“I support Black Lives Matter.”
“Well, do you support the riots?”
Would you be surprised to learn that’s a racist question? Yeah, I was too, when someone finally helped me understand it during a season of protests a number of years ago. I don’t remember exactly when, and it doesn’t matter. This isn’t my story.
Here’s the issue.
We live in a nation whose structure is, like it or not, white supremacist. There is rampant racial inequity on every level. Economic, Education, Employment, you name it. But one area it shows up blatantly, violently, is police interaction and brutality. Studies throughout the last decade show that black males 15-19 are over 20 times more likely to be killed by police than white males. Add in males from 20-34 and they’re still 5 times more likely to be killed, and black males of any age 2.5 times more likely. Let me remind you that 2.5 times more death is still a huge fucking number.
Martin Luther King once said…
Let me digress for a moment. I’ve seen a number of my fellow white people quoting Dr. King’s calls for peaceful protest, non-violence, and so on, as a rebuke to protests and riots. Stop that too. That is another racist act to silence the hurting black community by invoking one out-of-context quote from one of their beloved leaders. You’re trying to shame them with their own civil rights leader. Who was murdered, by the way, by a racist, likely acting on orders of other racists. A system of White Supremacy is what, in the end, killed him. Because if that system didn’t exist, he would have not had a fight on his hands.
The fight that continues to this day.
Anyway, Martin Luther King once said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.”
Here is the quote in larger context:
“I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”
Riots do not just happen. They are not simply the playgrounds of provocateurs and criminals. They are a cry of pain. They are a cry to be heard. Because nothing else has got the attention of the white establishment. Kneeling, the raising of fists, the wearing of armbands – nothing has worked. White America has mocked all those efforts of peaceful protest, of gentle and respectful admonishment. We are not listening to them, so they must get loud until we cannot ignore them any longer.
The injustices that perpetuate the oppression of our black brothers and sisters do not abate, and it is those injustices they are, rightly, trying to shove in our face and shout “DO SOMETHING, GODDAMMIT! WE’RE DYING HERE!”
So when you, fellow white person, hear that, see that, and your first response is, “Well, I don’t support these riots, what about those?” you have immediately stopped listening. You have lost sight of the reason. You have lost sight of the cause and once again made it about YOU, the white person. That is a racist act.
When you say, “I would listen, but not until they stop rioting,” we know you’re lying. Because if you wanted to listen, you already would have done so, and they would not be in the streets, rioting. You are shutting them down, refusing to listen. It is a racist act.
What should you do? What should you do in the face of these protests and these riots?
It’s pretty easy. Two simple steps.
SHUT THE FUCK UP AND LISTEN.
ACT ON WHAT YOU HEAR.
How do you act?
Educate yourself. Read, learn, understand. Don’t ask your “black friend.” It’s not their job to catch you up on reality. They’re fighting their fight. They don’t have time or the energy to explain shit to you. And if a person of color does take the time to tell you something, listen, for Christ’s sake. And believe them. They are living it. You are not.
Spend a day or two at a place like the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. It will shock you. It will shock you because you’re white and you get to ignore what suddenly is in your face for an entire day. And you need the whole day, believe me. The fact that it shocks you is the proof that you need to act.
Give. Join the NAACP, the ACLU. Give to organizations that bail out protesters. Scroll down this list to “Petitions/Donations” to find ways to actively support the cause. Yes, I know it’s the same page as the “Educate yourself” one I linked above. There’s a lot there to get you up to speed.
Get in the streets yourself. And don’t talk. You don’t need to tell your story. You don’t need a pat on the fucking back. Be there to make space. You need to direct all of your attention and the attention of your white brothers and sisters onto the their black brothers and sisters who are in pain. Who are victims of injustice. Who start every race with one leg hobbled because of the color of their skin.
When you’re around your white peers, then do talk. Help them listen and learn. Reprove and correct them when they say racist shit – especially that horrible uncle who always shows up to Thanksgiving dinner in his fucking MAGA hat. Even if it means you ruin every holiday for your family as long as he’s there. Be a beacon among your peers.
Make space for black people, for people of color. Make space and get out of the way.
And for fuck sake, don’t look for a pat on the back. This is not something to do for kudos. That’s called Performative Allyship. It’s a lesson I needed to learn, and learned it at the hands of some people of color who didn’t owe me shit but caught me up anyway. You don’t need to show your black friends how woke you are. You need to do it because your neighbors are hurting. They’re suffering. You need to do it because it’s right. If you stand for real equality, freedom for all, then there is only one right side to this conversation.
Be active. Be an anti-racist. Because doing nothing is a racist act. When we are white enough to be able to go back to our lives, to ignore the problem, because we don’t have to live it, doing so is a perpetuation of our racist infrastructure, and a continuation of the oppression of black people. They don’t get to stop being black when it gets inconvenient, when they are turned down for a job, when they are pulled over by police for no reason. Don’t even pretend to begin to understand what that’s like. Don’t even pretend you have any idea what it feels like for a black father to sit down his black son and have The Talk – not about sex, but about the police. You have no idea.
And you don’t have to. You just have to believe them that it is horrific. You have to listen. And act. Make space.
Because when we disappear and do nothing, as we as whites do over and over again, once we have appeased those pesky black people, giving just enough lip service to quiet the storm, but not enough action to change anything… When we stop doing what is right, we have to stop acting surprised when, after another senseless murder-by-cop, there is rioting in the street.