Dear Quiet White Friends of Mine,
I see you. I see you, loud ones, too. Either way, I would like to talk to you today about how you’re going to make the #BlackLivesMatter movement go away.
First, before you run away because it’s another “#AllLivesMatter nutjob” or “angry black woman” or “white apologist” or whatever you’re thinking, I want to stop you. I want you to know upfront that I am coming to you as a person who has sat silently in white privilege. As someone who has argued against the existence of structural racism. As someone that has, unknowingly, contributed to and reinforced racism.
So, I get it. I understand why you are struggling with this notion of black and brown lives mattering “more” than anyone else. Why you are searching for a logical reason for these public executions by police. Why you are quick to point fingers in the wake of innocent officers losing their lives. I get it and I am here to ask you to take a stand and help get rid of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Ah-bup-buh. Hold your horses. You should know, as I see it, the only way to do that though is to be a white ally to the movement. If you’re tired of hearing about #BlackLivesMatter, I’m asking you today to get off your phone or computer and do something to make our world a place safe and just for everyone; somewhere that it is no longer necessary.
What I hear or don’t hear from you in my newsfeed and in-person seems to be coming from a place of fear and/or apathy. Perhaps it stems from the same fears that underpinned the actions that caused the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling this week. Perhaps it stems from the same apathy that allowed (and allows) racist laws and policies to stand across our country. I want to believe that you are not actively racist. That you are merely complicit in a system that you do not entirely understand. So I want to appeal to you on a personal level.
I want to tell you about myself in the hopes that it will open your eyes and maybe your heart a little bit. I come to you as someone deeply saddened and grieving the murders of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Lorne Aherns, Michael Smith, Michael Krol, Patrick Zamarripa and Brent Thompson. I come to you asking you to be willing to stop standing idly by and make a change.
I want to explain to you how I came to understand the deep injustices that exist in our world. A world that I think we all want to be a safe and beautiful place. I want you to learn from my mistakes so that we can get on with our lives and never have to deal with another terrible race-based tragedy, which is what the events of this week all were. But it’s going to take some real listening with an open-heart and mind.
Here’s how it’s going to go: I am going to tell you my story. I am going to extend you amnesty for not understanding the struggle of being a person of color in America. And then I am going to ask that you take the proper steps to rectify that situation, which I will outline. Otherwise, you are part of the problem, you lose my respect and you are no longer allowed to complain.
Okay, let’s start:
When I was 8 or 9 years old, my mom sat me down and told me that if I was ever arrested and put in juvenile hall, I would not receive any special treatment. She told me that there would be no getting off the hook or “get out of jail free” cards for me, no matter who my father was. At that time, my father had been a peace officer in our small community for over a decade. My mother is not a liar. I have rarely known her to be wrong, but in this instance, she was. I did not know it at the time, but specifically because of who my father was, I would be getting passes, I would likely be getting preferential treatment. But that’s not really because of my father’s occupation. It’s because my father is white.
My father and his grey-blue eyes and too easily sunburned skin contributed heavily to the minimal melanin that I inherited. It’s the reason that I do not have to worry when I step outside and try to go about conducting my life. I do not get stopped at airports. I do not get suspicious looks from store clerks. It’s a privilege that I have. That I was born with.
One that my mother and my brother and my aunt and cousins and many of my friends and loved ones were not.
When I was 16 or 17, my friends and I were often stopped by police for various shenanigans (that’s what it’s called when it’s a group of white kids). We were stopped, spoken to and then promptly left with a warning. My white boyfriend did not get asked to step out of the car when he accidentally almost caused a head-on collision by turning the wrong way at night, near the beaches that kids often drove home from drunk or high. My group of friends did not get stopped or frisked for congregating illegally in a park after hours. We did not get taken in to the station in a squad car because we thought it would be fun to play on what was actually private property. We did not get pursued, beaten or gunned down for running away when we were caught. The law enforcement that I knew growing up was a lenient and understanding bunch.
So when I told my mom about one of our escapades and she sat me down to have what I have come to know from my other black and brown friends as “The Talk”, I was confused, combative and disrespectful.
I was raised to tell my mother everything, so I told her about running into the woods to hide after being caught by the police. I laughed about what a close call it was and tried to go on to tell her more about my interactions with my crush du jour. Instead, unexpectedly, my mother’s back stiffened, she grimaced and in her most terrifyingly gentle voice, she interrupted me to say, “Hannah, I don’t ever want you doing anything that makes the cops have to intervene.”
She went on to tell me that if the police ever stopped me again, I should comply with whatever they asked for. To always carry my ID. To speak calmly. To never run or resist. That it didn’t matter if I didn’t do anything wrong. That raising my voice or talking back (as I was want to do) could provoke them. Could make them lash out. That whether or not someone was in the right or wrong could mean nothing in the face of the justice system.
She told me this, all of this, as my father served as a peace officer and many of our family friends, people we celebrated holidays with, served in law enforcement. And I thought she was ridiculous.
So, I argued with her. I said she was being unreasonable. I disagreed with her. I repeatedly said that I would not be in harms way as long as I was in the right. I said that I had no prior record and they would have nothing on me; it would all just eventually be written off as some big mistake. And then I walked away from it learning nothing. Instead, I pitied her and the hard, awful place and time she must have grown up in to feel that way. To think that she had to conduct herself a certain way to receive basic human rights. It’s the 2000s, Mom. Geez. I chalked it up to paranoia from growing up in a tiny town as the only black girl in her school and went on with my life.
I now think of it as the whitest I have ever been. Nope, it wasn’t going to a Kelly Clarkson concert with my sister and singing along with reckless abandon. It was the day I looked my mom in the eye and scoffed at her lived experiences. I identify as mixed race. I check the box for Black if it’s multiple choice. I was raised predominantly by my mother. I consider her my heart and I still looked her in the eye and denied the racist reality and cowed existence that she is forced to live every day.
And I continued to do so for years.
It took a group of us blowing through a stop sign on bikes in college and my best friend, the only visibly black student out of us, being the only one stopped and punished. It took my brother being heavily searched every time he tried to fly on a plane. It took working in a predominantly black school where a kind, thoughtful 12 year old told me that it didn’t matter how much he tried because he would “end up shot or in prison anyway”. I’m embarrassed to say that it took the deaths of Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and Sandra Bland and Freddie Gray and then their killers getting off basically scot-free for it to really sink in. Until that moment, I still believed on some level that I lived in a just world.
I believed in that world despite being denied service in restaurants with my mother. Despite knowing that she got followed around in stores when my other friend’s moms did not. I believed in it despite my mom and sibling being called racial slurs. I believed in it despite enduring racist jokes and comments on a regular basis from people I considered my friends in high school. All of that and I still somehow didn’t get that structural racism was real. That it was alive and well.
So, I get that not being directly exposed to and confronted with it every day might lead you to think that the existence of two Americas is a false narrative. That we are all just one human spirit or that people are making things up or that the facts just must not all be there. That there must have been a good reason that these innocent victims lost their lives. But I am here today to ask you to please stop. To, please, learn from me and take the time to listen. Take the time to put a stop to a world where Black Lives Matter is vital. Take the time to learn why it is a non-violent and necessary movement for so many people across this nation. Please do this before we have to lose any more precious lives. And, I ask selfishly, please do this before it is someone that I love.
There are tons of resources to help you understand how to be an ally. I won’t waste time reiterating what they have to say, but here is what I ask of you:
If you are vehemently #AllLivesMatter, cool. Tell me what you’re going to do to make sure what happened to Alton Sterling and Philando Castile never happens again. What have you been doing in the name of Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland? What’s your plan to prevent Dallas or Orlando or Charleston from happening again? Where do I join you for the protest against the inhumane practice of capital punishment that disproportionately affects minorities, especially black men? What are you doing to make a difference? I’m ready and eager to know. But if the answer is nothing, if you are saying that just to affirm your own existence and to deny the marginalization of others, I do not accept it.
If you are silent on the issue, know that I hear you loud and clear and it is noted.
If you are staying silent, you are exercising your white privilege. You are telling me and those that I love that we do not matter to you. That my friends and family members that you have likely met or broken bread with or whose hospitality you have enjoyed, do not matter to you. That it is no bother to you that they have to carry a burden every day that doesn’t even cross your mind.
If you are concerned that the Black Lives Matter movement is “reverse racist” or “promoting segregation”, I recommend you educate yourself. Read those articles about being an ally. Sit down and read and listen and learn. I know you think we’re just angry, but for some that is the only way we know how to express heartbreak. Find out why we are scared and grieving. If you feel the same, but for different reasons, and want to talk about it, I promise to listen too.
I say all of this to you today after looking at the clock this morning at 6am PST and praying for my sister’s husband, who I consider a brother. I prayed that when he put on his badge today God would protect and keep him and help him continue to do his job safely and well. That no one would mistake him for an enemy or do him harm. I did this though after I prayed, as I do every day, for my family and friends that are in danger daily, not by career choice, but simply by existing. This is their reality. This is my reality. This is the reality for too many of us in this country.
Please do not take any longer to see/realize/understand that there is no White vs. Black or Blue vs. Black, but simply a terrible, broken system that has developed over years and decades and centuries that we are all responsible for taking the time and making the effort to fix. That is all Black Lives Matter is about; trying to be the canary in the coal mine. Everyone who died this week died because we refuse to recognize the institutionalized racism that exists in our society and have created a toxic sludge of a society because of it.
Did we build this system from the start? No. But that does not make us any less at fault for and complicit in it being perpetuated today. This is not a job for just those that bare the burden of drawing the short straw. It is for everyone. If you remain silent or refuse to acknowledge it, you are reinforcing the exact system we so desperately need to dismantle.
Getting rid of the Black Lives Matter movement means voting for thoughtful and anti-racist candidates in elections. It means speaking out against racism in-person, on social media and beyond. It means identifying your own deep-seated prejudices. It means looking at how your own misconceptions or bias affect your actions. It means thinking about whether they put anyone else at risk, directly or indirectly.
Once you’ve taken those steps, getting rid of Black Lives Matter means getting your heart broken when these injustices and tragedies occur, so that it can remain open to the changes necessary to prevent them from ever happening again. It means loving a little harder every day in the hopes that it will be one ripple in the growing, unified tide, that Bobby Kennedy spoke of so many years ago, to change and heal our world.
Please, I beg this of you.