This piece originally appeared at justinccohen.com.
The expression "I love my blackness. And yours," is used by some activists on twitter, as an affirmation of life and excellence, set against an American culture that seeks to stanch that humanity in ways verbal, violent, and volatile. I was walking through Home Depot in Somerville, Massachusetts the other day, and I saw a man wearing a popular shirt emblazoned with the sentiment. I wanted to signal solidarity to him, but I realized that, if there were an appropriate t-shirt for me, it would probably say something like:
"To Be Totally Honest, I'm Actually Pretty Conflicted About My Whiteness. And Yours."
I am not alone. There are almost 700 comments on my article about police violence from last week, many from White people trying to figure out their role in a moment that demands moral clarity, not equivocation. Those comments ranged from the violent and racist (which I deleted, per a policy of not inciting violence); to the curious; to the just.
If there's a theme from my real and virtual conversations with White folks in the last week, though, it is a conflicted sentiment about both Whiteness, and race in general. Being conflicted about Whiteness is a natural step in the path to racial understanding, a path that I am still navigating. Being conflicted about the importance of race as an issue, on the other hand, is a privilege. There may be no greater privilege than not having to wonder whether your race is going to affect every facet of your existence. So long as we White people have the privilege of returning to life, protected by the very thing - our race - that threatens the lives of our friends of color, nothing will change.
That intra-personal conflict is happening while our house is on fire. In the midst of that fire, some of my White brothers and sisters and I are saying, "Holy shit, this house is on fire, we need to talk about this!"
In the meantime, many of our Black friends and colleagues look at us and think, "Why didn't you hear me when I told you the house was on fire? The fire isn't new, it's just that you finally can see it. And by the way, why are we standing around talking about this burning house, let's get the fuck out."
I do not know how to get out of the burning house, and on the charge of making self-righteous noise, I am guilty. I worry about taking up too much space in a debate that should be centered on the leadership of people of color, but I worry even more that we, as White people, have inherited the fire this time, and it is time to extinguish it from the inside. We cannot do that while half of our family is still sleeping. We must wake them up.
As such, I am instituting the communal principle of White wokeness today: not a single one of us gets to be woke until all White people are woke. (Sorry Channing Tatum. Sorry, not sorry, Justin Timberlake.) There is no shortage of internet content about what White people should do to end institutional racism. We need to simplify things even further. The main thing you need to do, to wake the rest of the family up while the fire burns, is talk to other White people about race. This is how you will wake them up. This is your responsibility.
There are a few things to consider before you embark on that journey of threatening Thanksgivings, sadistic Seders, and ruined rounds of golf. First, don't expect anyone to thank you. We are new, aspiring allies to a generations-long movement for justice. Showing up is the bare minimum, and if anyone takes the time to thank you for that action, consider yourself lucky.
Second, one thing that tends to get White people's attention is how other White people spend their money. To that point, spend that money on institutions led by people of color. For example, women behind critical endeavors like Feminista Jones, Gradient Lair, and Black Girl Dangerous have spent years unearthing and sharing the knowledge that we need to dismantle racism. We should pay them for that work, and we should consider putting our own selves on the line to protect their work. Moreover, when young people of color without a ton of resources get sent to jail for protesting peacefully, we should pay to bail them out.
Third, the most important conversations are with the oldest, richest White people, some of whom are in our own families. Their experience and wealth makes them simultaneously the most difficult people to reach, and the most critical to influence. Confronting even more privileged people seems challenging, particularly for individuals whose nonprofit or corporate work depends upon the largesse of individuals with wealth. Brittany Packnett said one of the most powerful things I've ever heard about this, though: "Once you're at the table, the idea is not to stay at the table. The idea is to make it impossible for anyone to set the table anymore without including people who will forcefully fight for justice."
Finally, don't talk to white people to the exclusion of talking to people of color. In the same way that folks misinterpret "Black Lives Matter" to mean "Only Black Lives Matter," I get pushback from White people who hear "Talk to White People About Race" as "Talk to Only White People, and Exclusively About Race." You should totally talk to people of color about race, but don't do that at the expense of having a real relationship. Anthony Wilson wrote a piece on this blog Monday, wherein he highlighted the fact that inter-racial relationships built on the basis of processing of racial trauma are bound to be fragile. Real relationships, built on trust, understanding, and most of all, listening on the part of White folks, is the place to start.