Dear white people

What to do if you want to do something

This is the first of a series of articles I plan to write about issues relating to the Black Lives Matter movement. Because we’re in a crisis — well, a cluster of crises really — I’m going to start by writing about short term actions, and move on to history and longer term considerations later on.

Over the last few weeks lot of white people have suddenly realized that America has a massive racism problem. They’ve started asking people of color what they should do. Unfortunately, we’re in the middle of civil unrest and a pandemic, which isn’t a great time to burden others with the responsibility of educating you.

So, I’m going to write about things we can do now, from one white person to another. I’ve tried to roughly organize them in ascending order of time commitment.

Things to do

Right now, lots of activists and BLM protesters are getting arrested, and generally held on bail. The bail system stacks the system against the poor — they often can’t afford bail, so they’re more likely to end up missing work, losing their job, being kept from their families, and so on. Since people of color are more likely to be in poverty, this leads to major racial disparities in how justice is applied.

You can find a listing of bail fund networks at the Community Justice Exchange.

With over 20 million people unemployed, there are a lot of poor and hungry people out there. And again, because poverty in the US is more widespread in Black communities, they’re feeling the worst of it. Detroit food banks, for example, are running dangerously low on supplies.

Wear a mask when you go outside

The pandemic isn’t over, and COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting the Black community. Make sure you aren’t spreading it.

Support local Black-owned businesses

There are some lists of national Black-owned businesses online, but if you search you can probably find a list for your local area.

Vote for reform

The choice of Presidential candidate might be utterly uninspiring from a law enforcement reform point of view, but local races often have would-be reformers running for positions such as District Attorney, State Attorney General, Sheriff, and so on. Most law enforcement policy decisions are also made at local level, where a small number of votes can make a big difference. Getting people to the polls is an important part of the Black Lives Matter campaign.

Write to your representatives demanding action

Maybe you’re lucky enough to live somewhere that isn’t crazily gerrymandered so that all your political representatives are Republicans who support white supremacy. If that’s the case, write to your local politicians and ask them to start defunding the police! A polite written letter or postcard will impress them more than just signing your name to an online poll, because it means you were willing to spend a few minutes and pay for a stamp.

Take an Implicit Association Test

Racism isn’t just about overt, deliberate bigotry; it’s also about the subconscious biases we carry in our heads. One experiment which can illustrate this is the Implicit Association Test. You can take a test online in the privacy of your own home. You don’t have to tell anyone the results, but you might find out some things about your own thinking that surprise you.

Watch some documentaries and movies

Netflix has assembled a Black Lives Matter themed collection. Your local library or university may offer streaming via Kanopy, which has a large number of relevant movies and documentaries.

Follow Black activists on social media

Follow some Black comedians, authors, musicians and moviemakers too! Listen to what they have to say, and amplify their voices through reposts and retweets. Beware of fake accounts — the right loves to set up fake Black Lives Matter profiles and post disinformation.

Please don’t blunder in like a privileged white person and demand engagement. However, if you see a white person asking questions, and you know the answer and can point them at a good source which will provide the answer, do that.

(Also, I hate having to mention this, but you should probably be aware that there is a massive ongoing beef between DeRay Mckesson and Shaun King and their respective supporters. I’m not taking sides, just be aware of it.)

Join the NAACP

The NAACP was founded by a multiracial group of people and welcomes members of all ethnicities. (Famous white people who have been NAACP members include Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt and Dorothy Parker.) The organization is made up of many local units. My experience is that it’ll take a while for your membership to be processed, but there’s nothing to stop you from going to local meetings in the mean time.

When I started attending, I soon noticed a tendency for white people to turn up and announce some local project they were working on, at length. As white people we’re basically taught that we can go anywhere, demand attention, and insert ourselves into any conversation — and that, right there, is a huge chunk of white privilege. I suggest that instead of firing off a bunch of questions or talking about what interests you, you simply introduce yourself, and then for the most part try to sit quietly and listen. You’ll learn about the problems Black people currently face in your local area, the history of structural racism where you live, and what previous attempts have been made to improve things.

There are other organizations you could join, but the NAACP is a welcoming non-partisan group that makes a good starting point.

Read some books

Springer Nature, publishers of Scientific American, have a site full of articles and books on topics relating to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Cambridge University Press have books on race relations and policing available for free for a limited time.

If you want something more radical, Verso Books have free and discounted e-books on police abolition and other Black radical topics.

After that, there’s always your local library.

Report for jury duty

When you’re asked to report for jury duty, actually do it. Do your part to make sure the person gets a fair trial. Challenge any racist assumptions put forward by other jury members.

So, there are a few simple actions you can take. Now I’m going to list a few things you definitely should not do. Entire books have been written about ignorant and racist things white people do, I’m just going to focus on a few things that people do while mistakenly believing that they are being helpful.

Things not to do

Don’t say “All Lives Matter”

If I’m talking about driver safety and I say that airbags matter, that in no way implies that seat belts are unimportant, right? Similarly, saying that Black Lives Matter is in no way suggesting that white lives do not.

However, if you insist on responding to the statement that Black Lives Matter by saying “All Lives Matter”, you are implicitly saying that the original statement is in some way wrong and needs correction. You are suggesting that we should only talk about Black lives in a context where white people are being acknowledged and considered. That’s an aspect of white supremacy right there.

So even though everyone agrees that all lives matter, you’ll look racist if you leap in to say so whenever Black Lives Matter is discussed.

Don’t make it about you

If you want to take any kind of meaningful action in the battle for equity and rights for Black people in America, you are going to end up hearing and seeing things which will upset you, and you’re going to have to push past feelings of discomfort and put yourself in unfamiliar situations.

If you’re sincere and start taking action as a true ally, people of color who are your friends will likely pick up on that, and might open up to you about how they feel — and if they do, there’s a good chance they will say things that will make you uncomfortable. But remember, this is not about you or me, it’s not about how we feel, and we don’t need any Medium articles about that, so save the white tears.

Don’t wait for gratitude

In fact, don’t even expect it. ‘Not being racist’ is part of the absolute bare minimum standards for being a decent human being, and you don’t deserve kudos for it.

Sure, attending a protest rally might feel dangerous, but keep it in perspective: as a white person you can walk peacefully down the street unarmed and have basically no risk of being executed at gunpoint by police. What you’re doing is a very small thing compared to the risks Black people take every day. They’re not going to be lining up to thank you.

I can, however, assure you that you will receive mockery and hostility from other white people.

Don’t act like a white savior

The “white savior” goes one step beyond expecting gratitude, and helps people of color in a way which is self-serving. The classic example is the white person who goes on a brief trip to Africa as a voluntourist and comes home with photos of themselves surrounded by picturesque African children. Another common white savior move is to “speak out” for the oppressed by literally speaking over them or drowning out their voices. See also: Basically any Hollywood movie about the Civil Rights movement.

Don’t overshare the news

Your Black friends do not need you to forward links to every news story you encounter about some new racist incident. They already know that kind of stuff happens. Exposure to the endless stream of images is traumatizing, so definitely don’t forward the photos. Maybe don’t even post the story on social media if you can’t put it behind a warning. In fact, if there’s a particularly unpleasant and distressing story hitting the news — like the Ahmaud Arbery case, for example — you might want to suggest to your Black friends that they skip reading about the details.

Don’t be creepy

You might have seen a viral video where someone claiming to be part of Black Lives Matter demands that white people kneel and apologize. That’s not a real thing.

There have been other videos of white people kneeling and apologizing, but these incidents don’t achieve anything, and they put white people at the center of attention (again), They are basically for the benefit of white people, and they’re creepy.

Skip the “Please tell me about your culture, I too love fried chicken” as well. To the best of my knowledge, what Black people want is to be treated like normal human beings, for you to be authentic, and for you to actually take substantive action towards getting rid of structural racism.

(Also, watch “Get Out”. It’s really good.)

Don’t suck up people’s time

Your Black friends have lives to get on with. They may not want to spend half an hour each day discussing racial politics with you, and they probably don’t have time to have discussions with all of the white friends suddenly contacting them. Also, if the only thing you ever discuss with your Black friend is racism, you’re being an emotional vampire.

Similarly, BLM activists on social media aren’t there to educate you. If you dive in asking to have something explained, you might not like the reaction you get. Try to be as self-educating as possible. There are lots of books and documentaries out there. You can even sign up for online courses, if you find that a good way to learn.

Don’t try to “not see color”

Saying “I don’t see color” indicates a bunch of things to people of color, none of them good: I don’t see you, your color isn’t a big deal, let’s not talk about race. It’s also profoundly unhelpful. We need to see color if we’re going to acknowledge how it impacts people’s lives, be aware of challenges faced by people of color, and actually do something to improve the situation.

It’s actually perfectly OK to notice someone’s skin color, and even mention it if it’s relevant to conversation. Like in a conversation about experiences of law enforcement, for example.

Don’t tell Black people how to campaign for their rights

Don’t tell them not to be so angry. Don’t tell them to be less confrontational. And in particular, don’t post inspirational quotes from Dr Martin Luther King Jr about how protest should always be non-violent.

I’m going to end with a quote from MLK you probably won’t have seen in an inspirational meme, from 1967, talking about the widespread riots that year:

It is incontestable and deplorable that Negroes have committed crimes; but they are derivative crimes. They are born of the greater crimes of the white society. When we ask Negroes to abide by the law, let us also demand that the white man abide by law in the ghettos. […] Let us say boldly that if the violations of law by the white man in the slums over the years were calculated and compared with the law-breaking of a few days of riots, the hardened criminal would be the white man. These are often difficult things to say but I have come to see more and more that it is necessary to utter the truth in order to deal with the great problems that we face in our society.

Now get educated, and then take meaningful action.