Denial is an amazingly effective coping mechanism. When facts don’t fit our preconceived ideas of how things should be, we reject them. People are experts at denying just about anything.
Years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. That was scary enough, but when I saw on my medical records that I had, “Cancer, right breast,” my denial kicked in. No! I didn’t have Cancer with a capital C. I had “breast cancer” as if the pretty pink ribbon decorations made this disease less cancerous, less frightening.
That kind of temporary denial can actually be useful giving our brains time to accept distressing information. But many times, continued denial is harmful. If I denied that I’d felt that lump in my breast because I just knew I was perfectly healthy, I’d be dead now.
Recently, I found denial in an unusual part of my thought process. I’ve used denial to hide things about our society that I never wanted to admit.
America was established on the principle that all men are created equal. Sure, it was just “men,” and at the time it meant only white men, but we’ve evolved since then.
I was raised during a time when we respected authority like teachers, doctors, police, and clergy. All of Mr. Roger’s “helpers,” were there to keep us safe. It was a given that they would never harm anyone.
My feelings were so strong that when I heard scandals about the helpers, I wanted to deny them. Doctors wouldn’t abuse patients; priests wouldn’t harm children; teachers could never exploit students; and police wouldn’t treat minorities differently than whites.
When horror stories surfaced, my denial, my blind faith in the system, was so strong I’d latch on to some small fact that would allow the incident to fit into a more acceptable explanation.
Dressed like that, she sure looked like an adult. If something had really happened, why wasn’t it reported at the time? He resisted arrest, so he must have been guilty of something. The victim’s DNA was on the officer’s weapon, so he must have tried to take it. He reached for something. Even though it was cellphone or a wallet, it could have been a weapon.
The facts were too horrific, so I wanted to deny them. This wouldn’t happen in the United States. It certainly couldn’t happen in Minnesota. Not in my church, not in my school, not in my idyllic suburb. But the horrors kept mounting. And then we had videos.
Men running from the police were shot in the back. Murderers? Rapists? No, these deaths resulted from petty infractions like traffic stops. Black men were being violently arrested and killed for “crimes” like selling cigarettes, broken tail lights, looking suspicious or passing a counterfeit bill.
Philando Castile, the St. Paul School cafeteria worker who was killed by police during a traffic stop in 2016, had been stopped by police 49 times over his 13 years of driving, according to the New York Times. I was astounded. With my much longer driving history, I’ve been stopped maybe five or six times. I’m certainly not a perfect driver, but I am female and white.
National Public Radio published the entire list of Castile’s infractions and found that only six were for things an officer would notice from outside the car. Most were for a broken seat belt, lack of insurance documentation, suspended licenses, possession of marijuana in a vehicle, etc. The six moving violations including odd things like “impeding traffic.”
When you can’t pay for the first fine, that causes a suspended license, which generates more fines and fees, which snowball out of control. At one time, Castile had racked up more than $6,000 in fines.
This is Minnesota, not Mississippi. My denial could not rationalize those numbers. The facts sure looked like Philando Castile’s biggest offense was driving while black. And it got him killed.
Once again there were formal reviews, improved training, and promises of change. But then there was George Floyd. Whatever was left of my denial shattered. There are no possible circumstances that could explain away that video. Or the video of Ahmed Arbery. Or Tamir Rice. Or Elijah McClain. Or … the countless other names I saw painted on the street at 38th and Chicago.
During the pandemic, Minnesota has started a statewide book club called “One Book | One Minnesota.” We are invited to read a common title and come together to discuss it virtually. The current book is “A Good Time For The Truth: Race in Minnesota,” edited by Sun Yung Shin (Minnesota Historical Society Press). It is available to read for free through eBooks Minnesota.
The individual stories continue to grind away the vestiges of my denial that seem to want to reassemble. We think racism is a problem for other places, but it is ubiquitous. Too many of us, protected by our denial, have been unable, or unwilling, to see it.
Recently, I ran across a statement from author and historian Ibram X. Kendi who said denial is the “heartbeat of racism.” Testifying before Congress, he called the mood during the George Floyd protests a “distinct moment of people striving to be anti-racist.” Not non-racist, but anti-racist. That demands action. With our denial now crushed, we can each work on becoming anti-racist.