I rarely write blog posts that are directed specifically to white people. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad, but there are two reasons why I rarely do it:
1) I don’t want to appear self-righteous – In conversations like this, it’s very easy to communicate with a tone that sounds like, “I am the enlightened white person, and I am going to wag my finger at all of you unenlightened people and tell you what’s up.” Hopefully those who know me would say that I try to approach these painful and charged realities with humility and grace. That’s at least what I’m trying to do.
2) I don’t want to contribute to naive thinking – In conversations like this, it’s very tempting to say overly simplistic statements like, “Race is a problem. White culture has contributed to it. So we need to start doing (fill in the blank) or stop doing (fill in the blank).” Obviously there are things we should start doing and stop doing in the name of justice and righteousness. But it’s important that we don’t minimize the impact of centuries of racial oppression and propose naive solutions to complicated problems.
With that being said, I am feeling incredibly burdened today, and feel the need to share some thoughts with the white community…
There are many things that have me feeling burdened, but the most recent trigger is a Facebook conversation I had. It started when I shared a link to the CNN video which shows the gory, play-by-play murder of Samuel Dubose, at the hands of a white police officer at the University of Cincinnati. It’s horrendous in every way. Mr. Dubose was pulled over for a minor reason – an alleged missing license tag. He was cooperative and showed no aggression (which the video now confirms). And yet Officer Ray Tensing still shot and killed Dubose, claiming that he feared for his life.
The death of Samuel Dubose contributes to the larger chorus of voices who have lost their life for absolutely no reason other than racial hatred. Like Abel from the Genesis account, their blood cries out for justice from the ground. It’s an incredibly difficult truth to grapple with in every way.
The video of this cold blooded murder was released yesterday, and it was largely met with the same type of reaction as most of these injustices. A decade ago Dawn Turner Trice wrote an article in the Chicago Tribune and said, “I am more convinced than ever that African Americans and Whites live in two different worlds. How could they ever be brought back together?” She astutely pointed out that when it comes to the conversation of race, there are two completely different responses and ways of thinking.
Such was the case with Samuel Dubose’s killing. For most of my dominant culture friends, it wasn’t really on their radar. I’m sure most of them would condemn the cold blooded nature of the killing if they knew all the facts, but it’s not something that’s front and center on their brains. For most of my other friends, it’s a cold and chilling reminder of just how dark and deep this continues to be. His murder is anything but an isolated incident. Like Charleston, it shows where the natural progression of unchecked hate and racism eventually culminates.
The fact that news of a tragedy like this splits us back into our “Two Americas” is not a surprise. It’s sad, but it’s predictable. And the fact that I lost a bunch of “friends” on Facebook and “followers” on Twitter when I commented on it is not a surprise either – it happens every single time I post anything about racial injustice. (And just to be clear, I’m not in any way trying to sound like some type of martyr for that – I’m very aware that I am posting these thoughts from a privileged position, and that having some people upset at me on social media is at the very bottom of the pile of problems we face when it comes to race in our country).
What was particularly upsetting to me was a message I got from one of my Facebook friends. He is white, a respected Christian leader in a major megachurch, and someone whom I have a lot of respect for. But there was something about my link to the video of Samuel Dubose’s death that infuriated him. He not only unfriended me, but then followed it up with a heated message letting me know of his displeasure with my post.
In the message he told me that he is fed up with people like me who post and repost videos that show horrible racism. He questioned my motives, asking if I just want people to see them and scream in anguish. He said that these kind of posts make him feel angry and powerless, and condemned my lack of conviction for failing to offer any concrete solutions.I can’t even count anymore how many times I’ve heard stuff like this, so you’d think I would be used to it. But this one shook me more than normal. I think it scared me more than anything, because I fear it represents the same early level at which so many of us get stuck.
John Metta recently wrote a wonderful article entitled “I, Racist,” and it has been shared widely. It’s worth reading, and in it he makes a point that I think is very applicable to this situation. Here is an excerpt:
I don’t talk about race with White people because I have so often seen it go nowhere. When I was younger, I thought it was because all white people are racist. Recently, I’ve begun to understand that it’s more nuanced than that.
To understand, you have to know that Black people think in terms of Black people. We don’t see a shooting of an innocent Black child in another state as something separate from us because we know viscerally that it could be our child, our parent, or us, that is shot.
The shooting of Walter Scott in North Charleston resonated with me because Walter Scott was portrayed in the media as a deadbeat and a criminal- but when you look at the facts about the actual man, he was nearly indistinguishable from my own father.
Racism affects us directly because the fact that it happened at a geographically remote location or to another Black person is only a coincidence, an accident. It could just as easily happen to us- right here, right now.
Black people think in terms of we because we live in a society where the social and political structures interact with us as Black people.
White people do not think in terms of we. White people have the privilege to interact with the social and political structures of our society as individuals. You are “you,” I am “one of them.” Whites are often not directly affected by racial oppression even in their own community, so what does not affect them locally has little chance of affecting them regionally or nationally. They have no need, nor often any real desire, to think in terms of a group. They are supported by the system, and so are mostly unaffected by it.
What they are affected by are attacks on their own character. To my aunt, the suggestion that “people in The North are racist” is an attack on her as a racist. She is unable to differentiate her participation within a racist system (upwardly mobile, not racially profiled, able to move to White suburbs, etc.) from an accusation that she, individually, is a racist. Without being able to make that differentiation, White people in general decide to vigorously defend their own personal non-racism, or point out that it doesn’t exist because they don’t see it.
The result of this is an incessantly repeating argument where a Black person says “Racism still exists. It is real,” and a white person argues “You’re wrong, I’m not racist at all. I don’t even see any racism.” My aunt’s immediate response is not “that is wrong, we should do better.” No, her response is self-protection: “That’s not my fault, I didn’t do anything. You are wrong.”
I like this section, because I believe he accurately diagnoses one of the really important dynamics that gets in the way of a sincere white person’s journey towards racial justice. Those of us who grew up white in America (myself included) have a hard time understanding systems, and we have a hard time understanding the way that the narrative of individualism has even further complicated that.
To his point, white people are never required to think in terms of “we.”
If we see a white person who is the victim of senseless violence, we feel compassion for them (as we should). But we don’t see the recipient of that violence as an emblem of a system that targets white people because of the color of our skins – that though would never even cross our mind.
If we see a white person who is the perpetrator of a horrible crime, we will be quick to condemn that crime (as we should). But we don’t see the need to defend white culture or explain that this horrible act is not symbolic of white people. One more excerpt from Metta to illustrate this point:
The reality of America is that White people are fundamentally good, and so when a white person commits a crime, it is a sign that they, as an individual, are bad. Their actions as a person are not indicative of any broader social construct. Even the fact that America has a growing number of violent hate groups, populated mostly by white men, and that nearly *all* serial killers are white men can not shadow the fundamental truth of white male goodness. In fact, we like White serial killers so much, we make mini-series about them.
White people are good as a whole, and only act badly as individuals.
People of color, especially Black people (but boy we can talk about “The Mexicans” in this community), are seen as fundamentally bad. There might be a good one- and we are always quick to point them out to our friends, show them off as our Academy Award for “Best Non-Racist in a White Role”- but when we see a bad one, it’s just proof that the rest are, as a rule, bad.
This, all of this, expectation, treatment, thought, the underlying social system that puts White in the position of Normal and good, and Black in the position of “other” and “bad,” all of this, is racism.
So back to my friend who “unfriended” me on Facebook.
We had an exchange of thoughts, and I did my best to convey these ideas to him. In a nutshell, I basically communicated two things:
1) I’m glad you are honest enough to verbalize your true feelings about this. You are angry. You feel powerfless. And you are fed up with me for sharing stories like this.
2) You are completely missing the point of what and where this anger should be directed
It’s this second point I want to say just a bit more on, because I think this is where he got lost, and I think it’s where too many of us white people get lost as well.
To put it in the form of a simple question:
Should my white brother feel anger when he watches the video of Samuel Dubose being shot dead by a white police officer?
(Sorry for the language. It feels like the only way I know to answer that)
He should be fuming. He should be outraged.
Of that there is no doubt.
But this is where it went haywire for him, and where it goes haywire for us.
You see this injustice. You see a man’s life get lost. You see how it flows both from and into a history of racial violence. And now you are mad.
But wait. How in the world did the outrage get pointed at me?
I don’t actually care if you are mad at me (well, if I’m honest I care a little bit. But my feelings aren’t the main point here). What I care about is how and why that misdirect happened.
How is it that the outrage over an innocent life lost gets redirected towards the person who told the story? Where did that outrage get so short circuited? How did your feelings of powerless and inadequacy so quickly trump your feeling of outrage towards the systemic violence that you witnessed?
This is where I actually get more sad than mad. It’s such a missed opportunity.
The anger and outrage that boils up in someone when they see naked injustice like this is so good. It’s the final precipice before having your eyes permanently opened and your life forever changed.
I would love it if my friend would get so mad, so furious, so outraged… that he could never go back to his safe, white Christianity. It would be so good for him if that outrage would burn, and make him ask new questions about the character of Jesus, and the kingdom of God, and the Cross and Resurrection, and praying for thy kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven.
But instead, the outrage got short circuited. His anger got pointed on me, and his response to the anger was to “unfriend” me.
It goes without saying that I see this as a particularly unproductive response to the problems we are facing. But let’s say instead he chose to take a different path. Let’s say he chose to view this as a critical moment in his own walk with God. Let’s say he let that outrage come in, and move and melt him. What would that look like?
Here is what I would say to my friend… what I wish he would do with that outrage:
I wish you would see Samuel Dubose’s murder, and really see it.
I wish you would see the direct link between Samuel Dubose and Sandra Bland and Walter Scott and Rekia Boyd and Eric Garner and Tanisha Anderson and Michael Brown and the hundreds of other precious lives that have been lost.
I wish you could see that there is a history of systemic racism that ruthlessly promotes a vicious narrative: that White life is most valuable, and that everyone else finds their value in relation to that gold standard.
I wish you could see that nobody grows up in our country without being infected by this narrative, including yourself.
I wish you could see that it’s incredibly unhelpful to try and prove that you are not individually a racist, and therefore should be able to remove yourself from the struggle.
I wish you could see that it’s an exercise in futility to point your anger at the bearers of the troubling news. I wish you could learn to point your outrage instead towards the system of oppression.
I wish you could see that nobody is more outraged at this system of oppression than the God of the Bible.
I wish you could see that this outrage is not something outside of the Christian discipleship you care so much – it is front and center to the transformational process God intends for you.
There would be much more I would say, but this would be a good start.
And with that I come full circle, back to the title of this post: “Dear white people…”
Our history of racial oppression and white supremacy is so significant, and the challenges we face in our current climate are so steep. I would never dare suggest a simplistic solution to a complex set of problems.
But there is at least one thing I think we can all do. More than ever I am coming to the conviction that it’s a critical first step. I don’t know that any of the other necessary things can happen until we white people at least do this. So here is what I would like to say. It’s simple, and it’s short:
Dear white people,
I hope you will burn with outrage when you are exposed to the chronic, persistent, racial injustice in our society. Don’t defend yourself. Don’t disassociate yourself. Don’t redirect the anger. Just let it burn.
Wouldn’t it be amazing to actually have unity of thought with our brothers and sisters who actually see these systems of oppression for what they are? Wouldn’t it be amazing if, when they felt outrage… we actually did too?
It won’t solve everything (maybe not anything). But man, it sure would be a great first step.