One Thing White People Can Do About Ferguson

While race is a defining factor in the lives of white people, too, it's not a topic most of us know how to broach or navigate. Perhaps the one thing white progressives know about discussing race is that it's likely to be uncomfortable or openly conflictual.
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If you're a progressive white person who wants to do something meaningful in the wake of Ferguson, this question is for you: Since August 9, when Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, have you discussed, face to face or on the phone, with another white person who is not your significant other, the killing or any of the subsequent events in that town? If not, you have an opportunity to make a real difference.

While black people have been talking about this extended episode with each other, and white people have, on occasion, talked about it with black people we know, a whole lot of us white progressives have not been talking about it with other white people. We have lots of reasons, and one of them is this: We're not very good it.

While race is a defining factor in the lives of white people, too, it's not a topic most of us know how to broach or navigate. Perhaps the one thing white progressives know about discussing race is that it's likely to be uncomfortable or openly conflictual, even with other white people we're very close to. And, you know, most of us don't seek out discomfort and conflict.

At the same time, progressives generally believe that white people in America have a key role to play in eradicating racism. Conveniently, a lot of us also believe that some other white people are the ones perpetuating the problem -- people like Cliven Bundy, Paula Deen, Rick Perry -- and our hands are clean. We voted for Obama! We watch Key & Peele!

But if you haven't clued in before now, I hope the situation in Ferguson is helping you understand that racism in America isn't primarily a problem of nasty, backwards-thinking individuals, but is rather a system of institutionalized inequality, oppression and brutality. Black people individually and collectively feel the effects of that system acutely, even as white people are largely unaware of it. It is unfairness to the core, and our inability to talk about it with other white folks makes us the people perpetuating the problem.

If we want a future that does not repeat history -- the central tenet of progressive politics -- we each have to act differently than we have so far. For a lot of us, that means not only voting, donating, reading, tweeting and doing the things this good article and this good article suggest, but also finding ways to talk about race regularly with other white people. Until it's a topic we know how to discuss, we cannot help reroute the country's dehumanizing course of history toward a more just future.

Since most of us don't have a lot of experience in this realm and may well have some fears about it, here are a few ideas for using the news out of Ferguson to start talking about race with other white people. These suggestions may seem simplistic or even bland, but we have to take step one from the ground we're standing on.

1. This isn't about debate. You don't have to go into every conversation about race aiming to convince other white people they need to think or act differently. It's legit to instead ask curious questions and perhaps share information or your particular perspective without a goal of influencing somebody else. I'll admit, I often find this advice hard to take myself. I mean, obviously, I want to change hearts and minds. But as a tactic in learning how to talk about race on the regular, aggressive persuasion is doomed, because it makes the conversations too high-stakes and unpleasant for everyone. So if you, like me, don't want to have that kind of interaction every day, you have to find a more sustainable mode.

2. Inquiry is a good place to start. For example: "How are you experiencing the news about Ferguson?" If you don't resonate with the answer, bust out your active listening skills. This may feel corny, but it's a good time to say things like: "What makes you feel that way?" And: "I hear that. It sounds like [a shorter version of what they just said]." And: "I'm having a different experience of the news. Can I share it with you?" (If they say no, that's cool. Have the conversation with somebody else that day.)

3. Share media sources. A good question: "Who are you reading or watching on Ferguson?" And: "How are they helping you understand the situation?" Handy follow-up: "I'm finding X has good info on the militarization of police, and I learned a lot from reading Y on the history of race and police violence. Let me know if you want links." (Note: If your own media sources do not include a really lot of black people, right now is the time to change that. At a very minimum, seek out interviews and articles by Melissa Harris-Perry, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jamelle Bouie, Jamil Smith, Jamilah Lemieux, Brittney Cooper, Elon James White, and books by Michelle Alexander and Isabelle Wilkerson.)

4. Focus on building empathy together for people of color. Try this: "How can we try to understand what it's like to feel constantly threatened by cops or to see our own neighborhood under military siege?"

5. Go bigger picture. "When did you first become aware you were white?" And: "How is that informing the way you understand the news from Ferguson?"

If you and your progressive friends held conversations like this with other white people every day for a year, imagine the collective skill we'd have that we're missing now. It's one we could use to make the future of race in America truly different from the past.

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