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"Dear White People"- Stop, Look, Listen

Race & Ethnicity

"Dear White People"- Stop, Look, Listen

Radix Admin

By Maddie Cook '18

**Disclaimer: This article is not to negate biracial or white passing identities, but it is for people who identify as fully white and consider themselves a white ally**


I don’t really know where to start this article. A series of thoughts run through my head as I think about what I should say. Where do I begin? Is it my place to discuss this topic? Should I even articulate my frustration? When looking at a number of recent events as far away as the University of Missouri or as close as Amherst College, I feel a number of emotions. I am sad. I am frustrated. And I am truly infuriated that these events have transpired.

But, where is my place as a white person to discuss issues of race? There are many conversations happening right now, and one of my privileges as a white person is that my voice can overshadow others at times. This is something I must be aware of. I am constantly strengthening my ability to be a productive ally within these dialogues. And yet I still have so much to learn. Right now, it is a day-to-day process and I am navigating my actions based on the context of the situations I am in. There is no easy answer. But there are a few things I have learned so far that seem to transcend circumstance. I do not have all the answers, and I do not speak for everyone. However for my fellow peers who identify as fully white: stop, look, and listen.

1. Take time to read the news and recognize what is happening. Educate yourself and others.

By being white, I have the choice to be disengaged. I have the choice of whether or not to preoccupy myself with news about police brutality, racial profiling, or rioting. What happens to people of color is not something that affects my daily life. I can carry on my  routine without batting an eye. This is in contrast to my peers of color, who watch people who look like them being brutalized and oppressed. I will never have to experience the fears and worries that people of color will after instances of institutional racism. Therefore, it is my responsibility to be conscious of the reality of racism in America. I cannot claim ignorance, because that is a reiteration of my white privilege.

I have the privilege to be ignorant.

When it comes to the riots, instead of being outraged that people are destroying property, it is our responsibility to look at why people are so upset that they feel their only alternative is to riot. When we hear stories of Eric Garner, instead of asking, “well why was he illegally selling cigarettes?” we need to be asking, “what does it say about the state of racism in America when we have had 161 unarmed people of color killed by police in 2015?” This is the meaning of being told to “check your privilege.” Leave it at the door and approach the situation with profound empathy.


2.     My white skin doesn’t put me in danger.

One week ago, student organizers put on a sit in in Blanchard Student Center. Students in solidarity were asked to wear all black to show their support of students of color on our campus, and other campuses that are experiencing institutional racism. Students were given the opportunity to participate regardless of their race. At the sit in there was a mix of students of color and white students, but there were also many more students who did not attend the sit in who also wore black that day. But here is the crucial reminder for white people. When you go home, at the end of the day, you take off those black clothes that you wore in solidarity.

But our white skin remains. Our privilege is maintained.

We will be able to return to our daily routine, with all the privileges that go along with it. However, for students of color who also wore black, they will continue to live in this world as a person of color. Very rarely, will we as white people ever be targeted because of the color of our skin. I joined in solidarity for that sit in with people of color, but the solidarity must continue beyond that one day that I pulled out my black clothes. As I stripped those clothes off of my white skin, I must remember why I chose to wear that outfit in the first place.

More so than when I put on those clothes, when I remove them I must remember Mizzou.

Remember Yale.

Remember Ithaca.

Remember the many college campuses who are standing in solidarity.

3.     Before doing anything else, our job is to listen.

Regardless of race, hearing about violence against people based on the color of their skin is deeply infuriating, sad, and disheartening. When I see images and videos of police brutality, when I hear the stories of people of color who have dealt with microaggressions, when I hear the cries of frustration from people of color, I feel a deep pit in my stomach. Many times I want to yell, scream, wave my arms, or cry.

However, it is not always my place to do so.

For many white people who have these similar reactions, a common follow through is to want to discuss what has happened in great depth. However it is important to think about the space that we inherently take up by doing so. By being white, we take up space. It is great that we want to be allies, be in the discussion, and help. However, we need to first listen to those who are suffering. We need to take a lesson from those who are feeling the direct effects of racial violence. The first step is to listen. We will have emotions about what is going on, but will not be vilified for them. We will not be told we are being dramatic. We will be listened to, mainly because of the privilege associated with our whiteness. That is all the more reason for us to take a pause and let others share their experiences and how they want to move forward. In the end, the changes that are hopefully made to alleviate racism will affect people of color directly. Not speaking over people of color and stepping back is about giving agency, autonomy, and space to those who have been denied it. If you are an ally because you want to feel congratulated, this is your cue to take the back seat for a while. Allyship means taking a step back and handing over the megaphone to people of color.

If you take anything away from these issues I have grappled with, I want you to take this:

Be thoughtful of how you use your privilege.

In no way can I change the fact that I have white skin. I cannot change the social, economic, and political privileges given to me because of this. However, I can choose whether or not to capitalize upon these privileges. Will you choose to exercise your privilege to maintain the status quo? Or will you use it to fight the rampant racism embedded in this country? Quoting antiracist essayist and author Tim Wise in an essay regarding Rachel Dolezal and allies, “There is a lesson here for us, for we who are white and care deeply about racial equity, justice and liberation, and the lesson is this: authentic antiracist white identity is what we must cultivate. We cannot shed our skin, nor our privileges like an outdated overcoat. They are not accessories to be donned or not as one pleases, but rather, persistent reminders of the society that is not yet real, which is why we must work with people of color to overturn the system that bestows those privileges.” We must continue to acknowledge the privileges that are bestowed upon us. I hope that one day, I will not be the only person that is automatically listened to just because I am white. This current aspect of white privilege is one that I detest; as if my voice has more validity than others (which could not be farther from the truth). At this point in time, we must choose to exercise these privileges to benefit people of color in situations where their voices would not be heard. And this exercise calls for a collaboration between people of color and white people. We, as white identifying people, need to find a balance between not wallowing in our white guilt, and refraining from adopting the role of white savior.

As stated before, I am still learning this balance. I know that these three realizations I discuss are not the only methods of action. But I think we need to start a dialogue about what it looks like to be a respectable, productive, and attentive white ally. Currently, the best way I know I can do this, is to Stop - do not speak over people of color. Look - acknowledge my privilege and its significance. And, Listen - hear and share the stories of my peers of color.