An Open Letter to White People

LettersIn 2012, when Trayvon Martin was murdered, and George Zimmerman was still walking around Florida free as a bird, I wrote an “Open Letter to My Community”. In that letter, I talked about how I felt about Trayvon’s murder, as a Black mother with two Black sons, who were, at that time, 19 and 23. And I had questions for my community about what I should tell my sons about why Trayvon is dead. Here’s an excerpt of that open letter:

I’ve already told them all their lives that they have to be extra careful because, since they are young black men, society will quickly label them “suspicious” and guilty. Of something. Of anything. But, mostly for doing whatever they do…while being Black. Driving while Black. Hanging out with friends while Black. Shopping while Black.
And now, apparently, for walking home from the 7-11 with Skittles and a can of pop. While Black. How do I explain that to them? Do I tell them to keep their head down, eyes averted and move to the other side of the street when approached by a white person, like Black folks used to do in the south back during Jim Crow days? That seems a tad bit archaic and submissive to me, but on the other hand, if they make it home alive, who cares about their dignity, right?
Do I keep them locked up in the house unless their dad or I accompany them outside? Much more practical and easier to do when they were 4 and 7 years old than now. And besides, since I’m married to a Black man, who is equally as much a potential target practice subject as my sons, that doesn’t seem so safe anyway.
Do I ban them from wearing hoodies, jeans and white tennis shoes and make them cut off their beloved dreads so as not to scare good, “just-looking-out-for-my-neighborhood” folks? Would making them walk around in a suit, tie and bald make them safer and less threatening? Since I’m raising Black sons, perhaps I don’t get to instill in them a sense of pride in self-expression. Perhaps the most I can dream to teach them is a sense of self-preservation.

But that was then. I’m over all those questions now. Too much has happened. It all started with the meteoric rise of the Tea Party (whose resurgence—yes I said resurgence—more on that in a minute—coincided with Barack Obama’s change of address to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave). Then, Trayvon’s murder. Then, in rapid succession in a matter of a few short months, there was Paula Deen, the Supreme Court’s invalidation of key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1963 – the provisions intended to keep in check those states who were historically known to interfere with Black folks voting, the infamous “not-guilty” verdict which set George Zimmerman free, Jordan Davis’ murder, Mike Brown, John Crawford, Eric Garner, Jonathan Ferrell, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland and oh, so many more.  One every 28 hours the statistics show us.

Allow me to digress for a moment.

Let’s talk about Paula Deen. If only I had a dollar for every person who responded to one of my many Face Book posts about Paula Deen with “she apologized for using the “N” word so let’s forgive and move on. After all, be honest. Who hasn’t used a racial slur in the comfort of their close circle of family and friends?” My response to that? FORGET THE “N” WORD. At the end of the day, I don’t REALLY care. I’ve been called worse by better people. And I’m regularly treated like an Exceptional Nigger by a systemically racist America.  But while everybody was distracted by the “N” word, I was grieved by her revelation that she wanted to dress black men up like slaves to entertain at an event. Since I am married to a Black man, and I have two Black sons, it is not a visual leap of imagination for me to substitute them into her little “plantation-themed” event.

So let me get this straight.

You (Paula) think it would be a good idea to take the most painful period (on a continuum of painful experiences) in Black history, and re-create it for entertainment? I think that’s essentially what she wanted to do. Let’s think about that for a second. Think. Deeply. Have you thought about it?

Well, I thought about it and here’s what I came up with. I have NEVER made a joke about the Holocaust. NEVER. In my entire life. Nor would I find funny a joke or remark that made light of the most painful period in Jewish people’s history. And if you ever have, shame on you. But, Paula Deen’s “vision”–in my mind– is tantamount to wanting to dress up Jewish people and have them “pretend” like they are dying in big ovens.

Not so funny or easily dismissed now, huh?

There would be national outrage (not just a national discussion about whether Paula should get to keep her cooking show and endorsements) if she had dared to tread there, and rightfully so. But, I digress. Back to my letter.

Like I was saying, too much has happened for me to still be asking those old questions. I have a whole new list of questions…for white people who care (because if you don’t care, I’m not talking to you anyway).

First, what are YOU telling YOUR kids about why Trayvon Martin is dead and George Zimmerman walked free? About why MIke Brown, John Crawford, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray and Sandra Bland are dead?  Are you teaching them that blacks and Latinos in this country do not have equality of opportunity? And that the lack of opportunity has devastating consequences for our communities? Are you teaching them that racism is real? That “white privilege” is real and that while they hear some folks talking about “merit” and “bootstraps”, they will receive some unmerited favor and be handed greased “bootstraps” in this country simply by virtue of being white, before they ever even have to prove themselves”? Have you told them that my black sons are 5 times more likely to be pulled over by the police…and end up charged with a felony than them and their friends?  And 20 times more likely to be shot by a cop?

Have you considered teaching them that there is simply no way a race of people can endure almost 300 years of chattel slavery, and then another 150 years of “black codes”, convict leasing, Jim Crow, and now Jim Crow, Jr. and the Tea Party…and come out of it unscathed…for generations to come? Ahhh, the Tea Party. Let’s park here for a moment.

In my humble opinion, the Tea Party is nothing more than the 21st century version of the Ku Klux Klan. They lost mainstream support for their white hoods and robes and went underground for a while. But, the election of a black man to the White House proved too much to take. So, they re-invented themselves, and made a come-back, climbing out of the dirt they had retreated to previously; only they couldn’t really come back in white hoods and robes and with the same name. Because, well, we’ve progressed from the place where that would be acceptable, even for conservatives.

So, in a classic marketing move, they re-branded themselves, changed their strategy (from marches and burning crosses to running for office—from the local library boards, city councils and school districts, all the way to the U.S. Congress and now, for President of the United States of America). Infiltrate and decimate. That’s their strategy. They went underground once and look what happened. Barack Obama. They aren’t taking any more chances. The gloves are off, and they’re taking no prisoners. So, the KKK: Remixed is alive and well, and coming to a local election near you.

Which takes me back to my list of questions. What are YOU doing to challenge your own notions and assumptions about these issues? Are you engaged? Are you in the ring, so to speak? Because here’s the thing. Remember, I’m only talking to white people who care. And if you care, then you can’t be a spectator. You have to get in the ring with me, where it’s dirty, messy and risky. Because in this conversation, there’s really no room for spectators. And there is no way to get in the ring and come out without some battle scars. You WILL have your feelings hurt. You WILL be exasperated, frustrated and exhausted. You WILL be challenged. You WILL feel like retreating.

But, you either join the conversation and the struggle to fight through these tough issues and figure out how to move forward from this ugly place where we find ourselves in 2015, or…please, step away, and make room for someone else. No hard feelings. Let’s not part mad. Let’s just part ways. Because for most people who look like me, there is a sense of urgency around this issue. Our neighborhoods are being destroyed. Our kids are dying. They live in despair and without hope. They are being under-represented in college and vocational training and over-represented in the prison industry (and it IS an industry). Our collective self-esteem and ability to reach self-actualization are being threatened and annihilated. Which all means that our communities are in peril. OUR communities. Yours and mine. Where we both live.

So, here’s my commitment to you. Because “the ring” is a two-way street. I will answer the tough, painful, and sometimes embarrassing questions you have about black folks and our current condition, without judgment. I will assume that your inquiries are sincere, heart-felt, and that you are trying to understand and get some frame of reference for puzzling phenomena. Like, why do we appear madder about the lack of justice for Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown than we do about rampant black-on-black crime?

The very simple answer is that we care equally about both. It’s just that the two issues are branches of the same tree. And we can’t meaningfully talk about the state of black America without talking about the legacy of white America, because we are inextricably intertwined. The point is…I know that you are wrestling to understand, and I commit to giving as much, if not more, than I am asking for.

But, join the conversation on these tough issues or get out of the way. Because, if you are a white person who cares…spectator-status is not an option.

My life and the lives of those who look like me are literally at stake.


Thanks to the Museum of Jewish Heritage for the graphic.