Self, Social Justice

a response to Jezebel’s “I Don’t Know What to Do About Good White People.”

Before anyone reads this, I should say that you should read the article I’m referencing first. It’s really good, reads like a literary essay, and thought-provoking. Also thought-provoking (and angering, and saddening, and challenging) are the comments below it.

(Also before I begin, let me just ask: are the comment threads online really what people think about things? What role does online posting play in what we’re referring to when we say things like “Everybody knows that,” or “Most liberals think this,” or “Our generation behaves x way”?)

Anyway. I read Bennett’s piece on Jezebel, and immediately felt frustrated. I was frustrated because it seemed that there was no way for me as a white person to take an appropriate or “right” stance concerning race relations and approaches to issues like the recent racist police shootings. It seems like I’ve read all these articles by various black writers and heard just as much advice on how white people should respond. I felt like, “So what am I supposed to do? What do you want from me?”

I’m not the sort of “good white person” she refers to, I don’t think, because I don’t make a big show of debating political issues, picking the right viewpoints, or going out of my way to be nice to Black people. I have kind of just avoided thinking about race issues, to be honest. It’s a privilege to be able to do that. I feel like I need to sit with that for a while. It’s a fucking grand privilege to go about my life pretending that racial issues don’t affect me; to, for example, walk around not being the object of suspicion. Because I’m in the majority, I have the amazing fortune of being unaware. I theoretically understand this.

But I never think about it.

But what made me think about it now is the following lines from that article.

“Sometimes I feel like I live in a world where I’m forced to parse through the intentions of people who have no interest in knowing mine. A grand jury believed that Darren Wilson was a good officer doing his job. This same grand jury believed than an eighteen-year-old kid in a monstrous rage charged into a hailstorm of bullets toward a cop’s gun.

[Darren] Wilson described Michael Brown as a black brute, a demon. No one questioned Michael Brown’s intentions. A stereotype does not have complex, individual motivations. A stereotype, treated as such, can be forced into whatever action we expect.”

I read that and took a deep breath, because it totally pinned down the problem with my own casual considerations of the Michael Brown case. I felt fairly confident that, yes, had Michael Brown been white, he would not have been murdered, and that, no, the looters and rioters and violators running amok during the Ferguson protests did not represent the character of Black people and were not the heart of Ferguson’s resistance. But barely at all had it crossed my mind what Brown had been thinking or feeling when he robbed the convenience store or was encountering Wilson. I hadn’t treated him as a person at all, but as a ghost.

With that guilt, I finished the article and then began reading the comments below. The first one was, I thought, relatively fair– a white person admitting to discomfort while reading the article and wondering, like me, how to become an ally in racial issues without becoming the “good white person” Bennett criticizes.

Several of the responses in that thread took stabs at advice, but most of it hovered around “just do your job and try to be nice to people,” which seems totally inadequate. Then I found one–which must have been deleted now, since I scoured the thread and can’t locate it–that said something more substantial.

It advised that there is no one right way to be a white ally. Black people have diverse opinions, so trying to find a course of action about which you can feel, “Ahh, now no one can criticize me because I am doing things THE GOOD way” is pointless. You have to be engaged–opting out is not an option. But you also have to be constantly willing to hear criticism. You have to let people get mad at you. You have to change methods. You have to listen and not talk. You have to stay uncomfortable. You have to avoid asking for thanks.

I read that and took a deep breath, because it totally sounded exhausting.

I thought, “Why would anybody sign up for that? Letting yourself get constantly shut down, being called things, having your intentions cast aside.”

And then I thought, “That sounds almost as exhausting as being Black in America.”

So. Not that I feel all enlightened to go start posting anti-racist quotes on my Facebook or initiating discussions about race, but I do feel like just spending the time thinking about race and reflecting on my own discomfort with it, and also, p.s., realizing that responding to Bennett’s essay with primarily frustration at first is just another symptom of my insufficient dealing with race, is a start– not towards being a good person, but towards living more in line with my own professed ideals.

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