I am still part of the problem, the catalyst, causing rioting in Ferguson, Missouri and protests everywhere from New York to Los Angeles. And you probably are too.
Before you full-on, start freaking out, I want you to listen. To really listen, and consider the possibility, no matter how defensive it might make you, that I just might be right.
I woke last Tuesday morning, to a newsfeed filled with thoughts about Ferguson. It was mostly for the business owners who were losing their life’s work because of the riots that had erupted. There were prayers for the safety of law enforcement and firefighters. There were admonishments too, of how absolutely stupid and pointless it was to riot and destroy things and how it wouldn’t accomplish anything. There were disapprovals and tsk tsks over flag burning. There was this underlying anger for lack of a better word, anger for what the rioters were doing.
What doesn’t make ANY sense to me, is why we have more empathy for a business owner losing their property or someone burning the flag, than we do for a black eighteen year old who lost his life. Does anyone else find this to be a mortifying reflection of our present culture? Because this whitey, white girl is raising her hand and frantically waving it around.
Now, you’ll deny the fact that your comments meant anything racist, and I will give you the benefit of the doubt. You’ll defend the fact that, the business owners you referred to were of any race. The greater problem that I see is, you’re not even considering the possibility that the people rioting or those protesting peacefully, might have an absolutely valid reason to do so. For what it is worth, the Boston Tea Party, was also a riot. I’m thanking the freedom of speech that I freely use, that everyone on Facebook didn’t exist to tell John Adams that he was a destructive loser thug, too. You’re worried about stuff getting burned or looted, rather than an eighteen year old who died because his skin was brown. Marinate in that.
Have you considered when you, collectively, are not being heard… as black Americans clearly aren’t right now, you do something about that? You stand up and speak out. Only… for white Americans, speaking out is usually enough to be heard. So, maybe you can’t even comprehend that for black Americans, it often isn’t.
This rioting, and the peaceful protests too, it isn’t about the fact that there wasn’t an indictment last week. It isn’t really even about Michael’s death, except perhaps, to his parents and those who loved him. It’s about us. It’s about a nation of people, who knowingly or not, collectively perpetuate a culture of inequality.
Ignorance shouldn’t be our excuse, you just have to be willing to open your eyes.
There is the very obvious problem that, we don’t shoot and kill white teenagers over a stolen pack of cigars, but Michael died. White Harvard professors aren’t harassed for breaking in to their own houses, but Henry was. We don’t kill white twelve year olds for being the absolute idiots that we all know twelve year old boys can be, but Tamir was shot two and a half seconds after the police pulled up. We don’t have vigilantes killing white teenagers for simply being white and walking in their neighborhood, but Treyvon’s mom will never hold her son again. We don’t shoot white men mistakenly over a pill bottle that was thought to be a gun, but Rumain is dead. That happened last week in Phoenix and it has barely made the national news cycle. And we sure don’t choke hold and kill a white man on video over selling a cigarette for fifty cents while he begs for his life and says over and over that he can’t breathe, as Eric did.
Those things are in our face and we ignore them, we explain them away. We blame the way the legal system works. The fact is, we don’t “fear for our lives” and kill white young men when they punch a police officer. Not even when they are drunk MMA fighters with drug convictions, and we certainly do not leave their bodies lying in the street for four hours. Those men got the benefit of the doubt, where Michael, Henry, Tamir, Treyvon, Rumain, and Eric did not.
I’ll bet, if you’re white, you’ve never stopped to consider that simply having brown skin means the ‘rights’ that we all enjoy aren’t actually afforded in an equal manner to everyone. Because I have heard white people say this, “It’s America, everyone has the opportunity to make something of themselves.” White people believe this so inherently, I hadn’t even considered it not to be true.
It is so out of the realm of anything we’re taught as a white citizen of the United States, that we simply dismiss these things by saying that people are just being sensitive, or that they are reading into the situation, or that someone didn’t mean it that way. Just like I did when a few paragraphs above, I said, I’d give you the benefit of the doubt for your comments on Facebook. We say, “Don’t make this about race.”
That is exactly the point, it already IS about race if you aren’t white. All the time. Every day. It’s about RACE.
I don’t want to hear you say that these men and these boys who were killed were engaged in criminal activity because there are white people who aren’t even looked at twice for things like selling a cigarette for fifty cents. If your skin is brown, there is racial disparity in police activity, trials, and sentencing. If your skin is brown, the criminal justice system fails you. If your skin is brown, well, then, you already know these things. It isn’t you, who needs to hear them. To acknowledge them.
As a white person, like it or not, agree with it or not, you still have participated in the collective problem. By remaining silent. By dismissing racism in your family or your group of friends. By not questioning ALL of these things that are in your face. By simply not recognizing that you have benefited from implicit racial bias. Just simply because you were born into white skin, you’re granted that benefit of the doubt we’ve all taken for granted. The ability to move into any neighborhood you can afford without worry that your neighbors might hate you at first glance. You can smile and wave at a police officer and not get pulled over for something minor like a headlight out. You might just be considered the best, or most hard working candidate in a stack because your resume doesn’t say Malik, or DeShawn, or Ebony, or Aaliyah. Your parents didn’t have to consider how white your name might sound when choosing a name that reflects their heritage. You can simply shut your eyes, as many of you might, and make all of this uncomfortable race talk disappear. It’s called white privilege. Here is a great explanation in comic form from 19 year old artist, Jamie Kapp.
Oh, I hear your indignant cries. We can’t help the fact that we were born white! And you are absolutely right, we can’t. Not at all, in fact. However, we do have the power to stop dismissing, or making excuses for, or being ignorant of the fact that the United States is different for peach people, than it is for brown people. Because, it is. And not one of us should be OK with that.
Truth be told, I don’t even know how we, as a nation, are going to begin fixing this. Being cognizant of it, recognizing it, and educating yourself is a good start. We can lend our voices to this conversation and lend our ears to those who have been writing this eloquently for years. We can say, I believe you, this isn’t ok with me, and what can we do to change this? We can write a check to the NAACP. We can ask ourselves, how can we be more sensitive to issues of race. Even when it’s uncomfortable, especially when you feel awkward. Even when you don’t know how to begin the discussion… start it anyway.
If you’re interested in doing some more reading, I recommend:
- Color Blindness Isn’t Helping Anything Kristin Vanderhey Shaw for the Washington Post
- Human Rights Attorney Michael Stevenson’s TED Talk on the American justice system.
- An Understanding of White Privilege is Only Two Clicks Away.
- Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person
- Tim Wise on White Privilege
- White Privilege by Peggy McIntosh
- Teaching Tolerance: On Racism and White Privilege
- What is white privilege? From the White Privilege Conference
- What White People Need to Know, and Do, After Ferguson Sally Kohn for the Washington Post
- White Privilege Checklist… less a checklist and more a brilliant commentary in checklist form