Human Rights

An Open Letter To My White Male Facebook Friends

I'm pleading with the good guys in my world to stop being so defensive and listen to other people's experiences.

Some of the most disturbing, subtle, insidious, racist comments I’ve seen over the past few weeks have been from my white male Facebook friends. I know a lot of my friends are just mass defriending people, but I’m not quite there yet, because I’m (foolishly, naively) hoping I can reach some of you in a way that creates some kind of change. I know, I know, who ever had his mind changed from something he read on the Internet? But here I am, tilting at windmills.

First, let me say, I’m not addressing you to put you on the defensive. I don’t want to fight. But I really am hoping to reach your heart. So please start with holding what I’m going to say in love and openness, and see if you can let this reach your heart before you fight it with your brain meats.

Next, let me say, this doesn’t apply to all of you. There are some great allies, advocates and freedom fighters among my friends, and I ask you to join this discussion.

OK, let’s do this.

My white male friend, you might actually believe in your heart that you are not racist. You might actually believe that this country is full of equality and justice, and get offended at the idea that it’s not, so this might be really difficult for you.

When people tell us that something we believe to be true is actually not 100 percent true, or maybe not true for everyone, we can experience cognitive dissonance. One way to respond to this is to walk away, or get defensive. Another way to respond is to compassionately lean in to it; lean in to our discomfort, our fear, our panic, our incredulity, our doubt. Open ourselves to the idea that our beliefs are just ideas that we go out and seek support for, and therefore there are other ideas out there that could become our beliefs, very easily, if we were willing to open ourselves up and expand our frame of reference.

That is what I’m inviting you to do here — open yourself up, compassionately expand your frame of reference.

So, like I said, you may believe you are not racist. You may have never said the N-word. You may have non-white friends. However, there are many different forms of racism, not all of them are active. Many of them are passive, and they might be invisible to you, because you’re a white man. (Pause, breathe, try not to jump to defense at this idea. Stay open. Hang with me.)

Because some of these forms of injustice don’t happen to you, and the history you learned in school, and what you hear from a lot of the media, and from other white men, is that these things don’t happen, you might really believe they don’t exist.

Being able to turn a blind eye to things that don’t happen to you is the essence of privilege. It’s also an abuse of power. Again, this might not be active. You might not realize that this is what’s happening. You’re not a bad guy. You’ve just been given some incomplete information. (Again, hang on. Breathe. Stay open. Hang with me.)

I’d like to invite a thought exercise.

Your child comes to you and says, “Dad, I’m being harassed, bullied, threatened and terrorized at school.”

And you say, “That is impossible. You go to a good school. All the adults I know say it is a good school, so you must be fine. Go back out there.”

And you walk away, convinced that your child must be wrong. You’ve abandoned your child, because you’re not taking his or her report as possibly accurate.

Your wife or sister comes to you and says, “I am being harassed, threatened and terrorized out on the street by men. I experience gender inequality on a daily basis. I live in some degree of constant fear for my personal safety, just because I am a woman.”

And you say, “That is impossible. Sexism is over. Women now occupy relatively high places of power in this country. You are fine.”

And you walk away, convinced that your loved one must be wrong. You have abandoned her, because you are not taking her report as possibly accurate.

Your friends, community, neighbors, co-workers of color come to you and say, “I am harassed, threatened, terrorized on the street by police officers. I am experiencing systemic inequality on a daily basis. I live in constant fear that myself, my brother, my son, will be unfairly convicted of a crime, or shot on the street, simply because of what we look like.”

And you say, “That is impossible. Racism has been conquered. We have a black president. Everyone lives an equal life here.”

And you walk away, convinced that these people are wrong. You have abandoned them, because you are not taking their reports as possibly accurate.

My question to you is: In any of these cases, have you done your best?

In each of these cases, the common thread is that you are being infantilizing.

You are not taking someone else’s reporting of their own, lived experience as accurate.

As hard as it may be to accept this, you may not take these reports as accurate because other people, who look like you, have told you that these things are not true, and whether or not you want to believe it, you might have been programmed with a bias toward taking things that white men say as more accurate than things anyone else says. You might not know you’re doing this. If you really were to think about it, you’d find the idea appalling. And yet, you are not taking these reports as accurate. Why?

Or, perhaps, because these things do not happen to you, you refuse to believe that it could or would happen to others.

This is the essence of your privilege.

You have the opportunity to denounce someone else’s lived experience, tell them there’s no way they really understand what’s happening in their own life, and walk away, comfortable in your rightness. You get to go back to your life where this does not happen to you, and ignore the plight of others.

This is a privilege because the others in this case do not have that option. When they leave the conversation, they are still a child, a woman or a person of color (or any combination of the three), occupying a position of less power than you. Living in a world where these things do happen to them, and what’s worse, they now walk away knowing that you, their father, husband, friend, teacher, community member, do not believe them. Won’t defend them. Aren’t willing to help.

Is this your best?

Is this your best parentship, partnership, friendship, stewardship? Is this the best you have to offer your fellow man?

Do you believe yourself to be a kind person, who takes other people’s feelings into account? Do you believe yourself to be a just person, who is interested in fairness? Do you believe yourself to be the kind of person who champions the little guy? Who stands up for the meek and powerless? Do you want America to be a country where there is equal opportunity? Really?

If that’s true, and these are the values you hold in your heart, is it possible that when you hear that these values are not being met in the world, you could jump to curiosity before rebuff?

Is there a chance that your refusal to acknowledge is part of the power structure that’s allowing injustice to continue?
(I know that thought is sickening. It’s awful. It hurts. It makes us think of ways we have let others down, and that is uncomfortable. But stay with it. Hang with me here. You’re in this because you’re not a bad guy.)

You, my white male friend, occupy the highest social, economic and political position in our country.

And, let’s be real, that position was begotten unfairly.

(Breathe. Stay with me, try not to jump to defensiveness. Keep your heart open. Feel me here.)

I know this is hard to swallow.

You may not think that this is fair.

You may not want this position.

You may feel like status should be achieved, and not ascribed — and that’s great that you want that. We all want that. That’s what people are asking for: an opportunity for status to be achieved, and not ascribed.

And if you truly believe that’s what this country should be, then you, as the person born into the highest power position, have a duty, an obligation, a responsibility, to see to it that can happen.

A possible first step toward making sure that this can happen is by listening to people with an open heart. By believing that other people’s reporting of their lived experience may be true, even though the dominant paradigm tells you it’s impossible.

And once you’ve listened, and you’ve really heard these reports, and you feel them stir a sense of unfairness and injustice in your soul (because hopefully, since you are a good, kind, just and loving man, that is what you will feel when you realize your brothers and sisters are facing this kind of daily awfulness), you will ask, “What can I do to change this?” You will ask, “How can I help?” You will ask, “What is the best way for me to get involved in making sure that everyone in my country does have equal access, opportunity and a safe experience of daily life?”

Not to get all Spider-Man on you, but whether you want it or not, you have a lot of power. And with great power comes great responsibility.

Have you heard the phrase, “Change comes from within?” You are the ultimate “within”.

If you can change, if you can acknowledge that maybe some of what’s going on for other (non-white, non-male) people is unfair, and that while this is not your fault, per se, it is now your charge to see it undone, then we can all see change happen a little faster.

If you’re still with me, and maybe begrudgingly thinking, “OK, fine. So everything I know is wrong. Now what?”
You can read some books or essays (links and suggestions below). You can go online and take an ethnic studies course, or a women’s studies course. You can start talking to your friends of color and saying, “Tell me about your experience.”

And then really listen, without arguing or stopping them or fighting or telling them that what they’re saying couldn’t be possible.

And when the things they say make you feel defensive, or cut your soul, you can stop, and breathe, and compassionately lean in to your discomfort, and ask yourself, “Why might this be true?” “What can I do to help?” “How can I best support you?” “How can I do my best for you?”

You can’t help if you don’t understand.

So first, seek to understand.

To really understand.

Not to dismiss, not to patronize. Not to argue.

Not to tell someone else why you think what they’re living must not be really what they’re living. But to really, truly, deeply, one living creature to another, understand.

See what can blossom in your life from that understanding.

Start with letting other people’s stories change you.

And then from that change, see if you can use your story to help change others.

White male Facebook homies, you can do this, I believe in you. Be your best: your best brother, partner, parent, friend. Be open to being flayed, hurt, embarrassed, wrong, and stay open. Stay compassionate with yourself and with those around you. Start with holding “Just because it doesn’t happen to me doesn’t mean it’s not happening,” and go from there.

So now, armed with this new skillset, before you pop off and say, in another thread — “This isn’t a race problem, it’s a cop problem,” or “When a cop kills a white man it’s not news, but if they kill a black man it’s racism,” or “Why is it that a white man in a white power shirt is a problem but a black man in a black power shirt is fine?” or “I hate to say it but I’d follow that girl too, she’s gorgeous,” or “Women really should smile more, why do girls look so mad?” or “We don’t know all the facts” or “Well, he probably shouldn’t have been there” or “Cops have a hard, dangerous job” — or any of the other tropes that are intended to shut down a conversation, stop. Breathe. Try to remember that this person’s lived experience is just as true as yours, and try to find support for their position before your own.

This will be exhausting.

Your community is exhausted. It’s OK to be exhausted.

We should be exhausted from trying, trying, trying, to do our best for each other.

That’s how change gets rolling.

Thanks for hanging with me, fellas. I appreciate your time.

Further Reading:

What Is White Privilege

White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo

We Don’t Need Nice, We Need Justice

The Stages of What Happens When There’s Injustice Against Black People

Herstory of the #Blacklivesmatter Movement

The Body Is Not An Apology Magazine

Race, Class, & Gender in the United States

This Bridge Called My Back

The History of White People

Origins of the Urban Crisis

Women Without Class

Killing Rage

Women, Race, & Class

 

Cera Byer is a dancemaker and teacher based in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

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