I was 20 years old the year the O.J. Simpson trial made “gavel to gavel coverage” a new genre of television. I don’t remember where I was when the verdict was announced. The moments that left an impression on me were less dramatic. Certain conversations during that year were bursts of consciousness for me, as a young white person doing work against domestic violence.
It was obvious to me that O.J. had committed the murders. The story of jealousy, control, rage, fear was very familiar and utterly plausible. It wasn’t something I found even a little bit hard to believe.
The fact that so many people believed O.J. was innocent didn’t surprise me. I was used to massive denial of violence against women. Victim blaming was nothing new. Ditto valuing fame and football over women’s lives.
But one thing did give me pause: As far as I could tell, only other white people saw it my way. In a poll after the trial, 73% of white Americans said they thought O.J. was guilty. 71% of African Americans said not guilty. The split became a cliché about racial polarization in America. For me, it was a clue that my perspective was limited by my experience as a white person in a deeply racist society.
In the feminist, collectively-organized shelter where I worked, it was a given that dismantling structural racism was inseparable from our work to end domestic violence. But this was the first time that the awareness I had developed in learning to be an ally against racism bumped up against my own experience of gender oppression. The thing I knew for sure – about the insidious reality of men’s violence against women, propped up by cultural permission and silence – was in conflict with another truth. That the criminal justice system is thoroughly poisoned by racism. That the deck is stacked from policing to prosecution to prison and that dehumanization and disenfranchisement of African American people are more reliable outcomes than safety or justice.
(Of course, these truths aren’t contradictory at all. But back then I didn’t have the skills to form a coherent picture. The media coverage at the time was not much help. On TV, in the polls, even among friends, the question of guilty or not guilty felt like a divisive referendum on which deserved attention: racism or sexism.)
A light bulb went off when I realized: I don’t have to privilege my reality as the reality.
I didn’t change my mind on the facts. I was still convinced O.J. had murdered two people. But I stopped arguing for my point of view. I stopped asserting that I knew the truth. Instead, I tried to tell the truth about the reality that was so clear to me, and at the same time, tell the truth about the reality that was harder for people like me to keep in focus.
What sticks with me after 20 years is what it feels like to shift from acknowledging something is true, to integrating that truth into how I see the rest of the world.
There is a kind of revelation that is like looking at a picture with the page folded over, then lifting the flap to see what part of the scene was hidden before. This was not like that. This was like turning the page upside down and seeing a whole other picture emerge. And then questioning whether this way is right side up after all.