Black Lives Matter to White People

Sandra Bland Photo:

Sandra Bland

This is for my fellow white Americans. If you are white and consider yourself a feminist, or a liberal, or a progressive, or simply a good person, this is for you.


I have been haunted this week by the death of Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old African American woman who was pulled over by police in Texas for failing to signal a lane change, and three days later found dead in a jail cell.

Her death – following so many other black women and men, girls and boys, who have been killed by police – gave rise to a horrifying new Internet theme: If I Die in Police Custody. For example:

– Know that they killed me. I would do everything in my power to get home to my family. (From @reignofapril)

– Don’t let them tell the world who I was. You tell the world who I was. (From @the4th_duck)

This year alone

It has been one year since Eric Garner couldn’t breathe.

Eleven months since the body of Michael Brown lay uncovered for hours on a street in Ferguson.

Eight months since Tanisha Anderson died in Cleveland as a result of police restraining her so brutally that her death has been ruled a homicide.

Three months since 25-year-old Freddie Gray, shackled and helpless, was flung around in the back of a Baltimore police van until he was mortally wounded.

One month since 14-year-old Dajerria Becton was thrown to the ground and forcibly subdued by a police officer at a Texas pool party.

One week since 18-year-old Kindra Darnell Chapman in Alabama was found dead in her jail cell only minutes after she had been locked up.

Why is all this just now happening? It’s been happening. White people are just now noticing.

Police officer manages to subdue 14-year-old girl at a pool party. (Photo

Police officer manages to subdue 14-year-old girl at a pool party. (Photo

What can we do about it?

What can we, the good white people of America, do about it? If we are not police officers or public officials or in a position of power? If we are busy with our own lives and struggles?

I am no expert, and I have no sweeping solutions to offer. But here are five suggestions of things we can each do in our own lives.

1. Connect the dots

This summer nine African American people were massacred in their South Carolina church by a white supremacist who had no trouble finding inspiration and affirmation in the world around him. Seven African American churches have been burned to the ground, and numerous female pastors have received death threats. The President of the United States has repeatedly been greeted by protestors waving Confederate flags.

And this summer we learned that for the first time, the number of African American children living in poverty in the U.S. has exceeded the number of white children living in poverty, despite the fact that white children outnumber black children by three to one. (Why any children should live in poverty in the world’s richest nation is another matter.)

These things are not unrelated. They are part of a system – a belief system, a values system, a political system, an economic system – called racism. You and I, white friends, are a part of this system whether we like it or not.

2. Educate yourself

I am not a racist. But I know it’s in me. And I know the system of racism eases my life like a strong breeze always at my back. Like a breeze, the system can be invisible to those it benefits. That’s why it’s important for white people to educate ourselves.

For me, the best way to do this is to listen to other people, particularly people of color, and to read. Here are a few suggestions:

“I, Racist” by John Metta (article)

“I am Jewish and Black Lives Matter” by Rabbi Stephanie Kolin (article)

“The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates (article)

Color of Change (website)

Center for Community Change (website – and full disclosure, I work there)

Sister Citizen by Melissa V. Harris-Perry (book)

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander (book)

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (book)

3. Participate

If you can get to marches, rallies or demonstrations for racial justice in your area, join them. If you’re lucky enough to live in a place where there’s ongoing organizing or activism on racial issues, bring your own spirit and energy to the fight. Collective action isn’t radical, it’s one of the ways people speak up in a democracy.

See the white-harked white woman in the middle? That's me. It's easy and inspiring to take action together.

See the white-haired white woman in the middle? That’s me. It’s easy and inspiring to take action together. (Photo: Derek Johnson)

If you can’t join an event, create one. A candlelight vigil on your block. A book party to discuss one of the books above. Some way that’s doable for you to pull people together – even or perhaps especially white people – to examine how race works in our country and to bring about change. Racism is enforced by so many practices and policies, it will require all of our voices and hands to dismantle it.

4. Confront

Okay, this one is hard. When you see or hear racism from other white people, say something.

Obviously you should keep your own safety in mind; I’m not urging you to confront the raging demonstrator waving the Confederate flag. I’m encouraging you to object to the next racist joke you hear, to inform your uncle that his disparaging comments aren’t welcome at your table, to call your friend to talk about her racist and possibly clueless Facebook post.

I’ve done this several times. It’s always excruciating, and it never ends well. No matter. It needs to happen – and maybe you’ll be better at it than I am.

In theory, I try to give people the benefit of the doubt. We white people are so used to living and breathing racism that we may not even be aware of it. Perhaps if a friend or relative gently but firmly points out the racial harm in something we’ve said, we might actually think about it and consider a different perspective.

Unfortunately, I have trouble being kind but firm. I am more likely to be caustic and withering. This tends to offend the offender and, in social situations, the host. It may not lead to the thoughtful examination I aim for – but at the very least, one white person hears another white person declare that what they just said is not acceptable. It’s a start.

5. Open yourself to some pain

I am a white feminist who began a life of activism during the second wave of the women’s movement. In recent years I’ve seen a lot written about the shortcomings of our movement – then and now – when it comes to race and women of color. I’ve seen even more written about the failure of white progressives to truly grapple with race.

It hurts to read these things. My first reaction is, “Yes, but – “ I want to defend myself from pain, from other people’s (or my own) poor opinion of me and my actions. How can they think that about me, when my heart is so good?

I need to stop that.

Racism exists. It exists to benefit me and people like me. Maybe I didn’t build it. Maybe I didn’t want it. But I profit from it daily.

I can only dimly imagine the experience of suffering under racism. Of never feeling safe in the world. Of knowing that your radiant, open-hearted children will have to face that constant battering of the soul, will have their lives made smaller and more difficult and perhaps cut short.

It’s not easy to think about this. It’s not easy to read some of the materials I’ve suggested above. It’s not easy to talk openly with African American friends, and to know that they may not feel safe talking openly with me. But if we want to confront racism in our country and ourselves, the last thing anyone can worry about is whether it will bruise white people’s feelings to hear the truth.

So fellow white people, brace yourselves. This is going to hurt.

Extra credit – give money

If you can, make a contribution to one of the scrappy, underfunded grassroots organizations fighting for racial justice. Better yet, set up a monthly contribution that the organization can count on, even if you can only give a small amount each month.

It’s easy to give money if you can spare it – certainly easier than some of the previous suggestions. It’s also one important way that white people can help balance the scales. For context, check out this article by my friend and former co-worker Sean Thomas-Breitfeld on “Why it’s easier to raise money to fight disease than to fight racism.”

There are many admirable organizations to choose from. Here are a couple that I’ve given to lately.

How to be a good white person in America

I am still struggling to figure out how to be a good white person in America. Maybe you are too.

There are white people in the South who laughed and ate picnics under the dangling feet of lynched African American women and men. There are white people in Boston and Chicago who bared their teeth and hurled stones at African American children on their way to school. I know I’m not one of those.

But there are also millions of white people who turn away, who don’t speak up, who won’t take action, who think racism isn’t their fault or their concern. I don’t want to be one of those either.

Racism is not a Southern problem. It’s not a police problem. It’s rooted deep in the DNA of our nation, in how it was founded and financed. It flourishes in the laws and structures that isolate black people from power and security. And for white people, racism may live in the cobwebbed corners of our own minds and hearts, where even we are afraid to look.

Here, you hold the flashlight and I’ll grab the broom. Let’s go together. It’s time to get started.


30 Women Novelists You Should Know – #27 Stephanie Feldman



The Angel of Losses by Stephanie Feldman is a wonderful novel – beautifully written, engaging and surprising. It’s also full of wonders: miracles, myths and mysteries.

Marjorie and Holly were as close as two sisters could be. They adored their grandfather, who lived with them and told them enthralling stories about the White Wizard and an angel, even though he sometimes got angry when they asked too many questions. Both girls were heartbroken when he died.

Things turn strange

But by the time we meet Marjorie and Holly, things have changed. Marjorie is a Ph.D. student researching the ancient anti-Semitic legend of the Wandering Jew, and spending more time in the library than with her family or friends.

Although they were raised as  Christians, Holly has converted to Judaism, changed her name to Chava, and married into an ultra-Orthodox splinter community with mystical beliefs so strange even other ultra-Orthodox groups look askance at them. Marjorie and Holly (she refuses to call her sister Chava) have barely spoken in months.

Then Marjorie finds one of her grandfather’s notebooks – which he had begged his son to destroy after his death – and discovers something shocking. Her grandfather has written down all the tales he used to tell about the White Wizard, but in the notebook the magical man is the White Rebbe, a rabbi who has been blessed with the power to perform miracles and cursed with immortality.

A survivor bearing a dreadful secret

What’s more, Marjorie realizes that her beloved grandfather had been lying to her all along. He was Jewish, it turns out, a survivor of the Holocaust bearing a dreadful secret. He was also the carrier of a legacy so powerful and mysterious it will take all of Marjorie’s strength and intellect to track down the truth and protect her family – particularly Holly’s newborn son.

“He’s coming for me,” Marjorie’s grandfather tells her in what she hopes is a dream. “And then he’s coming for you.”

Ancient mysteries and present dangers

But who is “he” – the White Rebbe? The Angel of Losses that the Rebbe must confront? The mysterious old man who seems to follow Marjorie everywhere and dole out tiny fragments of the story she’s so desperate to understand? And what do any of these ancient mysteries have to do with Marjorie and Holly? The only thing that’s clear is that Marjorie must figure it out, because the life of her infant nephew is at stake.

“A breathtakingly accomplished debut”

Ellah Allfrey of NPR Books called The Angel of Losses a “breathtakingly accomplished debut,” and I couldn’t agree more. The book sparkles with sharp, fresh images and gorgeous writing.

For a novel about angels, miracles and Jewish history from the medieval era through the Holocaust to modern-day New York City, The Angel of Losses is as suspenseful as any mystery story. You don’t need to be Jewish to enjoy and appreciate the novel. Everything you need to know is in the book, along with a healthy dose of wonder.

“I still believe that writing is most exciting when it’s an act of discovery,” Stephanie Feldman said. In that case, it must have been thrilling to write The Angel of Losses. I know it was thrilling to read.

Get a free copy of The Angel of Losses

The paperback edition of The Angel of Losses was just published a couple of weeks ago. I’m delighted to have two copies to give away.

There are two ways to toss your name in the hat to win a copy.

You can contact me through this blog and let me know you’d like a copy.

Or better yet, you can sign up for my monthly newsletter to be eligible to win this and other free books by women writers. I give away one or two each month. When you receive the newsletter, just hit reply and tell me which book you want.

I’ll choose a name from those who contact me. (Sorry, I can only ship to U.S. addresses.) I hope you will enjoy this enthralling novel as much as I did.

Angel of Losses

Update from book world

I had a fantastic experience on July 7th, reading from Her Own Vietnam for a lively crowd at Busboys and Poets restaurant in Washington, DC. The book talk was hosted by DC’s premier independent bookstore, Politics & Prose, which runs a jewel of a bookstore inside Busboys.

Here are a few of my favorite photos from the event.

Reading from Her Own Vietnam at Busboys and Poets on July 7th, 2015.

Reading from Her Own Vietnam at Busboys and Poets on July 7th, 2015. (Photo: Kate Patterson)

The crowd was engaged, and the Q&A was great. (Photo: Kate Patterson)

The crowd was engaged, and the Q&A discussion was fascinating. (Photo: Kate Patterson)

Stylish stack of Her Own Vietnam on the front counter. (Photo: Janet Coleman)

Stylish stack of Her Own Vietnam on the front counter. (Photo: Janet Coleman)

As a writer, you spend most of your time alone behind a computer. It was a delight to talk about my book with a room full of interested – and interesting – people.

My once-a-year shirt

Here’s a story for the Fourth of July.

The day after my mother died, my father implored my sister and me to go through her clothing and take some items of hers to keep. I stepped into my parents’ closet and could not believe my mother would never wear those familiar dresses and blouses again.

But my difficulty didn’t end there. My mother’s taste in clothing was very different from mine – much more girly – and she was quite a bit larger than I was. I doubted I could wear anything of hers even if I found something suitable. But it seemed to mean a lot to our grief-stricken father, so while my sister watched, I searched through our mother’s clothes. I studied each garment on its hanger and then slid it away, occasionally releasing a faint, heart-squeezing scent of my mother’s perfume.

Finally I found something I might actually wear – a simple red sweatshirt. In triumph, I grabbed it from the rack and twirled around to show my sister.

“That’s Dad’s,” she said.

Which brings me to today.

Every July 4th – and only on July 4th – I wear a special shirt. It’s a short-sleeved cotton camp shirt, printed with a whimsical 4th of July design that features flags and watermelons. The shirt did not belong to my mother, but it could have.

My patriotism usually takes the form of waving protest signs, tough love to push our country to live up to its ideals. But on July 4th I’ll wave flags – at least the ones printed on my shirt. I’ll wear my one piece of clothing that would have been at home in my mother’s closet. It’s not a bad look, if only once a year.

Pattern 4th of July shirt