Originally published at Opine Season, the night after the Zimmerman verdict, where it maxed out our comment system… though the timestamp here is still July 2013, I’m actually re-posting this here a year later. Be sure to check out the addendum to this piece here.
In the next few days, there are going to be a lot of essays and op-eds attempting to make sense of, or grapple with, or process the Zimmerman verdict, from writers who are better than me. So I want to talk about this from a very specific angle.
This is an open letter to white people, especially to those white people who understand that something terrible has happened, and has been happening, and will continue to happen, but don’t know what to do.
Clearly, something needs to change. But not every problem has a clear-cut, run-out-the-door-and-do-something solution. If you’re angry, or sad, take a second to process. Think about where you fit into this injustice, how you benefit from it, how you’re hurt by it. If that involves prayers, or posting links on Twitter, or having hard conversations, or writing poems, do that. Process.
But it can’t end with “processing.”
If you’re someone who has avoided thinking about white privilege—the unearned advantages that white people benefit from because of how institutions are set up and how history has unfolded—now is a great time to unstick your head from the sand. If Trayvon Martin had been white, he’d still be alive. What better real-world example of white privilege is there? Grappling with how privilege plays out in our own lives is a vital first step to being able to understand what racism is.
But it can’t end with “thinking about our privilege.”
We also need to act on those thoughts, to cultivate an awareness that can permeate our lives and relationships. When people of color share personal stories about racism, our immediate response has to stop being “but I’m not like that.” Just listen. Don’t make someone else’s oppression about you and your feelings. When people of color are angry, we need to stop worrying about the “tone” of their arguments, or trying to derail the conversation with phrases like “it’s not just about race,” or contribute meaningless abstractions like “let’s start a revolution.” When we see unjust or discriminatory practices or attitudes in our workplaces, schools, families or neighborhoods, we need to step up and challenge them. We need to take risks. We need to do better.
But it can’t end with “striving to be a better individual.”
Times like this can feel so hopeless, but it’s important to remember that people are fighting back, and have been fighting back. Racism doesn’t end when you decide to not be racist. It ends when people come together to organize, to work to reshape how our society is put together.
Check out organizations who are doing racial justice work, community organizing trainings, work with youth, and more: the Organizing Apprenticeship Project, MN Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, the Hope Community Center, TruArtSpeaks, Juxtaposition Arts, Justice for Terrance Franklin, Justice for Fong Lee, Communities United Against Police Brutality. There are certainly others (feel free to add more in the comments). Google stuff. Talk to people. Figure out where and how you can plug in.
As a white person, that can be hard. The leaders of any racial justice movement will be, and should be, the people who are most affected by the problem. But that doesn’t mean that white folks should just sit by and watch. Some of the organizations listed above may have ways for you to get involved; some might not. But there’s always something you can do. Organize a discussion group. Learn about good ally behavior. Challenge your Facebook friends. Challenge yourself. Join an organization. Infuse social justice principles into your workplace, or place of worship, or school, or neighborhood. Listen. Understand that Trayvon Martin’s murder was not an isolated incident; start seeing the racism all around you, and start doing something about it.
Above all, stay engaged. As white people, we have the option of not caring. Many don’t.