Dear White People
What We Can Do About #FERGUSON
Look in the mirror. No really. Go right now. This is your face. This is your identity in America today. This face and the race that people around you think it represents can alter how people judge your trustworthiness. If that doesn’t feel true to you, know that that privilege separates you from millions of people who have values, hopes and dreams very similar to yours but who have not been granted your same blissful forgetfulness.
Stop explaining. You are a new traveler here. Your experience with this reality is thin. What you need to learn far exceeds what you have to share. So please, for now, stop talking. No one needs to know how you feel as much as they need to see how badly you care enough to listen.
Notice who’s around you. Are you living in mostly white world? Are people of color around you bagging your groceries or fixing your car? Doing your nails? Cleaning your house? Are the people of color you’re working with and who are in your social circle never ever discussing or acknowledging race to you? Do you think this is a non-issue for those in your circle? You are incorrect. The fact that those channels of communication are silent says something about the level of safety you generate and others confidence in what you are capable of understanding. I am not saying this so you can go hound your black friends about how they are feeling, but to make the point that we are living in siloed realities and assuming they are one and the same.
Notice the first words you want to say when confronted with racial inequity. What is the very first thought? Do you feel defensive? Do you feel sorry for others? Do you feel sad other people have to go through this? Do you want to make sure you didn’t do anything wrong? Do you see yourself as better (or worse) because you were able to rise above similar circumstances and make a better way for yourself? These are common and familiar thoughts and they are indicators of the way we see ourselves as separate or removed from the question of racial justice. Having the courage to notice how right we want to be is crucial to understanding where we are dead wrong.
Know that we are all actively participating in a system that promotes racial and economic inequity. Our clothes and most of our manufactured goods are made by children in developing countries. Our business models are built on maximizing profit while minimizing the cost of labor. Our service industries are staffed by those who had limited access to the kind of literacy-rich parenting that is required in our society today to translate learning into systemic success. Our jokes and stereotypes perpetuate myths about race that damage and define. This is the culture we live in and the one we support with our way of life which values expression over equity.
Understand that “trying to be helpful” perpetuates the dynamic. Our systems of charity keep us in the position of “giver” to those who are “receiver” ensuring a power dynamic that tilts in the favor of us always being and looking a little bit better. Part of growing up in white culture often means learning how to maintain the position of benefactor or being there in times of need for those less fortunate. That’s very sweet, but it is often an insidious form of whitebred narcissism (What does this say about me? How can I do something so I can feel better about this?) Our self-absorption keeps the inequitable power dynamics humming, and the way helping makes us feel better about ourselves keeps the cycle churning.
So now what?
These statements may stir up unrest and leave you uneasy and feeling helpless about what you can do. But the most powerful thing is stay present to the reality of racism and our role in it with so much brutal honesty that it disturbs us to the point of changing our lives—and not in ways that make us look better or become more politically correct.
Let’s fuck that nonsense once and for all.
I’m talking about how it’s easier to have friends just like you than to become the person who can just as easily be friends with someone from a totally different world than your own. I’m talking about taking the time to listen to what’s hard and to validate it by speaking up in places and spaces where your words have so much more weight just because you’re white. I’m talking about shutting up with your one million ideas and making space for that person who’s learned to let white people go first lead the way instead of just being content to be at the table. I’m talking about listening to rage and pain and hurt and letting it all soak in until you can feel something you haven’t felt before. I’m talking about taking advice from the people you think you’re helping. I’m talking about not assuming people need help. I’m talking about not assuming that your privilege or background means you know jack shit about how the world can or should work for anyone else. I’m talking about reading radical black poets and listening to activists—the ones you thought were too extreme—and letting them take you to school. I’m talking about arguing with your friends of color once you have the kind of relationship where you can be assured someone will clean your clock when you’re being a white douchebag. I’m talking about doing the things that matter right now, like protesting and calling and voting and complaining—to the officials who think people like you will forget about when the news coverage is over. I’m talking about not assuming the people of color in your life fit any of your stereotypes of what “black people are like” since there are as many ways to be a human as there are shades of skin color.
Anything short of deep and dark discontent with our own comfort and ease while basic safety, dignity or trust remains distant and even unattainable for others is not enough. So let’s change. Let’s change us, so there’s less and less implicit support in the world to justify this fear that makes us limit, inhibit and kill people who are part of the human family, that collective of human beings which no one group has any right to commandeer, dictate or oppress over another to its own selfish advantage.