You mean well.
That’s not an insult — it’s actually a compliment. The fact that you mean well puts you in a great position actualize your values. Values that I assume to include greater equality and opportunity for all individuals in our society. You don’t make distinctions about whether these individuals are white or black, because that would run counter to one of your core values, inclusivity. Now, you’d never use a gauche term like “colorblind” — that’s something that conservative uncles at Thanksgiving say in between spouting FOX News talking points and dribbling gravy on their Born Free t-shirt. You believe that America benefits from diversity, even if your day-to-day reality doesn’t always reflect this commitment. You’re an ally, just like Bernie Sanders. Why do black activists not recognize this?
I think I’ve got an answer. Are you ready to consider it? I hope so. After all, you pride yourself on thoughtful examination of just about everything. (Except maybe Season 2 of “True Detective.” You don’t need to watch any more episodes to know that it sucks.) So bear with me, and try to understand why your open-minded progressivism isn’t universally lauded as the gold standard of political engagement.
As a reformist, you prize the reasonable. After all, one needs reason to enact reforms, otherwise it’s just complaining. You’re disappointed at activists who choose methods, like, say, interrupting your favorite candidate before he even gets a chance to address a throng of fellow champions of equality. It just seems, well, rude. You think manners are important, regardless of skin color. Why else would you spend so much time correcting your kids when they don’t wait their turn or share with the other kids? (Especially the black and brown ones.)
But here’s the thing. Politeness doesn’t matter when you’re fighting for your life.
I know you can start backward from Sandra Bland all the way to Trayvon Martin, dutifully naming the black victims of police aggression. You’ve been to vigils and marches, you’ve reposted memes, you’re totally committed to the cause. You don’t even do this to show off (OK, maybe just a little). The point is, if you’re not an ally, who the hell is?
I can’t speak for the Black Lives Matter movement, or any movement, really. But I’d like to imagine you’re appreciated for what you do. But it’s not aboutyou. None of this is about you. Perhaps you should repeat that a few times in your head before we move on.
Listen, I had to do the same thing. After the Seattle Interruption (love those guys; saw ’em open for Mudhoney in ’91), I felt very uncomfortable. Why don’t “those people” understand that this guy is on their side? That he’s quite possibly the only candidate for the presidency who can truly claim as much? Why don’t the disruptors understand that they need Good Progressive Allies like Bernie to advance their cause?
I know you’re not a racist. But you are part of a racist system, and you benefit from that system in ways that you don’t even consciously recognize. I also know that noticing this stuff is uncomfortable. And once you start, you can’t stop. There’s no going back to your former state of blissful unawareness. Now you have to either start working with that discomfort or wall yourself away from further understanding. But you’re not about to do that, because that would make you like those conservative uncles at Thanksgiving. And you wouldn’t be caught dead in a Born Free screamin’ eagle t-shirt. Well, maybe if you live in Williamsburg.
So here’s what you have to do. You need to not just recognize, but alsointernalize the fact that America is built on institutional racism. And yes, it’s also an issue of class, but the way the power structure perpetuates itself is by using — even instigating — racism as a tool of class oppression. Thus far, the history of the American project is one of exploitation of non-white races. Besides Native Americans, who the white man came close to exterminating, the most egregious and ongoing abuses are against black people. It’s your responsibility to help change this. But black people aren’t going to wait around for you to get a clue. They’re the ones having their necks severed in police vans. They’re the ones who are shot in the face at “routine” traffic stops.
What you do and say is important. Why? Because plenty of white folks know precisely how awful our system has been to black people over the centuries. Many of these knowledgeable white people resist black power on any level because they are frightened of being treated poorly if and when black people have actual power. But that’s not how justice works. Unless you’re a conservative who believes that everyone needs to be punished for everything. But that’s not you. I know it isn’t. You’re better than that.
It’s a hard thing to admit that you have blind spots. Trust me, I know. But I can now admit that the history of the United States is one of sanctioned white supremacy. No need to qualify that statement. Our economics were built on free or cheap labor as part of a system of exploitation that has historically benefited white male owners — of businesses, capital or even human beings. Now, we have indeed come an awful long way. Thanks for pulling the lever for a black president. That was pretty cool of you (and I know it made you feel good). But when you open your eyes more fully, you’ll see institutional racism play out every day, in ways small and large. Take a minute to reconnect to your own outrage about the killings of unarmed black people by law enforcement. Now imagine that you’re a member of the race that is being unfairly targeted and murdered. How would you react if a well-intentioned so-and-so told you to be more polite?
I personally no longer view Black Lives Matter as radical (though I am fine with them considering themselves as radicals; it’s a proud appellation). The reason I’ve come to this conclusion has nothing to do with me. It has nothing to do with how I personally view the tactics of those interrupting my favorite politician (who, by the way, used to be my mayor and then my congressman, but not my senator, because I moved to DC, where the powers that be continue to deny representation to a historically majority-black city).
For white progressives, the first step towards recovery is admitting you have a problem. The good news is that this problem is in your power to address. A great place to start would be to read this short essay by Adrienne Maree Brown. She says everything I’ve tried to get across far better, and more importantly, from a place of direct experience. You might consider getting it tattooed on your arm in case you have the urge to post a status update asking “why can’t those protesters just be more respectful?”
I want you to understand that I know where you’re coming from. I read Bernie Sanders’ platform on racial justice, and I think that it’s exemplary. I hope that persons of color in the Black Lives Matter movement take time to consider it, and even improve it. But whether they do or don’t isn’t your concern. Your concern is living your life more closely in line with your values. And, as a part of that, allowing yourself to really reflect on your privilege as a white person. Even if you are a poor white person, or a victimized white person. You don’t need an advanced degree to do this work. You just need to be able to pause and consider. Only then will your demonstrations of alliance resonate.
Your voice is important. (I mean, you are white — the system is predisposed to consider your interests.) Try to use that voice in a way that doesn’t make us look ridiculous, OK? There’s plenty of conservative uncles doing that for us already.