And there's plenty you can do about it.
When I first saw the gruesome video of Alton Sterling's execution, I was sitting outside a pool near Zion National Park writing an article about virtual reality. You can't make this stuff up. Mr. Sterling fading from existence as white kids splashed and giggled in the background. On the ride over, my friends and I had rocked out to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.
I'm a child of the Internet -- very little I see on a screen has a physical impact on me, but this video made me truly, bodily nauseous. The image still haunts me. This is not a world any of us should be okay to live in. I'm ashamed of us. Aren't you?
As a self-proclaimed "woke" white dude, it's sometimes difficult to know how to participate in conversations about race that matter deeply to me. The last thing I want to do is suck up oxygen from the voices that need to be heard. That's not a plea for sympathy -- in the spectrum of burdens, what I've just identified clocks in among the lightest in human existence -- but what's important here is that I know there are many like me, and many more who feel a rash of confusing emotions and want to help but aren't sure how. There are others who are just beginning to open their worldview to see the immense depth of the problem.
For better or worse, the revolution this nation needs -- and I don't use "revolution" lightly -- will only come when enough of us gather together and move as one. This isn't the movie where the white savior steps in to save the day, this the movie where White America finally catches up to the rest of the country. And since I'm a white American, it's my right and responsibility to call us on a few things and demand we do better. Because we can.
Above all, I'm a humanist. In no way am I advocating for a world that hates whiteness. I don't hate whiteness. I'm advocating for a world that welcomes all cultures and colors on their own terms, in their own way -- a world where no one lives in fear because of their heritage. Surely we can all get behind that, right?
Insert all the ass-covering qualifications here about how I'm not perfect, how I haven't done everything I could, how I need to do better. How I too would do well to heed my words. It's a work in progress for me just as much as you.
White America, will you listen to one of your own?
White America, you are not bad for your whiteness. You did not choose the circumstances of your birth. You should not feel shame in celebrating the positive aspects of your history.
But this does not excuse you from paying attention. This does not excuse you from noticing inherent flaws baked into our political system stretching back centuries.
White America, you need to understand that, maybe unknowingly, you've been on the receiving end of a system that has benefited you at the expense of others. And the expense has been costly. Maybe you agree that the videos that have managed to puncture their way into the news cycle over the past couple years have been horrible... but surely those are just isolated incidents with a few bad-egg officers, right?
Wrong. This has been going on for decades. Social media has recently empowered us to broadcast flagrant abuse of authority on a national forum, and that's fantastic. But where before the problem was exposing the larger population to these acts of violence, now the problem is getting people to care enough to do something about it. Despite the fact that these videos embody the very definition of dystopia, we've seen hand-wringing and wrist-slapping, shrugging and shirking. Awareness is useless if it doesn't lead to action.
And okay, maybe you kind of suspected all this, maybe it's been sitting with you like a rock in your gut. But man, you've got so much else to worry about -- you've got rent to pay, kids to watch, a mother with cancer, or you just got cheated on, the Warriors lost the tournament -- and anyway, what could you even do about it? You've never been mean to black people.
If that's true, congrats! You're not a total asshole. But by remaining silent, you are allowing racism to continue unchecked. We're at a critical moment in history. This is a time that demands more than just base niceness, more than neutrality. Our nation is ill. Niceness is the equivalent of using organic shampoo to treat cancer. Every moment you excuse yourself from your responsibility is a moment that evil triumphs. Again. And again.
So, what can we do about it?
1. Forgive yourself if you need forgiving and move on. Forgive yourself for benefiting from a corrupt system. Forgive yourself for not paying attention. Forgive yourself for moments of intentional or unintentional racism. If it's due, apologize to those you've harmed with these behaviors. Point being: get to a place in yourself where you feel free to do the work that needs doing now.
2. Remember that systemic racism is about the little things. You may say to yourself, "But I would never shoot a black guy," and, well, okay, that's great to hear. But systemic racism is sustained through daily "microagressions," little things we do that reinforce a faulty system (there's certainly a longer discussion to be had on this subject, but in the interest of brevity, start here).
Any examples of these so-called "microagressions"?
The most obvious example we run into is the uproar over Black Lives Matter. "But all lives matter!" sound the walls of Facebook nationwide. And yeah, all lives do matter. But implicit in Black Lives Matter is that black lives matter too. If the nation were living by the principle that "All Lives Matter," there'd be no need to assert that "Black Lives Matter."
How can I learn what a microgression is and when I'm committing one to stop it in the first place?
3. Pay Attention, listen, and learn. You can see from these videos that things are not right. It's hard to even believe your eyes. Now treat those videos as a springboard rather than the destination. Seek out the viewpoints of those who have experienced the effects of institutional oppression and really listen. Assume that, because they have experienced this pain personally, their views are inherently more correct in this regard than yours, and that's okay -- it is never failure to learn. Let me repeat: it is never a failure to learn. And the first step to learning is realizing and admitting the ways we may have been wrong. In America we like to demonize hypocrisy, and while intentionally flopping sides for personal gain is a crummy thing to do, this demonization discounts the truly humbling and valuable experience of realizing past errors and coming to better understandings.
Look at it this way. You were a 6-year-old once. Would you stand behind every little thing you did then, every belief you may have had about the world? Of course not! That's because you learned.
Looking for a place to start? Campaign Zero.
4. Bear witness. I've seen many friends on social media saying that it's enough to know what has happened and not watch the videos. While I appreciate the sentiment behind not glamorizing violence, in this case, at least for the white population, I disagree. Watch them all. Witness their mourning families. Let yourself be made nauseous. Let yourself feel the hurt, and fully realize how deeply our nation is hurting. How can you possibly hope to help heal a system when you refuse to even look at the disease?
Be brave enough to be made humble. You're going to say the wrong thing based on assumptions you didn't even realize you had -- be willing to admit that. Your pride doesn't matter. You're allowed to have been wrong. You're allowed to goof up. Anybody with half a brain will be able to spot good intentions. What will make you a monster is to hear truth and turn away in fear. We live in the Information Age. Ignorance is not an excuse.
Understand that when you hear this pain you will hurt too and there will be nothing to do about it in the moment but bear witness. Affirm that things have been wrong and unfair. Let your squirmy discomfort push you toward problem-solving rather than making excuses. Ask what you can do. Set, repeat.
5. Treat racism as an illness to heal, not battle to fight. Nobody, as far as history has shown, responds well to being attacked. And narrow-mindedness tends to arise from fear and insecurity -- both of which are activated when a person feels attacked. Whether you've grown up in full awareness of this flawed system or you're just coming to realize its scope, it is easy to want to fight those we believe hold foolish beliefs.
But how do you treat an illness? You drink fluids, you get proper sleep, you change your diet, maybe take a little medicine. You mend and restore. You don't treat an illness by yelling at it until you pass out. Nothing good comes from that, and in fact a great deal of bad will.
It is an unfortunate truth that your whiteness grants you a degree of access with the very same white population that people of color won't have: narrow-minded Caucasians. Recognize this and use it responsibly. Instead of attacking, which will inevitably alienate, be measured and thorough. Your tone will communicate as much or more than the words themselves. Respond to hatred with love. Light a fire under their asses, sure, but do so in a way that grants them the space to learn on their own terms, forgive themselves, and realize all the ways they can change their behaviors for the better (that was ultimately my goal with the salty title). My father used to teach me important lessons by telling me stories with my toys. Are there real-life stories or hypothetical scenarios you can imagine that might speak to that racist grandpa of yours? Be creative. You might surprise yourself.
6. Protest, protest, protest. Peacefully but unflinchingly. Fight for good rather than against evil. Everything you fight you feed, so fuel the side of hope rather than hate. It's high time we started attending rallies, protests, and marches. Donate time, donate energy, donate space, donate food, donate supplies. Donate whatever resources you have at your disposal. This isn't somebody else's problem. This is your problem too.
And there are even simpler things you can do. As a journalist, I was horrified to see major media outlets include a list of Mr. Sterling's prior crimes in the coverage of his death. This happens all the time, and it is reprehensible on the part of those organizations. Why? Foremost: because murder is never justified. I shouldn't even have to say that, and yet here I am. Second: it uses precious airtime to distract from the aforementioned by letting you maybe excuse this atrocity in your mind because, you know, "he was no angel." When you see this happen, let these outlets know that you will not stand for this kind of reporting. You don't have to make a public pronouncement. It can be a simple email. You'd be surprised how much your one voice can do (especially when the ones start adding up). News media is a for-profit industry, after all -- they're terrified of losing your attention because then they'll lose ad revenues.
So again, tell them, in whatever way suits you:
There is no justification for murder.
7. Do not, under any circumstance, change the subject. In times like these, it's easy to say, "This is why we need to change our gun laws!" And that is so, so true. But that's like, 5 steps away from the core of the issue. Which is systemic racism. So keep the discussion there. At a bare minimum, that keeps things simple -- which is crucial for gathering numbers to a cause.
In cases of police shootings, it's easy to turn the discussion toward law enforcement. Again, there's no doubt that the criminal justice system needs a serious makeover, but pointing the finger at police officers is typically a way of reliving ourselves of our own responsibilities. Hey, don't look at me! I'm not the one who pulled the trigger. You have no conception of what it is to be in this line of work, and as the recent events in Dallas indicate, it is a high-risk, often thankless job -- not to mention that the vast majority of American police officers are well-intentioned people stuck within a lose-lose corporatized system like the rest of us. Race crimes perpetrated by the American government have been occurring for decades across the many arms of the criminal justice system, so obviously this is a much bigger issue than a few bad apples. It's rooted in the socioeconomic structure of our government. See how complicated that got? The best show in the history of television needed five grueling season to even begin to scratch the surface. So how about we table that for now and focus on what we can do?
If you feel some fire bubbling up, if you're feeling like you want to reach through your screen and strangle me, then I'm doing my job. That means some part of you recognizes truth in these words -- words I'm passing along from those who know better than me, who taught me how to open my eyes.
During the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed the banking crisis to the American public in a landmark radio address called "More Important Than Gold," his first fireside chat. In it, he said something that we ought to bear in mind during this new war on civil rights:
"It is your problem, friends, your problem no less than it is mine. Together we cannot fail."
White America, we can do better than to look at a broken nation and say it's good enough. It's not good enough.
White America, we are not our ancestors. At least, we don't have to be. Our guilt is quite literally killing people. Can we move on?
White America, we are not being persecuted, we are being asked to step up. We are being given the opportunity to do our part to unravel a horrible cycle of hate.
For the love of whatever god you trust, seize that opportunity.