Advice for White People


Violence is all around us, but until it makes the evening news, or circulates through the Times or on Facebook, it isn’t something that your garden-variety white person sees, hears, or feels. “Whiteness is blindness,” says Michael Eric Dyson. So true.

Only in those flashpoint moments – when a cell phone or a video camera perfectly captures the reckless, official disregard for black or brown lives – does this violence, all too briefly, become visible, and become a part of the white world’s everyday. Then, once the blood and bone of the subaltern swirls in front like illicit pornography, the eyes bulge, there is a collective gasp, and the tea cups rattle in saucers. Everyone wonders what to do.

Not surprisingly, advice for well-intentioned white people is now a necessary genre, an arm’s-length, digital translation of the day’s murder into the evening’s action plan.

Most of the advice I’ve seen is pitched to a small subset of this demographic – a college-educated, somewhat younger, liberal sort of person, self-described as “woke,” and linked into a politically progressive community on social media. It takes the form of brief lists, or short collections of advice from activists and scholars.

These lists are not for the faint of heart. Soft-spoken liberals, looking for a feel-good, cosmetic fix, will be turned upside down by their stern, serious, straight-talk.

When we reach a flashpoint of illumination, don’t approach people of color about your feelings. Don’t ask them what to do. Direct your energies to the interior, harder-to-reach pale.

Don’t talk, listen. Don’t climb on a pedestal, step aside and make room for someone else – a person of color – to get on that same pedestal, and use your position to amplify their voice.

Get busy reading history. And not the sort that you find in an airport bookstore. Know the history of racial policing, of racial profiling, of racial inequity in this territory from the origin point of settler colonialism to the immediate present.

Recognize that policing is just a part of a comprehensive system, and become a critic – and an active destroyer – of that system.

You need to act. It takes a little bravery to stand in the daylight alongside others in a march. That bravery is needed. It also takes a very different kind of courage to act in the dark, to do it when no one is watching, and then to just shut up about it. There will be a million moments when you are alone – desperately alone – and you have a chance to flip a switch, or push a door open. Find your moral compass and just do the right thing. And don’t crow about it like you just saved the universe. All you did was the right thing.

So, for whomever discovers this page, follow the links above and read and think.

But know this, too: we should hate that it has come to this – that, in moments of spectacle, we circulate a cathartic preface, a listicle of what should be, after so many years of death and destruction, mere common sense for any thinking citizen who professes to actually care about this place and its future.

The mere query that generates these lists – “what should white people do?” – forces people of color to, once again, educate white people and, compounding the error, re-centers the feelings and needs of people who’ve, by their own admission, not been paying much attention to the great moral crisis of our day: the repeated murder and incarceration of black people, without any consequence for authority, by the foundational, perfectly-in-tune mechanisms of our “great” constitutional democracy.

The time for these listicles has passed.

At this point, no one is unaware – people are either partisans on one side of the issue or willfully, purposefully ignorant. No one can claim to have just discovered anything at this point, and the need for a “to-do” list to combat the systematic abuse of people of color seems dated.

Because what remains to be done isn’t something that needs to be discovered any longer. The next video won’t make up your mind. Either you believe it today, or last week, or you don’t. Either you’ve been looking and thinking and acting all along, or you’ve been focused elsewhere. This great moral crisis isn’t something that can be shelved when the news cycle ends. This, right now, is the moment at which we either change everything about the way “we” exist together, or it is the moment at which we fail whatever promise is left in the once-radical idea of a multiracial democracy. Look away for a second, forget for an instant, and you’ve chosen sides.

2 responses to “Advice for White People”

  1. reading, rereading. despair. outrage. terror. who are the terrorists? those running the police state? I know there are other questions, endless questions. the work of this white person is to learn, to act in solidarity and not allow the privilege of despair and paralysis. easier said. dark dark days.


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