Dear White People,
“I can never understand what it’s like to be black.”
I detest it when you say this. What you are really saying is, “I don’t care enough to try.”
As if you don’t know how to read, watch, listen and learn. You can get a college degree, and suffer through boring books written by white writers hundreds of years ago, and yet you won’t read James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates or Toni Morrison? How many more Eric Garners and Ahmaud Arberys will it take until you download a book and start to get educated?
You watch white movies and TV shows, but have you watched The Hate You Give, or maybe Get Out, or Black-ish to add the lubricant of humor to your painful awakening?
Have you listened to the audio of Trayvon Martin sobbing as he takes his last breaths?
Have you cried one time this week for George Floyd? Did you watch his 9-minute execution?
Have you worn a shirt that says, “Black Lives Matter,” or are you too worried about what your white friends will think?
Admit it. You want to stay part of the well-meaning, moderate white club. There is only so far you are willing to go to support racial justice.
Fight for change, or admit you don’t care. You are either fully for racial equality, or you are fully against it. There never was a middle; it is a mythical place where white moderates have been since the days of slavery.
You treat the black experience in America like the common cold. It is a minor annoyance. At worst it dampens your day; it can’t kill you like Covid.
Are you blind to the difference in the way the late-night Wawa worker looks at you compared to a black customer?
Are you deaf to the way the exact same language defines us so differently? When a black man in an interview says, “Me and him went to college together,” he is probably not getting the job. When you say that, you are just white.
Are you actually unable to see that black men shave their facial hair when looking for a job, but the ridiculous looking mound of hair on your face that became stylish in the last few years is thought of as hip?
Do you think that George Floyd’s murder was an isolated incident?
To be sure, there have been many white people and leaders in law enforcement who showed they care this week. Some have grieved privately; some have protested in public. The marches look different than they did just a few years ago. We are seeing signs of progress.
Camden’s white Chief of Police Joseph Wysocki marched with the protesters in his city, and the police in Newark leaned on years of trust to manage peaceful protests. A lot of white folks in Denver, Colorado laid down for nine minutes on their backs. There are good things happening, and people are trying.
But we need more to happen now. We need more white folks on board. The next Trayvon Martin cannot wait.
“We all need to be better.”
I am so sick of seeing white people tweet this. This is a complete lie.
The only team that needs to be better in the game of racism is Team White.
I coach high school basketball at The Westtown School. Three of our athletes have been NBA lottery picks, a few of them are in the G League or playing internationally, and over 20 have gone on to play Division I basketball. College coaches come to Westtown to recruit our players all the time.
Quite frankly, white college basketball coaches should be taking the lead in this fight. They make millions of dollars coaching mostly black players. I have been disappointed by how many coaches are playing the middle. Very few have called for arrests and very few called the Minneapolis cops murderers and accomplices. Their language assailing institutions and systems is literally white noise.
There have been some college coaches who have stood up in meaningful ways. Steve Donahue, the Penn head coach, ended this well-written tweet with “I am here to stand with you in this fight.#BLM” (if you don’t know what #BLM means, go to Google and be ashamed.)
Our country needs reform. We must realize that silence is compliance and compliance is unacceptable. We all must unite against racism. To all my friends, former & current players, fellow coaches and people I love: I am here to stand with you in this fight. #BLM
— Steve Donahue (@Coach_Donahue) May 30, 2020
Thank you, Coach Donahue. We need more white coaches like you.
But how are so many white coaches remaining silent? Or making innocuous statements like “we need to come together, we all need to be better.”
Tweet this: “White people need to stop being racists, police need to stop killing unarmed black men, and the people in charge need to fix the problem or vacate the buildings.” Is this really a radical statement that you are not willing to make?
Why should your black players give you their best, if you can’t even tweet your vocal support of a murder charge in the execution of George Floyd?
Natasha Cloud of the WNBA said it best: Your silence is a knee on the necks of your players.
— Natasha Cloud (@T_Cloud4) May 30, 2020
“We won’t take the lead.”
Yesterday, I was asked to join a group of white men in support of racial justice, a broad idea with many applications. I was told, “We won’t take the lead in the conversation, but we will be vocal supporters of the black community.”
I shuddered. I quelled my anger. When do we take the lead? Haven’t black people borne this burden for too long? When will we use our privilege to become champions for racial justice?
White people, when you say, “I could never understand what it’s like to be black”—on Twitter, on TV, in a room with a black person—these are the reasons you say it:
- You think that by ceding the moral high ground, black people will be more likely to like you. God forbid that a black person doesn’t like you.
- You are embarrassed to say that you think you have an understanding of the black experience, and you don’t want to be ridiculed.
- But this is the one that is most likely true: You don’t want to bear the burden that comes with the knowledge.
Former Congressman Trey Gowdy was on Fox News (I watch both sides) this week, saying, “I can’t understand why these officers have not been charged. There is no explanation for this.”
We need more to happen now. We need more white folks on board. The next Trayvon Martin cannot wait.
While I was happy to hear him take this stance, I also wanted to break the screen. The officer is white; George Floyd was black. It would no doubt be painful for Mr. Gowdy to admit that racism is the explanation he’s searching for—but it would also make him much more aware, and less complicit. After all, you’re supporting a president who tweets, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
Once you realize that white and black Americans have two sets of rules, you will have to make a choice. Fight for change, or admit you don’t care.
There are only two paths: You are either fully for racial equality, or you are fully against it. There never was a middle; it is a mythical place where white moderates have been since the days of slavery. You have just been lying to yourself to avoid the hard choices you will now have to make.
A slight change in your language can have massive implications. Instead of, “I can never understand your experience,” try this: “I can never experience your experience.”
Because you can understand. You can get educated, just like I got educated in math in high school, and a little in college. You don’t need a PhD to learn about someone else’s life.
Download books or movies that will open your mind to the experience of black people in America. Make your kids do the same. Get comfortable saying, “I am trying to understand.” Or maybe even someday, “I am educated in the continuous exploitation of black people in America.”
Pretend you are starting a long walk into a dark forest where the branches and leaves are welcoming arms, appreciating your presence and your willingness to learn. You can move to the front, and you can make a difference.
Or…don’t. When this all dies down, go back to your white life with your white family and your white friends and your white books and your white shows and your white movies. And admit that you don’t really care. Most of you have been making it clear your whole lives.
Seth Berger is head boys basketball coach at The Westtown School. He was founder/CEO of And1 basketball apparel company. He has a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania, and an MBA from Wharton.Photo by Andy Witchger / Flickr