Hey, White People, Pt. 1: This is How We Sound After We’ve Called the Cops
There was an assault next door to my building in Toronto, where a predominantly Black group of tenants lives. A white woman who was walking by decided to call the police.
“Hey, White People” is an ongoing series from “Recently” that examines white conduct in the contexts of social justice and decolonizing work.
TW: Domestic assault, violence, law enforcement
I was experiencing significant menstrual discomfort on Tuesday. So after trying to sit at my desk and care about work, grad school, writing, or any combination thereof for several hours, I decided I would be better served by going for a walk. I went to the bathroom, on the opposite side of my basement apartment, then returned to my work station, under the front window, in order to close my laptop and grab my cell phone. But as I crossed the room, I heard a sudden series of thuds and yells from outside. It sounded like whatever was going on was happening on the front porch or in the front yard of the building next door. A few moments later, someone began to scream out front.
Frozen beneath my window, I heard a growing flood of voices gather outside. Several people were yelling “STOP IT,” while others shouted, “HE HAS TO GO. This is it. HE HAS TO GO.” All through this cacophony, the male-sounding person who had been screaming initially began to alternate between yelling for help, and begging someone to stop hitting him. Awful, sickening thuds continued to echo from the general vicinity, and I realized that they were the sounds of one human beating the shit out of another. I made a move as if to leave my desk and exit the apartment; go outside and do something. But do what? I asked myself internally. What the hell could you do? I turned back to the window, and craned my neck to get a glimpse of what was happening. This was useless; my apartment is so deeply underground, its window is set in a 2-foot-deep cut in the earth that is lined with concrete; I can’t ever see past the rectangle of sky above. But the screaming was still going, from all of the involved parties. Even though I had no visual of what was going on, I wanted to do something. I reached for my phone, my deeply embedded “call the police” muscle groups activating.
Then I caught myself.
Here’s the thing: I talk and think and read about police violence a lot. I say “defund the police” a lot. I argue with relatives about why police are racially problematic a lot. But I also catch myself thinking that I should call the cops a lot. Really, whenever there’s something dangerous happening to someone, my little internal Call the Police! buzzer goes off. Because that’s what my lifelong training has been: that as a white woman, I can trust the police and expect them to protect me. Which, most of the time, they will; we (white women) rank higher in terms of power and privilege than pretty much everyone else in society (except white men). But here’s the catch: a white woman calling the police to intervene in a conflict between two white people is not the same as a white woman calling the police to intervene between two non-white people.
Calling the cops, more often than not, is an act of violence against people of color, regardless of who dials. Law enforcement has a deep and bloody track record with non-white civilians that goes back centuries (the American police system was initally created as a slavecatching initiative, for god’s sake). So even if the intent of a white woman standing in her basement listening to someone getting beaten up is to call the cops in order to protect the person getting hurt, actually acting on that urge can have deadly consequences. I knew that at least some of my neighbors were Black; I had passed them hosting a 2000s dance party a few nights prior. So I knew that dialing 911 was actually a terrible idea. But what recourse was available to me, as an auditory witness to the violence outside?
I was brand-new to the apartment, the neighborhood, the city, and the country that I was in when I witnessed this incident; I was literally on day four of my residency in Canada. I didn’t know what the locals did in situations like these; I hadn’t even met my neighbors, yet. Community networks and resources are essential to avoiding police involvement, but I hadn’t done my due diligence as a new kid in identifying them. Have I seen any posters for alternate numbers to call in the neighborhood? I wondered. Should I look them up online? Yes, Conklin, you should! Jesus Christ! I reached for my phone again, thinking to find a domestic violence or other intervention hotline. But before I could do anything, a new voice suddenly cut through the milieu outside: a woman with a Caribbean accent. Her voice sounded close by, likely on the end of the porch closest to my building. She was addressing someone very sharply.
“You should not have done that!”
Whomever the accented woman’s intended recipient was, their initial response was muffled. But when the woman repeated herself, the recipient’s response sounded much clearer; they had evidently moved closer to the porch in order to continue what was quickly becoming an argument. This person, it turned out, was a white woman who had called the police. I learned this because she was shouting about being a woman, being white, and calling the police. And the woman with the accent on the porch was furious.
“You should not have done that!” the woman on the porch snapped again at the white woman. “We are Black people and that is dangerous!”
“If it was a white man beating up a white man,” the white woman replied angrily, “I would’ve called the cops too. As a bystander, it—,”
Okay, I thought. This woman has shown up out of nowhere. I had briefly considered the idea that she had been a tenant in the house, and had come out shouting with the other folks inside when the assault occurred, then called the police. But no.
“As a bystander,” the white woman repeated, "I think that I—,”
“Exactly!” The accented woman broke in. “You are a bystander! You are nosy, this is not your business! You should NOT have called the police!”
“What else should I have done?!” The white woman asked.
“Mind your own business! Don’t call the police! It is dangerous!”
“Listen to me!” the white woman retorted. “As a white woman, I understand that the police can be a problem. And I’m sorry that we live in a country where racism is a problem. But I am simply not going to apologize for calling the police because I saw that young man getting beaten up! And I will back you up when the police come and vouch for you!”
“THAT WAS NOT APPROPRIATE.”
“Well, the police are here now,” the white woman said angrily, “and I will not apologize." Sure enough, I heard a pair of car doors whumpf shut outside. Oh god, I thought. What’re these officers going to do-- how bad is it going to be. I felt my body begin to tighten with anxiety, while outside, the ruckus fell silent as the cops approached. After a moment, one voice— the voice, it turned out, of the young man who had gotten beaten up— cut through the quiet.
“Hey, L——,” he said shakily. It took me a second to realize he wasn’t speaking to the cops, but to someone in the group from the house. “Listen. Listen, L——. He cannot keep staying here. You’re the landlord. You have to do something.”
An angry voice rose in response, and though the young man quickly cut it off, I figured out whose it was, and thus, whom he was speaking to. Oh, shit, I thought. The woman with the accent on the porch who didn’t want the cops called is the landlady.
“You have to do something about him!” the young man continued. “He threw a hammer at me. He can’t come back to this house!”
Before the landlady could respond, a new voice interrupted: the cops, asking after the people who were hurt. “Are you okay?” they asked. This struck me as a wild question, given they’d been called for assault and battery. But ask it they did, and the young man mumbled, “yeah, yeah, I’m fine. You just can’t let him come back to this house.”
The cops responded in low voices, and the volume of the group on the whole remained muted. I took this turn of events as indication of my being free to go outside. As I turned out of my gate and onto the sidewalk, I looked at my neighbors’ front lawn. At least seven young Black men and women were gathered on the porch and in the front yard, with two white police officers moving around to interview everyone individually. Whomever the culprit was, he had removed himself. And the white woman who had called the cops to begin? She seemed to have absented herself, too. So much for “backing up” the landlady.
I walked for a long time after that, turning those ten, fifteen minutes of listening over in my head. There were clearly layers to the situation; the tenants and their landlady had different opinions about the assailant who had disappeared.Who knows what was needed to actually help address the situation-- a mental health professional, maybe? An ambulance? I wondered what I would have done, if I had been outside, been the “bystander.” Would I have asked if the neighbors wanted help, if they wanted the police called? Crossed the street? Ignored what was going on?
There’s a reason that parents are urged on bus signs and billboards to make emergency plans with their families, and to run drills with little kids in order to help them understand what to do when inclement weather strikes or the home is broken into: we need to plan for moments of intensity, because critical thinking is nigh on impossible. Case in point: as the people next door were trying to figure out what to do during their crisis (and neighbors like me were fumbling with their own options for helping), a white woman who was walking by decided to call the police without consulting any of the people involved, or pausing to consider the racial implications of such an action.
The white woman bystander inserted herself dangerously in the situation. Then, when a Black woman held her accountable for doing so, the white woman got defensive and made it all about herself instead of the crisis at hand. She felt that she needed to prove that she was a Good White; that she did not see color and that non-white people should see her as an ally. She basically wound up demanding that the landlady not only rescind her statement about the police call endangering Black people, but to validate the white woman’s very action of calling the cops in the first place. It was insane to listen to-- in less than ten minutes, things had gone from the violent domestic assault of a young Black man (unclear what the race of his assailant was), to a white woman calling for Black sympathy and support for her anti-Black actions.
This, in the end, is what I kept coming back to after the fact. Yes, I did look up alternative-to-police resources in Toronto later on (see list at the end of this piece for options in the GTA and the world at large). Yes, I tried to put myself in the white woman bystander’s decision-making shoes. Yes, I reflected on how close I am at all times to being as problematic a white woman as every other white woman. But what I couldn’t let go of-- what I still can’t let go of-- is how quickly this one woman sucked the oxygen out of the proverbial room. She saw a young Black man get hit with a hammer and fists, called the police, and then shoved the crisis off its situational pedestal and climbed up onto it herself in name of being a Good White. The white woman bystander’s conduct was an ugly, perfect encapsulation of how dangerous white women are, particularly when stuck on the proverbial elevator between the “ignorance” floor and “critical awareness” floor. We present a threat not just to individual people, but social change as a whole, with our self-preoccupation. By centering white saviorism instead of actual, decolonizing change, we (white women) reinforce cycles of oppression and racism instead of enacting the social disruption that we think we are.
In the “Welcome to “Recently”” write-up on the homepage of this Substack (linked here), there’s a note about how I differentiate between being an ally and doing ally work. I don’t ever call myself an ally, because I’m a white, cis woman; I don’t get to call myself an ally. But I do ally work. Every day. As an educator, as a social media user, as a student, as a writer, as a friend, I am constantly trying to figure out how to use the power and privilege that I have to support and make space for people and cultures that have been marginalized by white society. That’s my job, so far as I can tell, as a white woman who wants to contribute to this world. But the white woman bystander who called the police outside my neighbors’ house while one of them got the shit beaten out of him, and then speechified about racism and being white? She might call herself an ally. She probably does. Which is the fucking problem. That self-absorption is when we become most dangerous to the lives of others.
Fellow whites, particularly women-- listen up; there are no awards.
We all slip up sometimes, and think we’re doing “well;” that we’re “helping.” But it is essential that we interrogate those laurels that we award ourselves, and remember that being white means being part of the problem. We already have all the awards-- the safety, the generational wealth, the networking, the protection of law enforcement. Our job is to crack those awards open and help create healthier, more accessible versions that serve all people. Not to walk outside and say we know that racism exists. Not to tell Black individuals that we don’t see color and would like a star, thank you very much. And not to fucking call the cops without consulting any of the people involved in a situation. Merely by existing, we are a threat to non-white people. So we need to stop enacting that threat further in the name of being “allies,” and instead explore the notion of ally work: what one can do as a member of the dominant group to support the larger effort of dismantling that dominance.
The only real victory is going to be when future generations can live in a safe, equitable world.
So don’t waste your energy standing outside and yelling about how you’re one of the good ones and should be recognized as such. You’re going to be out there for a long time, and we’ve got shit to do.