Dear White Friends,
It’s time I finally came out to you. The truth is that I’ve been too uncomfortable to talk with you about the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s been an important part of my life and thinking since Trayvon Martin was killed. I mean it’s actually kind of been an obsession. Still, I haven’t felt like our relationship allowed for enough vulnerability to have an authentic conversation about this. As police brutality incidents have multiplied, I’ve sometimes been annoyed with you for that, but I’ve recently realized that I’m just as complicit in our lack of conversation about this as you are.
I didn’t grow up all #blacklivesmatter. I was raised to be around white people – dominant culture – in an assimilationist way. To succeed in this world, I was taught that black people should stay small, not bring a lot of attention to ourselves, and focus on fitting into “acceptable culture.” I’m not trying to say I wasn’t aware of the history of oppression faced by Black people like me whose ancestors had been in America for any part of the past 200 plus years. I definitely grew up taking great pride in my Blackness, appreciating the efforts of the ancestors and the greatness of Black people. But I was raised with the understanding that was all behind us, Black people had overcome, and racism was rare – particularly in Western, NY (though there was still some in the South because there were more backwards and ignorant people there). Most importantly, the key message I got was that hard work and dedication were all that anyone – black, white, or other – needed to be successful in this world superpower. I was all about pulling up those proverbial bootstraps.
Then I went to college. I applied to Spelman and Hampton, but despite my love for the movie School Daze, I didn’t think that experience would prepare me for the real world. The real world, in my mind, was full of people of all colors, so what sense would it make for me to just be with Black people? In college I met White people who’d known barely any Black people (though they loved Michael Jackson as much as me!). It started to become clear that Black people had, in fact, not overcome and I started to understand that racism was still alive and festering. Despite this, I was still convinced it wasn’t a pervasive issue. Perhaps some of these remnants of racism were because I was going to school below the Mason-Dixon line? Besides, I had friends like some of you who seemed to accept and love me regardless of the color of my skin.
Work life after college still didn’t convince me that the United States had a pervasive, demoralizing race problem. Not when a senior member of one organization where I worked made a comment to me about how I probably had a vigil to attend on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and wouldn’t be able to work overtime. Not when the only job I had living in a majority Black city that had more Black staff than white was the one I had working for DC Public Schools. Not when I was one of few Black people on the executive leadership team of a charter school with majority Black enrollment. Still, I saw systems of inequity as more the exception than the rule.
Through all of this, I socialized, vacationed, went to happy hour and even lived with some of you. Never did I ever reveal the psychological toll living in a racist society had on me. I listened to your struggles – and even told you some of mine. Never did I feel I should complain, though, about the impact of systemic inequity. Never did I say how belittling it was to go to work and be one of the few people who looked like me and then go to social events with you and have the same dynamic. Never did I explain that my friendliness to the black or Latinx staff at the restaurants we frequented or the cleaning staff in our office buildings had to do with my need to have solidarity with people who looked like me. You commiserated with me when I complained about annoying co-workers or supervisors, but never would I have dared to suggest that the way they treated me might be rooted in their inability to recognize their white privilege over me.
Now, much like the fact that it’s become futile to deny that police brutality and racism are linked, it’s futile for me to continue denying my truth. To paraphrase the words of Fannie Lou Hamer, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
I need to be honest with you. I’m hurt and frustrated by the current state of race relations. And I’m jealous that though I can’t think of a single white friend that doesn’t want me to have the same access and opportunity they have, I know you get to choose whether you think about racism or not, while I simply can’t. I’m jealous that your whole day or week isn’t rocked by the latest act of police brutality against a Black man or woman minding their business. I’m envious of the fact that you’re not wondering what books, conversations, or experiences you need to have with your son, daughter, niece or nephew to help them prepare for the potential acts of racially motivated bias they’ll face in school, on the soccer field, or in the world. Why don’t you have to talk to your adult brothers about how they’re going to dress when they go into 7-11 so as not to make others feel threatened by their very presence?
I’ve been alive in body but dead in spirit, so I need you to know I’m no longer posing as a brown-skinned white person. I’m fine with all of my blackness, including the part that means my family’s race automatically puts us at a disadvantage compared to your family’s white privilege. Knowing that and living that is exhausting, frustrating, and something I can’t do anything about, despite the U.N.’s recent ruling that Black Americans are due reparations for years of “racial terrorism”. Still, it’s my actual truth and I’m owning it. Avoiding the discussion is tantamount to pretending it isn’t true, and that isn’t serving either of us well.
So from now on, I’m going to tell you how being a Black woman in America is making me feel. I’m going to be honest about calling out privilege and racism when it comes up. I’m going to let you know that today I might not come to your event because I just don’t feel like being one of the only people who look like me there. I’m not going to hesitate to post articles that celebrate blackness for fear that it might make you feel uncomfortable and only my black friends and family will “Like” it. I’m going to live with authenticity in all aspects of life. I hope you understand that I have to, because doing otherwise is literally killing me. Doing otherwise combined with facing institutionalized racism, being on the losing end of white privilege in action, and not getting the access and opportunity in work and life that I deserve because of implicit bias against black people is eating away at my soul. I have no direct control over that, but I can control how much I keep it all bottled up inside.
They say that each friendship happens for a reason, a season or a lifetime. I’m hopeful that all my friendships last for a lifetime but I need you to know that ours just can’t if any of what I’ve said above makes you too uncomfortable to do the work necessary to fix it. It’s fine if doing so is discomforting, but I’m now only engaging in relationships with people who are willing to step out of their comfort zone in the name of equity, just as I have to as a Black woman in America. It’s not that I want you to face suffering and pain, it’s just that I’m passionate about ending inequity. And I know that won’t happen if people don’t get real about what got us here, what keeps us here, and what we must do to make it better. I hope you’re with me, but if you choose not to be, I send you off with wishes of love and happiness.
Yours in ending inequity,