For White Folks Who Shake Their Head and Roll Their Eyes and Hate Hearing about “Black Lives Matter”
Hey. As will be obvious in a few minutes, I don’t really understand how the internet works, so I actually believe that I can offer the following not as a jeremiad but as an outreached hand. I know, I know.
Before I talk about ‘us’ though, let me make my intentions clear. I’m writing because last night Alton Sterling was shot and killed… By police…While he was in a choke hold. You may have seen the video. It crushed you, right? No, honestly. It doesn’t matter your politics. If you are a human being there is literally no way to watch it without being crushed, just as there is no way to watch Alton’s son break down in tears at his family’s press conference without your heart just ripping in a million pieces. So yes, I’ve got an agenda here. I’m writing because 154 Black families have had to mourn their loved ones dying at the hands of the police this year. And while I’ll talk about us for a minute, this actually ain’t about us at all.
But yeah… to get there we do need to get self-referential for a minute, because you and I and the way in which we’ve talked to each other is sort of the problem here. If you nodded your head at the headline above, I’m probably the kind of white person who annoys the heck out of you. I literally, without irony, call myself a ‘progressive’ (goodness the more I think about it that’s actually a really haughty self-satisfied way to refer to your politics). It gets worse though. This is a picture of me holding a sign, in black and white, looking self-serious while wearing one of THOSE glasses. Jeez, even my glasses seem like they’re judging you. And I’M PROUD of that picture. Got it? I’m the worst. You likely aren’t into me or folks like me because you’re worried that my goal is just to make you feel badly and guilty and that, in doing so, I’m obfuscating the real issues.
And you? I don’t know you, but honestly I really do assume you’re a legitimately good person. You work hard, you do terrific things for your community and when you say “I don’t judge anybody different based on their race” you really, really feel it and don’t understand why folks don’t believe you. When you hear something that strikes you as super racist, it makes you mad. You’re fun and kind. Do you like beer or coffee? I bet we’d get along over a beer or coffee. Do you have kids? I am absolutely certain you love them to death and would make any personal sacrifice for their well-being. You’d fight a bear for them, for real.
[None of that is said patronizingly. I mean it. You deserve that trust and grace. If I’m giving you too much credit, I’ll trust that you’ll tell me. And by the way, even though I mess up a ton and have those glasses and probably believe all sorts of smug things, I try to be a good person too. I’d fight bears for my kids too and am a decent neighbor. Please trust that as well].
What you might be thinking right now
If you’ve lived in America these past few years, you’ve likely heard folks- including a few other white folks- make impassioned, heartfelt pleas about Black Lives Matter. If you’re personally in my life, you’ve heard them from me. And if they’ve annoyed you, I’m sure that I’ve partially been to blame (as have some of my fellow white pleaders). I find that when us white folks talk about race, that we tend to spend a lot of time trying to prove how much more woke we are at the expense of learning together. We’re all pretty fragile and vulnerable about this — trying desperately not to be found out as being racist — and it makes for a lot of self-aggrandizement and defensiveness.
Don’t’ get me wrong. Righteous, justified rage and self-aggrandizement don’t have to go hand in hand (in fact, there’s a reason why I’m drawing a contrast with the way in which us white folks talk about race and the powerful, prophetic voices of color that are bravely raised in Times Like This). To be honest — most of me just wants to yell at you right now, to win an argument with you, to scream and kick until both of us are in tears because if I were to be fully honest we SHOULD be just so unbelievably, heat-seekingly MAD right now and we SHOULD be until black and brown folks have the same ability to live/breathe/walk/work/learn/love/do amazing things/make mistakes and most of all love and care for their families that we do.
I want to do that. And there’s a time and a place for it. But the problem is that- in conversations between me and you (meaning, fellow white folks)- it’s not working. While you and I are talking at each other, as a country we can’t even bring down a metric as unbelievably basic as ‘making sure unarmed black people aren’t killed by police.’ When I yell, it just makes you yell back. It makes you want to fight back against my smugness, about my assumptions about you, about the theoretical ‘good person’ mantle that I seem to be stepping onto at your expense. So, while I can’t promise I won’t yell later, I feel the urgency to try something different.
Let’s try this instead: I’ve been trying to listen to folks like you, folks whom I typically annoy. And I’ve heard a few reasons why these conversations make YOU want to roll your eyes and yell back at me.
1. You don’t like being judged for something that you don’t have any control over (in this case, your race) and you’d like others to assume you’re a good-hearted, kind, loving person rather than casting aspersions about you.
2. You feel like things get more tense when race is “brought into” the conversation because it feels like that makes things ‘tense’ or ‘about race’ when otherwise we could just work together fairly and kindly (side note- this Pew Poll about race is just wildly fascinating).
3. You work really hard not to do or say anything racist but it feels like you can’t win- that whatever you do, that somebody will ‘call you out’ for racism.
4. You may have had moments where it felt like you were being treated poorly or denied opportunities based on being white and you wonder why that’s not part of the conversation.
5. You or your loved ones are in professions (such as police work) that you feel get unfairly blamed or that aren’t given enough grace or understanding. You have a lot of reasons (due to the experience you have with your loved ones) to believe police officers when they say they only fired out of self-defense or that they felt threatened.
This isn’t exhaustive by any means. Feel free to let me know what I’m missing, or if I’ve presented something you believe unfairly.
But give this a try….
Regardless of whether I nailed the list above, I’m not going to just immediately launch into a point/counterpoint. In fact, I totally get why you would feel these things. So I’m going to do you a favor and not debate them now. Instead, I’m wondering if you’d consider something with me, in the spirit that we established before (that you and I are both good, loving people who want to be good members of our community).
For a second, put aside how much you hate the voice of annoying white folks like me (if it helps, put aside that picture of me with my glasses and instead look at my son — he’s super cute, right?) and just consider the following thoughts…
What if everything people of color are saying about what living in 2016 in America is actually true, even if it seems so distant from your experience?
What if it’s not just a cynical political ploy or a ‘race card’ to be thrown out in moments of chaos, but it’s actually all real?
What if millions of America literally feel judged for and fearful because of their race, literally every single day and in every single setting?
What if it really is true that virtually every Black parent has to have ‘the talk’ with their sons about what to do when confronted by the police?
What if every fact on every single ‘white privilege’ fact sheet that annoys you so damn much actually WAS true and conspired to create an atmosphere of surveillance and distrust for our friends and neighbors of color?
What if it were also true that people of color in your workplace really DO have to debrief the staff meeting or team retreat or water cooler conversation because something we didn’t even know we were doing made them feel unsafe, unsuccessful or judged?
There’s a lot there. If all those things are true, it would mean that us white folks literally are living in a different country, every single day, with a different set of barriers and limits. It would mean that very likely there are things that we legitimately worked hard to achieve in our life (and for which we still get to be proud) that came with an ever-present boost that wasn’t afforded everybody. It would mean that in spite of our legitimately loving hearts that we probably have actually done a lot of things that we haven’t even noticed that make life way harder for those around us. It would mean that people of color- including people we love- have to navigate a world that is suspicious of them, that devalues them, that makes them feel constantly under surveillance, that makes them feel like they JUST can’t win. It would mean that our silence creates a world where Alton Sterling is dead and a couple guys who look like us have their finger on the trigger.
I know you want to argue against all this. I totally get it. I said this was going to eventually be a dialogue and so it’s frustrating to just listen to me go on like this. Please resist that urge though. This isn’t about being right. Promise.
Instead, let’s really sit in this different world. If that were your reality, how would it feel? How much weariness would it add to your day, your year, your life? How would it complicate the act of loving and caring for your family, of preparing them to navigate the world? How heartbreaking would it feel if you knew that your children, whom you love with all your heart, were judged on something other than their spark and beauty and individuality every single day of their lives?
And then, if that were your life, how would it feel if every time you tried to name what you were feeling, either for validation or to try to change it, you were told that you were crazy, that your act of naming it was in fact the problem? How would it feel to be black and to have so much evidence that America didn’t value your life that you had to finally break down and proclaim, after years and year, something that SHOULD be as self-evident as “Black Lives Matter” only to have the immediate rejoinder (from folks who’ve never had that fear or dread) be… “Well, I believe ALL lives matter?”
So there’s this movie
Let’s say you and I went out to see a movie. Opening night. Theater’s packed. The movie’s about twin sisters. Throughout their lives, their parents keep giving advantages to one sister over the other. Sometimes it’s subtle stuff — a smile here and there when the favored sister gets too loud and a scolding and a reprimand when the less favored sister does the same. Other times it’s bigger- like a new car for one sister but not the other on their sixteenth birthday. And sure, there are a couple moments when the second sister gets a fun or kind moment, but the pattern is super clear… for the entire ninety minute run-time. Now… the final scene is coming up… what would sound dopest? What would make the whole theater cheer? Would it be for the sister who had been consistently slighted to speak up and have her parents say “How DARE you accuse this family of favoritism? You’re bringing tension into this family!” End scene?
NO!! THAT ENDING WOULD SUCK! We’d leave the theater and go post all sorts of angry reviews.
No, what we’d crave, what we’d be absolutely right to crave, is for the plot to end satisfyingly… bare minimum you’d want for the sister who had been wronged to get to give this incredible excoriating speech that made the parents and her sister realize what they had created. But if you were really honest, you’d probably love some sort of brilliant plot that would flip the family dynamic on its head.
No really, give this a try
You’re smart. I bet after reading this you’re ready with points and counter-factuals and just absolute rhetorical flex-bombs. But please, trust me. I’m actually not trying to argue here. Instead, I’m appealing to your kindness and love and generosity and emotional intelligence in asking you to actually give this a college try. Our neighbors are literally dying here, which means this is the textbook example of “the least we can do.”
Let’s begin with a baby step. For a week, set aside questions of whether or not people are judging YOU, about whether you can prove that you’re not actually racist….seriously, just put it all aside.
Instead, not in the spirit of internet argumentation but in the spirit of love and neighborliness, really try, for a week, to actually believe not that the world or reality you know is wrong, but that folks of color live in an entirely different world and reality where the playing field is only level for folks who look like you and me. Legitimately force yourself to imagine a reality where race doesn’t ENTER the room when it’s brought up explicitly, but where it’s always there, setting the rules, establishing winners and losers, presenting barriers to be overcome. Go back to that italicized list I wrote above and replace all that “what if ____ were true” language with an unequivocal “YO! THIS IS TRUE AND IT AIN’T RIGHT!”
I promise you that doing so won’t all of a sudden prove that you’re a “bad person” — that’s not my intention here at all. Instead, my hope is that stepping out of yourself and your reality for a week, asking the question “In what way is race and racism playing into this space even if I don’t see it?” will help some of those emotions you feel move from isolation to empathy. You don’t like being judged on the basis of your race? Absolutely! Neither do folks of color… all the time. You don’t like when race or racism makes things feel tense? How hard would that be to have that be an ever present reality? Right?
So, I meant it. I do want to talk. I want to hear about you, about your goodness as a person and a neighbor. But what I really want to hear comes after you give this a try. I want to hear what kind of a neighbor, friend, colleague and American this makes you want to be. I want you to tell me how I can be better too. And I want to learn from and with you and other white folks. I bet you can imagine how tiring this is for our friends and colleagues of color to lead this work alone, to try to transform what you and I see without us helping. I honestly hope you and I can start doing that work for each other.
Thanks for listening and for talking about us. I’m signing off right now, but please trust me... I feel no smugness here, nor any judgment for you that I don’t hold for myself. I’m sorry that I haven’t reached out sooner. I’m sorry that we’ve done less work. I’m sorry we didn’t do it in time for Alton Sterling. I’m sorry we haven’t done it for hundreds of others. Let’s not waste more.