“But, I’m not racist.”: An Open Letter to My White Friends

Race – especially as it relates to violence – has been getting a lot of attention in the news this past year. It all began with the events that unfolded following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson bringing us all the way to the recent rioting in Baltimore. This topic has been saturating the media so much so that I considered not writing this post. However, for the first time in my short life on this earth we are “allowed” to talk about race in the public forum. Conversations that have been whispered in secret for years are now coming to light. While my voice may be one of many, this is a conversation I want to be a part of.

The other day a family friend posted this comment on Facebook: “so can someone clarify something? I thought this whole thing with Fred in Baltimore was a racial issue. White cops against Black man…but then I saw that they charged the 6 cops involved and 3 of the 6 are black, yes? Or did I see the wrong thing….. Don’t get me wrong…what happened is wrong from all that I have seen, heard or read….but I was under the understanding that race was an issue here.”

Is race the issue? Yes and no. Like a prism, there are many angles at which we can (and should) view the events that have transpired in our country over the course of the past year. Race, poverty, inequality, privilege, consumerism, slavery, the legal system, the school system, the political system…all of these components have both their place and voice in the larger conversation. Race may not be the only issue, but it is certainly a key issue if for no other reason than this is, perhaps, the first time since Dr. King that an open, public dialogue about race has been welcomed. Therefore, I am going to focus the rest of this post on race.

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While intentional, I am also extremely fortunate to live in a racially diverse neighborhood, attend a racially diverse church, and work in a school that has a staff/student population that is predominately black. Each of these places affords me the opportunity to engage people who are not white on a daily basis. These folks are gracious and patient enough to allow me to ask awkward (AKA offensive) questions and stumble my way through trying to understand their life experience as a person who is not white. I am eternally grateful for these relationships. All that being said, surrounding myself with people of other races (predominately those who are black) has made me more aware of my whiteness than ever before (a privilege that truly only white people experience).

As a white woman I can’t speak much to the black experience. I can only share what I have received. Yet, I can speak to my white friends about the white experience. So, for those of you who are still reading this, I write you this letter:

Dear White Friends,

You may never know or accept the privilege that you have simply by the color of your skin. I don’t say this to shame you, but to make you aware of how you may be perceived through the eyes of the world. There is no shame in being white. It is merely one aspect of your identity.

Yet, one thing I have noticed is the quickness with which you defend yourself using statements like “But, I am not racist.” Most people who overtly embrace racism don’t hide it. In fact, they usually celebrate it and this saddens me deeply. You are not that person. When the conversation turns to topics such as “white privilege” or “institutional injustice” please know that this is not intended to be a personal attack against you. You are not being set apart as someone who is actively or intentionally racist. Therefore, you don’t need to defend yourself. Personal defense hardly ever helps and, more often than not, becomes a conversation stopper. Instead of hearing and internalizing an accusation against you, I invite you to listen more deeply. Listen to the stories of our brothers and sisters that depict a particular kind of pain that you may never experience. Step outside of yourself and try to see the world through another person’s eyes. Keep the conversation going. Ask the uncomfortable questions. Even if you look foolish, our brothers and sisters of other races appreciate your attempts to see, hear, and know them. Allow their story to change you. As you are transformed, you will begin to see yourself and your life differently. Don’t hide or wallow in guilt. That doesn’t help either. Instead, use your privilege for good. Be a voice for the voiceless. Advocate against injustice. Stand in oneness with our brothers and sisters so that they may know that they are not alone. These things aren’t hard but they do take courage – the courage to step outside of the places where you are comfortable and the courage to listen longer than you think you can. No one is accusing you of being personally responsible for slavery or creating the systems we have now. But, you can accept that your appearance may be representative of those who did and you can choose to offer empathy and healing through simply acknowledging that these gross injustices did happen and were wrong. An apology – even if you were not the specific offender – has a greater impact than you can imagine. In addition to listening to people’s stories, I would encourage you to read more. Read more articles. Read more books by black authors. This will give you deeper and richer insight into the heart and soul of black culture. Listen to a radio station that plays black artists. The hip hop and rap that you either dance to or dismiss reveals much about the black experience if you can hear beyond the words (which may be more explicit than you are comfortable with) that are being spoken to the message that longs to be heard. Put yourself in places where you are the racial minority. Take note of how you feel in those places.

Most importantly, don’t ignore the thoughts that pass through your mind. Just the other day I went to an event in a wealthy neighborhood. I had to walk along several blocks of mansions to get to my destination. I admit to you my surprise when I discovered that a black family owned one of the homes we passed. Additionally, I served on a jury last week and immediately upon entering the courtroom assumed that the defendant was the young black girl in the ripped jeans and the plaintiff was the white woman in the casual business suit. My assumptions were completely wrong. While embarrassing, I share this with you to help you see that I, too, have thoughts about people who are black that don’t align with what I say I believe. Perhaps these thoughts are the result of years of cultural conditioning but either way I did have them and I confess them now. Therefore, since they have been brought to light, they no longer need hold power over me and room has been made for the Spirit to enter and renew my mind in these areas and learn to see the world differently than I have been conditioned to.

So friends, in conclusion, don’t be afraid to live in the light. Be honest about your thoughts, be forthcoming in your questions, and pursue people with intentionality. Cease defending yourself and stay engaged in the conversation. Whatever you do, please do not be afraid. For where there is fear, there is no love. Above all, it is my prayer that love may love reign in our hearts and – one day – in the entire world.

Much Love,
Vanessa

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2 thoughts on ““But, I’m not racist.”: An Open Letter to My White Friends

  1. One thing that I’ve realized is a hurdle for many white people to get past in these discussions is the idea of “the individual.” In other words: an individual white cop is or isn’t racist, an individual black citizen is or isn’t a criminal, the actions of either individual are or aren’t justified by law, and the evidence will or will not bear those things out. None of those things are wrong, but nothing else is allowed into the conversation because racism (among other things) is perceived as an attitude or belief that only individuals carry and express. Systemic racism is unheard of and nonsensical because the personal responsibility of each individual is the only standard by which to judge right and wrong — despite the fact that what may be a common sense, black-and-white (no pun intended) choice for a person with one set of life experiences (e.g. don’t steal, trust/respect the police, don’t join a gang, etc.), may be much less clear and much more gray for someone with very different life experiences.

  2. I agree, Jake! We have to be able toove outside of ourselves and our individual perspective if we are ever going to see the whole. Individuals do matter, but there has to be the ability to see and hold both.

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