SPECIAL NOTE: I’ve gotten some new readers recently thanks to my bullet journals posts/instagram and this is probably my first “serious” entry since that surge. If you’re here for the bullet journal posts? WELCOME! I do those regularly. But many other times I write about other things, like the lack empathy in politics, LGBTQ issues, systemic racism and criminal justice reform. And then, some days I write about boob chaffing from my 100K training. (That entry is coming this week too!) My point is – if you’re just here for the bullet journal stuff? Then just scroll down my sidebar and see the “my latest bullet journal entry” section and see if THAT one is new to you. If it’s not? Then you are welcome to move along. Chaffed boobs, Criminal Just Reform and bullet journals are weird topics to pop up on the same blog in one week…but that’s why my tagline is: A LITTLE BIT OF EVERYTHING.
The first figure of authority in my life was my Dad. He was my primary caregiver after he and my Mom split up so long ago I don’t remember them being married. He was a strong and authoritative and fair and GOOD figure in my life. I maybe was a little scared of him when he got really angry…but he was a respectable authority figure. I did my best to obey him and if I didn’t and got in trouble, I knew it was my fault for breaking the rules.
When I was 9, I had a creepy incident involving a pervert and a flashing and while he never touched me (thank god) it scared me to death. I had to tell the teachers in the daycare down the hall and I had to talk to police officers. They made me feel better and I put all of my faith in them catching the pervert who I convinced myself was going to show up in the middle of the night and murder my family because I ratted him out.
I was an easily spooked teenager and called 9-1-1 once when I thought someone was trying to break into our house. (We didn’t live in the best neighborhood and our house had been robbed before.) It was the phone book guy. I felt so dumb but the police officer assured us that it was okay to call if we didn’t know it was the phone book guy. I’ll never forget how scared I was when I knew for sure that the guy outside the door was intent or chopping me into little pieces. The presence of the man in blue made all of my fears drift away.
My teachers growing up were fair. I went to a very small Catholic school in Tennessee. It wasn’t packed-full of rich people, but it was very solid middle class and very VERY white. I never saw any figure of authority in the school be unreasonably harsh or disrespectful to students. Teachers told us what to do and we obeyed. There was no reason not too. They were fair. Life was fair. We were punished for bad behavior so we didn’t behave badly. We followed the rules. We were rewarded.
My only faltering with trust in authority was in my 20s when someone I was close to – a pierced and tattooed someone – was arrested with a bunch of other young pierced and tattooed someones. My connection to that group ended up wrongfully accused and while – 15 years later – there are no long-term negative effects…it faltered my constant trust in “fairness” and “authority” with police officers. I learned in my 20s that they weren’t always right. Luckily a good criminal lawyer was able to assist with the case, and there were no lasting legal repercussions.
But since that was ONE negative authoritative experience over the course of a lifetime of positive ones, the hesitation is still there, but I am still very much of the TRUST ALL AUTHORITY mindset. It’s easy to write off one bad cop in a lifetime of trustworthy ones. The entirety of my 18 years of childhood was built on fairness around authority. They gave me the rules and protected me or treated me well as long as I followed them. Police officers were my superheroes because the only experiences I had with them were positive. They were my friend’s fathers and my school teacher’s husbands. They showed up anywhere and I was safe.
So…put me in a classroom where a teacher tells me to put something away? And I do it. Period. End of story. If I cop tells me to get out of my car? I get out. Period. End of story.
I respect authority. I do what I’m told. I have had no reason not to do those things.
BUT. There are so many places along the way where my life could have been different and my general trustworthiness of authority could have disintegrated. But the most important factor that could have changed my statistical experience would have been my skin color.
I could have had a father that abused me. Or was simply never even around, maybe I would have never even known him. My mother could have been working so hard to just put food on our table that she didn’t have time to be an authoritative figure in my life. Or, I could have had parents that were hopeless lazy addicts who cared more about getting their next score than teaching me how to “behave”. I could have grown up with an uncle in jail for something he didn’t do. Or a brother shot by a cop. Or a slew of neighbors and relatives in my predominantly black neighborhood telling war stories about bad run-ins with the police where they were doing NO HARM yet were punished in some way.
If that one “bad” moment in my 20s tainted my view just a little, I can’t imagine how differently I’d look at the world with a whole childhood filled with negative stories. I could have had a friend playing with a toy gun down the road and shot dead by police. Anyone who was friends with Tamir Rice now has that story as part of their childhood. Do you think they’re going to grow up with the innate respect of authority that I had?
What about the stories some children hear from their parents or their aunts and uncles about being minorities in a school where privileged white kids can get away with getting drunk on the weekends and breaking windows but if they show up to school in baggy pants they get sent home. If a middle-class white teenager does something “stupid” their parents can afford a good lawyer and their lives can stay on track. If a black teenager does something “stupid” they might end up dead. My instinct as a white teenager was to call the cops if I thought someone was trying to hurt me, but if you grew up with the stories of guys in your neighborhood being abused by police (which is supported by statistics) then that would NOT be your instinct. You would figure out how to handle things on your own.
This is what we mean when we talk about systemic racism. You don’t have to think black people are less than you are as a white person, to be a part of the racist system. The entire system lends itself to favor white people, so white kids grow up respecting authority. But if a black kid is pissed off by the system and can’t find any reason to trust it and therefore does not respect authority, we blame the kid. Where it’s the system that fostered that kind of attitude to begin with.
When we hear stories of authority figures ABUSING THEIR AUTHORITY and the only thing we say is, “She should have listened to that cop when he told her to get out of the car,” or “She should have obeyed him when he asked her to put up the phone,” we perpetuate the system. If we white people still blindly side with all authority figures EVEN WHEN IT IS OBVIOUS THEY ARE WRONG, we are fostering support for the racist system. Individuals don’t have to be racist, but the system is.
And yes – wealth/poverty plays a big part of this system too. But rich black people get shot by cops much more than rich white people, and poor white people don’t get sentenced to a lifetime in prison for the same crimes as often as poor black people. The stats still point to systemic racism.
But to refuse that this type of system error exists or a refusal to acknowledge that the system favors white kids and therefore favors white adults because we grow up respecting the authority of the system…THAT is what might be racism.
It’s hard to recognize that maybe some good in your life was the default setting because of your skin color. I got mouthy with a cop on campus at my college when I was 18 because my white friends were all getting mouthy and DUDE. WE WERE JUST HACKY SACKING. LEAVE US ALONE. But we all just ended up getting sent home. It’s tough to acknowledge that had we all been black kids hanging out on a landing dock at midnight of a college campus, smoking cigarettes and being loud, completely different assumptions could have been made and we could have ended up arrested. Or dead.
But to wrongfully believe that uneventful outcome had NOTHING to do with my skin color and that things would have gone down EXACTLY THE SAME had my group of 5+ been black instead of white, is IGNORANT. It doesn’t make me, or the cops that talked to us that night, or my friends – it doesn’t make us racists. But we are part of a system that is racist and because we still blindly accept all authority and blindly side with all authority EVEN IF THEY WERE WRONG, we perpetuate the racist system.
6 thoughts on “Why I Respect Authority.”
It was great to see your Mom mentioned. I followed her blog for a long time.
Great post. I think your logic here is really solid and you present your views in a non-inflammatory manner – here’s to more thoughtful takes on situations like this!
This is the kind of work that allies need to do. It’s not enough to just say “I’m not racist, I don’t think those bad things about minorities,” you have to be willing to do the work and say the things that a lot of people don’t want to hear. They probably still don’t want to hear them, but they might be just a tiny bit more willing to listen when the uncomfortable words are coming from someone who occupies a position of privilege.
Thank you, friend. We (“we” – all people demanding empathy and change in societal norms) need to keep shouting these messages from the rooftops. ??
I have been mulling over this post for awhile. And I agree with everything you said. It is a systemic problem.
But what I don’t know is how to fix it. How do I say the authority figure is wrong and should be punished. But then also teach that not all authority is bad and that being respectful is sometimes the best decision. How do we as a society change the paradigm, if all we say is the authority figure was wrong? Is that enough? Is it enough to say yes they were wrong and move on or is there more to the discussion?
And I am not trying to start an argument, I just honestly have no one else to have this type of discussion with and I really respect your views and values on many subjects.