Dear Black America: Let White Folks Sit in This Reckoning for a While
|Jun 13, 2020|
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Dear Black America,
In the last couple of weeks, we have experienced a once-in-a-generation outcry of angst in response to one of the most heinous periods of anti-Blackness in modern history. Before we go any further, we must acknowledge this history for what it is. From the moment our eyes witnessed the agonizing lynching of George Floyd in Minneapolis and our ears heard his desperate final attempts to breathe, we knew our psyche was digesting a terror that, even in consideration of other recent acts of racial terrors, still felt surreal.
By the time George Floyd’s murder made global headlines, we had run in the name of Ahmaud Arbery and were just beginning to unpack the details of Breonna Taylor’s state-sanctioned execution. We were already grieving from the data/reports surrounding COVID-19’s impact on our community. We were already reeling from the socioeconomic impact of the pandemic and from being tossed into the eye of the novel virus. Before we knew anything of Big Floyd, we were already saying goodbye to family members he might have favored and trying, often to no avail, to navigate this cursed timeline of 2020.
But something snapped when we watched Derek Chauvin’s knee draw blood from George Floyd’s nose and siphon the breath from his body. After a decade of filmed assassinations of our people at the hands of the state, we understood in this moment when we were hyper vulnerable and we had reached our limits. And white America knew it too.
Much has been said about the uprisings that have taken place all over the world in the name of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade and how their deaths at the hands of racist vigilantes or law enforcement (often one in the same) have sparked an intersectional fight for justice. Scores of normally complicit white public figures, major corporations and everyday white people have made their outrage felt in words and action.
I have watched this unprecedented solidarity feeling both inspired and skeptical of its longevity.
One theory that has floated among those who are usually vocal about matters of social justice, is that this period of social distancing has forced white America to reckon with these specific incidents in a manner that does not allow the option to look away. The world is very much still on pause and because there is minimal social interaction to distract anyone from breaking headlines of social unrest, a large number of white folks have had to sit with the discomfort of what it means to be of privileged citizenship in a nation that would execute a fellow American in broad daylight. For many, this is the first time that the gravity of social inequity has actually set in.
But of course, this period has not been a full scale awakening for all of white America. Because anti-Black racism is foundational to America’s social order, there are a plethora of white folks who are either moving about unimpacted, blaming victims of systemic violence for their own demise, focusing on the uprising but not the cause and/or a combination of all of the above. These types of white folks need accomplices and their accomplices usually come in the form of willfully obtuse Black people.
However, for every Candace Owens/David Clarke archetype of extreme anti-Black Black people, there are lots of “all lives matter” type Black folks who just want the “woke” Black folks to give white people a break in these times, because “it’s not all of them doing bad stuff.” These are usually the type of Black folks who are more prone to argue the idea that good cops exist than to challenge the systemic oppression that permeates American institutions. The ones who wholeheartedly want to believe in the verbiage of America’s founding documents and the concept of American exceptionalism, despite being members of a community that historically have not reaped the benefit of being included in this nation’s highest standard of citizenry. The kind who parrot the colorblind rhetoric of their “I don't see color” friends, even when those same friends tokenize their Blackness.
Those of us who are cognizant of the structural violence and dehumanization that comes with Black American identity understand that there are Black folks that dismiss our ideologies as too “radical” or “militant”. Still, it is of dire importance that we plead with our sisters and brothers to be mindful of the moment at hand. Lots of white folks are having a moment right now that we should not be in a rush to rescue them from.
What am I getting at here? Consider the following as an unsolicited how-to guide on letting white America reckon with the mess whiteness created.
On Educating White Folks on the Black plight
The first thing I want to convey to Black folks is that none of us are ever obligated to educate white folks on our plight or our suffering. I know that statement is choir preaching to a lot of us. Hell, I personally know lots of Black folks that have no time whatsoever to school white people on easily searchable historical facts, theories, race-based literature etc, and if they did have the time they would surely occupy it doing something else. This is not for them. This is for my brothers and sisters who put in a great deal of sweat equity to teach white folks that will only consider some degree of cultural learning if it comes by way of Black folks servicing them.
Here’s a fun fact: most white people who are interested in being better allies and advocates for Black people, or who are legitimately invested in learning about the scope of their privilege, will not burden you with providing them a social education. In fact, the ones who are truly invested in bettering their humanity will be out there educating other white folks on systemic oppression, white supremacy and institutional racism.
Ultimately, it’s to your discretion should you decide to take up tutoring white folks, but if they keep showing up to your classroom without doing their own homework, they are relying on your labor to unlock their ignorance. This produces a failed experiment all around where only one of you leaves the lesson as privileged as you came into it.
On being the “Black Friend” That Allows White Folks to Flaunt the “See, I’m Not Racist” Card
Lots of white Americans are learning the difference between being intentionally anti-racist vs. being not a racist in this moment of cultural reckoning. There are white folks out there hosting book club meetings, quoting Ibram X. Kendi and engaging in difficult conversations with their family members as to why they are out protesting with Black and Brown people. If you are Black and you have white friends who are actively engaging in anti-racism work or study and are finding ways to alleviate burdens from your exhausted soul, then those white friends are very likely to be your real friends. However, if you are the Black friend who has to endure racist innuendos framed as jokes, microaggressions and tokenization on the regular by your ‘white friends’, them ain’t your people and your friendship is culturally convenient to them in moments like this.
Every white person you share a beer with or discuss hip-hop with is not here for your liberation. In some instances, your presence provides them just enough cover for the bigotry that lies dormant. Pay attention to what your white friends are saying at this moment. If they are not definitively in opposition to the abuse of state and/or not unabashedly condemning the actions of racist law enforcement, you need to seriously reconsider how you categorize them. You might be a good time for them at best, but you’re certainly not their friend.
If you do have legitimate white friends who are wrestling with their whiteness in this moment, let them tussle with that either on their own accord or in the company of other white people. Their conversations with you should be rooted in empathy and compassion, not to saddle you with their guilt. If they are true allies or accomplices to you, they will figure out other white folks to be in community with to work through their uneasiness and will understand it is not your duty to rescue them from their discomfort.
On Being the Black Shoulder for White Guilt to Cry On
Black people be advised that a lot of white folks are experiencing a lot of untapped emotions right now. For some, this period of reckoning is a decomposition of every belief they have ever had about race, ethnicity, equality and oppression. Every white person you encounter will not know how to handle that shit. Regardless of the emotional fragility their newfound reckoning may produce, you are not responsible to be the holder of their tears or to coddle their fragility. Am I saying that you cannot experience a mutually emotional response with a white friend around issues of race? No, I’m not saying that. What I am saying is that the weight of white guilt should never take precedence over the destruction of Black bodies. If you are in a friendship, relationship or community with a white person or white people who are constantly laying the burden of sorrow at your feet on account of their new awakening, you are entangled in abuse.
The social construct of whiteness in America has been responsible for some of the greatest atrocities in the world. It is a strong possibility that your white friends or associates are not culpable of any explicit harm done to someone Black, but there is surely a very strong possibility that your white friend or associate was (intentionally or unintentionally) complicit when bearing witness to harm done. Whiteness has always provided an ability for white folks to look away from its damage and now that those blinders have been ripped from the eyes of some folks you’re in community with, the sting of that will very likely strike an exposed nerve.
Still, it is not your place to allow that grief to take center stage. Allow the white folks in your sphere of influence to sit in sadness and shame if that is what’s necessary for them to actively work at dismantling racism ON YOUR BEHALF. Trust, whether directly or indirectly, they have been the beneficiary of your long-suffering. This current moment of discomfort does not come close to measuring up to generations of pain we have and still are enduring.
On Tempering Your Outrage to Keep Your Alliances in Tact
As a freelance writer and independent artist, I cannot count the number of times a Black friend, family member or community associate has privately messaged me to thank me for publicly saying what they could not. It is hard as hell to suppress your outrage when oppressive regimes are so bold and vile in their disregard for your humanity, yet many of my people have to “hold their mule” in order to keep their livelihoods intact. Therefore, if there ever was a time for white folks to step into an uncomfortable position of challenging white supremacy, that time is now while the conversation is out in the open. This is not to say that there is no consequence to white folks speaking truth to power about systemic racism and white supremacy. It is to say that there is a lesser likelihood of irreparable harm being done to them.
When Black folks make the conscious decision to aggressively challenge American power dynamics, there is a lot of damage that can come of it. There’s the potential for material loss and a damaged reputation in the professional realm. There’s the risk of character assassination and denial of opportunities. There’s the risk that certain alliances can be severed. If Black angst roars loud enough from a high enough platform, its dissidence can be punishable by death or a degree of social exile that feels equivalent to no longer being here.
All this to say if white folks want to carry the megaphone for the time being and focus their message on railing against the unjust genocide of Black people, let them scream that into the ether. But we must demand that their outrage is followed by solution-oriented advocacy. This is not me suggesting that we stifle our voices, but it is calling to attention that this reckoning also looks like white folks putting a new level (and shade) of skin in the game.
On Checking Your White Friends and Being Okay with Whatever Comes of It
If you are Black with white friends, there’s generally a 100% chance that at some point they will say or do something that is racially aloof, tone deaf or unintentionally insensitive. This has nothing to do with how they feel about you and everything to do with how they have been socialized. America positions all of within the construct it has assigned us by race, ethnicity, gender and class, and even in our best efforts to avoid harming those we may really love, we will inevitably fuck up. So I’m not going to say your white friends won’t error in this moment when the country is carefully examining race relations, but how you redirect them and how they respond to your redirection will tell you everything you need to know about the merit of your friendship.
If you are genuinely offended by a white friend’s insensitivity about the times we’re in, their only recourse is to humbly acknowledge the harm enacted. It’s really non-negotiable. If they have your best interest at heart, they should be able to recognize the hurt and fear you may be experiencing from watching our people laid out in the streets of America. They should also be forthright in making amends with any misstep in words or deeds, otherwise, you should probably make peace with the idea that they are not your true friend. The stakes are too high to contort your personhood in order to keep a white friend around who cannot atone for the harm they caused you. If they lose your friendship on account of being averse to you calling them out, consider that loss as collateral damage accrued in your pursuit of an affirmed and valued humanity.
On Seizing the Moment of White Awareness
When Emmett Till was brutally murdered by Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam in 1955, his mother Mamie wanted his funeral to be an open casket service so that the world could see her 14-year-old son’s grotesque, disassembled face.
Till’s horrendous death was a resounding alarm for the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. It also was an event that stopped the nation in its tracks and played a part in galvanizing thousands of whites from all over the country to join in the fight for justice and equality. The 2020 public lynching of George Floyd is as close to that moment as my generation has probably seen, and we have seen more than our fair share of extrajudicial killings. But much like the gruesome image of Emmett Till lying in that open casket, the callous visual of George Floyd’s final moments has suspended the disbelief many white Americans previously held about the enormity of America’s policing problem. And if witnessing such a barbaric act did not shake them aware, the subsequent brutality that police around the country have reigned down on protestors has raised the antennas of even the most unbothered white people.
Cities around the world are discarding of racist monuments. NASCAR has banned the Confederate flag from all of its events. There are serious conversations (and action steps) happening around defunding police departments all over the country and a growing chorus of activists and scholars calling for the abolition of American policing as we know it. Mainstream media outlets are using phrases such as “white privilege” and “systemic racism” with a regularity that has not been there. A shift in discourse is happening around how white Americans understand the pervasiveness of racism, and I for one, am not ready to see the pressure of this moment let up. Neither should any of us be.