I’m having conversations with white friends and family that I never thought I would have. Some are asking to brainstorm how to change our country to ensure that black lives matter. Others are asking for guidance on how to speak with racist grandparents to show them why, as Christians, we must dispose of and defund this corrupt and oppressive police system. Unfortunately, an undercurrent in many of these conversations is a fear of being perceived as a “bad white person.”
Right now, amid nationwide protests where police shoot out our neighbors' eyes with rubber bullets and tase our neighbors in their cars for being out past a militarized curfew, the way white people are acknowledged and recognized for joining the fight doesn’t even make it on the long list of priorities.
As white people, we can feel empathy and deep sorrow for beloved children of God slain at the hands of police. We can cry watching the footage and we can tweet about how it makes us feel horrible. But it can’t stop there. We don’t deserve a medal for lamenting and weeping for injustice.
In a country where our institutions behave as if black lives don’t matter, Jesus calls Christians to do more than accrue Instagram likes and Twitter engagement. We need to relinquish the desire to be understood as a “good white person.” That is not and will never be the priority.
And to be perfectly candid, I grapple with this desire too. I want my black friends, mentors, and colleagues to know that I love them and will do everything in my power to protect them. I want them to know and understand that I care. But we need to extinguish the prideful desire to be labeled an ally and use every ounce of that energy to work to alter and gut a system that threatens (and takes!) black lives every day.
Many white friends privately express to me a fear about attending protests. This frequent disclosure is teeming with irony. Imagine the constant fear that black people experience in their daily lives. Anticipate what that does to someone’s mental health, that persistent threat of white supremacy and the violent institutions that uphold it. Black people risk death when they are asleep in their beds or birdwatching and not a finger is laid on the bodies of white men wielding baseball bats and assault rifles in the streets of cities like Philadelphia and Detroit.
White people risk harm only when we volunteer to stand in the line of fire. We have a choice of when we would like to face police violence. Black people in America do not. That is at the core of why we must protest.
We’re not fighting so white people can be acknowledged as good. We’re not fighting so our black coworker or acquaintance will remember us as a good egg. What happens when a white person posts a black square on Instagram with the hashtag #BLM? Nothing really. What happens with effective, coordinated protests for black lives, funded and attended by angry and persistent white people? Black lives are saved. Black trans lives are saved.
I recently watched a video of a young white girl putting her physical body in front of a young black boy at a protest on Lafayette Park directly in front of the White House. It is a scene that makes my heart sing. But before we idolize this act, we need to remember this is the bare minimum. As white Christians specifically, this is a baseline responsibility.
Some (and I fear most) white people express disdain for looting and damage to property, first, before expressing the same rage towards the senseless murder of George Floyd. With 8 years passing since George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin and 65 years passing since Emmett Till’s horrific murder, what other options remain? Martin Luther King, Jr. marched and white people assassinated him. Colin Kaepernick kneeled and white people fired him. There is disdain for every form of protest because it means a disruption to a status quo that lauds and protects a privileged white existence.
But the same white folks seem to forget that Jesus flipped over tables in the temple. He became violent and caused damage to property to make his objection felt and heard. Why mourn the loss of Target’s inventory? A multi-million-dollar corporation will recover. You know what cannot be restored, replaced, or restocked? George Floyd’s life. Breonna Taylor’s life.
Looting is not the story. Murder is the story. State-sanctioned murder of Black people by police personnel is the story.
But how do many mainstream news outlets frame the murder? The verbal tense of in these headlines reflects a reticence to place actual, concrete blame. As an English major, the passive voice makes me cringe. I’m left searching for the subject. Who did the macing? Who did the tasing? Law enforcement committed the violent act described. Law enforcement did that. Say it with your chest.
How will white people, specifically white Christians, refuse to allow this to continue? In the short term, they can: Donate to bail funds; volunteer for a mutual aid fund in the local neighborhood, and shut down any and all racist rhetoric, regardless of potential “discomfort.”
As Sister Helen Prejean said: Being kind in an unjust society is not enough. It’s more than greeting your black neighbor as you pass one another on the street. It’s more than showing up to a couple of protests. It is a commitment to a holistic lifestyle change that surrenders privilege and uses it as a weapon to protect black lives until we live in a society where white skin no longer possesses a higher value.
Our country has so much to do to claim justice for black people. But taking up this call isn’t special. These protests and white people’s participation in them aren’t remarkable. It’s not heroic. It’s merely the right thing to do. As white people, we must be comfortable with the fact that acknowledgement and recognition of our continued allyship is not on the agenda to achieving justice.