The Work White Americans Need To Do


This post first appeared in the morning shakeout, my weekly newsletter that you can subscribe to here.

Good morning. I usually accompany that salutation with an exclamation point, but not this week. I’m not excited, nor am I particularly happy. It’s been a trying few months on a number of levels but the past several days in particular I’ve personally run the entire gamut of emotions, from uncomfortableness and embarrassment, to anger and sadness, to disappointment and outrage, and back and forth along that avenue a few times. It weighed so heavy this past Saturday that while running with my wife, I just started walking and sobbing on the trail.

I’m upset that Chris Cooper was accosted by a white woman in Central Park for asking her to follow the rules. I’m furious that George Floyd was murdered by a white police officer while his colleagues stood around and allowed it to happen. I’m embarrassed that I can go out for a run without a care in the world but that my Black friends, regardless of where they live, need to constantly be watching their backs. I’m pissed that sh*t like this is happening all around the country to Blacks and other people of color whose names and stories we’ll never know.

I’m also scared for a good friend who works as a doctor at a Minneapolis hospital, the only building on the street that hasn’t been burned down and is surrounded 24/7 by the National Guard right now. I’m sad and upset that another good friend and colleague’s family lost their small business of 36 years to looting in Los Angeles. I’m angry that neighborhoods in cities around the country, many of which are occupied by minorities and immigrants who own small businesses and restaurants there, have been decimated by opportunistic cowards. I’m pissed off that the “leader” of our nation is hiding and firing off incendiary Tweets while his country burns, divides, and collapses around him.

In no f*cking universe is any of this behavior ever OK.

I’ve been off Twitter for three weeks now. I’ve haven’t shared much on Instagram the past few days. But I’ve been watching. Listening. Reading. Thinking. Talking. Writing. Learning. Questioning. Understanding. Acting. It hasn’t been easy or comfortable. Then again, most work worth doing isn’t. It requires a lot more effort than posting a photo of the new book you’re reading or sharing someone else’s Instagram story about what white people can do better to understand racism. That stuff is a small step but the real work is in admitting to yourself that you’ve been a part of the problem and then committing to real solutions like reaching out to your Black and minority friends and trying to understand where they’re coming from, calling out people when they make seemingly benign racist jokes, writing to your local leaders, representatives, and law enforcement officials demanding equal treatment for blacks and other people of color, pushing for change in the educational institutions that have long ignored the issue of racism in the classroom, and supporting organizations that are leading the fight for racial justice. As my friend Charles, a Black man who has been a member of my Wednesday night track squad for the past four years, wrote me yesterday, “Now is an opportunity to notice your circle of friends and the people with whom you associate. The more diverse your personal relationships, the easier it is to understand differing perspectives and empathize/advocate for them. Pay attention to your direct community: how people are represented in media, board room, state houses, court rooms, places of influence. How are parents influencing their children?” This is the work we all have to do. These are the action items that need our immediate attention. These are the changes that we need to make stick.

Look, what’s happening in our country right now shouldn’t come as a surprise. Racism and violence against Black people in the United States runs deep and it’s been ignored for far too long. I’m as guilty of recognizing this and not doing something about it as most of the rest of you reading this right now. That’s an uncomfortable truth I’ve had to face these past few weeks and one that we all need to reckon with as quickly as possible. The most recent events in our country, combined with a devastating pandemic, a lack of leadership, an entire population of people who are at their breaking point with a system that is beyond broken, and those that capitalize on violence and anarchy has created an explosion that has been boiling under the surface for longer than any of us care to admit.

And here we are. The top is starting to come off the volcano and it’s going to affect every one of us. The truth is that as white people we can’t empathize with what our Black friends experience on a daily basis. We don’t know what it’s like to be targeted or discriminated against based on the color of our skin. We don’t know what it’s like to go for a run and fear for our safety. We have no right to tell people who have been systematically oppressed for generations how to mourn, protest, or have their voices heard because we don’t share their perspective.

So what can we do? We can be attentive and listen. We can do the work to educate ourselves and those around us. We can have hard conversations that will lead to better understanding and empathy. We can call out racism, white supremacy, bigotry, and hate when we see it. We can be a voice and an advocate for anti-racism and equality. We can help the push for change by voting for people and putting money behind organizations that can help implement it. We can get out into our communities and stand aside our Black friends and other people of color to let them know that we’re there, we’ve got their backs, and we will fight for them from here on out. Because if we don’t do these things, we’re not going to get anywhere—and that’s the worst tragedy imaginable.

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