How To Be White In America (And What To Do About Ferguson)

a katz /
a katz /

Stop making assumptions about what it’s like to be black (or a minority) in America. Just stop. We don’t know what it’s like. We can’t begin to understand the systematic oppression, institutionalized racism, police brutality, for-profit imprisoning, and ingrained fear of black faces that is the day to day reality for black people. We are white. We know only our experience. That’s okay. We only have our experience to pull from, but we need to be conscious and self-aware. We’re not the ones who get to say “racism does not exist!” because we are not the ones racism negatively affects. We have the privilege of being able to step away from the television or the internet and put down racism for a while and live our life without consequence due to our skin being a certain color. We have the privilege of not having our skin be used against us while we do something as simple as walk down the street. Maybe you don’t think you have this privilege, but the fact that you don’t see your privilege is evidence that you are privileged. Understand this. (Not seeing privilege is pretty much the primary indicator of having privilege.)

Educate yourself. Don’t just speak from your own experience. Are you not a racist? Awesome. That’s really awesome. But, just because you’re not a racist doesn’t negate the fact that there are people in this country who are consciously or unconsciously racist. Don’t speak before you are fully prepared to back up your assessments with facts and statistics rather than rhetoric or personal experience that is not applicable to our nation as a whole. The statistics on oppression and underprivilege in this country are horrific. Black people are dying because of America’s fear of black skin. This is not an irrational fear that black people are facing. This is their reality. Do not cheapen or deny their experience because it makes you feel uncomfortable to be on top of a system that is holding them down.

Stop allowing your guilt or defensiveness cloud your judgment about which side you should be on. You should be on the side of justice. You should be on the side that says, black lives matter just as much as white lives do. We are currently not imbued in that system. As white people, we profit off of a system that minimizes and oppresses and threatens and systematically puts fear into the hearts of millions of black people, not to mention millions of other minorities (not to mention millions of women, but hey, one social injustice at a time is probably enough for this post).

Be an advocate and an ally. You playing devil’s advocate or you saying that you don’t see color is not helping. You need to see color because what we are currently seeing in this country is that race is not something that can be ignored. We have enough devil’s advocates. We need actual advocates now. This is not some perceived threat that black people are making up. Don’t kid yourself. Don’t try to construct a reality that fits into your worldview. Expand your worldview. Allow yourself to be wrong. Allow yourself to be flexible and open-minded and to see the truth of what is happening in our country. As white people, we are not being unfairly targeted. Don’t make this about you.

If you don’t know enough about what is happening, then don’t construct an opinion yet. Keep your opinion and point of view open for new information to come in. Be fluid, not fixed. This is about the systematic injustice that has been happening since before all of us were born. This goes deeper than Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin or Marissa Alexander. This is something that no white person can truly understand or speak to with authority. You can’t take away someone’s experience because it doesn’t fit in with what you believe about the world. That’s not how it works.

Stop focusing on the riots. Do you know why the grand jury announced their decision at 9pm EST about whether or not they will indict Darren Wilson? Because, they knew if they announced it in the middle of the day, there would be peaceful protests. However, they announced at night and then tear gassed protesters, because now the story is about the rioting and arson, not the actual story at hand, which is systematic oppression, police brutality, and racial inequality. The story is about businesses that caught on fire. Do you know who else riots? People who are excited their sports team just won a game. Do you know how much damage is done to cities when a riot incites over a celebration? So much. But, we say those riots were done by an entire race of people. No, we say that a few people caused some damage while others were trying to celebrate. A group of people in Ferguson took the rioting too far. That’s the fact. You can’t look at the rioting in Ferguson and make a blanket statement about black people. That’s the problem, right there. White people have the luxury of there being a “few bad eggs” while every time a black person does something of the same magnitude, it’s the entire race that is at fault. Check that privilege.

(Oh, and in case you did not think other people were racists, please see the below comments I saw when a family member [who has since been unfriended] commented on a bullshit ultra-conservative article on Facebook. These comments were just the ones I screenshotted. There were hundreds like this. HUNDREDS. And, the people who are saying these things would say they are not racist.)


Get angry. Get outraged. See the coverage in the media of anything racially-charged and start seeing the way it differs from the coverage of anything to do with a white person. Be disgusted. We cannot live in a society that says it’s a black man’s fault (and he was a “pot smoker” and a “thug” and he “should have known better”) if he is shot while unarmed, but if a white man shoots up a school killing multiple people, he’s “disturbed and mentally unwell and needs help.” We cannot live in a society where a black woman is sentenced to twenty years in prison because she discharged her gun (due to being threatened for her life by her estranged husband) even though this was a clear usage of the Stand Your Ground law. Where is the justice here? How is this okay? We see this constantly. These are not isolated cases.

Question yourself. If you are adamantly defending the police in Ferguson or Darren Wilson, ask yourself why. What is at stake for you? What would hurt your life if you admitted that this seems racially-charged? What hurts you by seeing that racism still affects the lives of our fellow humans? If you find yourself defending white people or defending the idea that racism is something that minorities have simply made up or are imagining, ask yourself, really, why do you think that? If you want to be an ally and if you want to respect all humans and if you want to be compassionate and if you want to be kind, challenge your own way of thinking. Challenge the automatic thoughts that come into your mind that say this is not an issue, simply because you don’t see racism. You are not affected by racism. That’s the whole point. Challenge what you think you know. Open your mind. You don’t need to be right in this instance. You can allow yourself to be changed, to see what you have neglected to see for years. You can see your privilege for what it is: completely unearned, but given without any thought, simply because of your skin color. See your own privilege and accept it, don’t deny it exists. It exists! Then, understand that, where there is privilege, there is underprivilege and oppression. This is the natural order of relativity. Do not deny what is right in front of you.

Be respectful and humble. This is a world (and a country) we share with others. It is not only ours to do with it what we want. We are here coexisting with other human beings and their lives matter, too. Black lives matter. And, by showing up and being an ally and advocate for black lives, you show with your actions and your words that this is true, that black lives matter. This is how to be white in America. This is how you show up and make change. This is how you change the world: by educating yourself, staying open, and understanding and seeing that which is right in front of you, that a system which raises you up and offers you more opportunity and safety is a system which oppresses black people. We cannot in good faith profit completely off our privilege while we stand on the shoulders of others. This is not humane. This is not justice. This is not equality. This is not what we’re meant for.

This is not love. And, what else is there? We must love. And, first on the step to loving is understanding and accepting. It is seeing the truth and standing on the side of love, on the side that says black lives matter as equally as any other life. It’s standing on the side of justice. It’s standing on the side that says we are all equal and deserving of respect and nobody should be living in fear simply because of the color of their skin. Nobody deserves this.

On that note:

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” — Desmond Tutu

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