You can't escape coverage of the escalating protests in Baltimore this week. Headlines declare it, radios buzz about it, people tweet nonstop on it. The spectrum of opinions on this movement varies greatly, perhaps depending on a number of factors such as age, gender, race, geographical location and job. I live in North Carolina, a few hours south of Baltimore, in a state no stranger to race discussions and historical oppression. I have watched these events with great interest, but one of the most disheartening effects for me is the responses I see from friends and strangers on social media.
Undeniably, I live with white privilege. Because racism is a system -- not small acts done by individuals -- that means as a white person I have unwittingly participated in the oppression of people of color. A recent documentary I watched called I'm Not Racist... Am I? argued that all white people are racist, because all white people benefit from the system as-is. All white people, regardless of income or education or even gender, experience and benefit from white privilege. I am aware that this is a controversial statement, and most white people don't want to be complicit in the ongoing oppression of our fellow Americans. But I know my role in the protests is different than a person of color. I have not been oppressed. I have not worried about getting a job or a ticket or a death warrant because of my race.
However, because my husband is black and my daughter is half-black, I watch these protests with concern for my family. I wonder if my husband is the next Mike Brown or Eric Garner or Freddie Gray. I wonder if my daughter will be the next Marissa Alexander or Aiyana Jones or Rekia Boyd. I worry about the justice system that could and probably will fail them at some point, if not on a near-daily basis. Two nights ago, as the Baltimore protests took over headlines, I had a terrible nightmare about a gigantic white snake following me around my house, its fangs searching. When I woke up at 5 am I couldn't go back to sleep, so vivid was the memory in my mind. It was only later that I wondered at the symbolism, the wretched snake that is sneaking its way through our public consciousness.
I saw many white friends post links on Facebook to GoFundMe pages to help Baltimore police. There were conversations to send the police a lot of protein bars and other supplies. One friend posted a picture of a burning car and another person commented on it, declaring disgust at the "ghetto thugs" responsible. No one who spoke of good police mentioned Freddie Gray or the reason behind the protests.
But what can we do? Some ideas:
1. Refrain from judging how oppressed people handle their oppression. White people might feel marginalized sometimes -- especially women and those that are poor or gay, etc. -- but we are not people of color, and therefore we are not oppressed in the way that POC are. We have no say in how effectively such communities pursue justice. In this sense, do not use Dr. Martin Luther King's strategy of nonviolence as a way to shame those who rise up in Baltimore. Even Dr. King said, "A riot is the language of the unheard."
2. Seek all sides of the story. Many whites are content with the narrative being told, that looting is bad and police are good and there are ghetto thugs terrorizing the city. "What if it was your car, or your store, being burned?" they say, or add, "My husband is a good cop. I know so many good cops!" But this narrative is incomplete. As one protestor said, broken windshields are not broken spines. Cars can be replaced, but people can't. We have been fed an image of blacks committing violence, but truly we have to consider that their anger is justified, that their rage is valid, that police brutality is real. So you know a good cop? Great. I hope there are more out there. But racism is a system, not one person. Police brutality is a system, not one person. Do not be satisfied merely supporting police. There are enough reports out there, like this one and this one and this one and this one, that reveal facts and statistics about how Baltimore has crippled its black community. Question how you perpetuate the one-sided story, like by using coded language like "thugs," or condemning the riots without acknowledging the valid anger and loss of life. Even President Obama, who tends to be more diplomatic, said that change will not occur until we, all of us, admit there is a problem, and that the children who are oppressed are not "others," but rather belong to all of us. Those who say Dr. King would be ashamed forget that Dr. King said you cannot condemn a riot without also condemning the intolerable conditions that led to it.
3. Understand white privilege. If this terms is new or offensive to you, take a look at this questionnaire by Peggy McIntosh. It is very revealing as to the nature of racial privilege, which affects our lives in more ways than we may think.
4. We cannot stay silent. Maybe you have chosen to just stay out of it. Certainly, there is enough going on in the world and our daily lives to distract us. But the problem is that silence makes us complicit. When we condemn riots but not police, we are in fact endorsing and perpetuating racial violence.
One way that we can begin to shift the narrative as white allies is to seek the full story. Follow the uprising on the ground by following @deray and @urbancusp and @luvvie and @iJessieWilliams and @ShaunKing on Twitter. Urban Cusp also has a strong presence on Facebook with tons of videos and updates. Seek to understand the prevalence of white privilege -- like how it allows whites to riot without being called thugs, such as here. Invest yourself in the movement, by learning more and by calling out white people when they perpetuate racism and racial violence. Think about how this permeates our daily lives, even if we don't live in Baltimore. Consider how our black coworkers might not feel safe at work, or our students of color who might feel unsafe at school, due to our silence or our condemnation. Let's strive to go from being bystanders to being allies.