For the past eight months, people in Milwaukee have been waiting for an official determination of whether a police officer would be charged with shooting and killing an unarmed man he found sleeping in a public park. From the way I phrase that, which was, intentionally, the most neutral way I could frame it, you can probably tell that I was hoping for charges, and maybe, if you are an experienced observer of police-community relations, you already know that the officer was white and the dead man was black. Such is the story that seems to be replayed like a bad, cheap movie on $5 nights in fading strip malls across the country. Same story, time after time.
Well, the officer wasn’t charged. Of course, he wasn’t charged.
So people are struggling. Not everyone, but many. Black people are struggling because this seems part of a decades’ old pattern of injustice, played and replayed even after Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, the Civil Rights Act, sit-ins, legislation, progress, and change. As my grandmother said, ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same.’ I never knew what that meant until just recently, forty years after she died.
The good white people, a new class of folks discovered and teased on the internet for their earnest ignorance, spend a lot of time baffled. They, themselves, have never shot anyone, probably don’t know how to shoot anyone, and always smile and greet black people they see on the street. Because they’ve been told, often and very emphatically by a lot of different media, they are hip to the concept of white privilege but clumsy in their understanding. Is this white privilege? they wonder when the clerk takes their order first at Starbucks. Or is this white privilege when the banker promises a loan on the phone, no collateral, oh no, won’t be necessary. It’s like pornography, we say, there’s no real definition, you just know it when you see it. Maybe.
‘All of this is polarizing,’ said in the voice of the two-bit commentator on local TV. Indeed. It’s as if we are living on different planets. But that didn’t start just last week. It’s been true for centuries.
So what do you do if you’re a good white person? I think you start. You start listening. Here are three things that you could do this week to start closing the gap between white and black in your own life.
1. Look at the list of your Facebook friends. Scroll through their profile pictures. Are all of them white? Most? You know the answer. No need to look. Make a goal of sending friend requests to ten black people this week. As I type that, I see how silly it sounds, as if making Facebook friends could address institutional racism in our country. Actually, I think it can. A recent Washington Post article says that three-quarters of white people have no non-white friends. Racism, even passive racism that acts as avoidance, is rooted in ignorance and assumption. Facebook is a way to expand networks and build loose associations that feel deeper than they are. Loose associations can eat away at stereotypes and is a big step up from polarized. It’s a start and it can lead to something. Like friendships.
2. Read the comments made in response to news articles. Make sure you read comments pertaining to the President and his family and those made in response to articles about protests against police-involved shootings of black people. You will run into a lot of anonymous commenters who use pretty hostile sounding handles and you’ll wonder whether any of them are people you work with. As a white person, reading these comments will make you wince and be weirdly embarrassed. That’s why you should read them. You will see right away that racism is so much more virulent than you imagined, the gap from here to anything resembling a post-racial society is enormous and there is tremendous change needed. Reading the comments will make you sick and then maybe make you determined to be a stronger advocate for racial justice.
3. Read history. To paraphrase your car’s side view mirror, the past is closer than it appears. Spend time reading the history of slavery, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights movement. What is happening right now didn’t spring from the earth like a sunflower grown from a single seed dropped from someone’s pocket. There is a deep, thick, buried web of reasons why race plays such a wicked wrong role in so much of American life. This history isn’t taught well in schools, conveyed as points on a timeline, this happened and then that happened. If you invest some serious time in reading and reflecting, it will change your perspective and make you wonder why no one ever taught you this stuff. Children of Fire by Thomas C. Holt is a good place to start.
It is a struggle being a good white person who goes beyond just staying out of people’s way and not causing any trouble. It’s so much more comfortable watching from the sidelines, nodding in agreement with folks on TV leading demonstrations but wanting to stay anonymous and out of the fray. I get that, that describes me much of the time, it feels safer to stay benevolently divided. Sympathetic but silent.
Let’s not do that. Let’s make ourselves uncomfortable. Us good white people, let’s go toward what we don’t understand instead of shrugging our shoulders or waiting for other folks to figure it all out. We can shy away, thinking we’re harmless and not part of the problem. Racism is too complicated, too institutional, too impossible, too messy.
All that is true. But we have no choice. Nothing changes if nothing changes. We can’t change everything but we can change ourselves. Let’s start.