Dear Fellow White People: Shut Up Right Now
Illustration by Shelby Hohl
So, I sort of zoned out reading a really good old Doctor Who novel over the last two days (Vampire Science, if you’re interested), but when I finally peeked back into the world I discovered that cops had once again killed a couple of black folks doing absolutely nothing that warranted anything more than a mild scolding, let alone being shot. Alton Sterling, a father of five, was killed by police in Baton Rouge as he was selling CDs outside a convenience store, and Philando Castile was killed after being pulled over for a busted taillight in St. Paul.
After these sorts of incidences, America loves to play a little game called “I’m So Special, Hear Me Speak.” We get think pieces and people “just asking questions” and millions of commenters on news stories falling all over themselves to drop a mic literally no one will ever hear hit the floor. Being that the issue on hand is most definitely — make no mistake — to stop arguing racial in nature, this brings my fellow Caucasians out in droves, either to find some reason racism doesn’t matter or to assure black people they aren’t part of the problem. Some of these are well-intentioned, some are insidiously evil, and a small number of them (really tiny) are even actually beneficial. That said…
DEAR GOD, FELLOW WHITE PEOPLE, NOW IS THE TIME TO SHUT YOUR MOUTH-BUTT.
Seriously, unless you are a high-ranking member of the law enforcement community or have an advanced degree in race studies or are otherwise in a position where you might be able to provide actual, tangible help, no black person really wants to hear your thoughts right now. There is absolutely nothing you are going to say they have not already heard before.
They don’t want to hear excuses why this particular killing or that particular killing was “understandable given the circumstances.” They don’t want to hear the statistics you Googled five seconds ago telling them the cheapness of black lives and the police’s enthusiasm for ending them “isn’t a big deal” or “actually worse for white people.” Even you, yes you, my white liberal brother and friend of all people of color, they do not want to hear from right now, not even your condolences.
Why? Two reasons. The first is that white people rule this country. That is an inarguable fact. When a white person talks, it usually means the non-white person has to stop speaking to respectfully listen and this is definitely a time when it needs to be the other way around.
The second reason is that whatever you say, no matter how well-meant, it is in another language. Black people do not live in the same country as white people, at least not when it comes to law enforcement. They have an entire cultural normalcy around behavior to keep from getting shot by authority that white people don’t live with. So when you speak up you sound like a blind person critiquing someone’s painting skills. If you get anything right, it will be entirely accidental.
Our silence right now is the bare minimum of what we can do to help. Preferably we should be reading and listening to black people about what they want and doing our damndest to try and make it happen because waking up this often watching another pointless victim of police violence thanks to an enduring legacy of racial inequality is not how you run a good country.
And I get it. I do. Scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed is post after post by black friends enraged or in despair. They blame white people, white leaders, white causes, white privilege, and that feels like it’s directed at us personally. You want to defend yourself. You want it to be abundantly clear you’re no racist and you want them to acknowledge that. However…
SERIOUSLY, SHUT UP.
This song ain’t about you or me. Your feelings are not the issue on the table right now, and black people have to spend way too much of their time making white people’s feelings a life-or-death issue as it is. Believe it or not, you can survive the momentary discomfort that comes with being faced with the bloody effects of white supremacy in America. You will not shrivel and die if a black person you know thinks of you as part of the race problem. You are not actually entitled to never looking bigoted. No one gives a Trump about your honor at the moment.
So zip it. Clam up. Listen with your ears instead of your mouth. You want to say something? Say what they’re saying: #BlackLivesMatter. Share the many wonderful pieces written by people of color instead of about people of color. Or do what I’m doing now and let other white people know we have exceeded our allotted time to speak and need to yield the floor. Our hot takes have grown cold.
by Jef Rouner