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.
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)
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.
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.
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.