You probably didn’t want to talk to me last week. You already know why – two Black men killed by White police officers, in separate incidents, in cities hundreds of miles apart. I could have been either one of those men, just like I could have been Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, or many years prior, Emmitt Till. (Given my inter-racial family, I damn sure could have been Emmitt Till.) It wasn’t that I harbored any hateful feelings towards police officers, or White people, or even White police officers. I just could not put what was swimming around in my head, into words, without first giving a bunch of disclaimers and apologies. But now that I’ve had a chance to reel in my thoughts from running on hyper drive, here is just one perspective (as these issues are complex and multi-faceted) I felt important to share, specifically to my White friends.
Dear (if you’re my friend, and you’re White, insert your name here),
Because the answer to the racial tension we are experiencing as a country is not to retreat to our individual racial and ethnic sides of the fence, and point the finger at the other side as if to say, you’re what’s wrong with this country; but instead, to engage in meaningful dialogue, I am writing to start the conversation.
How are you holding up?
See, social justice warriors would avow that during times like these, we shouldn’t worry ourselves with the feelings of the majority, but instead, with the rights of the minority. And while I believe in this idea on many levels, on one particular level – from my experience in helping bring under-represented groups to the figurative table (as a member of the dominant group you aren’t particularly under-represented, but just go with it) – these are the times when we should be engaging in dialogue with the dominant group. So again I ask, how are you?
I’m guessing you can’t been feeling particularly well. If you’re my friend, that is. Knowing you are part of the larger group that has historically inflicted harm and marginalized other groups. And even though you do not participate in those inflictions, you still benefit from the marginalization. It’s similar to the bouts I face with my own privilege as a male. No matter how hard you try, you just cannot undo all of the atrocities committed by the group of which you’re a part. So, if you are my friend, you undoubtedly have inner conflict over the racial tension sweeping across our nation with flu-like quickness. I’m sure you’ve been scapegoated, and stared at, and had insulting remarks yelled in your direction because of the actions of some of the people who are in the dominant group to which you belong. So I’m writing because I’m worried – unbeknownst to you, you’ve worked so hard at becoming, and remaining, an ally to people of color (as we’ll see below), that I’d hate for you to retreat because of the inner conflict you’re experiencing. I’m also writing because although I can’t tell you with any certainly that the inner conflict will subside, I can offer this: I’m glad you’re my friend.
In looking back on our friendship, I’m glad you laughed with me (and not at me) when I told stories of growing up Black, and poor, and fatherless. I stole a line from the “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” when I used to say, “I’m just a poor Black man trying to make it at Quinnipiac”. And even though you may not have fully understood what I meant, I appreciate that you were willing to try. Like listening listening to Tupac on full blast with me (remember those days?!) or engaging me in dialogue when I told you the reason I couldn’t swim – we don’t got pools in the hood. I’m glad we had those conversations and shared that laughter. Most times, the laughter was really was a cover for the pain.
It’s no surprise I still remember those deep talks we used to have – how your father left your mother for another woman, how there was only one Black kid in your high school graduating class and how he got picked on to no end, how you always wanted to date another girl but couldn’t find the courage. Those talks helped me see the world through your eyes, and how you culture works, like the adherence to your Italian heritage. Those talks helped me connect with you in ways that could never be duplicated in a classroom or some diversity training. More than anything, those talks helped me see you as my friend first, and your racial and ethnic group second.
By having those talks, I now see that we were able to correctly conclude that there’d been historical and institutional injustices committed against damn near every racial and ethnic groups. So when I spoke of injustices members of my family had faced, I could see in your eyes that you felt I wasn’t making it up. That validation has been important to our friendship. To be my friend, I’ve needed to know that you get it, that being Black brings about a certain level of burden. But it wasn’t just Black and White – yesterday it was the Irish, before them, Native Americans and African slaves. Now, it’s African Americans, the entire LGBT community, and our Latin brothers and sisters. Injustices have also afflicted Asians and Italians, Jews and Muslims. As Pastor Martin Niemöller famously wrote, “Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Jew.” I think it’s safe to say they came for me, just as they came for you. And we’ve remained friends because we spoke up for each other.
I’m also glad we’re friends because there’s a certain level of emotional and psychological safety I feel in your midst. You have, and continue to allow me space to share my organic thoughts when it comes to issues of race. Like the soliloquy I crafted about whether I am truly an American, after the officer who killed Michael Brown was not indicted. Or like all of those times I quoted jokes from Chappelle Show. They weren’t White jokes any more than they were Black jokes. Instead, they were humorous analyses of our cultural differences, because sometimes using humor helps lessen the pain.
See, sometimes you just need a vent session, like when women get together for a Ladies Night. Nothing against men, sometimes women need a forum to share their thoughts and experiences with other women, without judgment, and without fear of offending anyone. Similarly, sometimes I wanted to admit that I didn’t understand how some White people could do (fill in the blank – whether it was kill a lion for sport or not season their vegetables), knowing that I love you and White people, too. I appreciate that you joined me in that space. Never one did I hear I was mentally weak or that my response is just a part of my narrative or rhetoric. Your response to my response told me that I was free to have my perspective in your midst, and that I could be my authentic self.
Along those same lines, I’m better off that you challenged me when I needed it. Whether it was calling me out for being am ableist, exhibiting male privilege, or reminding me that not all White people do (fill in the blank). Even though those were tough conversations, we were able to have them – and I was willing to listen – because you are my friend. Through I may have given you the finger a couple of times during those talks, I can honestly say I’m a better person because you’ve challenged me.
I am particularly grateful that you have been respectful of my experiences, and never asked me to give a black perspective. Instead, you asked what I thought or felt, understanding that MY black perspective may have been different than another black person’s.
Thank you, as well, for celebrating my culture, focusing more on our similarities than our differences, and for not trying to define my Blackness for me (as you’ve seen, you can be Black and listen to Alanis Morrisette!). Most of all, thank you for learning with me. Calling me you brother from another mother was funny. But referring to me as your nigger wasn’t cool. I know I called you that word several times, and I referred to our mutual friend who’s also Black, as my nigga. And sure, we listened and dances to music, where the lyrics seemed to be nigga this and nigga that. Through all of that, I love that you understood my boundaries and respected them.
Within our friendship, we have been able to expose each other to new ideas, and push each other to extend our comfort zones. As I sit here empathizing with you during these times where racial injustices seem like they’re at an all-time high, I have to imagine you feel as if you’re part of the problem, simply because you’re White. While I can never give you a She’s Down card for other Black folks to see, I can let you know that you are an ally and that I value your friendship. When shit goes down, I know I can count on to help stand against the injustice, and for that, I’m proud that you’re my friend. For those, and countless other reason, thanks for being someone I can count on.
So this is your ally card. Though you’ll have to do these same things to the next person of color you come into contact with, in order for the card to remain valid. If you ever need someone to help you process the inner conflict, you know where to find me.
Oh to be a Black man in the United States.
…Is to be told (by your elders, who’re also Black) and expected (by the larger, uneducated, prejudice majority) to practice unending patience, while wrongdoings are continually committed against you.
…It means to be listed to, but with only one ear – the larger, uneducated, prejudice majority will listen to music created by Black people, and in the next breath, will not hear decries of equal rights. Sort of like how people will shake their asses to Beyonce, but when she talks of equality for African-Americans, she suddenly becomes too radical.
…It means that, inherently, equal rights do not exist. There is a mainstream, or White, version of equal rights like being talked down when you are clearly in possession of a firearm. Then there are the Black versions, where you can never be equal so there’s no reason to ask for such rights. Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile.
…Not only that, it also means that to some people, your life is less important that an animal’s. There is significant, collective outrage when lions have been killed for sport and dogs have been drowned. Yet, when Black folks are killed (and it happens to often, it seems as though, sport), for the larger, uneducated, prejudice majority, there are little collective signs of empathy or remorse, and Black and Brown folks are asked what they did to cause their own demise.
…Along those same lines, it means there is a larger, uneducated, prejudice majority who may as well be your arch enemy, given how dismissive they are of you, and your pursuits of equality. A dog does not have an enemy, someone who’d rather kill the dog than see it reach its full potential. A cat person wouldn’t shoot a dog because the animal growled or somehow posed a menacing glance. Hell, even those who don’t like animals express sadness when animals are mistreated. When you’re Black though, the larger, uneducated, prejudice majority cares nothing about your mistreatment. In fact, they cause or assist in your mistreatment.
Oh to be Black, it means so much, to so many. And even though the larger, uneducated, prejudice majority will never understand what it means to be Black – in part because they do not have the wherewithal to listen – it does not stop them from offering opinions about what Blackness should mean, calling any dissenting opinions rhetoric or narrative. These words have become the larger, uneducated, prejudice majority way of describing that which is not part of the mainstream (and ignorant) perspective. Wanting better policing is rhetoric, yet demanding educational reform is the sign of a considerate American. See the difference? No? Then you probably understand the inner conflict of what it means to be a Black man (or Latino/a, or a woman, or gay, or any other so-called minority), in the United States.