Michael Brown, an African-American teenager, was shot six times and killed by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, during a stop for jaywalking in Ferguson, Mo. Some facts are uncontroverted: Brown was unarmed when he was shot about 35 feet away from Wilson, who didn’t know that Brown was a suspect in an alleged shoplifting incident that occurred a short time before the shooting. Other facts are disputed: Some people claim that Brown attacked Wilson, and others claim that Brown was running away from Wilson with his hands in the air. Either way, another young black man is dead because of use of excessive force by the police in a situation that did not justify shooting to kill.
Most of us have watched as Ferguson’s black community rose up in outrage against the almost all-white police department, demanding justice and accountability. Our disbelief and heartache turned to collective anger and fear as the response to the protests became more militarized, with the deployment of police dogs, riot gear, tear gas and rubber bullets. And we’ve started speaking out in opposition to these developments, all of which have the hallmarks of being rooted in systemic, institutionalized racism.
Yet some people, especially some white people, have not yet become engaged. Perhaps they don’t know what to say or how to say it or are concerned about backlash from other white people. This is understandable but not acceptable when the continuation of white silence and inaction means the oppression and death of black people.
So let’s talk about an active role for white people in the fight against racism, because racism burdens all of us and is destroying our communities. White people have a role in undoing racism because white people created and, for the most part, currently maintain (whether they want to or not) the racist system that benefits white people to the detriment of people of color.
White people who hate racism should work hard to become white allies. Here are some ways for a white person to become engaged, thoughtfully and critically, in examining the crisis in Ferguson and systemic racism in America.
1. Learn about the racialized history of Ferguson and how it reflects the racialized history of America. Brown’s killing is not an anomaly or a statistical outlier. It is the direct product of deadly tensions born from decades of housing discrimination, white flight, intergenerational poverty and racial profiling.
2. Reject the “He was a good kid” or “He was a criminal” narrative and lift up the “Black lives matter” narrative. Those who knew him say Brown was a good kid. But that’s not why his death is tragic. His death isn’t tragic because he was on his way to college the following week. His death is tragic because he was a human being and his life mattered. The good-kid narrative might provoke some sympathy, but what it really does is support the lie that as a rule black people, black men in particular, have a norm of violence or criminal behavior. The good-kid narrative says that this kid didn’t deserve to die because his goodness was an exception to the rule. This is wrong. This kid didn’t deserve to die, period. Similarly, reject the “He was a criminal” narrative surrounding the convenience store robbery because even if Brown did steal some cigars and have a scuffle with the shopkeeper, that is still not a justification for his killing. All black lives matter, not just the ones we deem to be “good.”
3. Use words that speak the truth about the disempowerment, oppression, disinvestment and racism that are rampant in our communities. Be mindful, and politically and socially aware with your language. Notice how the mainstream news outlets are using words like “riot” and “looting” to describe the uprising in Ferguson. What’s happening is not a riot. The people are protesting with a righteous anger. This is a justified rebellion.
4. Understand the modern forms of race oppression and slavery and how they are intertwined with policing, the courts and the prison-industrial complex. Black people aren’t enslaved on the plantation anymore. Now African Americans are locked up in for-profit prisons at disproportionate rates and for longer sentences for the same crimes committed by white people. And when we’re released we’re second-class citizens, stripped of voting rights in some states and denied access to housing, employment and education. Mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow.
5. Examine the interplay between poverty and racial equity. The twin pillar of racism is economic injustice, but don’t use class issues to trump race issues and avoid the racism conversation. Although racism and class oppression are tangled together in this country, the fact remains that the No. 1 predictor of prosperity and access to opportunity is race.
6. Diversify your media. Be intentional about looking for and paying close attention to diverse voices of color on television, on radio, online and in print to help shape your awareness, understanding and thinking about political, economic and social issues.
7. Adhere to the philosophy of nonviolence as you resist racism and oppression. Martin Luther King Jr. advocated for nonviolent conflict reconciliation as the primary strategy of the civil rights movement and the charge of his “final marching orders.” East Point Peace Academy offers online resources and in-person training on nonviolence that is accessible to all people, regardless of ability to pay.
8. Find support from fellow white allies. Challenge and encourage one another to dig deeper, even when it hurts and especially when you feel confused, angry and hopeless, so that you can be more authentic in your shared journey with people of color to protect principles of anti-racism and equity. Go to workshops like Training for Change’s Whites Confronting Racism or the People’s Institute’s European Dissent. Attend the White Privilege Conference or the Facing Race conference. Some organizations offer scholarships or reduced fees to help people attend.
9. If you are a person of faith, look to your Scriptures or other holy texts for guidance. Seek out faith-based organizations like Sojourners, and follow faith leaders who incorporate social justice into their ministry. Ask your clergyperson to address anti-racism in sermons and teachings. If you are not a person of faith, learn how the world’s religions view social-justice issues so that when you have an opportunity to invite people of faith to also become white allies, you can talk with them meaningfully about why being a white ally is supported by their spiritual beliefs.
10. Don’t be afraid to be unpopular. If you start calling out all the racism you witness (and it will be a lot, once you know what you’re seeing), some people might not want to hang out with you as much. But think about it like this: Staying silent when you witness oppression is the same as supporting oppression. So you can be the popular person who stands with oppression, or you can be the (maybe) unpopular person who stands for equality and dignity for all people. Which person would you prefer to be?
11. Be proactive in your own community. As a white ally, you are not limited to reacting only when black people are subjected to violence very visibly and publicly. Moments of crisis do not need to be the catalyst. Taking action against systemic racism is always appropriate because systemic racism permeates this country. Some ideas for action: Organize a community conversation about the state of police-community relations in your neighborhood; support leaders of color by donating your time or money to their campaigns or causes; ask the local library to host a showing of, and discussion group about, the documentary Race—the Power of an Illusion; attend workshops to learn how to transform conflict into opportunity for dialogue. Gather together white allies who represent the diversity of backgrounds in your community. Anti-racism is not a liberals-only cause. Anti-racism is a movement for all people, whether they are conservative, progressive, rich, poor, urban or rural.
12. Don’t give up. We’re 400 years into this racist system, and it’s going to take decades—centuries, probably—to dismantle. The anti-racism movement is a struggle for generations, not simply the hot-button issue of the moment. Transformation of a broken system doesn’t happen quickly or easily. You may not see or feel the positive impact of your white allyship during the next month, the next year, the next decade or even your lifetime. But don’t ever stop. Being a white ally matters because you will be part of what turns the tide someday. Change starts with the individual.
People of color cannot and should not shoulder the burden for dismantling the racist, white-supremacist system that devalues and criminalizes black life without the all-in support, blood, sweat and tears of white people. If you are not already a white ally, now is the time to become one.
Editor’s note: A version of this article was previously published at What Matters.
Janee Woods is a former attorney who writes the What Matters blog. Follow her on Twitter.