An Open Letter to White People on Racial Equality

Illustration by Coralie Dapice | BDN Maine

For the longest time I have felt uncomfortable and useless amidst the “Black Lives Matter” movement and the growing racial tension in this country. My discomfort stems from my identity: I am a white man, a physical manifestation of the political, social, and economic systems that have dehumanized, enslaved, and slaughtered people of color for hundreds of years. A man who has benefited from systems whites have built and dominate, a man ignorant of the privilege he has been extended at the expense of other human beings.

I have only started to realize how complicit I have been in racism, and how hypocritical I have been in cheering for racial equality whilst ignoring and denying my own white privilege and aloofness. Having attended a liberal university I assumed my exposure to greater diversity of thought and identity made me more of an ally and agent of equality, but what I have come to realize is that it is not enough to believe in racial equality in a theoretical sense. Words without actions are meaningless; saying you believe in equality does not mean you have done an adequate job of advocating it. Making a Facebook status about how passionately you feel about “Black Lives Matter” is meaningless if you have failed to check in with a black friend, neighbor, or coworker to ask how you can better assist them. And trying to distance yourself from the ugly history of racism by ignoring it or dismissing it does nothing to advance the cause either.

I have to be honest and say I have very few friends of color. I grew up in a mostly white, privileged city surrounded by people who live at the intersection of “reverse racism” and “color blindness”. Growing up I was told that all people should be treated as equal, but I was never asked to question whether or not society reflected this moral code that was instilled in me. I was never told to question whether or not the liberties I enjoyed were at the expense of another group, nor was I conditioned to question any subconscious prejudices I developed as a result of the media and social systems around me. And what I’ve come to realize is that white people, regardless of economic or social background, will never truly understand what it’s like to be anything other than white and privileged—and no amount of education will change that. White people have created and reinforced a society where our racial interests and perspectives have become unracialized and accepted as fact, which makes it nearly impossible for us to see how important a role race plays in the lives of other people.

Until we are less represented in media we will not understand what it’s like to feel unseen and unheard.  Until we have people cringe in fear or roll their eyes every time we walk down the street or step onto the subway we will not understand what it’s like to feel profiled or uninvited. Until we are shot and killed for our skin color we will not fully understand why movements like “Black Lives Matter” are vital. But just because we cannot fully understand and identify with racism does not mean we are allowed to distance ourselves from its ugly realities. Instead we have to hold ourselves accountable for racism and use our privilege to support the fight for racial equality. We also have to acknowledge racism in all of its forms—even when that racism is coming from us.

I have felt uncomfortable and useless because I have allowed my identity as a white person to take the forefront in the fight for racial equality. I have spent far too much time analyzing the role I should be playing in this fight. I have worried about saying the wrong thing, or exposing my own white fragility, but I know now that disengaging from racial issues for fear of discomfort or seeming racist is racist in its own way. In this case, inaction equals approval, and silence equals death.

It’s important to know that we as white people are secondary players in this fight; we should only serve to be resources and allies to people of color. We have no right to try and take center stage or impose our limited perspectives of racism on other people. We have no right to tone police people of color, or try to indulge our own white savior complexes. Our main job is to serve, and if people of color say we are being invasive or triggering by entering a certain space we must be ready to walk away and bow out. Because at the end of the day our individual identities mean little in the fight against racism- we should all be held accountable for the systems that were created hundreds of years ago and continue to be nurtured today. We may not own slaves or be passing out smallpox blankets, but we have an obligation to do right by the groups of people we’ve historically targeted and killed. You and I may not have built these systems, but we sure as hell haven’t given our best shot at dismantling them.

It’s telling that as a white person my greatest fear is having to own up to my own white guilt and the subconscious racism within me. White people are so privileged to be able to worry about such things. Unfortunately, while we’re busy being scared of looking guilty or stupid our fellow citizens are being policed and killed. I think it’s about time we remove our heads from our asses and start doing something.

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