Whenever my white friends confess, I didn’t know it was this bad—it being racism—my reaction is always one of surprise and sadistic glee. As a Black man, I find it surprising that yet another white person has chosen to eschew the comfort and bliss that accompanies whiteness, in an attempt to better understand the depth and breadth of racism in a world that has so welcomed them. To me, as a Black man, their confession is a joyous sight to behold. How could it not be? To be present when someone white can put into words the realization that Black people are living a dystopian version of their advantaged American dream is priceless.
The best part? The moment never gets old.
Don’t get me wrong. I take no pleasure in the suffering of anyone, but knowing that a white brother or sister has scratched the feelings of angst, agita, anxiety over the abject pain, degradation, and loss Black people have endured during the last 400 years gives me a sense of hope. And relief. I see the event as the place of embarkation, the starting point for that person’s journey to that place where they can appreciate the same inherent humanity in Black people that resides in them. And doing so allows them to become whole themselves.
Mind you, these friends I’m referring to aren’t closet racists. They don’t brandish Confederate iconography or flirt with subtle bigotry. The people who share their epiphany with me, I’ve known for years, decades in some instances. They are stand-up people who know right from wrong and have no problem choosing the former over the latter when making decisions. Their admission of finally seeing what has been right before their eyes is often delivered with a mix of remorse and embarrassment, much like the shame one might feel when offering an overdue apology. It’s like they’ve removed the world’s most opaque blindfold from their eyes and are seeing the world for the first time as described by Black people—awash with the glistening sheen of racism, bigotry, and hatred of all people Black.
I never tell them it is only the first of many such epiphanies.
I am in no way naive about race relations in America. Nor am I issuing a pass to white folks. After living in Black skin for x decades, one learns how to read the ways of white people—and yes, you most certainly do have ways. Over the centuries, we've developed this skill out of necessity. Every Black person’s survival depends on their ability to discern white intent and to react in ways that mitigate potential physical harm to us or our beloveds. My modus operandi in gleaning white intent consists of taking mental notes about what is said and how it is said and then comparing those notes against what is or has been done. If there is a marked discrepancy between words and actions, it gives me cause for concern and often results in me withholding trust. I broach the topic of race only with those who have demonstrated support for racial equity. Sounds like a low standard, eh? You’d be surprised how many white people who forego donning white robes and hoods harbor racial animus for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.
New allies are a good thing. Tried and steadfast allies are the best.
I’m not a fan of the term “ally” as it has a performative ring. It implies doing as opposed to being. But I’ve come to accept the word as a metonym for a larger concept: good people. Long before I ever heard the word ally used outside of its historic World War II context, my childhood in the South provided me with a world-class education in discerning the differences between good white people (those who are aware of the racial injustices levied against Black people and made it a point to treat us with the same level of respect and care afforded to white people) and those to steer clear of—the ones harboring ill will toward.
How do you know who harbors ‘ill will’?
Have you ever been the new kid in class—or the new person in a setting where everyone else knew one another—and the general vibe was one of suspicion and exclusion? It’s like that, on steroids.
New allies are a good thing. Tried and steadfast allies are the best. They’ve demonstrated a working understanding of the system, its rigging, and who’s pulling strings. They make their opposition known, sometimes subtly and sometimes overtly. I applaud all those who venture into those ranks: The more people who actively support Black men, women, and children, the merrier. In case you haven't noticed, the fight for equality is an all-hands-on-deck emergency, so the more hands, the better.
How white people speak about and treat people of different ethnic heritage is my litmus test for determining which white people I will take into my confidence. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never sat on a pew or if your profession requires that you address the public from a pulpit. If your ability to dispense love, respect, and care is contingent upon the color of someone’s skin, you have a problem and I have problem with that problem. Full stop. If you’ve given me cause to suspect that you’ve cosigned with the agenda of bigots, racists, misogynists, and the like in their efforts to advance white supremacy; I definitely won’t initiate a conversation with you about race because you’ve already tipped your hand. You don’t get the shine. You don’t get preferential treatment. The best parts of me are held at bay. I’ve been in this game a long time, and I know what can be done with the cards you’re holding.
I’m convinced that many white people, including good friends traveling the road to equality, have no idea what these new insights about systemic racism will cost them. I’ve written several times that once you see someone as human, you can never unsee their humanity. It’s true. Think about it. Can you ever return to the state where you don’t know what it’s like to touch a hot stove once you’ve given in to your curiosity and the answer sears your finger? Can you regain the ignorance of not knowing what it’s like to experience snow once you’ve been in its presence? And can you learn all there is to know about snow with one encounter? No, no, and no. The events are seared and frozen respectively in your mind. The realization that we Black people have the same needs as white people works much the same way. It changes you. It opens your mind to a broader view of possibilities. I know the notion that Black and white people—all people for that matter—have the same needs seems like common knowledge. But, common knowledge isn’t always common practice.
People rarely sign-up for anything when they know they will be fundamentally changed.
Now, I’m not white, so I don’t know what exactly goes through a white person’s mind when they decide to explore the notion of equality and learn more about Black people, but I do know people. My guess is that they’re reading along, completely unaware that the quest they are on is a slippery slope of sorts, a good one, but still slippery nonetheless. They want to increase their understanding, but they always end up getting much more than they bargained for . . . not that that’s a bad thing.
Think about it. People rarely sign-up for anything when they know they will be fundamentally changed, or the foundation of their worldview will be shaken, or that they will be emotionally overwhelmed by a new way of thinking that, like the encounter with the stove, will leave them irreversibly altered. My thing is slasher movies. I don’t watch them. I can’t watch them. Mentally, I understand that the images on the screen are not actual events. But emotionally, it disturbs me to see people mutilated. I don’t want to grow numb to the stimulus, so I don’t subject myself to that type of entertainment.
What I’m saying is this: Racists don’t want anything to do with Black people for fear of seeing the same humanity in us that is inherent to them, and everyone else who has ever drawn a breath on this planet. Once they see that, it is game over. In doing so, they realize that we have the same longings, hopes, needs, fears, and joys as them, and they have to retire that anti-Black/white supremacy mantle and that simply a bridge too far to cross. (See thoss advocating for Anglo-Saxon nonsense.) They would rather see people (Black people) die rather than entertain the possibility of a richer, fulfilling life without their racism and hatred.
But what if they did?
They would be compelled to find another belief system regarding Black people. One that asserts the equality of Black people to white people.
What will they identify as then?
When white people are shown the ways Black people have been routinely denied the opportunity to become our best selves and someone points out the roadblocks that have been thrown up at every turn, it’s like a lightbulb lights up. And when it finally sinks in that America gives white people benefits or advantages—that don’t seem like benefits at all to them because that’s the way it’s always been—which are routinely denied Black people, that’s when the electric current flows through the bulb, the bulb illuminates, and an epiphany takes place.
Whether one lives in Detroit, Des Moines, or Del Ray Beach, we all want the same things: to be accepted, understood, and loved.
Then the injustices of state-sanctioned terrorism, denial of economic opportunity, legal attacks, discrimination, stricter paths to homeownership, predatory lending, racism in the workplace, microaggressions, hate crimes, healthcare disparities, police brutality, over-policing, and the broken criminal justice system gradually come into sharp focus. It becomes impossible for them to ignore what has been thriving before their very eyes since before they were born. Whether one lives in Detroit, Des Moines, or Del Ray Beach, we all want the same things: to be accepted, understood, and loved. But not everyone is allowed access to the opportunity to pursue those ends.
As with other paradigm shifts, I’ve noticed when someone begins to open their mind to the humanity of Black people, it happens in fits and starts. Similarly, the process is never as smooth a process as turning a light switch on or off. Even with the most receptive minds, a little gentle prodding is never a bad thing.
“Matt,” a typically upbeat white guy I’ve known since way back in the day, asked for a recommendation for a good antiracism-equality book. Matt devoured Fieldnotes in Allyship in a day or so, then called me. I anticipated an engaging conversation, but in a defeatist tone that would shame Eeyore, he said, Well, I read the book. Uh-oh, and? And I guess I can never know what’s it’s like to be Black.
In my mind’s eye, I could see Matt throwing his hands up in utter resignation.
Note: If I didn’t know it was this bad fills me with sadistic glee, then I can never know what it’s like to be Black fills me not with sadness, but blind fury.
You don’t have to ‘know’ what it’s like to be Black! You know what it’s like to be human, don’t you?!
I wanted to jump through his phone, grab him by the collar, and shake some sense into him. Of course, I didn’t do that. That would be assault. And I’m not going to the big house over someone else’s ignorance.
Really, white guys?
One thing a lot of white people, especially white men, get wrong is thinking that understanding a Black person’s experience is a zero-sum game in which they either understand every conceivable nuance about the Black experience or they understand none of it. Nothing could be further from the truth. Why is that? White guys will claim to have doctorate-level knowledge and expert proficiency in anything from automotive repair to sexually satisfying a partner in bed, and they’ll do so without ever having successfully accomplished said goal. But, as long as it serves their purposes, they will say they can do anything. But when it comes to the humanity of Black people—Nope, I can’t wrap my head around that one. Too foreign.
Really, white guys?
I am convinced most white men’s knee-jerk denial of understanding of even a sliver of the Black experience is a manufactured bluff. You know, as in, This is some deep shit I’m not ready to unpack. Their denial is rooted in the fear that they will actually understand that what Black people have been saying about the pervasive and soul-crushing nature of racism is not Black folklore.
I’m going to let you in on a secret. This is how humanity works: The circumstances which make everyone’s lives rich and unique are the same circumstances that define the human condition. We all know the grief of losing a loved one, the joy of achieving a goal, the weight of peer pressure, and the warmth of being in the company of someone who loves us as we are—warts and all. These experiences are a small part of the human experience. These and myriad more experiences are common to human beings regardless of that person’s skin color. Or gender. Or age. Or sexual orientation. Or gender identity. Or physical ability. Or . . . or . . . or . . .
As for Matt, after I told him I wasn’t buying his rendition of the old standard, “I Guess I Can Never Know What’s It’s Like to Be Black,” I pressed him as to what he thought he should do next. His response: Show up. Matt expounded on “showing up” after a little prodding. He’s a bright guy who’s always been guided by an overt sense of right and wrong. He understood that reading a book was only a first step in a lifelong journey to be followed up with continued learning and actively engaging with Black people, speaking up, and leveraging his gifts and influence to create opportunities for marginalized people that they might otherwise miss.
His friend challenged him to see him, all of him, as a Black man and not as a darker clone of everyone else.
Still with me? To recap: White people are unaware of the impact of racism until they choose not to be. Once they decide to go down that road, they’re unimaginably (in their mind) changed—for the better, and there’s no going back.
But what does it cost?
I’m getting to that right now.
Another white friend of mine, a resident of the pacific northwest and native son of Orange County, one of southern California’s most conservative communities, returned to his childhood home for an extended visit, his first visit in three years.
But first a little backstory . . .
A couple decades ago, a new job allowed him to move a few states away with his wife and kids. My friend, his wife, and kids left behind their life in their decidedly white community along with its decidedly white evangelical insulated lifestyle. Any racial tensions that boiled over in the neighboring megalopolis of Los Angeles impacted inhabitants of Orange County only as close as the family television. This allowed for feelings of uneasiness to be dismissed with the click of the remote.
Shortly into my friend’s new life from behind the Orange Curtain, he had the opportunity to strike up a relationship with a Black man in a men’s book study. His friend challenged him to see him, all of him, as a Black man and not as a darker clone of everyone else. Amidst much personal angst and conviction, my friend set about this task of removing his color-blinding glasses and coming to grips with the strictures of whiteness.
To make a long but poignant story short, my friend experienced a deeply moving awakening that changed his life. He actively sought to learn more and more about Black history, the Black experience as written by Black people. He has become a voracious reader of Black literature, an ardent support of arts and culture, and is a fierce supporter of the full equality of all people. He deepened his relationship with his friend by being fully present in the friendship, practicing active listening, unconditional care, and abiding respect. He shows up as someone who pushes himself into and through uncomfortable conversations and situations to bring other people into the work of making racial equity a reality for all.
Back to the present . . .
After my friend visited southern California, he told me how his relationships with his family’s more conservative side were cool in nature, if not distant. Over the years, he made his family aware that he no longer subscribes to their view of race relations. They remain polite and loving, but that mutually shared belief is gone. He no longer seeks to change their minds as that’s something only they can do for themselves. They remain loving and in contact, but a chasm separates their views on race and social justice that no one ventures to bridge.
You don’t make your involvement or the mistake about yourself.
Signing up and being an active supporter of Black people costs. Genuine advocacy of Black people is lived out in many ways. When done correctly, it is never a spectator sport. It requires that you roll your sleeves up and get your hands dirty. White people need to understand that they will most certainly make mistakes. This universal truth is neither a license to ill nor a prohibition for doing good. You’ll either say or do the wrong thing, and most likely, you’ll do it at the most inopportune time. That’s normal. The only way people learn is by making mistakes.
How do you recover? You don’t make your involvement or the mistake about yourself. You take responsibility for the gaffe, apologize to the offended person(s) for your actions, listen, make amends, and make a concerted effort to do better next time.
But know that when you live out your support authentically, it will cost you at some point or another. It may cost you relationships with family and friends to take a stand for what you know is right. It may cost the convenience and comfort of being able to live blindly and blissfully unaware of the myriad indignities and injustices Black people are subjected to daily.
To speak out against racism, which is to take a stand against the current of bigotry, may cost you access. To side with Black people may even cost you your reputation in some circles. It may cost you your standing with others. Know that in corporate America, some have sided with Black people in our quest for treatment equal to that of our white counterparts, and have been passed over for a promotion, sidelined, or even fired. Still, in these instances, no one in their right mind will tell you the real reason; the cost is too high for that level of transparency. So the truth may never be confirmed. And on extremely rare occasions, it may cost you your life.
Standing up for the humanity of Black people costs peaceful nights of sleep. Without fail, there will be instances when you don’t speak up, instances in which your silence gives tacit approval of the racial injustice occurring right before your eyes. The conviction of your conscience will roll off you like water off a duck’s back at the time, and later, the guilt of knowing that you could’ve, that you should’ve, said something will gnaw at you. If you’re lucky, your conscience will not allow you to ignore what you know to be true, in much the same way you’re familiar with the lesson of the hot stove or the freezing snow.
So, yes. I encourage all my white brothers and sisters to support Team Black, if not play on our team. And don’t give a second thought to stepping outside of your comfort zone, your reputation, or any potential costs. After all, you’re only using your influence to right the rigged rules of the game, to point out any unsportsmanlike conduct and bad calls by the refs against Team Black, and to level the playing field for a far more equitable and friendly game. Plus, everyone knows that as a lifelong member of Team White, your home-field advantages never really go away. Any inconveniences you incur in standing up for Team Black are momentary and don’t compare to the price we pay daily for being actually being Black.
And if not now, while Black men, women, and children are being slaughtered, when? Tomorrow is too late for too many.