For the past 40+ years, I have been proud of the wrong thing. I attended a predominantly black high school in a predominantly black neighborhood. I once held a party at my house in which I was the only white kid. As sports editor for the Daily Californian at UC Berkeley, I interacted with many black athletes, and as a young adult, I bore witness to, advocated for, and fought alongside community leaders and policy makers, many of them black, for equal rights and opportunities. As my friend Robert said to me at the time, “you’re blacker than a lot of black people.”
I didn’t really know how to process what that meant, but it sounded cool. Being a friend to the black community was cool, and I took a sort of naive delight in it. Into my late 20s and early 30s, I had moved past seeing people in terms of their color. I had earned this pedigree, I believed. I owned the resume to defend this stance, and I had proudly proclaimed myself to be post racial.
Man, that sure was stupid.
Today, it is evident that none of the good intentions of my youth are worth a damn. Our country is as racially divided as ever, systemic racism is everywhere, and knowing in my heart that I am not bigoted is about as useful as a Facebook post that calls for us all to love each other. I sat on the sidelines of the black struggle for nearly 30 years and let’s just call this what it is: I am part of the systemic racism. I am practically the face of it — the white dude who means well but does nothing.
Black folk in America have gotten the shaft for centuries and white folk cannot even begin to fathom what it must be like for them. I’m not going to take up this space to mansplain white privilege, especially when a veritable bible exists, thanks to journalist Lori Lakin Hutcherson. White people exude their privilege precisely because they do not feel it. We can’t relate to being the only person of our skin color in a room. We don’t know what it’s like to have all eyes fall upon us as we enter a convenience store. We never think about how we must represent ourselves in the presence of law enforcement (like the man Hutcherson depicts who keeps a stuffed animal in his car, so a cop who pulls him over might see him as a black family man, not just a black man). And we don’t know what it feels like to have someone say about us, “she’s black, but she’s really smart.”
We white folk can’t understand the conversations that black parents need to have with their children about how the world is so profoundly different for them, at an age when we are wondering what to say to ours about Santa Claus. We can’t relate to the regular conference calls that black parents conduct in order to compare notes: what is the right thing to say to their four-year-olds, their eight-year-olds, their 13-year-olds? At what age do you tell them that they could be killed if they aren’t careful?
Mother Nature discriminates: more black than white people per capita die in hurricanes. Even Covid-19 is racist, felling a much higher percentage of blacks than whites.
Black people neither need nor want sympathy from me, but they sure have my admiration. They sustain and grow their culture despite these injustices, if not actually because of them. “Hallelujah anyhow,” explains Van Jones, CNN political commentator. “That’s black theology in two words. No matter what you do to us, you’re not going to steal our fundamental joy.” That is amazing, beautiful, and sad, all at once.
I am grateful the PC term “African American” has fallen out of favor; I never liked it. Not only is it potentially inaccurate (not all black people identify their roots as African), it is also weak. Black is a stronger, better word. I am white, you are black — simple and pure. I loved how Michelle Obama used her Democratic convention address to describe her daughters as “two beautiful, intelligent, black young women.”
Adding to this etymological digression is the increasingly popular usage of Black, capitalized as a proper race. Many literary style guides now consider that to be preferred usage, while interestingly, white is not to be capitalized, according to those same arbiters of style. (I understand the selective capitalization intellectually, my personal jury is still out on it, and I will use the rest of this article to try it on for size.)
The (Grass) Roots of BLM
“Hallelujah anyhow” is why the Black Lives Matter experience makes sense to me: it is a grass roots movement that does not have a charismatic MLK-like leader. Founded by three women in 2013, BLM is a bottom-up organization that almost goes out of its way to not surround itself with celebrity. “We work with everyday people,” says co-founder Patrisse Cullors, not wanting personality to supersede cause.
The murder of George Floyd became momentous for two reasons. First, BLM found an unlikely, but somehow fitting martyr in a less-than-upstanding citizen. Floyd had a lengthy rap sheet, and while he appeared to be turning his life around, he was far from a celebrity figure or role model.
More significant was how his murder galvanized millions of white Americans by the sheer awfulness of the act. It was so blatant and so incomprehensible, it cut through our white privilege right to our very core. We couldn’t imagine how this ever could have happened, which of course, is yet one more example of systemic racism.
And with that heinous act, the Black Lives Matter movement suddenly has become palatable to tens of millions of white Americans who otherwise would have disregarded it, or worse, meekly parroted that now-all-too-familiar reaction. And here, as a delightful aside, is the best retort that exists on the planet to the “all lives matter” response.
Whether you regard her as a rising cultural voice or the Black person’s anti-hero (and it’s the latter for me), Candace Owens is correct when she points out that a small percentage of Black violence is committed by the police and that a larger share is Black-on-Black crime. She speaks forcefully about how Black men have to step up and be more accountable for their actions. While it might be the only area where we see eye to eye, I do agree with her about the importance of responsibility to the community and the need for Black families to remain intact.
It is okay to acknowledge this. It’s okay to draw your line about unacceptable protest behavior. It is perfectly all right to speak out against vandalism, property damage, and violence. It is acceptable to express uncertainty about events that you can’t relate to. You just can’t pretend that they don’t happen or that they are senseless and without reason.
So what can you do?
Start with the obvious: don’t be a fool like me for most of your adult life. Do not proudly proclaim your color-blindness. Acknowledge white privilege, admit to systemic racism, and concede that you are part of these very real phenomena. Then consider some of the following actions:
Advocate for 8 Can’t Wait: This initiative identifies eight ways to regulate law enforcement’s use of force: 1) ban choke holds and strangleholds, 2) require an effort at de-escalation, 3) require warnings before shooting, 4) require exhausting all alternatives before shooting, 5) duty to intervene with fellow officers, 6) ban shooting at moving vehicles, 7) require use of force continuum, 8) require comprehensive reporting. Not every one of these will be appropriate for all cities — New York cops need more leeway than those here in my town of Pleasanton. The victory will be in compelling our respective hometowns to consider them and adopt those that are appropriate.
Lobby for mandatory body cameras: What a great tool of technology that is. What an offense against sensibility that police officers are not universally required to wear and activate them.
Seek social justice: If you witness racial discrimination, legal recourse is way too slow. Post examples of it and make it shareable. Few things will get a business’s attention than bad P.R.
Push for continued decriminalization of marijuana: There is no evidence that Black people smoke weed more than white people, but there is ample evidence that Black people are arrested more for it.
Host a watch party for the Netflix documentary 13th, which explores the history of racial inequality in the United States.
Visit 75 Things: Peruse the list from which several of these suggestions came. It is a living document simply entitled “75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice.”
Refer Black storytellers to us: The Presentation Summit is always looking for qualified Black presenters to share their narratives. Please steer us to ones you know.
Talk to Black people: Well, what a concept! In fact, not all Blacks are comfortable speaking about race issues with whites, but we all must be held to the same standard here. We all need to get a bit out of our comfort zones.
Not a sprint
Achieving racial justice is a marathon, not a sprint, and after decades of non-action, the marathon starts with wokeness. Black people everywhere share how much they appreciate white people simply owning up to their own disregard, however unintentional it might have been.
To quote my daughter Jamie, who often acts as my mentor in these matters, “We have to learn new behaviors and unlearn old behaviors, and the way to do that is to research, read, and listen. For those of us who haven’t directly experienced racism, we need to accept that we are going to say the wrong thing sometimes, but that shouldn’t stop us from doing the work.”
Our ancestors might have been the ones who first broke this, but we have done little to fix it, having allowed a thousand little cuts over generations to become deep wounds. Our work to fix that which we helped break is not done until Black people tell us it is.