When I learned about racism


Her name was Mildred.

She was an 82 year old black female coming into my office with complaints of nightmares that had been terrorizing her for the past two weeks. She was also experiencing a loss of appetite, and her petite frame was in no need of further weight loss. Also, she reported crying jags that were unusual in her own experience. And noise? She was noticing herself starting to jump while even sitting at the sound of something like a door shutting behind her, a sign of startle response.

Mildred had never been to a counselor anywhere in life prior to now. Her physician thought it was about time. She felt a bit awkward. What was she supposed to say?

In the broader field of mental health counseling, it is common for one to say what changes have been going on in one’s personal life, health, daily functions such as eating, sleeping, and decision-making. But it is also common to be asked to talk a little about what happened before these changes were first experienced. Counselors want to know what the “precipitating factors” were when someone brings a complaint about recent changes.

Mildred had been in generally good health all her life until just recently. Normally even slept well at night.

So what happened?

Why was she now plagued with nightmares, startle response, insomnia,loss of appetite and weight, and anxiety about her own state of mind and her own tears?

Mildred lived alone after being widowed, but in the past year an adult grandson in his 20’s had come to live with her after a breakup with his girlfriend. He was holding down a part time job, but managed to give Mildred a bit of grocery money that was helping out given her dependence on a meager monthly Social Security income. She owned her house, but it was in a deteriorating neighborhood given more to renters than owners. She had lamented the loss of old neighbors and neighborhood, but she had no place else to go. It was her house. She owned it. She wasn’t going anywhere, despite the evidence of a crack house……or several….in her own block.

Then it happened.

Sometime in the early morning, loud shouts were heard coming from her front door. Mildred had been sound asleep. Followed by a horrible crash. Mildred found herself sitting upright in bed with her heart pounding. Soon her bedroom door crashed open and two men entered with guns pointing at her shouting for an answer: “where is he?” “Get up now!” “Now!” They were Dayton Police officers in what Mildred described to me as “riot gear.” And they continued to ask her “where is he?” Confused, Mildred asked back, “who do mean, my grandson? Why would you be looking for him?” Yet, she complied with information as requested, saying he was asleep in his own room downstairs in the house.

From that point on, several more police officers entered the house and began tearing down doors leading through the house and down her basement stairs. Soon her grandson was brought upstairs in handcuffs. He was scared and shaking. He denied knowing what the cops were asking for, which was the location of his crack cocaine. Because he said he had no idea what they were referring to, they began to ransack her house. Every desk drawer was pulled out and turned upside down, including Mildred’s own bedroom furniture and “they even emptied my underwear drawer.” Closets were emptied and boxes and garments thrown on the floor. This went on for nearly two hours. Mildred was allowed to sit in her kitchen at the table in handcuffs with arms on the table itself. The grandson was taken out to the back of a police cruiser where he remained in handcuffs.

Finally, the police found something they could use to charge the grandson with. It was a very small bag of marijuana. Mildred had not known him to use any drugs, but by now was so angry at the police for destroying her house upstairs and down, room by room, that she was in no mood to apologize for his use of any illegal drugs.

There was no crack cocaine found in Mildred’s house that night. Why? Because police had the wrong house. The crack house(s) were somewhere else on her street. She didn’t know which one(s) and was in no mood to cooperate by now even if she had known.

Mildred’s first tears in my presence came with this statement on her part. “They never have offered me a penny to replace even my front door they broke down. I can’t even lock my own house anymore!! Never so much as a single apology from anyone, even from a black officer. Not the chief. No one!!!!"

Oh, and by the way, this happened back in the year 1996.

As it later turned out, Mildred’s grandson did receive probation for his small amount of marijuana in his room. No prior offenses, even though he was having to now find another job. His Public Defender had done a fair and decent job. A better outcome than some young black men had experienced amid similar circumstances.

Was I at that time totally uneducated in the ways of American racism? Well, no. I’d read all the right books. I’d attended all the right trans-cultural classes and black-studies lectures at the Ohio State University as required for my MSW back when. Been in Sensitivity training groups. Even led a Sensitivity training myself for a class of Dayton Police officers who’d been reprimanded for use of excessive force within their Internal Affairs department.

But here’s what I learned about racism from Mildred.

I learned that I had nothing to worry about if I were to keep my own small stash of marijuana in some drawer in my own house. That my white friends had nothing to worry about if they did the same. That there would be no police raids in the wee hours of any morning now or to come. No “wrong address” if my neighborhood contained any “drug house.” No broken front doors to repair at my house on a meager monthly Social Security income.

All because I was privileged.

I was white. But Mildred was not. Her grandson was not.

Never before had my white privilege truly entered my consciousness such that I would never, ever, forget its reality. Never had I learned before that racism in America was a social, not a personal, choice. It was a systemic problem. It was institutionalized, not individualized. And it wasn’t just the law enforcement institutions that were in the wrong. It was all of us. All of us who had failed to work for systemic and institutional change. Like Pogo, I had met the enemy and it was us.

Today, some 24 years later, it pains me to say this but it still is us. And it will remain us until the day we work in coalition with all marginalized Americans to change our own system. Until the day we reform our own institutions, whichever ones we participate in be they religious or secular, private or public, urban or rural. And until we the people end the despair and the depression and the anxiety and the 400 year Post Traumatic Stress of racism and bring about a more perfect union with liberty and justice for all, not just some.

Only then will I have helped Mildred and too many others like her get rid of their nightmares.

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