You’re Either an Ally, or You’re Complicit in the Problem: An Open Letter to My White Peers

I’m fucking tired, y’all.

I’m tired of seeing yet another story of a black person being murdered in the streets. Do you know how many times it’s happened in recent years? All the places it’s occurred? How many times actual justice was served among all of those instances? What absurd justification their murderer gave for killing them? How each of them were killed? What each of their names are? I don’t know the answers to any of those questions off the top of my head. I don’t think I could live with having to consciously know the answers to all of those questions. I’ll be the first one to admit that I am enormously privileged to not carry the burden and the fear surrounding knowing the answers to those questions. Not everyone in this country can say the same.

What I do know is the sickening feeling that I get in the pit of my stomach every time that I see it has happened again. Are the media going to make the victim into the bad guy again? Create a smear campaign against a dead person who cannot defend themselves again? Is our justice system going to turn its back on our black community again? I imagine how I would feel if that was my brother. My dad. My best friend. Someone I love. Someone I was thinking about a birthday present for. Someone I was planning to send a meme to. Someone I know I should have called just to catch up with recently but I didn’t because you know how life gets. Someone that didn’t deserve to be denied their basic human rights, their Constitutional rights, and simple respect and dignity. Someone.

Someone who took their final breaths, absolutely terrified for their fate in someone else’s hands. Someone who took their final breaths probably wishing they could have said something to someone they love just one last time. Someone who did not deserve to be murdered in cold blood. This could have been me. It could have been you. But it’s rarely us. Because we’re not black. I cannot speak for the victims. I cannot speak for black America. I don’t want to. But I can believe their experiences. I can respect them as human beings. I can stand beside them and fight with them for the equality and equity that they have always deserved, and always been denied by this country. I can hold space to let them speak for themselves. But it is up to us — the people who have allowed this systemic racism to continue — to dismantle it.

I’m tired of seeing our black friends and neighbors murdered in the streets. But do you know what else I’m tired of? I’m also tired of my fellow white people participating in and promulgating this problem. I’m tired of us sitting in our ivory towers of privilege, looking down our noses at people and playing judge, jury, and executioner like we have any right to do so. I’m tired of us — consciously or not — contributing to a system that benefits us on the backs of our black friends and neighbors. I don’t care that we did not personally build this system. We perpetuate it and benefit from it at the expense of black America. We can put a stop to it. And we should.

Enough of the white saviors. Enough of the revisionist history where we are somehow the glorious heroes as opposed to the genocidal monsters and horrific oppressors and abusers. Stop pretending that this problem is not built into the very foundation of this country, where our black friends and neighbors have been treated as sub-human from the very beginning and very little has changed since then. Your squeaky white upbringing was full of privileges where Thanksgiving was about sharing corn and turkey and slavery was a not-nice thing. It conveniently skipped the true horrors of genocide. It conveniently glossed over the rape, the lynchings, the commodification of human beings. We as white people were raised to look past so much ugly, awful history that we repainted and sold as glorious and victorious. Worse still, we inexplicably defend that history and many of its worst villains while denying the myriad ways in which it actively harms our black friends and neighbors.

A lot of what I’m going to write here is likely to make you uncomfortable if you have not made any real effort to not actively contribute to this systemic oppression. Instead of getting upset or offended or dismissing what I’m writing here, ask yourself some hard questions. Ask WHY you feel those things. Ask yourself how you think people who don’t look like you feel, and why they might feel that way. Try to put yourself in the shoes of someone who looks very different than you do. Remember that your experiences are not everyone’s experiences, and that no one’s experiences are more or less valid than yours are.

I know they say you catch a lot more flies with honey than with vinegar, but the time for honey has long since passed, and there is nothing sweet about the problem we have at hand. So let’s make a couple things explicitly clear right now, including some very hard to swallow pills and some reality checks:

  1. Saying “all lives matter” is the equivalent of telling someone with terminal cancer that their suffering does not matter or deserve your empathy because other people are also suffering from other problems. It is saying to a bunch of people with brain cancer that ALL types of cancer are bad, as if that isn’t entirely fucking obvious. When someone brings a problem to your attention, the proper response is not to say “well what about these other problems?” It’s to focus on the problem at hand, and address it. If you say “all lives matter,” all we hear is that you’re tone deaf, actually fucking stupid, or blatantly racist and fine with it. To be clear, none of those are anything to be proud of. Do better.
  2. This is about black people and the systemic oppression that they have endured in this country since the first slave was brought here. This is about the oppression, abuse, objectification, commidification, and downright murder that white people have subjected black people to. Stop trying to make this about literally anything else. Even if you bring up protesting leading to rioting, looting, property destruction… you need to acknowledge that none of that would be happening if black people were not being murdered in the streets in the first place. You are responding to a symptom of a much bigger problem. If you went to a doctor with a fever, would you want them to just give you ibuprofen to address the fever, or find out what was actually wrong that caused the fever in the first place? The fever is a symptom. It is not the problem. You need to treat the problem. This is no different. Do not be distracted by symptoms, pay attention to and address the cause: BLACK PEOPLE ARE BEING MURDERED IN THE STREETS.
  3. We as white people have privilege. Your refusal to see it or acknowledge it does not diminish it or make that truth not so. You are privileged in your ability to walk freely on the streets of this country without fear that you might be accused of (or, as we have too often seen, killed for suspicion of) a crime. You are privileged in your ability to be given the benefit of the doubt in most (if not all) situations. You are privileged in how you are not automatically considered suspicious or problematic anywhere you go. Your privileges are vast. Even if you grew up poor and/or in a bad area, you have privileges. Even if you’ve had negative experiences with law enforcement officers (LEOs), you have privileges. Your privilege is directly attached to your ethnicity as a white person (and if you’re a white male you have the most privilege of all, because white men have historically — and still today — hold the majority of wealth and power, even though they are not the majority of the population). We will never truly understand what our black friends and neighbors go through in their lifetimes, but we can try to empathize and change our thoughts, words, and actions accordingly. We can believe them when they share their experiences with us. Simply dismissing your privilege as “non-existent” says that you’re unwilling to learn or grow, and thus are completely complicit in the suffering of our fellow countrymen. It is selfish and it is emotionally, intellectually, and morally weak. And if being told you have privilege upsets you or makes you immediately bristle and deny it, I implore you to ask yourself why. Just because you don’t understand your privileges or how vast they are does not mean you do not have them. I STRONGLY encourage you to do the emotional labor to learn more about your privilege and to stop dismissing it as “absurd” or “untrue” without even considering the possibility that you’re dead fucking wrong. The Internet is free, and you can very, very easily research this topic for yourself if you’re not afraid of the truth. Honestly, what are you afraid of losing? Because black people are losing their lives.
  4. We as white people have unconscious biases (so does everyone else, but we’re talking about ours right now). The University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) defines unconscious bias as “social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. Everyone holds unconscious beliefs about various social and identity groups, and these biases stem from one’s tendency to organize social worlds by categorizing.” So whether you assume all Asian people are intelligent, all Hispanic people can dance, or that all Black people are naturally athletic (or anything else you automatically assume about a group of people, whether that assumption is favorable or not), is an unconscious bias. To be clear, these biases are not limited to ethnicity, but as that’s the topic of this letter, those are the examples I chose to use common tropes from. As white Americans, we have a lot of unconscious biases around our black neighbors. Maybe you were taught that they all wanted something for nothing. Maybe you believe that they’re inherently violent or angry. Maybe you think they all love certain foods. These are biases, and you have them — we have them — and likely don’t even realize it. “Not realizing it” doesn’t mean that we should not work to discover those biases and dismantle them. Like stereotypes, they are not beneficial to us or to our society. An example of how we display unconscious biases regarding our black peers when something like this happens (a black person is murdered in the streets): we begin showing photos in the media of them where they look intimidating (think Trayvon Martin, who was murdered, and you see a photo of him in a hoodie “looking mean,” meanwhile the Brock Turner’s of the world commit violent crimes and you see their graduation photos in the news while they’re on trial for rape). How we talk about people stems from how we think about people. So even if you do not realize it, your unconscious biases shape how you portray and perceive people, and also how you treat them. 
  5. Punching down: don’t do it. Many of you may not be familiar with this term. Punching down is anyone from a higher rank/status/position/power using their position to attack someone at a lower rank/status/position who has less power. This ties back into our privilege. It’s not cool for us as white people to make degrading comments to or about those with less privilege than us, nor to engage them for the purpose of doing the same. Think of the phrase “pick on someone your own size.” But change “size” to “social standing” and keep those unconscious biases and your privilege in mind. How this may appear in the current social arena is when protestors (regardless of what they are or are not doing) are called racially-fueled names like “thugs.” Did you call the white people protesting with firearms that they couldn’t get haircuts during a global pandemic “thugs”? (And don’t even say “well they weren’t looting and starting fires” — because they also didn’t just witness yet another person who looked just like them murdered in the street for the umpteenth time.)
  6. Gatekeeping: don’t do this, either. Again, this may be a phrase you’re unfamiliar with. So let’s unpack it. Gatekeeping is when you try to set boundaries and parameters around a group of people for how that group should act; this is done in order to limit their access to something. In the case of black oppression, white people saying things like “looting is wrong” or “why are you being so angry and aggressive about this” are gatekeeping. It’s really easy to sit in your ivory tower, where you live in no fear for your life from law enforcement for simply existing, and judge the behavior of people who do not look like you. Perhaps if someone you loved was murdered for no reason, denied their constitutional rights (while white terrorists like Dylan Roof are taken into custody safely and alive), and no justice was served, you’d be pretty fucking enraged, too. Perhaps if it happened over and over and over again, in a country where, in your lifetime or your parents’ or grandparents’ lifetimes, it was perfectly legal to deny black people basic human rights. In fact, lynching wasn’t even a federal crime until 2018. Read that again. Don’t believe me? Look it up. Point being, don’t tell people with less social standing than you have as a white person how to feel or how to act when this shit keeps happening to members of their ethnic group (particularly when it’s so often at the hands of someone from OUR ethnic group).
  7. Microaggressions. Another thing that’s so very real and you may not even realize that you are doing it. Have you ever said (or heard someone else say), “you’re really smart for a black woman!” or “you might be the calmest black guy I’ve ever met.” It gets better: you don’t even have to VERBALIZE your microaggressions for them to be just that. Ever crossed the street because you saw a black man coming? Ever watched your purse a little closer in the grocery store aisle because a black woman was in the aisle with you? These are microaggressions (that are often based in your unconscious biases). When you think or say or act on something that is based in a negative bias you have towards someone from that group, it’s a microaggression. You may have even meant to compliment them; but you’re not really complimenting someone that you call “smart” when you qualify that statement by implying that OTHER people in that group aren’t smart.
  8. “Whataboutisms.” I don’t care which ones you bring up — abortion, LEOs hurt/killed in the line of duty, rioting/looting/property damage, X-on-X ethnicity crime, or any other completely unrelated topic… stop it. Stop your fucking bullshit straw-man nonsense. If you are making excuses for someone’s murder by saying “well what about these things that I consider murder” then you’re an asshole (and, depending on the topic, possibly also a hypocrite). This is the same as the cancer example from earlier. Your “what about” logical fallacy bullshit does not belong in this very real discussion about this very real problem. We aren’t saying those other things are not things (though some of them really fucking aren’t), we are saying “we’re talking about Y problem, so you can help us solve Y problem, or you can keep contributing to Y problem, but you cannot do both.” PLEASE, choose to be part of the solution. We would love your help and support. I think you’ll find it really does not cost you anything.
  9. Reverse racism DOES. NOT. EXIST. Racism is systemic oppression by the majority group in power of a minority group. To be clear, white people HAVE ALWAYS had the majority power in this country since its inception, and therefore cannot experience racism. In the United States, you can be prejudiced against white people, but you cannot be racist towards them. So please leave this bullshit at the door. No one wants to hear it ever again. It is not a thing.

For everything else in this list, I’m not blaming you for having these things (privileges, biases, et cetera) or participating in these phenomena. I’m also not saying they don’t apply to me, because they do. As is everyone else, I am a work in progress. But acknowledging reality and making a conscious effort not to speak over or down to minorities, or make assumptions about their behaviors or actions is important. We all need to play a role in that. And that’s why I say that you’re either working to be (or actively being) an ally, or you’re complicit in systemic racism. I’m saying “hey, this is an issue, these are contributing factors to this issue, and WE ALL need to make a conscious choice and effort to be aware of these things and try to stop promulgating them and participating in them.”

We as the white community have for centuries been complicit in the pain and suffering that we (and those white people who came before us in this country) have caused the black community. Stop taking that as “oh, so I’m just as bad as a slave owner then?” For the love of all that is good in this world STOP MAKING THIS ABOUT YOU. Everything isn’t about you. Stop acting like being asked to treat other people with dignity, respect, fairness, and equity is somehow a burden on you. Because imagine how it feels being treated as “less than” for your entire fucking life. Imagine how it feels to live in fear that you might not come home tonight because you got murdered for simply existing. Equality and equity are not pie. Being asked to treat other people how you have always been treated by our society does not take something away from you. 

Does it make you uncomfortable or angry to hear that? Does it make you feel like people are implying you personally did something to black people? If so, I implore you to imagine how it feels being murdered in the streets because someone thinks you broke a law. No Miranda rights, no Constitutional rights, no fair trial. Just executed in the street like it’s the fucking wild west. Your name and reputation will probably be ruined posthumously because you are no longer alive to share your side of the story. THAT is what should make you uncomfortable.

Imagine seeing the same atrocity happen over and over and over again — costing people their lives — and absolutely nothing is done to stop it or change it. How would that make you feel? Would you wonder if you might be next? Is someone you love? Why is there no justice? Why are other people not standing up and taking action against it? How can we prevent this from happening again? It reminds me of Martin Niemoller’s poem, “First they came…” — which, if you have not read, you absolutely should.

It is so fucking easy for us as White people to judge the actions of the black community. It’s so easy for us to ignore how WE wrote history and ignored the atrocities we committed against others and acted like there would be no repercussions or consequences to those actions, and as soon as “equal rights’ became a thing suddenly everything was fair and square. That’s not only ignorant — that’s willfully ignorant. That’s working HARD to ignore reality. Perception may be reality to those who perceive it, but you have to be actively trying to have no empathy or compassion if you don’t care about the horrors we have committed against our black friends and neighbors. You are resting so easily on the backs of those who built this country. You’re not being asked to give something up. You’re being asked to acknowledge gross inequality and inequity and injustice, and you have the audacity to sit there and take it personally? To feel attacked? THAT is your privilege in action. Because if you really were paying attention and gave a fuck about what is going on, YOU WOULD BE OUTRAGED WITH THEM.

What our black peers are going through looks like what psychologists would identify as grief. And damn, do I understand, if only from my limited perspective. I know if I saw people who looked like me being murdered — and frequently — I would be angry and depressed and feel lost at what to do to stop it, also. I know if it was MY loved one who was murdered and justice wasn’t served, I’d want to burn down an entire damn city on my own. So why do we act like protestors are “proving we were right” (about the stereotypes WE assigned to them), as though any protests happening in the first place are not the direct result of centuries of systemic oppression, abuse, objectification, commodification, and murder? You might as well cage a lion, hop in the cage and provoke it, and then go “See! I told you it was a vicious killer!” when it tries to defend itself against your provocations. That lion is only reacting to your provoking it. Any animal — including humans — is likely to do the same, and rightly so. Stop provoking black people and then acting like you were right all along that “they’re the problem.” That’s called a self-fulfilling prophecy, and it’s not a good look.

We need to understand that our black friends and neighbors are not responsible for sharing their experiences with us or proving their suffering to us. We cannot ask one member of a group to speak on behalf of that entire group. However, if someone from this group (or another minority group) chooses to share their experiences with you, the very least you can do is listen. Actually and truly listen. Not speak over them, not dismiss them. Just listen. Those things relate to our privilege as white people. Because we are generally believed when we share our experiences. We don’t have to speak for all of us — because we’re not the “token” friend. And we are listened to when we speak instead of being spoken over or down to. It is time that we use our platform to ask our fellow white people to also pause and listen. It’s time that we — the people who created this problem in the first place — take accountability for it and actively work to put an end to it.

The Internet is filled with a wealth of knowledge and resources that document the history of the black experience in the United States and more information on topics I’ve mentioned here such as unconscious biases, gatekeeping, microaggressions, white privilege and more. You do not have to take these things at my word — you can do the research yourself and verify that these concepts are very real, and directly contributing to the systemic racism that is resulting in the deaths of our black friends and neighbors.

I can’t make you believe in social systems that you are determined to deny. I cannot make you choose to be an ally and stand up for and beside those whom we have silenced and ignored for so long. And I don’t want to. I want you to choose those things because you have put in the time to educate yourself on those topics; search your own mind, heart, and soul; and come to the conclusion that you think it’s the right thing to do. I need you to genuinely ask yourself what it is you have to lose by fighting for other people to have the same rights that we have always had. Or if you’re denying that that’s the case in the first place, I want you to ask yourself why you are so convinced that your limited perspective is more valid than the millions of our fellow American citizens who are living in fear and oppression. This isn’t about “white people are bad.” This isn’t about “ACAB.” This isn’t about me, and this isn’t about you. There are zero things you should take personally about this. You are not being attacked. But the same cannot be said about the black community. But you should be angry. You should be angry at the centuries of injustice perpetrated and perpetuated against our black friends and neighbors. This is purely and simply about putting an end to systemic oppression so that our black friends and neighbors stop getting murdered in the streets. This is about justice, equality, and equity. Our black friends and neighbors need us. I’ll be standing with them, on the just side of history. I hope that you’ll choose to join us.

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