A Few Pointers for Protesting While White

The last few months have motivated a lot of us to cross lines we haven’t previously crossed. The instinct to physically show up by attending a protest or march is a wonderful starting point. And going to a protest for the first time can be an intimidating venture with a lot of variables. But taking the time to avoid repeating some of the injustice that we’re all protesting is an important step.

Photo by Tucker FitzGerald

Don’t Talk to the Cops

If you’re a white person, you’ve likely grown up with a positive experience of the police. While exploring the history of police forces, race, and justice is a long and weighty topic, I’d like to offer a few guidelines:

Many communities have experienced the police force in their neighborhoods as a violent and dangerous organization. Marching against police brutality, specifically, has likely been an important issue for others marching with you.

While you may prioritize marching in a legal, permitted march that avoids property damage, it’s important to remember that incredibly important social justice protests have almost always included arrests for some of the participants. That isn’t to say that your march will include any arrests today. But it is to say that others marching with you know stories of, have participated in, or are planning on participating in acts of civil disobedience that will be confronted by the police with force.

If it helps you understand, simply remember that Martin Luther King was repeatedly arrested by police. That he was under FBI surveillance. That the civil rights protesters of the 1960s were regularly beaten by the police. That black protesters are still regularly the target of police violence.

The LGBTQ community has long been a target of police violence. Undocumented immigrants have every interaction with the police marked by the possibility of their family being forcefully separated by thousands of miles. People who are part of those communities are taking a much larger risk being present at a protest than the rest of us. Ignoring their realities is pretty thoughtless.

It may be important to you that your current event is peaceful, legal, and non-disruptive. You may be eager to emphasize those aspects of this by talking with police officers, or thanking them for their work. This can be deeply disrespectful to fellow protesters who have experienced police violence personally or in their community.

Immigrant Signage

Protesting to protect immigrants is extremely important. They are regularly some of the most vulnerable members of our community and are always demonized by those looking for scapegoats. But there are a couple of instinctive protest signs that don’t pass the common decency test.

We are not all immigrants. We’re not “a nation of immigrants”. Our country wasn’t “built by immigrants”.

All of these stories whitewash American Indians and Black Americans out of our history. Slavery isn’t immigration. And our nation was disproportionately, literally, built by African slaves. My partner is a member of the Cherokee nation, for example. American Indians are not immigrants.

Further complicating this point is that neither of those populations have experienced white people as immigrants, historically. We have been slave traders and conquerors, masters and invaders. When we tell the story of European arrival in North America as a story about“immigrants” and “settlers,” it negates the ways that genocide and slave labor were the tools we worked with.

America does have a long and important history of welcoming immigrants and refugees, but it’s important that we don’t overstate that part of our identity.

Girls to the Front!

Bikini Kill, the feminist Riot Grrl band from the 90’s, was famous for inviting the “girls to the front.” The flip side of this was the implied request for men to head to the back of the crowd.

In that spirit try to make sure that people of color are able to move closer to the speaker. Are able to be at the front of the march. Are able to be in front of the news cameras.

As a white person, a helpful place to be is between the police and the other marchers. Because, back to point two, we’re much less likely to experience police violence if things unexpectedly go sideways.

God Gave you Two Ears and One Mouth

People of color are going to be disproportionately affected by any injustice you’re protesting. Make sure that you’re there to learn and listen. The last thing the world needs is one more white person who knows more about the realities people of color face than they do.

Even having to overhear two white people talk loudly and confidently about what’s wrong in the world and how to fix it can be exhausting. Turn your volume down so that other people can be heard in these spaces.

Be reverent. You might be proud of yourself for finally showing up to a huge rally. But the people around you might have much more personal experience with the issue being protested. There’s room for encouragement, kindness, solidarity, and even celebration in the right time and place. But be thoughtful about the mood of the crowd, especially people more vulnerable to the injustice you want to push back against.

Do they feel supported by your presence or are you on your own planet laughing and talking while taking selfies?