Don’t Whitewash This Movement
White people, the first rule of this moment is to educate yourself
I watched the video of the Minneapolis police officers’ execution of George Floyd, and that’s what it was, an extrajudicial execution, and recognized immediately the agonizing knot in my stomach that it provoked.
It was the fear that Floyd could just as easily have been one of my own children — singled out for brutal oppression because of the texture of their hair, a hint of a non-European facial feature or the hue of their skin. Yes, by the one-drop-of-blood rule established by this nation for its slave trade, my bi-racial children, all four of them, are African American.
They are grown now, all college graduates, gainfully employed and two with terminal degrees — a medical doctor and a university professor. My wife and I are now married 30 years and worked hard to open doors for them, despite fighting against a force in this country that so many white people want to deny or minimize: Racism.
It has been an ugly reality forced on our lives as a family for decades now — and I say only decades because that’s when I first got a front-row seat to it from outside a wholly white perspective. For my wife and her ancestors, it’s been a burden carried daily, unending, for centuries in this America.
I recall standing in line more than once at a grocery store with my beautiful wife, literally right next to each other, with a cart full of groceries in front of us, and the white checkout clerk asking my wife if she had her welfare card, while making no such request of me — or even considering that we might be married. I remember white people asking my wife while she was pushing a stroller whose children she was watching because they assumed our kids weren’t her kids because of the color of her skin. I remember one of my sons being hassled by “gang” police, who pulled him out of a line at his middle school, when he was all of 11 years old, assuming he was in a gang because he was wearing the wrong clothes over his dark skin — and I remember it was a black vice principal who came to his rescue.
I remember having the talks, along with my wife, where we told our kids that many people out there will make wrong assumptions about them just because they are viewed as being African American, and that those bad assumptions could be dangerous for them, even deadly. They were told they had to be twice as accomplished at things to be considered just good enough by the larger white world — a world that it pained me to tell them I blended into perfectly.
They were told that they had to always be wary of the police, not because all of them were corrupt or racists, but because enough of them couldn’t be trusted so that you were essentially playing Russian roulette with your life in the case of even a simple traffic violation. Be polite; keep your hands visible; don’t make sudden moves; don’t get out of the car until instructed; don’t resist arrest or talk back, even if it’s bogus; try to talk like a white person would, so you don’t trigger them, etc. And knowing all along that none of these measures would really completely guarantee their safety.
Any one of them, for no other reason than being black in public, could become the next George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Mya Hall, Philando Castile, Charleena Lyles and the list goes on, and on, for decades and decades, centuries. And tragically, they still could end up handcuffed, face down on the street, with the knee of a white racist in uniform on their necks, choking the life out of them, for the crime of going out for ice cream, to mail a letter or to go for a jog, or for just about anything else we, as white folks, do daily without giving it a second thought.
This is the reality for those who are of color in this nation, particularly for African Americans, and it’s been this way in our nation since at least 1619, when the first slaves were brought ashore in Jamestown, Virginia. This isn’t the American dream. It’s our shared nightmare, and I as a white person have a front-row seat to it through the eyes of my own family.
Unlike them, however, I wake up white every day and can walk the streets alone and escape the nightmare, or at least not be directly touched by it, because of my white skin. But for my wife and children, that will never be a possibility, because they are not white, and will be hounded by this nation’s ignorant racists, white supremacists and white-privilege protectionists, and oppressed by the very institutions of this nation, such as our justice system and police departments, that are laced with racism.
When my wife and I first applied for a home loan years ago, I was told by one banker — during what he thought was a moment of “white solidarity” — that my problem was this: “When you pour good milk in with sour milk, you still get sour milk.” That stuck with me as a restatement of the one-drop-of-blood rule for our age, one that has kept millions of people of color in this nation disenfranchised from homeownership, jobs, wealth and a future — even as the justice system works to crush their dignity and strip them of their freedoms, even their very lives.
It’s unconscionable. It’s evil. And it’s got to stop.
The one thing I’ve learned very well over the many years dealing with this monster called racism is that it has the ability to pass itself off as being “color blind” in the eyes of far too many white folks, even as this monster in broad daylight digs its claws into the backs and necks of black people and other people of color across this country.
The truth is that black people know far more about white people than white folks know about them. And that is one thing that white people need to change if they hope to come to grips with the sins of racism. They have to understand intimately the dread of waking up each day fearing that it is their child who will be cut down in the streets next for no other reason than the color of their skin.
George Floyd, and all the others who have been murdered at the hands of racists and institutions governed by racist laws and policies, are not the “other” people in this land. They are our fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters and children. They are my family. They are you.
Until you get to know black people, their lives and their experiences in America, you can never begin to understand what they face and have experienced under this brutal system of apartheid we’ve created in this nation. So, white people, pay attention. Don’t claim to be color blind. Don’t say racism isn’t a problem or a systemic threat to America. Don’t be patronizing or pretend you’re a victim of racism too, or that you know the answers or have the solutions. And don’t be so arrogant and ignorant as to speak for people of color.
Educate yourself and, most of all, shut up and listen. This is not your moment. Check your white privilege at the door. Don’t try to hijack this movement for racial justice by making it about your pet peeves and causes.
Do as you would for anyone you care about and who is suffering, in pain, oppressed and rising up to assert their humanity and civil rights. Treat them like your brothers and sisters and ask them how you can best help. Then, suspend your self-importance, be quiet, follow their lead and do the work.
There’s a lot of heavy lifting ahead for all of us to get the suffocating boot of racism off this nation’s jugular. We all have a part to play.
In solidarity, we can find a way forward. But we must remain committed to this struggle, focused daily on advancing the cause, even in the face of setbacks. In the words of a wise friend who knows this struggle well, the great South African anti-apartheid leader Mkhuseli “Khusta” Jack:
“Large victories are made of many small victories.”