George Floyd and the poster in the coffee shop
There’s a poster hanging on the wall in one of my favorite coffee shops.
It says “Work hard and be nice to people.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about that poster recently, especially in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
“Work hard and be nice to people.” I’ve always liked the saying.
But the more I think about what we’re going through as a nation, the more I think it falls short.
In the past two weeks, our country has seen some inspiring things. Millions of people across the nation have marched peacefully to remind the world that Black Lives Matter.
But we’ve seen some terrible things, too.
Videos of police violence and excessive force. The violent removal of peaceful crowds for a photo op. Unprovoked attacks on credentialed journalists just trying to do their job. Permanent blindness to rubber bullets aimed at their faces. Police shoving peaceful protesters on the ground, dragging them from their cars and yelling racial epithets. Guns pointed at high school graduates wearing their caps and gowns. The militarization of our cities. Sworn officers saying “I’ve been involved in three shootings myself, and not a one of them has bothered me.”
I’ve never felt so sad for our country and so angry at the same time.
I’ve never felt so ashamed to be an American.
It’s gone through my head a million times: aren’t we better than this?
I realize that in the heat of the moment, there’s no room for a nuanced conversation about the things that are wrong with our nation and how we might work together to change them.What we see on TV isn’t always the real or full picture — but it’s troubling nonetheless.
Let me be clear: I have deep respect and gratitude for those law enforcement officers whose mission every day really is to protect and to serve. Deep down, I know there have to be compassionate, well-meaning police offers out there who really do want to protect and serve their cities and make their community a better, safer place.
But then I turn on the TV, and that’s not what I see.
I know there have been millions of people who have marched in solidarity this week, airing their grievances and exercising their rights in a peaceful way.
But that’s not what makes the news.
And if I’m being honest, I know that the police were called that street corner in Minneapolis on Memorial Day for a reason.
But the alleged crime George Floyd committed didn’t warrant a death sentence.
These protests have gotten under my skin and affected me much more than I thought they would have…and I can’t figure out why.
And I don’t know what to do. But I do know one thing that we need.
Let me be the first to admit: I do not know a thing about what it’s like to be black in America.
As I write this, I am uncomfortably aware of my extreme privilege.
Intact household. Two loving parents.
Roof over my head.
Wife of three years next to me.
First child on the way.
On the outside, I look nothing like so many of the black faces we’ve seen on television: gunned down, their lives cut short.
On the outside, I’m not like Philando Castile. I don’t have to fear for my life when I see a cop behind me.
On the outside, I’m not like Ahmaud Arberry. When I take a walk around my neighborhood, I don’t have to worry about whether or not I’ll make it back home.
I’ve never once worried about someone calling the cops on me. And I’ve never worried about what might happen if they show up.
I understand that I will never understand.
But in a much more real sense, I am exactly like the men and women whose names the world now knows for all the wrong reasons.
My skin might be a different color, but I’m no different.
I am no different than George Floyd. I am no different than Ahmaud Arberry. I am no different than Breonna Taylor.
Because I’m a human, just like they are.
I have hopes and dreams just like they do. I have people who I love…and people who love me. I want to be a good parent. I want to be a good friend. I want to change the world.
I don’t know the first thing about what it’s like to be Black in America, so perhaps I can’t truly empathize. But I can say that I’m sorry.
That brings me back to that poster… “Work hard and be nice to people.”
I think we’ve gotten the first part of that right. But after seeing what our world has been through in the first half of this year, just “being nice” isn’t going to cut it.
The problem with “nice” is that it’s easy to fake.
If you were to ask close friends and family of Derek Chauvin, they might tell you he was a “nice” guy.
Nice didn’t go far enough that day.
Nice didn’t save George Floyd’s life.
Nice won’t change broken and unjust systems.
Nice won’t end systemic racism.
The problem with “nice” is that it’s an illusion.
Nice is something that someone can seem. “Oh, she seems nice.”
The problem is that you don’t have to do anything to earn it.
We don’t need more “nice” people. We need more kindness in the world.
Kindness is goes beyond just “being nice.”
Kindness requires action.
Kindness means going out of your way. To be thoughtful. To be intentional. To shut up and listen. To think of someone other than yourself.
Kindness is people cleaning up broken glass and painting over graffiti the morning after.
Kindness is inviting 70 strangers into your home so they can shelter from police.
Kindness is wearing a badge while linking arms with protesters and walking in solidarity.
Kindness is going down a line of officers in riot gear and shaking their hands.
Kindness is preventing people from looting, because the police shouldn’t be given a reason to intervene.
Kindness is giving away your camera gear for free to a black photojournalist who needs it more than you.
Kindness is joining in protest with people whose skin color is different than yours.
Kindness is joining with your fellow man and marching for justice, even when an ocean separates you.
A few years ago, Ellen DeGeneres began ending her show with a simple phrase:
“Be kind to one another.”
I think it’s a reminder we all need to hear.
Kindness alone won’t heal our country. It won’t eliminate racism or end white supremacy. Kindness alone won’t fix broken institutions or de-escalate conflict.
Kindness isn’t enough. But it’s a start.
So keep protesting. Keep fighting for what you believe is right. Keep calling out injustice when you see it.
Just be kind to one another.