Charleston, and what I want from white people

Recently, I had been avoiding the news, opinion pieces, and participation on social media, because I needed a break from all the mess of oppression in its various forms. But I have this to say about the terrorism in Charleston. I am speaking to white folks. You are probably horrified, as is appropriate. You are probably sad, and maybe you are expressing grief, in an effort to acknowledge that black lives matter. And if you are a person of faith, perhaps you are praying for healing, justice, and change. I appreciate your compassion. Your horror and grief is different than mine, because sadly I am not surprised. Shocked, yes. Traumatized, yes. Afraid, yes. Surprised, sadly no.

Please hear what I am about to say. I think it is time for you to examine your responsibility in all of this, … because you have some. Recent history tells us that young white men shoot defenseless people in public space pretty often. And recent history also tells us that we are quick to attribute their actions to mental illness, derangement, individual hate or extremism. Maybe. Or maybe not. Have you seen the photo of Dylann Roof with the flags of white South Africa and Rhodesia sewn to his jacket? Maybe, maybe it’s individual pathology. Or maybe it is the cultural pathology of white supremacy, erupting in a physically violent act, the product of psychological violence toward people of color that runs rampant in your, and my, daily experiences.

In the month of February, jokes circulate about “where is our white history month?” The reply is always “My entire public education was an extended version of white history month.” Yeah… the thing is, I actually think y’all could benefit from a white history class. I think it would behoove you to examine your legacy of terrorism toward people of color, toward native people, toward enslaved blacks, toward indigenous Mexicans, toward Asian immigrants, and on and on. Yes, this is your legacy. Repeat after me. White supremacy. White supremacy. White supremacy. It’s uncomfortable to say, right? It’s uncomfortable to call to the surface the poison that pumps in your veins. White supremacy is a powerful and cancerous ideology, and even if you do not claim it as your personal ideology, it is likely your heritage. It is what built this country. It lives today, in subtle ways you are unwilling to acknowledge. It is reflected in how you define beauty. It is reflected in what neighborhoods you choose to live in, and where you choose to send your children to school.

And just as I have inherited the trauma of my ancestors, who were brutalized and terrorized, stripped of their ability to protect their own beloved, you have inherited the poisonous ideology that made such brutalization possible. There have always been perpetrators and onlookers. That is nothing new. Did you know that lynchings were social events? That crowds would gather round, in the twilight of a summer day, and pose for photos, men, women, children, lovers, unmasked and unashamed? People would purchase postcards showing dismembered corpses. Onlookers. Complicit. Enabling the perpetrators. What does this mean to you, to know that your ancestors were undisturbed by such horrors? White women, what does it mean to you to know that black men were murdered and tortured in your name, for your “protection,” to maintain your comfort? This is your legacy. Your birthright.

I want you to think about this. I believe it is important. I don’t need your empathy to take the form of you trying to understand my pain as a black person in America. I need your empathy to take the form of you examining your apathy, inaction, and complicity, as a white person in America. I need you to do this, for there to ever be hope that such violence will end. This is the greatest act of love you could give me in this horrible moment.

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4 responses to “Charleston, and what I want from white people

  1. Pingback: On empathy | blue milk

  2. I’m a white woman.

    Thank you for this.

  3. Pingback: selected readings | Third Decade

  4. It’s kinda weird that we talk about this topic — white fragility, white unconciousness, white responsibility — without any sense that we *own* this.

    This is such a good observation:
    “I need your empathy to take the form of you examining your apathy, inaction, and complicity, as a white person in America. … This is the greatest act of love you could give me in this horrible moment.”

    I’m not explaining away my lack of comprehension or understanding. I own that. I’m just saying…I have to work harder to stay awakened. I’m tempted every day to go back to sleep as if everything is fine– as in “We got the flag down in SC! So now I can go back to what I was doing…”

    And yeah, I’m sorry you speak to a largely unconscious crowd. There’s no excuse for that. I will say that for myself, I will try very hard to remain open and to continue listening and thinking.

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