Updated: Jun 4, 2020
Dear fellow white people:
This is an incredible (momentous, painful, awe-inspiring, hard-to-believe) time to be alive in America. Recent events have once again turned the nation's attention to the stark racial inequities and disparate treatment of Black and brown people inherent in our society, laws, and law enforcement. A recent slew of Black murders by police officers across the country -- including the video-recorded murder of George Floyd by cops in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020 -- has come hot on the heels of the first peak of the global COVID-19 pandemic that has ravaged the world, killing over 100,000 people in America, including Black and brown people disproportionately.
The current political regime seems intent on exacerbating the racial divide and emboldening its largely white, conservative, low- to middle-class base to grow more extremist and violent against Black and brown people in ways both systematic and vigilante. This, after over three years of painting immigrants as aliens and animals, locking tens of thousands of brown children in cages, pitting un- and under-employed working class white people against Black and brown neighbors, labeling white extremists as good people, and glorifying fascist dictators around the world.
Palestinian-American artist Shirien Damra's illustration paying tribute to George Floyd. @Shirien.Creates on Instagram
In the wake of George Floyd's murder, protests have bloomed across the country and around the world demanding an end to state-sanctioned violence against people of color. Many of these protests have turned violent at the hands of militarized police forces who provoke and escalate otherwise peaceful demonstrations, coupled with opportunistic white instigators, arsonists, and terrorists. The growing fire is being stoked by the president, who just this week threatened to order the US military to quell the protests of US citizens and residents -- an unprecedented and unimaginable measure that would forever change America's domestic political landscape and trajectory.
As it always has, these historic uprisings of systematically marginalized people have drawn out fear and loathing from people who stand to benefit most from maintaining the status quo -- namely, white people.
White-run media and governments have quickly painted peaceful protesters as violent thugs and looters -- or point to "opportunistic outsiders" who come from other cities to wreak havoc, chaos, and property damage in local communities. Either way it's spun, this narrative works to delegitimize the real and justified anger, frustration, fear, and resolve of protesters calling for justice, equity, and an end to police violence against people of color. In the past, this tactic has worked -- in time, activists burn out, are arrested, or become disorganized and less effective, and white "allies" become disinterested and go back to "business as usual."
This time, though, thanks to our social media fixation, white people now have immediate access to relentless coverage of these events and are forced to see all over their feeds, in real-time, the continued militarized assault on communities color by police and our governments across the country and around the world.
We are all being confronted by the ugliness of white privilege and white supremacy in unprecedented ways -- and this time, probably for the first time, it's almost impossible for white people to turn our eyes away. To many of us, this feels important -- like a critical tipping point. Because it is.
Finally, after years and years and years of people of color explaining and showing white people the systemic violence of racism and white supremacy (terms that are, in fact, synonymous), it is finally sinking in that "business as usual" is extraordinarily unjust to people of color, and it's just not something we can resume as before. "Going back to normal" is unacceptable. For white people who have long benefited from "normal," that means the present moment (which is already morphed into something unfamiliar and uneasy due to COVID-19) and the future both near and far are full of great big unknowns, which is scary as hell for people who are accustomed to a clear life trajectory that tends to work in their favor.
Do not be afraid -- there is a way forward to an equitable and just future for all of us. But we must work for it.
I want to take this opportunity to call in white folks who, in other times, would stop right here -- who would say, "No, not me, I'm a good person, I am not racist, we do not need to talk about racism." Yes, I'm talking to you.
Like many other white people, for most of my life I considered myself a "good person" and "not a racist." No need to talk about racism or do any work whatsoever on myself or the world around me. Conversation over. Business as usual.
It turns out that my unwillingness to engage with, challenge, and deconstruct my own contributions to racism actually helped racism to continue! My discomfort and unwillingness to talk with other white people about racism allowed white supremacy to flourish! I spent much of my life feeling satisfied about being "not racist" that I became complicit in racist systems of inequity from which I benefit every singe day.
Racism and white supremacy undeniably persisted all around me and through me -- my words and silence, actions and inactions. I came to realize just how much I personally hurt people around me, and how much people of color were suffering around me in a way I could no longer pretend not to see. If I am such a "good person," how could I tolerate all of that suffering and inequity? If I am "not a racist," how could I sit quietly as racism thrives?
If we are not part of the solution, we are contributing to the problem. Being "not racist" is just not enough. We have to do more. We have to become anti-racist.
I began to feel self-conscious and guilty for not knowing enough about these issues to talk about them, and so I started studying up on our country's history of racism, colonialism, and militarism. I read voraciously, attended trainings and workshops, joined anti-oppression and anti-racism advocacy groups, and talked to friends about what I learned. I showed up to community meetings to talk about police accountability, holding politicians and non-profits accountable to Black and brown communities they serve, and what radical intersectional justice can and should look like.
To be very clear: there is a reason I did not understand racism -- white supremacy made sure that I remained ignorant. A white supremacist legal system, society, and culture benefits from its white constituents remaining in the dark about its trail of destruction. If white people knew how the sausage really got made, we'd be repulsed and revolted, and indeed, maybe even revolt -- which would really be a problem to the handful of the wealthiest and most powerful white men who control our governments and economy. And so, it was communicated to me -- sometimes explicitly and sometimes covertly -- by my family, neighbors, teachers, textbooks, churches, TV shows and movies, news media, retail shops, elected officials, and every other source of information in my life that being white is best, being not white is not as good or is outright bad, and I will benefit as long as I don't ask too many questions.
In my search for learning, I have gone through a range of emotions, from fear and frustration to guilt and shame to inspiration and ferocity and back again. I took it upon myself to learn what the white establishment didn't want me to know, and I asked questions of myself and others that white supremacy needs me not to ask. For example, I've asked myself critically important questions about my own whiteness, white fragility, and white supremacy, like:
If I am not racist, then why do I staunchly refuse to accept evidence pointing to the existence of racism in any or all of its forms? Where did I learn to deny clear evidence of racism? How do I benefit, as a white person, from turning my head away from racism? What am I afraid of losing by looking at it square in the face, every day?
Why do I feel distrustful of people of color when they tell me their experiences of inequity, injustice, and harm? Why am I so quick to justify the actions of white people and institutions ("Well, I'm sure they only meant..."), and to delegitimize the wrongs people of color have suffered ("Well, maybe if you hadn't...")? Who taught me to do that? Am I as systematically skeptical about the experiences of other white people? Why not?
Why don't I consider being white as having race -- as though "race" is a thing that belongs to "other people"? Is it because I've also been taught that "having race" or being racialized is a bad or negative or less desirable thing? What does being racially white mean? How does being white inherently tie me to systems of white supremacy? Is it possible to be white and fight white supremacy? What does that look like?
What am I trying to communicate when I say things like "I'm color blind" or "I don't see race," or "The only race I see is the human race," or "I don't care if you're black, brown, yellow, or polka-dot purple" or "All Lives Matter"? What am I actually communicating to other white people when I say these things? What do I communicate to a person of color when I say these things? How is the impact of my words different from my intention -- and why is that important? How does saying something like this keep me from confronting racism? How does it allow me to continue being complicit in white supremacy?
Why do I feel defensive when people of color talk about how they are harmed by me personally, or by other white people, or by white supremacy? Why does it trigger a "fight or flight response" in me, so that I feel compelled to push back, make excuses, gaslight them, and/or run away? What is it, exactly, that makes me feel threatened about their statements and conversations? What am I afraid of? What happens when I turn things around and make their comments about me -- taking someone else's pain and making it about my guilt, my good intentions, my hurt feelings? What do I have to gain by pushing past defensiveness and discomfort and really hearing what is being said to me? How can these interactions go differently? How can I start to accept responsibility for the harm I cause personally, and the role I play in systemic racism?
Grappling with these and many other questions helped me show up for fellow humans in an unprecedented way. What I have learned about structural oppression and racism, and my role in those harmful systems, enrages me. Today I do not turn away from them -- instead, I channel my anger into inspiration, solidarity, and action. Today I am eager to learn and do more -- to deepen my knowledge and understanding of whiteness, white supremacy, and white privilege, to get over my discomfort when it comes to talking about racism, to build resilience and a tolerance for anti-racist conversations and actions, and to take concrete actions every single day to dismantle racism in my personal life, my community, and on a systemic level.
White folks -- I invite you in! We all have to do the work. It has to start yesterday -- or today, at the very latest. It cannot wait until tomorrow. Generations to come will remember us -- let it be for this.
Stay tuned for additional posts geared specifically to white people who are ready to jump in to the work of anti-racism. We will do it together.
It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.
- Assata Shakur