This is a message for white people.
I tried to think of a more eloquent way to lead into this, but the direct approach seemed like the more fitting approach in this moment. The time for fancy words really has passed. So let’s just get to it.
Black Lives Matter.
Somehow, even now, that’s a controversial statement among some people. I’d love to say I have no idea why, given that it’s nothing more than a statement of humanity. But, as a white person, I actually have a pretty solid idea of why a lot of other white people find those words to be threatening — as threatening as, say, some police officers find unarmed black people.
I’m sure longtime readers who disagree with what I’m about to say will point to our general “no politics” stance around here and accuse me of going against our own policy. To which I say:
1. Caring about other people’s humanity shouldn’t be considered a “political” stance — the idea that humanity is somehow a matter of politics is supremely gross;
2. I don’t really care if you object. Not today. And if this costs us some readers, good riddance. Seriously. Go find somewhere else to hang out. And if it costs us so many readers that SB Nation sees fit to replace me, I’m OK with that, too. This is too important.
(It’s also not lost on me that this website exists mostly because of young black men, and the NCAA’s exploitation at their expense.)
This message is for the white people who are looking at what’s happening around us, sensing that this is somehow different from before, and thinking to themselves — much like I did six years ago as protests descended upon Ferguson, Missouri:
Whoa ... what is happening here?
That thought signals an open mind. If that’s you, read on.
A lot of what follows has been bouncing around my head for some time. The seeds were planted in 1995 when I sat in my CAC 101 class as a wide-eyed freshman.
Black professor: “Have you ever been noticeably followed in a department store as you looked at clothes? That happens to black people all the time.”
Eighteen-year-old Jeff from mostly white Mountlake Terrace [staring blankly]: “Wait what? No way. Why?”
Black professor: “Because they think we’re going to steal stuff. Ever been pulled over, even when you’re doing nothing wrong?”
Me [an idiot]: “Of course not — cops don’t pull you over unless you’re doing something wrong.”
Black professor [staring blankly back]: ......................
I’ve learned a lot since then, but I’ve never written about race until now. There are a bunch of reasons for that, but if there’s one thing I have learned in my years of listening to the experiences of black people, it’s that white people opining on race is rarely a great idea, no matter how well-intentioned. Like a lot of folks, I’m pretty awesome at thinking I know more about things than I really do, but even I knew enough to realize that I don’t know anything about what it means to be black in America. I always felt like I’d probably do more harm than good, and that anything I wrote would probably be more about making me feel better about myself than anything else, and that is a very dumb reason to write about anything, but especially race.
So, I kept listening, and I kept doing whatever little things I could — in my job as a teacher or as an advocate here — to be what I thought was a good white ally.
But, in the last week, my heart has broken over and over again: first, as I watched George Floyd become the latest in a long line of unarmed black men to be murdered by law enforcement, and second, as I watched black people flood into the streets of our cities. They are so fed up with the constant dismissal of their right to live that a viral pandemic — which has killed more than 110,000 Americans in just a few months and is killing black people at a disproportionate rate — suddenly and obviously was the smaller threat to them.
If nothing else, that last observation should give you extreme pause. If you think that’s crazy, consider this open letter signed by nearly 1,300 health experts that plainly states: “White supremacy is a lethal public health issue that predates and contributes to COVID-19.”
I’m not a take-to-the-streets-and-shake-a-fist-at-cops kind of guy (maybe I should be? I sometimes feel a little ashamed that I’m not out there right now), but I am a person who tries to listen (although I’m sometimes bad at that, too) and then act, even in some small way. And for days now, one thing I’ve heard from black voices over and over and over is that being a quiet white ally just isn’t enough — at least, not enough to affect any meaningful change.
White people like me must step up and actively join the fight. White saviors swooping in from the ivory tower need not apply, but white people must stand beside black people and fight with them at the front of the line; after all, logic dictates that if black people had the power to solve this on their own, all this would have been fixed a very long time ago. Despite only incremental change, black people have somehow found the will to keep pushing back against extreme inequality and injustice. Since it’s white people who rigged the system against blacks in the first place, and it’s white people who control the levers necessary for change, it’s white people who can accelerate this process.
So, here I am — lily white, highly imperfect, far from a great writer, and still figuring things out. Even after spending an entire week writing and re-writing this, I’ve probably already said something dumb.
But I can’t stay silent anymore. Silence speaks volumes.
I’ve got this platform. And it’s time for me to use it.
Because Black Lives Matter.
I’ve already said this once, but it bears repeating: I don’t know shit about being a black man. Which means the only way I’m going to learn anything is by doing a lot of listening. But here’s the thing I’ve noticed — a lot of white people find themselves asking, “What can I do?”
Start by not calling up your black friends to get a how-to guide; placing the burden on them to do that work is a bad idea. There’s already a lot out information out there! Let’s check in with former Seattle Seahawks wide receiver, Doug Baldwin.
I keep getting asked by white people “what can I do?” Well, for one, you can stop asking OTHERS what you should do and ask YOURSELF what you should do. Be empathetic. What would you do if that was your son, your brother, your husband, your father?— Douglas Baldwin Jr (@DougBaldwinJr) May 31, 2020
OK then! Let’s start with empathy.
I think most people believe they are empathetic. But that empathy can range from watching George Floyd die and thinking, “wow, that’s really sad,” to being deeply moved by his death. The more human Floyd seems to you, the more likely you are to be deeply moved by his death — perhaps even moved to action.
The most basic way to learn humanity and empathy for another person is through authentic relationships. But what if you, like me, are surrounded by white people in your social circles? Then you have to actively seek out black voices to listen to.
In the online arena, that’s a lot of what I use Twitter for. Here’s an incomplete list of really smart black people I follow whose perspectives I find invaluable, in no particular order:
- Clint Smith
- Bomani Jones
- Howard Bryant
- Rebkah Howard
- Nate Bowling
- Jemele Hill
- Gene Demby
- Joel D. Anderson
(Note to self: Only two women on that list? Dammit. I need to fix that. Suggestions welcome.)
And when it comes to your day-to-day life, I don’t know that I have any magic answers other than to just talk to black people and work to create real relationships. I’m still figuring this one out, unfortunately, but I do know that authentic friendships lead to understanding.
But don’t just follow them online or talk to them around the water cooler. Listen to them. Like, really listen. And then believe.
I’ve seen a lot of white people injecting themselves into this topic on Twitter, saying things like, “Well, what about ...” or “you didn’t see the 30 seconds before this so you don’t know what happened” or “I’m sure there’s a good explanation for this.” Nah. Stop doing that. Stop thinking that.
When Noah Williams tells you that a cop pulled a gun on him for no reason, believe him.
When Gabe Marks tells you that cops showed up to his family gatherings despite nothing criminal happening, believe him.
When Jaylen Shead says he was subjected to repeated acts of discrimination by his previous basketball coach, believe him.
When Russell Wilson tells you he was a victim of racial profiling, even though he had just won a Super Bowl, believe him.
When Femi Abebefe tells you he was told as a third grader that he doesn’t belong in this country, believe him.
When Colin Kaepernick tells you he’s kneeling not to disrespect the flag but to bring attention to widespread police brutality ........
And on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on. You don’t have to look very hard right now to find more stories like these. They are quite literally innumerable. Take it in and choose to believe that this legitimately is their reality.
Books and movies and podcasts are great resources for learning, too. (I thought 1619 was particularly enlightening and powerful.)
What next, Doug?
And then, once you connect back with humanity, make a decision to act. Donate your time, your money, your intellectual ingenuity and your human spirit to make change. Don’t be complacent and complicit. And challenge others to not be either.— Douglas Baldwin Jr (@DougBaldwinJr) May 31, 2020
This is where the distinction between being non-racist and anti-racist gets made.
Both of those terms mean exactly what they say. To be non-racist is to act in a way that is not racist. There are a lot of well-intentioned white people who will claim they don’t have a racist bone in their body, that they don’t see color (which is problematic, but let’s assume for a minute that it’s not), that they believe in the power of love to conquer evil, or whatever. OK, that’s certainly better than the alternative, but do you really think you’re accomplishing something positive by simply not being a virulent white supremacist?
I’m not here to crap on your good intentions. I’m just here to tell you that if we’re being honest, it’s pretty damn obvious that good intentions haven’t gotten us nearly far enough.
So, we must be anti-racist. We must actually work to tear down the systems and policies that serve to keep blacks as second class citizens. It’s an awfully big task, which I think is part of the reason why many people choose not to act. I’ll admit to having been overwhelmed before, and it still seems overwhelming now. But we have to start somewhere with something.
At this point, if you’re ready to act, I can’t really tell you what you, personally, should do. You’re going to have to figure that out. This list seems like as good a place to start as any if you’re stumped.
Me? I’m going to make a couple of commitments here to go beyond what I’ve already been doing.
First, in my role as an educator: I commit to give my time in the next school year to anti-racist groups and initiatives within my school. I don’t yet know what that will look like, but I’ll let you know when I figure it out. One thing I’m super lucky to have is a smart black man for a principal — the best leader I’ve ever worked for.
Second, in my role as managing editor of this site: I commit to recruiting and adding at least one person of color to our staff in the next three months. Up until last November — for the first 10-plus years of our existence — our writing staff was made up entirely of white men. Last November, we finally added a white woman — but only because Emma (who has been a delightful and necessary addition to our crew) contacted me out of the blue.
Look, we didn’t end up with a staff like this on purpose; it just sort of ... happened. That’s where being non-racist gets you. I fell into that trap. That’s a failure on my part, and I’m going to do the work to fix it. I’ll be actively seeking out a new staff member; however, if you’re reading this and you know a person of color who loves the Cougs and likes to write and you want to help me out, hit me up at email@example.com.
Third, I commit to expanding my personal social circle to include more black people.
Anything, else, Doug?
Talk to your friends and family. Hold them and yourself accountable to being better people. And then, come November, vote people in power that exemplify the kind of compassionate leadership that is befitting of such a responsibility.— Douglas Baldwin Jr (@DougBaldwinJr) May 31, 2020
Which brings me to the last thing — and this one is probably even more touchy than than the preceding 2,000 words. It’s definitely more political. And I hope if you disagree with it, you won’t disregard what I’ve written up until now. Because even though I see these issues as inextricably tied, you might not be at that point, and you can certainly practice everything I’ve said to this point and disagree with what I’m about to say.
So, here goes.
It’s time to significantly reduce funding for policing.
The topic of policing really would need thousands more words to cover it all, as has been done by people who have made this their life’s work. I’m not nearly knowledgable enough to know the ins and the outs of all the policy issues with it.
But I know these two things to be true.
- If you believe black people, like I’ve asked you to do above, then you have to believe that — at bare minimum — more policing has not solved anything and will never solve anything. Militarization of the police has not solved anything. Additional bias training has not solved anything. Body cameras have not solved anything. Policing originated as a way to enforce slavery and has been fraught with corruption at every stage of its existence; if we’re being intellectually honest, we must finally draw the logical conclusion and acknowledge that the very concept of policing is a failure.
- If you don’t believe black people, then believe your own eyes — here’s a Twitter thread that is now up to more than 400 documented incidents of police misconduct in the last week. It is happening all over the country, and it stands in stark contrast to the reception police gave predominantly white protesters protesting stay-at-home orders the week before. This is not “a few bad apples.” This is endemic to policing. It’s not security — it’s violent counterprotesting. Don’t overthink this. Trust your eyes.
If you’re tempted to lay the blame at the feet of violent protesters ... don’t. That’s a distraction from the issue at hand. Likewise, “I believe All Lives Matter!” is a distraction and disingenuous when one particular subset of lives is under duress. Here’s one analogy that explains it well. Here’s another one. And no, “the antifas” are not coming to destroy your downtown. Don’t fall for the distractions.
“Defunding the police” doesn’t mean “no police at all.” There will always be a function for certain kinds of policing. But a lot of people who are smarter than me believe we can accomplish those things at a fraction of the current total cost of policing if we reduce the police force and then redirect resources to places that are better equipped to deal with many of the things cops are asked to “control.” Do we have less of a homeless problem because cops show up to clear out a tent camp? Do we have less of a drug problem because cops are arresting drug users? Let’s try something different. Let’s reimagine what we can do. Vote for people who will do that. Heck, don’t even wait that long — apply pressure to your local politicians now.
I’ll leave you with this: When these protests calm down, as they inevitably will, the work that needs to be done won’t cease. The work is never done. Stick with it. Because we can do this ... but only if we really want to.
Comments below: We’re not going to argue about the nature of protests, not going to diminish the value of black lives, not going to debate whether the response of the police has been appropriate. Want to talk about the actionable steps you’re committing to taking to be anti-racist, or would like to share resources for doing that? Highly encouraged. Just check your privilege at the door.