Sunday, July 14, 2013

An Open Letter to White People About Trayvon Martin

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.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps someday Guante will understand how egotistical he is. And some day he may realize that the bulk of his lecturing is, ironically, divisive.

In Cognito said...

@Anonymous - Do you even know what ironic means? On the bright side at least one jealous troll got their nonsense out of the way. I'd say Guante's eloquence is inspiring. "divisive?" Bullshit. inbred ignorance like that the world doesn't need. Go be "Anonymous" elsewhere, boy!

Bklynebeth said...

Dear Anonymous,

The "irony" is in considering Guante's leadership egotistical. If he feels good at the end of the day for the energy spent educating white people about their privilege, he deserves it. Anti-racist work is exhausting. The hours put in for the rare moment of white epiphany are mostly unacknowledged, but it is that moment of awareness that drives the energy because it has to. The stakes are too high for white people to keep getting it wrong and the only "division" is the clear way Guante separates white ego from it's cozy nest of racial comfort and how he draws a line between what our racist system does to half its citizenry with white people complicit in the actions of their state.

Whatever said...

Love your stuff, but can't find the addendum. Is it still up?

Guante said...

to "whatever:" Sorry, I've fixed the link. Thanks for pointing that out. Here it is:

Anonymous said...

How far from the truth have we all gotten? Would Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. be proud of the progress that black men and women have made in his absence? Would he support such things as the riots that have ensued in Missouri and Baltimore? Would Dr. King have worn a "Black Lives Matter" shirt?

It is obvious that racism still exists. It is also true that counter-racism exists. The burden falls on us all, not solely the "privileged whites." When are we all going to come to the table and realize that ALL lives matter? When do all races accept the responsibility that they are all part of the problem AND part of the solution? This should not be a letter to white people; all people need to wake up and take responsibility for their actions and their beliefs. We cannot continue to pretend that the burden of eliminating racism falls only to white people. Human lives matter...we are all creations of God and deserve respect as such. We all have a responsibility as a society to develop societal rules of engagement that are satisfactory to us all. It is time that all races quit pointing fingers, quit playing the victim, and work together as human beings. Until we do, there will always be a difference made. Unless we act more as a cohesive group rather than as whites or blacks or whatever; that's all we will ever be...whites, blacks, latinos, etc.