From Oscar Grant to Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner to Tamir Rice—and so many other less-covered cases of white males shooting black males—it is hard to pinpoint why what happened in Ferguson, Mo. has sparked national outrage. I think a police officer—a symbol of state authority—killing a black man is reminiscent of the same force that had the right to round up escaped slaves when slavery was abolished, the right to enforce Jim Crow laws before they were eliminated, and then the right to hose down peaceful protesters during the Civil Rights movement before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed.
At each step, discrimination has been outlawed but there has been no effort to ensure that not only is there a lack of discrimination, but that the stereotypes that legitimized those racist policies were eradicated, and the new, more just policies were implemented in a way that brought about real equality. Just two years ago, when I was first learning about how systems of racial injustice worked in this country, when I first realized that the civil rights movement of the ’60s was not over, that there was still a lot to be done, I felt helpless. Outside of anti-racist organizations and circles, race wasn’t on any white person’s mind. In fact, the mainstream discourse of the country had become one of “colorblindness” and a post-racial society—ideal to be sought after, but by no means the reality of our world today.
My Facebook newsfeed has never been so divided—there are people talking about the injustice of the shooting of Michael Brown and the lack of indictment for Darren Wilson, and there are those who are more incensed by the protests in reaction to those two events. For white folks who are frustrated with the protesters, and not with what is being protested—I get it. You have most likely gone through your whole life not having to think about race and how it affects you. And now people are trying to tell you that a system that you trust, that you feel protected by, is racist and wrong? The answer MUST be that this is an isolated event and that Michael Brown acted in a way that justified Wilson shooting him in fear of his own life. Maybe our quickness to jump to Wilson’s defense stems from the answer to the question, “If we were in his place, would we have done the same thing?” I myself have been the culprit of the grab-your-purse-when-you-are-in-close-quarters-with-a-black-man move. And I am aware that I’m just socialized to react that way, so each time it happens, I make a conscious effort to relax. But in a perceived life or death situation, you can’t just tell yourself to calm down. How do we get to a place where our law enforcement officers do not feel that their life is threatened by black males?
Racism isn’t something that I feel. I had to learn about it. For those who don’t go looking for it, it is impossible to learn about something that you don’t know exists in the first place. Nobody wants to be racist because we all know that it is bad. Just as the nature of oppression in this country has transformed since emancipation, so has what it means to be racist. We know that it’s wrong to kill somebody because they are black. We have to ask ourselves why Wilson felt so threatened by Michael Brown that he shot to kill.
Where do you see people of color in your day-to-day life? What roles do they play? Where do you see people of color in the media? In TV and movies? Who has control over what content goes into those institutions? Who are the legislators, the CEOs, the producers? For those who feel lost by these sorts of questions but are open for more conversation, read Peggy McIntosh’s Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, Tim Wise’s White Like Me, and Debby Irving’s Waking Up White. And then once you understand your place as a white person in this country, start trying to understand the black experience. Read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, President Obama’s Dreams of My Father, and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.
For white allies who know what’s up and can have those conversations with other whites, I implore you, do not get angry with other white people who simply don’t understand. That doesn’t mean don’t be angry—anger at injustice is what drives the movement—but be angry in spaces where people understand your anger, and then present people who haven’t had the opportunity to learn about racism with the same open mind that you want them to have with you. Everyone is a product of their society and you have to meet people where they are, or else you will alienate an otherwise willing supporter. Like I said, usually no one is actively trying to be racist, and you are not above anyone just because you understand how systems of injustice work.
At the Black Student Forum town hall meeting last Monday, we spent a lot of time talking about how to be a useful white ally. Because being spoken to about racism from someone of your own race is oftentimes easier to swallow, we have a particular responsibility in the movement for racial justice.
So first and foremost, it is the role of the white ally to follow black leadership. For the past two weeks Boston College’s Black Student Forum has been organizing events in reaction to the lack of indictment for Darren Wilson—leading protests, panels, and meetings about the issue which allow students space to voice their concerns about BC’s reaction and what BC can do to improve the experience of non-white students at this school. White people have a tendency to want to help, which comes from a good place. We are used to having our voices heard whenever we have a grievance to voice, but this is one space where it is not our grievances that matter. Racism is our problem, in that we perpetuate and benefit from the systems that oppress non-white people (again, if you don’t know how this works, read the aforementioned books), but when joining a black-led movement, we are only participants.
The next most important thing for white allies to do is to keep learning. Racial awareness is a continuous process—as something that we do not experience, we have to keep re-conditioning ourselves to identify when systems of injustice are present (which is most of the time). As knowledgeable white people, we have an absolute responsibility to speak up when we encounter other white people who don’t understand systems of injustice. The discourse on race in this country is changing, and white people—allies or not—have to prepare for a new wave of the justice movement.
Featured Image by Alex Gaynor / Heights Senior Staff