proper and had the intentions of keeping ALL stakeholders safe. Unfortunately for him and his patient, this did not happen. Let us also not forget how traumatic an event this must have been for the autistic young man. Being surrounded by police with guns pointing at you and watching your caregiver be shot, handcuffed, and left to bleed is an event that can lead to significant PTSD for years to come.
It does not matter if you agree or disagree with me. It does not matter if you can relate to the questions I ask or if you think I am ridiculous for posing them. What matters now is that we start having more conversations about what is going on in our nation. We need to continue to open the doors and welcome meaningful, dialogue. We need to stop talking about what we think and start listening to how others feel. We must recognize the disparities that still exist in our society merely because of differences in melanin levels.
I am not going to shy away from these conversations. I will acknowledge how the color of my skin impacts my choices and my reactions. I will recognize that others respond differently based on their experiences and those of their community. I will sit down and talk with anyone and everyone that truly wishes to drop the waterline, be real with one another, and work to make our country better. Will you join us?
We must speak up and support each other!