Spectra Speaks on White Allies Racism Fergueson

Dear White Allies: Stop Unfriending Other White People Over Ferguson

Earlier today, as I was scrolling through my news feed, I noticed  declarative statement after declarative statement from a number of my white friends either threatening to, or professing that they’d just unfriended several of their white friends based on “wrong,” “terrible,” “racist,” (read: conflicting) views about the grand jury’s decision to not indict the white police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown – an unarmed Black teenager – in Ferguson.

If you haven’t been following the story, start with this Jon Stewart recap here.

With each “unfriend” post, I felt myself getting angrier and angrier, wondering how on earth white people (who understand racism) disconnecting from white people (who don’t) was supposed to help anyone.

As a Black person enraged by the blatant racism in Ferguson, I felt involuntarily benched by my emotions; I was too angry, sad, etc to engage on the subject period, let alone with white people who felt differently and required that I engage “objectively.” This stood out to me as a moment in which white allies could come in really handy. So, I shared the post below on my Spectra Speaks page in an attempt to articulate my thoughts and propose an alternative to disconnection: empathic engagement with the “other side” on my behalf.

The post was well received and felt too important not to share on my blog, so here it goes…  After reading I encourage you to share your thoughts — on being  a good ally, on facilitating critical conversations, on connecting with unlike minds — by commenting below.

———-

Dear white allies, this is not the time to “unfriend.” This is the time to “engage.”

This is the time to remember that the outrage you feel can in no way match my own and therefore you have way more emotional capacity than I do to talk some sense into the “other side.”

This is the time to remember that your “solidarity” does not render you powerless; in fact, the entire point of your solidarity is to lend the power you DO have to folks who do not.

And by the way, this is the time to remember that you do have power.

It may not feel like much – your empathy may temporarily make you forget that you’re not like Brown, you’re not “one of us” and that in fact you are still one of “them” – but please try and remember how USEFUL you could be should you decide to be brave enough to speak up to the folks more likely to hear YOU than me.

I’m seeing one too many white people bragging about defriending other white people. I don’t need your condolences. I don’t need rash actions that absolve you of the responsibility of facilitating hard conversations with folks I will never be able to reach.

I need you to step up in a major way, and leverage the connections you DO have to address ignorance with conversation and interrogate white privilege with compassion. Because I will not do this. I cannot do this.

My rage as a black person witnessing yet another moment in the endless cycle of racism in the US prevents me from engaging in “level headed” conversations with people who see this terribly unjust Ferguson ruling as just another news story to banter about at the water cooler.

But you, don’t do me any further injustice by claiming to stand in solidarity with me while really (really) excusing yourself of the hard work that is engaging with fellow white people on this issue. Don’t hide behind “being a good ally” without actually doing any work beyond merely echoing my cries of pain, anger, and soul wrenching disappointment.

You’re a socially conscious white person? You don’t share *their* views? It’s disappointing to hear your friends say racist things? You don’t wanna talk to them? I hear you. I really do. But if you don’t speak to “them” who will?

Who will?

(Hint: Not me.)

So before you squander the opportunity before you in an attempt to demonstrate your solidarity, ask yourself which choice would be easier: unfriending the guy who attended your birthday party last year because he posted support of the non indictment OR responding to his post with an open ended question to begin a (likely long and strenuous) conversation?

What would a good… actually, forget good… What would a useful, valuable, effective ally do?

We need you to be brave, now more than ever. Stop with the Unfriending. Speak up.

And to those of you doing this already, thank you thank you thank you.

  • Whittier

    I’ve had friends who are PoC’s who say the best thing to do is to defriend, because when you keep friends who make racist replies to your posts, it shows up on your PoC friends’ streams, which only adds to the aggressions the PoC’s have to face, thus not helping the issue. With this in mind, I ended a 20-year friendship yesterday, after getting into a heated argument with a friend on my Facebook wall, in which some of my liberal friends kind of dogpiled her, but my friend doubled down on the “We’re all equal/we have a black president so there’s no inequality/I’m not bad because I have black friends/white people face the same stuff black people do/etc” lines of reasoning. I ended our friendship with the thinking that I can’t be friends with someone who doesn’t exhibit empathy. But, of course, with the vicious names my “good” liberal friends used on my other friend, I kind of have to wonder who was and wasn’t exhibiting empathy. But, then again, I come back to the initial thought that, in these issues, the first people I should take care of my PoC friends. I honestly don’t know what to do anymore.

  • mkat

    Start with helping even one caucasian to acknowledge white privilege.. why is it so difficult to see the entire forest just because you’re one of the trees?

  • Adrien

    Thank you for this. I have engaged people, friends of mine, on Facebook who argue that Ferguson isn’t about race or racism; about the historical facts of racism upon which our country is built; that the judicial/court/legislative systems protect *all* of our citizens equally; that privilege doesn’t exist… and I’d nearly run out of steam to keep going. Meanwhile being stuck between this is an issue I feel passionately about, but not knowing how to help, as a white person. And then, This. It’s exactly what I needed. I will keep up the fight attempts toward mutual understanding, even when it is hard. Because this is important.

  • zaster

    Luckily I haven’t had to unfriend anyone because out of nearly 2000 FB “friends”, I somehow haven’t run across any posts supporting what went down in Furgeson, but I’d like to address this idea anyway. The problem with this idea of dialogue is the assumption that racists are racist because they haven’t been spoken to in some magical way that, if you figure out how to do it, would make them no longer racist. This is kind of like how a person in an abusive relationship will spend a lot of energy searching for “just the right thing to say”, something to say which would make the abuser suddenly “see the light”, aka “the error of their ways”, and stop abusing. This idea overlooks that racism (and abusiveness) is not in any way rational or subject to change through discourse. These are fundamentally dysfunctional, toxic ways of relating, through power-seeking. An abuser is actually empowered every time you engage them because they are quickly able to attain the upper hand since they are willing to act without empathy in the interest of power. It’s like arguing with a troll– you only improve their position. I wish I felt there was a more productive response than disengagement, but I don’t believe there is.

    • carmen22

      Saying something is important, though. It’s the silence of “white allies” (in quotes because being an ally is behavior, not a title), that hurts us. I agree, if you engage with the aggressive, verbally abusive types, it can cause you harm and no one wants that. But if the neutral folks see you speak up, it will make them think. Neutral folks notice. That’s what we need, desperately, and those are also people much more likely to listen and stop and think if it’s a white person who spoke up.

      I think it’s really about boundaries. Say something from a rational and empathetic place. If you get verbal violence in return, disengage. Hopefully the distinction in behavior should be obvious to those around you. But you’ll never know unless you say something.

  • Robert Watcher Thompson

    I second everything zaster has said. I also have to assert a bit of independence and say, yes, I’m your ally. I’ll contend against those who seek to oppress you and do it in a way that suits you. Remember however that I have my own reasons. I have racist acquaintances and relatives, but they are **very** careful when I’m in the room. I believe in the exclusion of that kind of people as at least a good contribution on my part, and it’s kinda late for me to change anyway. Besides, they just repeat the same “points” a thousand times, each time as if I’d never heard it before. All people are people. “They” are just as different from each other as “we” are, no matter how “they” and “we” are defined. If my white friends can’t live with that, I’ll find other friends. Green ones maybe. :)

  • homasapiens

    I had one white friend demand that I stop telling black people that the cops hate them, and to stop talking about instances that proved that.

    • John

      Yeah, cause if you keep telling black people that “cops hate them” That will only make any situation they get in worse! When I get stopped, if I’m in my vehicle, I put my hands on the wheel, SO the cop can see them, He doesn’t HAVE to guess where my hands are and what they are doing. Cops mostly patrol area where crime is more likely to take place, whether it be speeding, drugs, etc. They are gonna be more vigilant.

      If a person is respectful, obey the orders of the officer and don’t make moves that could be considered threatening they are 95% more likely to survive the event, whether it’s a speeding ticket or a general interaction.

      A cop, is not always right, they are human, all cops are not racist,(Sure, some are. White, Black, etc) and cops don’t go out at the beginning of every shift looking for a minority/anybody to shoot!

      After almost 30 years in the military/DOD I’ve
      worked with someone from every single race or mix of race you can think of, WE GET ALONG, It’s not that hard folks. We support each other like family, because that’s how we survived.

      • homasapiens

        LOL no. I don’t tell black people that the cops hate them. I tell WHITE people that racism exists and affects our black citizens — and some white people interpret that in ways that would be funny if they weren’t so damn sad.
        How I wish, John, that keeping one’s hands on the wheel was the answer to all those who abuse their authority. Sadly it is not.
        Too many people think that being a cop means you get to tell everybody what to do– and too many people like that get jobs in law enforcement, and too many of them consider skin color a marker for defensible bullying– as in, too many white people will believe that a black man or woman is at fault in any encounter that goes wrong.
        Disqus doesn’t like live links, but you might try searching google for this keyword; “alivewhileblack”

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  • Heather Reed

    As a white ally and the mother of a bi-racial child and wife of a black man, I am in a unique position to speak to other white people. Some see me as having some sort of insider information and have sent me private messages on FB asking innocently racist or borderline racist questions that they’re afraid to ask black people and thanking me for helping them see the light. However, I have absolutely had to unfriend some folks…mainly family members. Some, I didn’t have to unfriend because they blocked me first.

    When my stepmother posted race-hating quotes from Bill Cosby and didn’t see them as racist because a black guy said them, that was annoying. When she posted that she’s tired of Barack Obama getting treated differently because he’s black and then went on to say “if he were white, he would have been impeached by now,” that was annoying. When I sent her a note telling her I know she doesn’t see herself as racist but that the things she is posting are heavily flavored with racism, she got angry. She accused me of accusing her of being racist. Well, technically, I didn’t accuse her of any such thing–not directly anyway. But after letting her know that those types of attitudes are what keep me and my family from being close to them, she continued with more racist posts without any regard for how this directly affects my family. Without any remorse or concern for how what she is posting could even possibly be construed as racist. I was met with flat out denial and told that if I thought she and my dad were racist, I simply didn’t know them. Well, yes, I think I do. Do you know how? Because she’s wearing her racism on her sleeve. Result? Unfriend and Unfamily–if only that were as easy as a click of a button. But that’s exactly what I did. When it comes to family, in my case, it’s personal. If family doesn’t care enough about how this debacle hurts my son and my husband (not to mention the rest of the world), then no, they don’t deserve to have us in their lives.

    So, annoying as she was, my husband didn’t unfriend her. Why? I kept asking. How can you put up with it? How can you stand it? My husband was alive during the Civil Rights Movement so he has seen and heard a lot more than I have in my lily white bubble in his lifetime. He said her actions and comments do not surprise him and that he’s been dealing with that (racist white people who think they’re not racist) for his entire life and has grown accustomed to it. Also, he said, he feels that he is the only friend she has who is posting things that make any sense and he’s hoping she reads them. He did add, however, that he feared she may not be smart enough to understand some of the words. Probable, I say.

    But more than annoying is my brother. My brother who doesn’t think he’s racist even though every time he sees my husband, he greets him with something to the effect of “How goes it, mah brotha?” Ugh. Okay, I can deal with a little of that because he lives in Troy, MO and quite frankly doesn’t know many black people and is pretty clueless. But when my 16 year old nephew (my brother’s son) posts after Michael was shot, “Why don’t they use live rounds [on the crowd of protestors] and this would all be over?” and my brother “likes” that comment, I can’t deal. Between that and the countless images he shared of the look-alike Mike Brown partying with his own captions reading “Guys like this deserve to be shot”, I sent him a note and said, “Hey, your racism is showing.” He became so incensed that someone would dare call him a racist that he called me a self-righteous bitch and used a number of other obscenities before blocking me all together on Facebook without any dialogue whatsoever. His girlfriend? Yep, her too. Right after she posted a drunken belligerent rant (on MY timeline, no less) about how black people are their own worst enemy. Blocked and unfriended. Check!

    Did I mention my older nephew? My brother’s eldest son of 21 whom I had to unfriend two years ago because of his frequent and unapologetic uses of the words “faggot” and “nigger” on Facebook? When confronted he said “It’s not like I said it to Uncle Leon’s face.” Yes, my brother raised both of those bigoted children. Yet, he’s not a racist.

    So, while I get what you’re saying and I have had some successes engaging even with some VERY ignorant white people, I cannot condone the absolute apathy that comes from those who should care the most. Unfriending is part of the deal.

    I will also tell you that I am exhausted. I haven’t slept for more than 2-4 hours at a time since the non-indictment due to engaging with people on other people’s timelines (friends of friends) and some fence-dwellers left on my own timeline who are starting to come around. I shake, I get angry, and have even sat and sobbed in my office over some of the things I’ve read. I know you’re exhausted. I do. I cannot imagine what it must be like to put up with this nonsense day in and day out until it becomes old hat to you. But please don’t dismiss the “unfriend.” It can speak volumes.

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  • http://cascadianabroad.com/ CascadianAbroad

    As a white person who is not directly affected by racism, I feel like it IS my responsibility to be objective; to try and identify the root causes of why police shoot a disproportionate number of black people, what puts both officer and victim in the situation in the first place, and what can be done to make it better.

    But, to do that, we have to remove ourselves from the rage of the situation. Our biases on both sides of the debate color our thinking from the get-go. From the second the story broke, we took sides (myself included). Then we fought. But we never come back around to discussing rationally how to make it better. The 24/7 news cycle will shift our attention to something else before we get around to it and our cycle of outrage and discontent will continue.

    How does society get to the point where it can actually have productive conversations on race, culture, public safety, education, etc.? How can we each individually contribute to the change? How can we set aside our biases to see the problem from both sides and find an answer in the middle?

  • merline

    As soon as they start spouting their bullshit, they are not my friend.

    The notion that your outrage makes you incapable of engaging objectively has nothing to do with my responsibilities to take on your views about what I should communicate to whom and in what forum. This is an outrageous situation. You are right to be enraged and yes, you are deeply and directly impacted by it in a way that I am not. Still, your “emotional capacity” does not make me responsible for doing what you feel incapable of doing. You might be right that white people should speak up, but I disagree with this reasoning.

    I don’t silently unfriend people when they express racist views. I leave a comment in which I try to give a factual statement about why they are full of shit, and then I unfriend them. For me, Facebook is a place to go for entertainment and diversion, not a platform for social activism. People who are annoying and/or not fun get ditched. Making my own choices about how to use that website does not mean that I am afraid to engage in difficult conversations or that I am doing you a further injustice in the endless cycle of racism.

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    • Spectra

      AMEN!!

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    • Spectra

      “Don’t put the fight against racism on white people.” “You’re wrong because I have one exception that isn’t even relevant in this context.” “I’m a white person, who wants everyone to think I’m more enlightened than to engage on “race” issues.” I’ve heard you loud and clear.

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  • Devin

    Thank you.
    There’s a similar phenomenon on tumblr of making posts saying “if you think so-and-so unfollow me.” And I’ve always wondered how that’s supposed to help. You’re literally telling exactly the people who need to hear what you’re saying to stop listening to you.
    Anyway, I think an important thing to remember is that even if it seems like you can’t get through in discussions with someone just the fact that you are on their radar can help. That they can see what you post, what you say, that you care about this. Simply seeing a message repeated can change people’s minds (for good or ill, it’s a well-documented fact about human psychology).
    Unfortunately, it’s also true that FBs algorithms are designed in a way that makes it less likely that someone will see these sort of posts. Which leads to a kind of unusual question: how do we work around FBs algorithms (and those on other social networks) to make sure that the people who need to see what we have to say do see it?

  • L.H. Rogers

    I live in SC. I’m here to tell you that it’s a waste of breath to talk to a bigot.

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  • Shannon R

    I just hate the fact that anyone who considers the evidence of the case and has decided to support “No indictment” is automatically met with “your a racist”. So are we now not allowed to weigh the available witness testimony, autopsy reports, etc.. and form an opinion without being labeled racist? So if someone disagrees with a person who happens to be black then it is automatically decided that it is due to the person being a racist bigot. SHAME ON YOU. I am so tired of this. People are entitled to their own opinion and it does not automatically mean they are racist.

    • Michelle Parker

      The problem is that the prosecutor did not act as a prosecutor in the grand jury. Laypeople do not understand how grand jury works! That prosecutor presented all the evidence in favor of the cop, that is the opposite of what they are supposed to do! They were asked to step down and let an independent prosecutor handle it but they refused! You know why? Because an independent prosecutor would have conducted the grand jury properly and that cop would likely have been indicted. Prosecutors and cops work together on almost every single case! That is like asking to testify against one of your teammates. Of course you are going to do everything you can to protect one of your own. That is what is so unfair about that grand jury decision. A horrible cover up, stinks of impropriety and injustice!

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  • http://tigergray.blogspot.com/ Tiger Gray

    Your overall point is well taken. I have had to unfriend some people, though, because while there are those I engage with successfully, there are people who react to that engagement with mockery, threats of violence, public humiliation etc and at that point I will unfriend for my own peace of mind, if I’ve said everything I could. I do often engage but I also know that sometimes there’s nothing I can do besides offer a dissenting opinion in the hopes that maybe it will make someone outside of the argument think. I’ve fought so many of these battles that I like to think I can pretty quickly tell whether things are going to de-evolve in to something that is going to get shut down.

    I’ve had this experience in person too, where the reaction I got was frankly scary. Of course that doesn’t remove my obligation to interrupt racist things (and for every time I am afraid, it’s ten times worse for a person of color in the same situation), it’s just that unfortunately not everyone is willing to be educated and the only thing they might understand is social shunning, especially after you’ve done the proper work of trying to talk to them. I personally know, for example, several people who have been educated over and over by almost everyone around them, and they still think they’re the wounded party and they’re only expressing their opinions etc etc. And I mean, people have written long things about racism and problematic assumptions and stuff for their benefit. People have poured out their hearts. And still, there’s nothing there but a brick wall.

    The only thing we can all do at that point is stop interacting with them. I think after awhile the difference between bigots and the uneducated becomes fairly obvious. Everyone only has so much energy, and it’s best in my opinion to spend it on the latter group. There are people in this world who simply enjoy being hurtful and I don’t think there’s much anyone can do to change those people. There’s something to be said for taking from their social currency pile by turning away, because often the only thing they understand is lack of attention.

    I also think some people probably make those declarative I am unfollowing you statements because they have other intersections of oppression (say mental illness) that make it so their ability to engage is diminished. I know this has been the case for me from time to time. I find that a lot of times the person arguing against a racist position has some kind of intersection of oppression, and the person arguing in favor of racism uses that against their opponent. That can burn someone out pretty hard.

    That said what stood out the most for me in your post is your call for allies to actually DO something. Sometimes, people come by oppressed community gathering spaces and say stuff (for example) like “hey gay people I’m straight, and I just want you to know that I think you’re A Okay!” as if I’m supposed to fall to my knees and thank them for their hetero acceptance. It’s like fine, your heart might be in the right place, but what are you DOING about it? Doing something comes at a price. You might have to sacrifice some stuff. That’s frightening and sad but sometimes it’s needed. You have to get in to a conflict and stand strong against bigotry. In fact, some of the most racist people I’ve met think they’re allies, just because they’re ‘open minded’ enough to realize that black people are human (they are also usually “color blind” and don’t care if you’re “black brown or purple”). I hope it’s obvious to most everyone that basic decency isn’t nearly enough and that you shouldn’t get cookies for assigning basic humanity to others.

    One thing I can suggest that might be helpful, as I mentioned above if you have another intersection of oppression limiting your ability to act in solidarity with people of color, find a way that works for you. If you have anxiety disorder and can’t engage in arguments on say Facebook for your health? Write a letter, or a blog, or tweet the thoughts and writings of people of color. I’ve had good success with this sort of thing. If you have to unfriend people on the internet for your own mental health then search out other ways to act. Certainly internet arguments aren’t the only way.

    Thank you for the post, Spectra. Thought provoking as always.

  • thefermiparadox

    Great post. I agree. Unfortunatly I feel I’m not getting anywhere. You make a good point that the whites who ignore racism need to be heard from other whites who acknowledge systematic, structural and institutional racism. I have some family and friends not like the last FB post above but more just ignorant, uneducated, and think colorblind policy is best. They have black friends and are decent people but get defensive about privelage and their worldview is so set. They don’t get historical context and racial microaggressions. With all the stuff in media I thought it was a good time to engage them. I also always make smart ass remarks about my fellow whites and how black Americans are still treated. I’m a sarcastic person and love satire. Usually they just look at me like Im crazy or the one continuing race problems because I don’t ignore it all. Anyway in my discussions we just went in circles and it felt like a waste of time. I heard all the same cliches from talk radio and fox come out of their mouth. Their worldview is so different and I felt like it was a waste of time. Hopefully I did challenge them and perhaps they did think about some of the things I said later. It just feels like i’m getting nowhere. I’m not giving up and do feel an obligation to my fellow Americans of darker pigmentation. Race is not a biological reality or construct which is great but the social-political construct has created centuries of racism. I can’t imagine how frustrating it must be for actual Black Americans if i’m frustrated and don’t have to deal with the racist realities. I just wanted to give you my experience on engaging family and friends.

  • AJ Klein

    Thank you for writing this. It’s made a huge impact on me, and it’s shifted the way I’m addressing things with other white people dramatically.

    Thank you so much.

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  • Abbey

    Sorry for the late comment – I just found this article. Thank you thank you thank you. I am white and have been struggling with this for a long time. But I now fully understand that my little struggle is nothing and that I need to be a much better ally. Thank you so much!!

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