(As originally published on Medium)
Hey there! My name’s Kate. I’m a thirty-six-year-old white woman with a black husband, a black stepson, black in-laws, and many black friends and loved ones. More importantly, I give a shit about my fellow human being and have a real hatred of injustice, inequality, and the subjugation or mistreatment of anyone.
If you’re like me and want to know what you can do as a white ally to the antiracism movement, then please — let me bend your ear/blur your eyes for a while!
Once upon a time, I was a criminal defense attorney and on the boards of directors for the Rhode Island ACLU, the national ACLU, and the Rhode Island Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Not that listing my street creds is relevant or necessary when it comes to being an antiracist and an effective ally for the antiracism movement, but I bring these things up to explain why I consider issues of civil rights, social rights, human rights, and criminal justice to be deeply personal and important to me and my life.
The point is, I used to be a loud-mouthed civil rights and criminal justice advocate. Then a bunch of diabetic complications and the resurgence of a tumor on my spine forced me to hang up my hat as a practicing attorney. Now I spend most hours of most days dealing with constant pain and fatigue, which makes it pretty difficult to be productive. I don’t say this to elicit sympathy, but it’s been a tough transition into disabled life over the last few years, and I’m still brainstorming as to how I can do my part to effectuate real change on the issues I care about the most.
While I’ve managed to start a diabetic podcast and write a self-help memoir about my life as a perpetual professional patient, a former elite athlete, a former criminal defense attorney and activist, and now, as a disabled person, I still feel like I’ve been sitting on the sidelines while others are doing the real work.
For the past three years, whenever criminal justice or social justice or civil rights issues have come up, whenever news spread about yet another black person being killed or assaulted by law enforcement officers sworn to “protect and serve,” I’ve felt many a pang of guilt over not getting involved and angry at my body for sidelining me. Not productive, not healthy, I know, but it’s how I’ve felt.
Then the killing of George Floyd happened.
I’ve spent these last few weeks feeling a depth of despair and anger and powerless in being unable to effectuate meaningful change that I’ve never felt before. The police officer’s unjustified killing of Mr. Floyd reminded me so much of Eric Garner’s untimely demise, and it showed me how, once again, almost nothing has changed in terms of police brutality, discrimination, and aggression towards the black community. All of the efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement, the protests (and yes, riots as well) in Ferguson and elsewhere, all of the documented unjustified and disproportionate violence at the hands of the police and aimed at so many unarmed, nonviolent persons of color — where does it get us?
Multiple (presumably trained and qualified) officers watched their coworker asphyxiate a human being for nearly nine minutes, past the point in which the suspect and onlookers made it clear that the man couldn’t breathe, past the point in which Mr. Floyd lost consciousness, and continuing after paramedics had already arrived to render aid. Not that it should matter why this officer committed an unjustified killing of an unarmed human being who presented no physical threat to the officer or others, but the alleged crime for which George Floyd was arrested (and subsequently lost his life over) was using a suspected counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes. Yet another death over fucking cigarettes.
The fact that it took until now, the year 2020, for the majority of Americans to recognize and finally believe that a police officer in today’s day and age was capable of snuffing out the life of a black man fills me with rage.
The fact that there’ve been countless reportings over the years of police encounters with racial minorities ending up in violence or death, with a great number of them being audio or video-recorded since Rodney King and almost none of them resulting in the officers involved being held criminally responsible makes me sick.
The fact that it took until this instance, in which there was no possible way for people to blame the victim for causing his own death, drives me up the wall.
And the fact that my fellow white people are still tossing around the “bad apple” belief regarding the police force instead of acknowledging a systemic problem, and still pushing the black-on-black crime rates makes me feel as if real change is impossible.
Seriously, why bring up black-on-black crime? Are the majority of people killing black people other black people? Yes.
Just like the majority of people murdering white people are other white people.
Trotting out the black on black murder statistic is not only a deflection against the real issue, it’s a serious distortion of the bigger picture, which is that racial groups tend to commit violence against other members of the same racial group.
When you trot out black on black crime stats and the idea that there are a very small number of “bad apples” on the police force in response to claims of systemic racism, you’re saying: “Hey, don’t get so bent out of shape that this one bad officer may have unjustly killed this black person. Other black people are more dangerous to the black community than cops are!”
With this line of argument, you’re also perpetuating the age-old stereotype that black people are dangerous and violent, and thereby justifying police officers’ (and society’s) fear of them.
How many bad apples do we need to identify before America finally acknowledges the fact that the orchard is rotted?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m well aware that most law enforcement officers are hardworking, well-intentioned, brave individuals who risk their personal safety in order to protect others’.
This isn’t about dangerous blacks or rare bad apples on the police force. Just as a black man has the right to not be murdered over trying to use a fake $20 bill, so do police officers deserve the right to go home to their families at night.
This is about a culture and a system that continues to perpetuate bias, both implicit and explicit. Our laws may no longer allow slavery or segregation, they may state that all people are to be treated equal, that black people and women are allowed to vote and own property, that same-sex marriages are lawful in all fifty states. I’m sure that most of us have been raised to respect and treat everybody the same, regardless of a person’s race, religion, or sexual orientation, but you’re fooling yourself if you think we’re all actually treated the same and given the same opportunities to succeed in America.
And yet, right after George Floyd’s death, Rush Limbaugh had the sheer audacity to tell the three black radio hosts of The Breakfast Club morning show (and their millions of listeners) that white privilege and white supremacy don’t exist. Worse still, he claimed that they’re recent social constructs perpetuated by today’s Democratic party. It’s that kind of statement, especially when it’s coming from a person in a position of power and influence, that makes me feel like I’m being gaslighted.
I know that history is written by the victors, but even white America’s version of history includes an (albeit brief) overview of hundreds of years of slavery, denial of the rights to property, liberty, equal protection, and to vote. The land of the free and the home of the brave was founded on violent, despicable acts committed by whites against indigenous persons first living in America when it was first “discovered” by colonizers. Then different white people bought Africans and took them against their will to our brave new world, at which point they sold them, enslaved them, raped the women, beat, whipped, tortured, and killed men and women alike, denied them the right to marry or own property, and declared them to be three-fifths of a person.
It’s only been one hundred and fifty-five years since we finally declared slavery illegal, and only fifty-two years since the end of the Civil Rights Movement. In between the Thirteenth Amendment being ratified in 1865 and the Civil Rights Act being signed into law in 1964, black individuals were considered “free” and whole human beings, but were required by law to keep separate from the white race.
For almost the entire first century that black people were supposedly free, they were told by law as to where to live, where to work, where to eat, where to shop, where to go to the movies, where to go to school, where to take a drink of water, where to sit on the bus or train, which entrance to take to enter a building, and where to use the restroom. Violators could be fined, jailed, or end up dead.
White people weren’t legally mandated as to where they had to eat, sleep, shit, and work. They were treated by law as the superior race. And if you factor in the number of unlawful lynchings of black people (as well as a number of white people who were deemed guilty of helping a black person in some way) that were advertised in the local paper and attended by swarms of white onlookers, you might get the sense that white people have considered themselves supreme for the vast majority of our country’s history.
I don’t give a shit what school Limbaugh went to as a child — you’re telling me he’s never heard of slavery? Slave patrols? The Civil War? Lynch mobs? Jim Crow laws? The Civil Rights Movement? The history behind the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution? No? Bueller? Bueller?
You don’t have to be “woke” or liberal or a Democrat or a high school graduate to recognize the fact that whites have been privileged in this country since the moment we came here and took it away from a bunch of non-whites. And you don’t have to currently hold feelings of white supremacy to recognize the existence of a little group known as the KKK (with many affiliated with the group’s ideology now going by what they most likely assume (wrongly) is a stealthier name, “White Nationalists”). The Birth of a Nation, anybody?
The fact that people like Limbaugh (and our Commander in Chief) hold such powerful and influential positions over others and can spew such ignorant, factually-incorrect and uninformed bullshit with a straight face, often with a smirk? When they know that they are influencing the minds and hearts of so many others? If I didn’t believe so strongly in the First Amendment, I’d advocate for the criminalization of such damaging, inciting, evil words.
This shit has honestly made me feel defeated. How do I, as an individual, help effectuate or hope for meaningful change when there are human beings out there telling themselves that we’re post-color, post-racism, that white privilege and white supremacy don’t exist (and apparently never existed)? Who are in positions of power and influence and are telling their followers to ignore American history and proven, universally accepted facts, all so that they can tell themselves they’re not racist and are good people?
I’m sure slaveowners didn’t think they were bad people either. I bet they really convinced themselves to believe that black people were property, not human beings, and it was only natural to treat them as such. I bet segregationists told themselves they had nothing against “colored people” — they just didn’t want to live near them, go to school with them, share public fountains or restrooms with them. No offense. Separate, but equal.
I’m sure that most Americans are well-intentioned, that most of us care about our fellow human and do not want to hurt or offend anyone. I’m sure most people are against any law or policy that mistreats or targets or neglects someone because of their skin color.
I’m sure that no one (except for maybe white nationalists) wants to see another unjustified murder of or violence towards a black person at the hands of the police ever again.
But in order for our country to really put a stop to these kinds of injustices, in order to effectuate systemic, lasting change, we’re going to have to dispel the teachings of Limbaugh and Trump, et al., and have real conversations about how our current society continues to subjugate or devalue certain groups of people.
Let me take a step back and make perfectly clear that I am not attempting to speak on behalf of racial minorities or take any attention away from black voices right now. I’m also not trying to white-splain the situation or pretend I completely understand what it’s like to be black and living in America.
What I can attest to are my life experiences as a white woman who’s an ally to the black community, as a person who has studied race relations (both formally and informally) for almost twenty years, and as a former criminal defense attorney and civil rights activist. And from what I’ve seen, racism and biases of all kinds can be quite subtle. These prejudgments and overgeneralizations seep into the version of history we’re taught in school, into the type of neighborhoods or groups we’re told to avoid as teens. It leads potential employers to pass over resumes with stereotypically black or Latinx names in favor of applicants with similar qualifications but white-sounding names on their resumes.
Whether intentional or not, highlighting the black on black crime stat is a subtle reference to the stereotype that black people (especially black men) are dangerous and physically aggressive with police officers, far more so than their white counterparts. That idea seeps into the criminal laws our country passes, and into grand jurors’ and trial jurors’ minds when deciding on a black defendant’s or police officer’s fate.
Black and Latinx drug users are usually seen as dangerous criminals, while whites affected by the recent opioid crisis are seen as suffering from the disease of addiction. That line of thought has led to the wildly disproportionate detention, frisking, arrest, charging, prosecuting, and imprisoning of black men for decades.
Lawmakers (presumably) don’t meet up with one another and overtly strategize how they can incarcerate and harshly punish black people. But those subtle racist beliefs, which have frightened white, suburban voters and political donors for decades, creates a much different experience for a black man found with drugs than a white man in possession of the same type and quantity of drug.
Even if you give lawmakers the benefit of doubt and assume they weren’t intentionally creating drug laws that criminalized possession of crack cocaine (a drug that, at one point, was found to be predominately used by black individuals) one hundred times more harshly than powder cocaine (found to be used more often by white individuals), the effect of those sentencing laws did serious damage to black families and their community.
Even if the black community, who’s been mistreated and manipulated and ignored and vilified countless times since it was deemed “equal” to whites under the law, accepted lawmakers’ claims that they never meant to unduly suspect, charge, prosecute, convict, incarcerate and re-incarcerate persons of color, does that make it okay? Does it change the fact that the system is not and has never been equal to all? Fuck no!
That’s why you have to understand the system before you can go around claiming there’s nothing wrong with it.
And the same goes for white privilege. If you refuse to learn about just how many ways your whiteness benefits you on a daily basis, you have absolutely no right to deny that white privilege exists.
And yes, I’m aware that there are a lot of low-income white people living in the same communities as low-income persons of color. I agree that life as a low-income/indigent person living in America does not afford you a lot of privilege, and that the struggles of a low-income white person will be pretty similar to those of a low-income black person.
A white man living in the projects still holds some privilege simply by being white. He’s still going to be able to exercise his white privilege when he’s walking down the street and is less likely to be stopped by the police than his black neighbor. When he gets to the grocery store, the white man is probably not going to be eyed with suspicion and followed around the store by store employees who assume he’s there to steal something, while his black neighbor is far more likely to be hassled.
The same goes for a black person and a white person living in the same middle-class neighborhood, driving the same class of car, living in similar homes, shopping at the same stores. If you followed a white business professional from his home in that neighborhood to his job every day for a year, and you followed a black man from that same neighborhood for the same length of time, driving the same kind of car, wearing the same business attire, driving the same streets, similarly obeying the same exact traffic laws, I bet some of you would be surprised to learn that the black man is going to get pulled over by police far more often than the white driver.
But if you’re white and you’ve never experienced being pulled over constantly for the smallest driving infraction or for no infraction at all, and you’ve never actually witnessed a person of color being subjected to that treatment, you’re going to go through life assuming it just doesn’t happen anymore.
Completely understandable that you’d hold that assumption. What’s not understandable or acceptable is you denying the fact that it happens just because it’s never happened to you or your friends. Or, as Rush Limbaugh did during his interview with The Breakfast Club, saying he’s a “hermit and a recluse” and doesn’t “go out and do all that kind of stuff” when asked by DJ Envy if Limbaugh has ever been physically pulled out of his car by the police because he was driving a nice car, or stopped and frisked by the police just for walking down a city street. It’s not because you’re a hermit, Rush — you haven’t been treated that way by the police because you’re a rich white man.
You also cannot claim to live in a post-racial society just because you think you “don’t see color.” You do. As long as you’re not vision-impaired, you do. We all see color. The question is whether you treat someone differently or view them in a different light simply because their skin color differs from yours.
Most of us, at some point in our lives, has made an assumption about or a judgment of someone based upon that person’s race or gender or class or religion or sexual orientation. We’ve all been socialized into believing things about certain groups of people. But most people would probably rather admit to committing a felony than admit they’re biased or prejudiced or racist in some way.
I’m sure you’ve all seen a well-intentioned white person who becomes defensive after they’re confronted with their own biases or prejudices or racism. At this point, who hasn’t heard a white person say some version of: “I can’t be racist! My best friend is black!”? If you’ve ever been called out for a prejudiced or biased statement, you know just how embarrassing and uncomfortable and awkward it is. I feel your pain.
Throughout my own self-growth process, I’ve experienced plenty of white guilt and have had to learn how to deal with those feelings. I’ve also had several moments in which I’ve uncovered prejudices and biases I didn’t even realize I’d been holding onto. Those were not proud moments.
Unfortunately, it takes years of unpacking what society and school and your parents and mentors have taught you, rethinking what your values are, and questioning what you believe and why you believe it. You’re not born racist, and as a young child, you’re usually just looking for someone, anyone to play with — you have no concept of the fact that certain groups of people are seen as less-than . . . not until you’re taught that hierarchy by the grownups in your life. Even if your teachers and parents aren’t overtly racist, they can still send you signals that still get the message across. “Stay away from that neighborhood, it’s filled with drugs and guns.” “Don’t you want to play with someone . . . more like you?” Etc.
During my formative years, I received both covert and overt messages regarding persons of color, those of lower (and higher) socioeconomic status, LGBTQIA+ individuals, those of different ethnicities, and more. I didn’t perpetuate all of those messages unto others, and some I rejected (or at least questioned) immediately. But others managed to seep into my subconscious, and damn, have they been tricky to uncover and dispel.
We have to stop being so damn scared to admit these things and to figure out our misconceptions. Otherwise, they’ll never be eradicated and we’ll pass them down to the next generation.
Being prejudiced against someone doesn’t mean you’re evil. But if you deny holding any prejudices, or you don’t put in the work to figure out how, why, and in what ways you’re prejudiced, you‘re part of the problem.
Same thing with having white privilege — having it, in and of itself, doesn’t automatically make you a shit-bag. You didn’t ask to be born white in America. That being said, you’re still living in a society in which you benefit from your whiteness while your non-white counterparts are suffering in innumerable ways.
If you ignore the fact that you have white privilege, or help perpetuate the same system that gave it to you in the first place, then you’re not so innocent anymore. Don’t you have some responsibility, as a beneficiary of the system, to try and ensure that the system doesn’t continue to subjugate more people in the future?
Let’s be clear, I’m not saying that you, John Doe, are personally responsible for creating slavery over four hundred years ago or for segregation or for lynchings or for the prison industrial complex. But you do have a responsibility, as a participating member of a democratic society, to do what you can to make sure you’re not perpetuating this mess and allowing these injustices to continue. And part of that responsibility is to make sure you fully understand all the ways in which race still matters in this country.
Look, I know it’s not easy or comfortable. I’ve spent the last two decades learning about and being cognizant of my privilege and prejudices as a middle-class suburban white cis straight woman, and I still have a long way to go. But I’m committed to the process. Disability or not, I am able to do this work. I am willing and able to speak about issues of white privilege and of racial subjugation in this country with anyone who’s willing to join in on the conversation.
Will you commit to this process with me? To learning about your own privilege and prejudices, and then speak with others about theirs? Are you willing to get uncomfortable and discuss race, class, a disparate criminal justice system, our current power structure, and ways in which we can effectuate equity? Not just with likeminded liberals and fellow allies to the antiracism movement, but with those on the opposite end of the political spectrum?
Are you willing to speak out against prejudice and racism and biases whenever you hear them voiced? Even when they’re voiced by your favorite relative or best friend? Are you willing to get awkward in the name of equality and fairness?
Will you commit to learning more about others, empathizing without judging other people’s experiences and cultures? To listen to the thoughts and feelings of those who’ve actually experienced discrimination and oppression and do your best to challenge anyone who believes we’re living in a post-racial America? Or says that white privilege or supremacy is a recent social construct fabricated by the Democratic party?
Keep learning from leaders in the antiracist movement. Keep leaning on your fellow allies for support. Keep searching for and thinking of new ways in which you can be more effective in the antiracism movement. I know I will.
To anyone who’s reading this and wondering how you can start the process of learning about white privilege, black history, and the antiracism movement, the following is a very short list of resources that I’ve either used already or plan to use in the immediate future in my quest to be a more informed and effective ally and antiracist.
And if I can be of any help to you, or you want more recommendations for resources on these subjects, please do not hesitate to contact me through my website.
Please be well, stay safe, and treat yourselves and others with respect and grace.
- Layla F. Saad, Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor(workbook)
- Mumia Abu-Jamal, Have Black Lives Ever Mattered?
- Patrisse Khan-Cullors, When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir
- Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist
- Stacey Abrams, Our Time is Now
- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Why We Can’t Wait
- Randall Kennedy, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word
- Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption
- Jen Marlowe, Martina Correia-Davis, and Troy Davis, I Am Troy Davis
- Adam Rutherford, How to Argue With a Racist: What Our Genes Do (and Don’t) Say About Human Difference, expected release date: August 11, 2020
- Malcolm Gladwell, Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know(which discusses the untimely death of Sandra Bland and how assumptions and prejudgments and even the reading of another’s body language can and many times do lead to devastating consequences during human interactions)
- Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
- Assata Shakur, Assata: An Autobiography
- Reni Eddo-Lodge, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race
- Robin DiAngelo and Michael Eric Dyson, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism