Following the death of yet another unarmed Black man at the hands of police and the continuing protests in Baltimore, many white people are struggling to make comments on social media without saying something racist. Most of these comments aren’t intended to be racist or offensive, and many are made in good faith, but that doesn’t make the comments any less racist or problematic. To help white people navigate the difficulties of talking about race, here is a guide for not saying something racist.
Know your place. There’s no reason why anyone should listen to what you have to say. Your opinion doesn’t matter, because you have no idea what it’s like to be black in the most recent city to have police kill an innocent black person. Your opinion matters slightly more if you can actually demonstrate that you genuinely want the movement to succeed — most criticism of how people are protesting (in Baltimore and Ferguson and everywhere else) very clearly is coming from people who would find something to criticize no matter what. Most white people (and most people of color, too) who support the movement and seem to defend rioting and looting really don’t endorse rioting or looting, and themselves would never do either, but they realize that it’s not for them or others to denounce. We’re used to being able to speak and have others listen to us, but it is obviously inappropriate for white people to be dominating the conversation about an issue that primarily affects black people. Most media commentators have been white, and when black people are interviewed, the discussion revolves around demands by the white person that the black person denounce rioting or endorse the narrative of protest that the interviewer is pushing. (See, for example, Wolf Blitzer’s interview of Deray McKesson)
Don’t assume that the people whose action you disagree with aren’t also attending the more peaceful protests and vigils, don’t vote, don’t do community organizing work, and don’t volunteer. It’s an assumption about who they are as people that, simply, you don’t know and don’t know anything about. You don’t know what struggles they’ve faced or what else they’ve done to bring about change.
Don’t assume that the people who are protesting police violence aren’t also concerned with gang and inter-personal violence in their own communities. Most of them are. Some of them aren’t. But those discussions are had within those communities, and they have no obligation to include you in those conversations or inform you that they’re taking place.
Don’t assume that police-on-black violence and black-on-black violence have anything to do with each other. They are both certainly rooted in a history of racism and oppression, but more immediately the causes are different, and they need to be dealt with differently. People in those communities have a better idea than you how they are affected by both types of violence, and what to do about it. People in those communities also have a right to decide how to prioritize the multitude of problems they’re facing — you, as an outside white person, have no business deciding for them.
Don’t assume that you’re an expert on social movement history or theory or that you know better what strategy Black people should follow, and don’t assume that the people in the streets aren’t experts. Your understanding is probably wrong, unless you’ve actually studied social movement history and theory, because white people (all people, really) are taught a largely made-up history about the civil rights movement throughout K-12. This history was written by white people, and ignores so many people and events that brought the results that we credit MLK for, and erases the people and ideologies that disagreed with the goals of the civil rights movement for something more revolutionary. This assumption also relies, in turn, on the assumption that the Black protesters haven’t spent time reading or learning about their own history and aren’t educated. A not-insignificant number of protesters are college students, and some may even be graduate students or professors or authors, and many of those who lack formal education have carried out their own independent study.
Don’t assume that nonviolent protest is the only way that change has been brought about. See above. Most anti-colonial struggles were won after years of intense warfare, and most nonviolent movements occurred against the backdrop of or threat of armed conflict. The majority of civil rights movement participants carried guns for self-protection, and while MLK himself didn’t carry, he had guns in his house and armed bodyguards outside of his house. A main reason why MLK rose to prominence and is considered a legitimate leader today is because he was more palatable than the Black Panthers, Black Liberation Army, and others like Malcolm X who were calling for more aggressive measures. Again, calling on Blacks to protest peacefully is claiming that you, as a white person, have a right to make decisions for Black people.
Don’t assume that what worked 50 years ago will work today. The civil rights movement protested laws that limited their rights and freedoms, and those laws could be protested by breaking them — civil disobedience. What laws are there today? Such laws are gone now, and, as well all know, all Americans, regardless of race, are equal on paper, but actual practical equality has never existed. What exists now is much more insidious, a culture that perpetuates racism and structural inequality, that can’t be fixed by a single piece of legislation or policy change. Body cameras won’t stop the killing of black people by police (Eric Garner), nor will the prosecution of police (Rekia Boyd). As white people, we are able to address most of our grievances through legislation, even if our campaigns aren’t always successful. As members of the dominant social group, we have the power to shape the broader culture. Black people have been increasingly disenfranchised since the civil rights movement, losing the vote through voter ID laws, felon restrictions, gerrymandering, and frequent irregularities, and with it the ability to affect changes that can be legislated. As arguably the least powerful social group in our country, Blacks have limited ability to challenge and change a culture that perpetuates racial stereotypes and prejudices. We also need to recognize that the civil rights movement, and similar movements, have been studied at length in order to prevent the success of replica movements.
Don’t quote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at protesters. Chances are, you’re quoting him out of context — he was publicly against denouncing riots, period. It assumes that you are more well-read than them (you probably aren’t). It also imposes on them your way of thinking, because you’re probably selecting quotes that you already agree with. It also ignores that we admire a number of white men as a society who used violence to solve their problems, e.g. Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, etc., so it creates a double standard where it’s ok for white people to be violent, but not for black people.
Don’t assume that MLK provides the only legitimate model for protesters. When Wolf Blitzer demanded of Deray McKesson, “I just want to hear you say that there should be peaceful protests, not violent protests in the tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King,” this is an example of white people deciding for black people how they should express their anger and how they should try to create change. White people can choose any number of white leaders who have often contradictory positions. It’s why we have primary elections – because people who are often fundamentally in agreement on political goals also often disagree on the specific goals or means to carry them out. Black people should be able to choose their own heroes and role models, just as white people are encouraged to do. Some will choose MLK and Rosa Parks, but others will find that the ideas of Malcolm X or Huey P. Newton or Assata Shakur or Marcus Garvey are more appropriate or accurate in the current situation or for their own personal experiences, or they may even choose to follow someone who isn’t Black.
Don’t assume that rioting accomplishes nothing, or that it’s mindless. See above re: social movement experts. Some people are angry and the only way they can think of, or the only option they have open to them, is to break windows. Some people are trying to take advantage of the situation for their own goals, which are usually either to avenge grievances they have against the store and its personnel or to materially improve the quality of their lives. And so what? Black people, just like everyone else, are told that their self-worth is measured by the possessions they have. If you’ve grown up your whole life in a system of oppression and have worked hard since you were a kid but couldn’t save up enough money because of the demands of being poor, but now you have the opportunity to steal a pair of Nikes that will make you feel more like a human being, why wouldn’t you? Or if you can steal food or toiletries that you and your family need? Or maybe you’ve been ripped off by the check-cashing place down the street every week for your working life because there’s no banks in your neighborhood and no real regulation of a predatory industry, and you have a chance to cut into their profits. Or maybe, after a lifetime of you and your friends and family being messed with by the police, you have a chance to throw something at them and feel just a little bit less powerless. Everyone has different reasons for participating, and as white people we have no right to judge anyone for their own reasons. You don’t have to agree with it, and you don’t have to do it yourself, but you don’t get to say that black people don’t deserve new shoes, that they shouldn’t be able to put food on their tables, that they shouldn’t do what they can to make a better life for themselves and their families, or that they shouldn’t be allowed to take action against people who have taken advantage of them. As white people, we have so many more resources than black people do to accomplish these goals without rioting. (See, for example, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article in The Atlantic)
Don’t assume that black people would be treated any differently if they acted differently. The subtext is the assumption that they would be treated like white people if they acted like white people. White people also do dumb stuff around cops but don’t get shot; white people aren’t getting killed at nearly the same rate while unarmed, and white people aren’t even getting killed as often as unarmed black men when they point loaded guns at police. Clearly, something else is going on. It’s easy to point to a few cases like Mike Brown or Tamir Rice who, if we take police reports as true, possibly could have done things differently (not that they should have been shot and killed anyway); but there’s also nothing that Akai Gurley, John Crawford, Sean Bell, Eric Garner, or Rekia Boyd could have done to avoid being killed by police. But this is perhaps beside the point: black people shouldn’t need to act how white people want them to act just to survive in this country, and it ignores the salient issue of racial bias.
Don’t assume that Freddie Gray’s (or Michael Brown’s or Tamir Rice’s parents’) criminal record is relevant. It’s not, unless you’re willing to also talk about the records of the police involved. But, even then, it’s still not. In many of these shootings, the person wasn’t committing a crime when they were stopped by police and shot; in some cases, like Gray’s, it’s not even clear why they were stopped at all. Even if they were suspected of committing a crime then, their past record has no bearing on their guilt in that crime or punishment the police can mete out, and, unless they were posing an imminent threat to the lives of officers present or to other civilians, force is not warranted, much less deadly force. The purpose of bringing up the record (which, unsurprisingly given modern policing, most black men have) is to smear a dead person and justify their death. This is never done for white people, and no one would dare say that any other type of murder or homicide victim deserved to be killed — we should think about why it’s only ok to say that about black men and women killed by police.
Don’t assume that, as a white person, you’re not part of the problem. No, no one’s blaming you for slavery, or for segregation, or for the murder of Freddie Gray. But all of these things, whether explicitly or not, were done in our name. We all profit from racism, even if we’re dirt poor — imagine a black person in your exact situation, and all of the additional challenges and predations they have to deal with every day. Let’s not also forget that class and gender and other social statuses are important in how we all experience daily life, but it’s difficult to argue that things wouldn’t still be harder if we were Black. Most of us have an ancestor who made money off of slavery, and that has contributed to the opportunities that we have had in life, even if only nominal. Segregation and other discriminatory practices also ensured that our ancestors had access to better homes, better schools and further schooling, better jobs, better and cheaper food, better financial opportunities, and so on.
Don’t assume that it’s the job of people of color to teach you about racism or to take the time to respond to your comments or debate you. This is a very difficult time for many people of color who are feeling like their lives are considered worthless by the society they live in, and who are seeing people that look like them or their friends or family members killed by police with impunity. The last thing they want or need is someone trying to argue with them or tell them that how they feel about this situation is wrong. Very likely, however, if you ask people of color questions about how they’re feeling or what you can do, they will be receptive, especially if it’s someone you have a personal relationship to. But also don’t take it personally if they’re not. Racism works as a tax on people of color, especially black people — getting to work takes longer; food costs more; more of their income goes to cashing checks, the police, housing, and everything else than it does for us; schools aren’t as good; jobs pay less; and there is a cumulative daily stress that goes with dealing with a considerable number of even minor or nominal acts of discrimination or bias throughout the day. It doesn’t make sense that, on top of all of this, they have to take more time out of their day to explain to us the racism that they experience — we’re more than capable of doing our own research, reading the books and articles that have been written, and paying attention in our own life, to learn about racism and how it works. We shouldn’t be imposing yet another tax on black people.
Don’t expect social change to be comfortable or convenient. Little has changed since the civil rights movement, and life is not comfortable or convenient for people of color in this country. For people of color to be treated equal to whites, we’re going to lose some of our relative status. It would mean that, all else being held constant, some white people would now be at the very bottom of the economic structure. But many people involved in the protests don’t want that — they want an economic system that doesn’t prey on anyone or exploit anyone for their labor, a political system that responds to the needs of all people, and police that protect and help all people equally.
Do listen, without judgment, to the stories and experiences of people of color. Listen to and read what they have to say, and try to understand where they’re coming from.
Do think about how your life intersects with that of the protesters — what you have in common, what shared interests you have, what you could unite on.
Do ask how you can get involved. Really, the best thing you can do now is talk to people and listen. You can also read books about Black history — you can ask a librarian for suggestions, but a few good, accessible starting points are The Wages of Whiteness, by David Roediger, Kindred, by Octavia Butler, Black Like Me, by John Howard Griffin, or To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee.