A (Tough) Love Note to my Fellow White Folks

January 8, 2016 Leave a comment
Jen Willsea at the Edmund Pettus Bridge for the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama. March 2015.

Jen Willsea at the Edmund Pettus Bridge for the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama. March 2015.

I am angry that the murder of Tamir Rice is being explained away as a “perfect storm of error”[1] in Cleveland, that Sandra Bland is being blamed for her own death in Texas, and that police in Chicago chose to “shoot first and ask questions later,”[2] killing two more unarmed African Americans the day after Christmas.

When will we stop recycling, reinventing, and reinforcing American racism—the same old oppression in new forms? Why have we allowed it to persist for so long and why do we continue to explain it away, denying the magnitude and depth of racism as it manifests the 21st century while wary of the ways our past is actually impacting the present?

By “we,” I mean us white folks. This is not a note to the bigots[3] out there, but to the white people I interact with on a daily basis, including myself—white people who mean well, who want to believe that we have come further than we have as far as racism goes, and who struggle to see our own role in the problem.

We are literally contributing to the obstacles to Black folks’ freedom, adding bricks and mortar to the barriers they are working to tear down—sometimes consciously, and more often unconsciously. Yes, the blatantly racist bigots and the intentional racism of people in power are a big part of the problem, and so are we.

I am heartbroken by our complacence. I am heartbroken by our ignorance. I am heartbroken by all the ways that our fear twists our good intentions into harmful (in)actions and hurtful words or silence at the expense of our coworkers, friends, and neighbors of color. It breaks my heart to realize that so often (at least half the time or more?!)[4] the ways people we know and even love are being hurt by racism go completely unnoticed by us. So how much of the racism directed at people we don’t personally know are we unaware of? If we don’t know very many people of color and especially Black folks, it is even harder for us to see how all of this adds up to the insidious evils of institutional and structural racism.[5] It breaks my heart to watch us make excuses for the way things are because we are too scared to see what is happening for what it really is. It breaks my heart to watch us not listen hard enough. It breaks my heart to witness how rarely we can break through our own foggy fragility[6] to hold up a mirror to see that something we said or did reinforced racial hierarchy despite our best intentions, and then commit to learn and grow from that mistake.

Racism IS the problem of our time and so we have a choice to make. We stand on the shoulders of those who have fought for freedom in generations past including Black leaders like Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Huey P. Newton, and White anti-racists including John Brown and Anne Braden. Black folks don’t have a choice; their survival depends on this fight. So we white folks can choose to stay silent and stand on the wrong side of history, or we can choose to stand on the side of those who are leading the fight for freedom from white supremacy in all its forms now—from Cleveland to Ferguson to Oakland to Charleston.

What does standing on the side of freedom look like for you? What would it look like if we white folks made this choice each day?


[1] Timothy McGinty, http://www.democracynow.org/…/tamir_rice_family_in_shock_af…

[2] Jacqueline Walker on the death of Bettie Jones,http://www.democracynow.org/…/28/a_badge_to_kill_grief_outr…

[3] Janet Upadhye, “The Biggest Bigots of 2015,”http://www.salon.com/2015/12/22/the_biggest_bigots_of_2015/

[4] I don’t know if anyone has tried to quantify this, but as a white person who considers myself very race conscious, I am pretty sure I’m missing at least half of what’s going on right before my eyes…

[5] Ta’Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,”http://www.theatlantic.com/…/the-case-for-reparatio…/361631/

[6] Check out the work of Dr. Robin DiAngelo for more on the concept of “white fragility”

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