Many of my white brothers and sisters, at least on social media, have claimed to be willing to learn. For once, I am seeing white people break the silence and speak out. Some confess; others lament; some rage with anger; but for the first time in at least my lifetime, I am seeing white people break the colorblind paradigm by speaking out against racial injustice and other forms of racism. Many of you are saying you’re willing (and needing) to learn; I express both gratitude and a silent hallelujah. I offer you four initial starting points, or questions, to wrestle with to help you progress down the long path ahead of you.
1. What did it take?
George Floyd wasn’t the first black man to die from police brutality. This also wasn’t the first Black Lives Matter protest as a response to racial injustice. What did it for you? This is important and you need to be able to articulate it. Was it the back-to-back incidents of publicized Black death that’s contributing to your awakening? Was it #IrunwithAhmaud #JusticeforBreonna #JusticeforGeorge, was it Amy Cooper, in New York, threatening the life of a black man with her white privilege? I’m asking you to be able to name whatever it is that’s moving you out of silence because we (people of color) will need you to stand with us the next time racial injustice happens. We need you to remember what moved you to come out of the shadows of silence, choosing to courageously use your white and influential voice; you’ll need to anchor into it. You'll need to do it again.
2. Where were you?
Be careful not to move from color blindness to only seeing in black and white. True justice reaches beyond the black/white binary and impacts the lives of all those oppressed and marginalized. I’m a first generation American, but my family is from Mexico. I have black hair, brown eyes, and brown skin. I’m a person of color, but I’m not black, I’m a brown Mexican born in America, I have indigenous American blood in me. After you understand what it took to get you to speak up, you need to wrestle with another question (and you need to develop another anchoring response). Where were you? Where were you when we (people of color) were being harassed by white America in the past? Where were you when Latina/os were detained in cages, while children die in ICE detention centers? Where were you when a white-supremacist shot up a Walmart in El Paso Tx. targeting and killing over twenty Mexicans? Where were you when my Asian brothers and sisters were crying out about being physically, verbally, and emotionally abused due to Covid-19 realities? Where are you when Indigenous Americans advocate for reparations and an honest indigenous history; why still observe Columbus Day and not mourn the beginning of an era of genocide? What keeps you silent? Again, you need to be aware of what can and will potentially keep you silent tomorrow (be it enjoying a privileged lifestyle, fear, ignorance, prejudice, etc.). Once you can articulate these two individual answers, you need to start becoming aware of the collective and racialized American landscape, and of how people of color see (and respond) to race realities and racism. I get it, you want to know what you can do (I’ve been asked this many times before and especially right now), but before you do anything you need to understand who else is in this society with you, and how we (a broad set of people of color) are navigating these tumultuous racialized waters. You will benefit from learning how and why (to many people of color) white people are perceived as the gate-keepers of the ideal society.
3. Do you understand how people of color see race and whiteness?
For you, George Floyd and Black Lives Matter may be the start of your journey towards disentangling racism in society; but you need to understand that for decades, if not centuries, people of color have been ‘dealing with racism.' It’s important to know how different people of color see race. Previous generations pass on how to deal with issues of racism (especially because many occupy a different societal space--not white, but we are also not black). For many people of color, the best way to deal with racism is to do whatever we can to be you: to be white. Centuries of systemic racism and cultural racism have shaped the thinking of people of color, convincing them to alter their lifestyle and image to attain friendship with you; to be accepted by you and your circles, maybe even marry into your family (because for a long time, society has placed you at the top of the food chain, and it still appears that way--just look at how white people get to be “American” and everyone else has to be a hyphenated-American). For so many, myself included, the goal was to be as “white-passing” as possible. So I, like many others, believed the lie that if I traded in my Mexican flag for the American (or white) flag that I would become ‘one of the whites.’
4. How white do I need to be to be your friend?
Racism in America is compelling people to strip away who they are to become ‘American’ (which many people of color understand means becoming as white as possible). We crucify our language, our dress style, our values and priorities, our music, our way of life to attain 'salvation' in the American dream of the whites; we learn to love what you love and hate what you hate for the sake of acceptance. This is why so many people of color are also racist towards darker-skinned communities and why you have “white-washed” metaphors in many hyphenated-American communities. Every person of color in America has to choose which society to be a part of--the white community, the native ethnic community, or try to straddle both. What I’m trying to help you see is that many people of color attribute success with whiteness (here, referring to your culture, your way of living, and your image), and so, we too distance and step on those darker than us; we watch you reject others, and so we too reject those we’ve been told are ’not one of us,’ those further from being white-passing. Since we believe there’s limited room in white circles, we fight each other to get in the room of privilege. However, eventually people of color run into situations that remind us we are noticed and not considered one of you. This is where you, my white friends, can change the story. You can practice accepting (even embracing) what’s different, or you can respond like this racist lady who mistakes Puerto Ricans for Mexicans, and criticizes their language, music, and culture. Your work begins in a society where the oppressed oppress each other for the sake of getting ahead (of getting to where you started off by being born with white skin and into white culture). Here’s my point, ultimately you decide how white the rest of us need to be to get accepted into your society: your friend groups, your neighborhoods, your positions of leadership and influence, your churches, your businesses, your schools. Look at those spaces now. If you do not see people of color within close proximity, why is that? Where are they? Wake up to your position in society (and how you’re viewed by people of color) and stop perpetuating the ancient narratives that compel so many to assimilate to whiteness.
As you begin to journey alongside the rest of us, you have an opportunity to change the narrative. We, people of color, are used to hearing, "You can survive, even thrive, among us, if you become like us; you can keep your life, if you give up your identity...we will refrain from vomiting you out if you let us swallow you up" (Volf, p. 75). To my white family (especially evangelical Christian family), continue to learn and practice being different so tomorrow you can do what it requires of you. Don't let this be just a trend that will end, let it be the beginning (or continuation) of transformation.
Volf, Miroslav. 1996. Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. 1st Edition edition. Nashville: Abingdon Press.
I'm a 🇲🇽-🇺🇸, Latino PhD Student at fullerseminary;