Dear White People,
I think I like you well enough. I had better. I am one of you, after all. But today, Lordy. Today some of you are making me so furious that I literally don’t have screams enough to hurl at you.
By now I hope you are aware of the killing of Trayvon Martin and the continuing outrage at the fact that his killer remains at large, apparently indemnified by racism and bad laws. If you aren’t aware of this story, here is a very brief summary. I know, though, that a lot of you are aware of it, since some of you are talking about it. It’s what you are saying–and I’m sure many more of you are thinking– about it that has pushed me over an edge.
Some of you–not going to name names, you will figure out who you are– are saying, or thinking, that in one way or another Trayvon is at fault for his own murder. You are saying, or thinking, “He should have known that he looked suspicious with that hoodie on.” “He should have known that someone like him would come across as threatening.” “He shouldn’t have felt afraid of the large man following him and chasing after him.” You are saying, or thinking, exactly the same sort of thing that some of you say, or think, about rape victims: They should have known what a dangerous world it is for them out there and they should have dressed and carried themselves accordingly, so as not to invite bad things to happen to them.
Never mind, of course, that the people who do these bad things are responsible for what they say, think, and do, too. Never mind, of course, that the people who actually do racist, sexist things are emboldened and enabled by the way that good folks who would never, ever in a million years think of doing such things continually blame their victims and not them. No, racists and rapists are just a fact of life in your worldview, like severe weather; women and people of color have to dodge them, take cover, be on the lookout, but we certainly can’t think that there’s something we might do about them.
Some of you get angry when I talk like this. You protest that you would never do racist things or commit rape. You are just making an observation. You don’t mean to say anything racist or sexist. Then I point out to you the difference between intent and impact. You might not mean to say racist things, but the things you are saying just are racist. The very fact that you have to appeal to the purity of your intentions to cleanse your words should provide you with a hint. Neither your good intentions or mine have magical powers. If you said something that was racist, your good intentions, assuming they are good, mean at best that you need to be far more careful in what you say and think. Learn from it in all humility and try to do better next time. Trust me, I’ve been there many times.
Some of you get even angrier at being told this. How unfair, you protest! Isn’t it a free country anymore? Now I have to police what I say and think? Yes, of course you do! I was raised in rural Kentucky to believe that people are supposed to think carefully before they say things and consider the impact my words have on others. This is just what good people do. However hard it is in practice, it isn’t all that complicated a concept. Why is this somehow forgotten, though, when the others aren’t other white people? Do you really want or need me to answer that question out loud?
Here’s what angers me the most, though: It’s that you can’t see, or refuse to see, that this distinction between intent and impact is the very same distinction to which you appeal when you blame Trayvon for his own murder or when you blame rape victims for their own rapes. You are saying, in effect, Trayvon may not have meant to get shot, but he should have known that wearing his hoodie up like that would make him look threatening to the world. He should have known better. How is that not the same distinction? Why do you get to use this distinction against Trayvon, an innocent child, without anyone getting to use it against you when you try to explain away the actions of the man who killed him? Why? Why does Trayvon or any other person of color have to carry cognitive and volitional burdens you don’t? Why are your comfort and ease and your precious feelings and your ability to mouth off whenever you want about whatever you want so damned important? Why do black kids have to learn to pay for your peace of mind and self-esteem by having to worry about whether what they are wearing might contribute to them getting hunted down in the street? Why is this a privilege you get and he doesn’t? Why can’t you see that this is as blatantly unfair as saying that some spaces are whites only? Why?
Some of you may be thinking, “Brian, you’re not just saying that everyone has to be mindful of what they say and think. You’re saying that as a white person I have to be on my guard in a way people of color don’t. You’re saying I have a heavier burden to carry in this respect than they do.” Actually I doubt many of you would put it so carefully. Usually you– not all of you, not going to name names, you will know who you are–simply cry, “reverse racism!”, then fold your arms and think you’ve made your point. Except you’re simply wrong about this. Notice I didn’t say that we have a difference of opinion about this. You are just wrong. A young black man walking down the street wearing a hoodie is just not inherently threatening, unless, of course, you insist on seeing it that way, and that says more about you than it does the man. Saying and thinking “young black men wearing hooded sweatshirts look threatening,” though, perpetuates the notion that young black men just are threatening. The social facts are simply different on either side in a way that tracks a differential distribution of power. Also, let’s not forget the fact that if we are keeping score on who bears the heavier burdens overall under systemic racism, white folks can bear this burden and still come out way ahead.
We white folks do have a big burden to carry in this one respect, it’s true. We have to be very careful and mindful in discussions of race. But this is not the fault of people of color. At all. What is at fault is the fact that the situations in which we find ourselves are constructed in racist ways that give us privileges we haven’t earned. What white folks should be upset about is the racist legacy left to us by our own forbears. We find ourselves in situations where ignorance is bliss and knowledge is sometimes painful. We have to do hard work, because we can get by just fine by looking the other way; we have to sacrifice time and comfort. After doing so, we might still feel awkward. This work isn’t easy.
I have to believe, though, that at the end of the day us white folks need to learn how to detach our self-esteem from a blind, innocent faith in our own inherent goodness. It’s the only way this cycle ever stops. We also need to learn how to shut our mouths and listen, something that I myself have problems doing if the length of this post is any indication. Maybe, just maybe, what we white people think matters, but isn’t of paramount concern. Perhaps we aren’t the ones to redeem history and humanity; perhaps we alone aren’t capable of redeeming anything from the murder of innocent Trayvon Martin. The least we can do, though, is not stand in the way.