This article was originally published on The Establishment and republished here with the author’s permission.
After every blow to justice that happens in this country — Charlottesville being the latest — I join millions on social media to voice my concerns.
But unlike far too many of my white friends, who often start their statements with “I can’t believe this happened” or “this is so upsetting,” my messages have to keep serving as a reminder that tyranny and oppression are nothing new.
When white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, I tried to stay silent on social media for as long as I could, curious to see how my white friends would respond.
While I did see white friends posting their frustrations about Trump and his “both sides” argument, I was waiting for them to, specifically, get angry at their fellow white people — to sound a collective call for justice.
Some did, but nearly not enough.
When I finally couldn’t stay silent any longer after Charlottesville, I simply posted: “White folks, this is your mess to clean up. Y’all created it. Y’all need to fix it.”
Within minutes, I had a white acquaintance — whom I haven’t spoken to in years — respond with, “Don’t lump me in with those people.”
When confronted with her privilege to be able to distance herself from white supremacists, she doubled down on her comments with “love not hate” rhetoric — seemingly unaware of how such language is both ignorant and harmful.
White people, know this: It is easy to “choose love” when your way of life isn’t being threatened. And when you retreat to this simplistic reasoning, you place the blame on people of color for trying to dismantle a system that hates us.
White women can love everyone because “everyone” theoretically loves them back; this is not true for people of color (POC). And if a POC says they don’t love white people? They could lose their lives. There is a difference between empathy for others and using “love” as a way to shirk your responsibility to say something when faced with the opportunity to stand up for what you allegedly believe in.
There is a difference between empathy for others and using “love” as a way to shirk your responsibility to say something when faced with the opportunity to stand up for what you allegedly believe in.
This is why, on the heels of Charlottesville, so many POC took offense to Tina Fey’s “sheet caking” bit. It was a particularly stark example of a response that is all too common from white people: just pretend white supremacy doesn’t exist.
Such responses are, ultimately, steeped not only privilege but in a distinct inability to do the uncomfortable work of owning one’s role in the oppression of others.
But the fact is, white supremacy is a system built by white people — and until that knowledge drives every response to racist events, we won’t get anywhere.
A disproportionate number of black men are in jail for selling a dime bag of weed, while a white guy makes millions owning a weed dispensary? The result of white people building a white supremacist system.
A mediocre white student with money getting into Harvard, while a black student is accused of only getting into college because of affirmative action? The result of white people building a white supremacist system.
Dylan Roof being escorted to a police car in a bulletproof vest after murdering six black people, while Philando Castile gets shot in the front seat of his car while reaching for his ID? The result of white people building a white supremacist system.
You get the idea. And you can imagine, then, how agonizing it is when, in the wake of an event like Charlottesville, it is not white people who shoulder the burden of change — but the POC affected every day by the system white people have so painstakingly constructed.
People of color can lead the charge, but it’s going to take white people getting out there to actually make the change. I am unapologetically black, but I am a realist. I know that there is no way we’re going to dismantle these systems without white people.
So how can this be done? To start, as white people, you must change your expectations — those you place on people of color, and those you place on yourselves. Stop calling black people “too divisive” or accusing them of “making everything about race”; this is an easy way to shift blame at a time when taking responsibility is crucial for change.
While we’re at it, stop expecting people of color to be civil and calm when people are literally marching in the streets to take away our right to exist. And, while we are still trying to process our own feelings, stop expecting us to answer your questions and educate you. Lady Gaga’s tweet asking black people what non-racist white people could do to help the fight is one of the most frustrating questions asked, and we hear it all the time.
Do your homework — by, for instance, taking the time to find out who your POC friends are following, and reading and following them. The least you can do is your own digging.
More than two weeks after Charlottesville, it’s also critical that you don’t give up the fight. Keep speaking up about injustice, not just when something major happens, but today, tomorrow, and every day after.
Don’t be afraid of getting “political” because you’re choosing to observe the most basic of human rights. Call people out on their prejudices; the next time you see someone call Black Lives Matter a hate group, put them on blast and tell them why it’s actually not. Force them to acknowledge the privilege their skin color affords them.
White supremacy wasn’t built in a day, and having one conversation one time isn’t going to magically make it disappear. Charlottesville was just the beginning, and continuing to ignore white supremacy means that these marches will grow in number and frequency. That isn’t a threat, it’s a promise. We’re dismantling hundreds of years of oppression here.
Trump’s election didn’t suddenly make white supremacy part of everyday conversation — it’s always been there — but now these people feel justified to openly spread their hate speech widely. Mostly because non-racist white folks don’t call them on their bullshit.
The only thing that will stop it is you demanding better of your people. Speak up, and speak out.
Sa’iyda Shabazz lives in Los Angeles but is a NYC girl at heart. She is a single mother to a son and pop culture junkie. If she’s not writing, she’s baking. Follow her on Twitter, @xoxSai.