There’s a protest sign I’ve seen at several marches and sit-ins this summer that reads, “Black lives matter more than white feelings.” If, like me, you’re a white person who believes deeply that black lives matter, it’s easy to read that sign as commentary on other white people — the ones who support Donald Trump because they “feel voiceless.” The Republican National Convention a few weeks ago was essentially thousands of white people in a stadium expressing their anger and fear. As Newt Gingrich said afterward on CNN, “Liberals have a whole set of statistics, which theoretically may be right, but that’s not where human beings are.”
But the white feelings called into question by that protest sign aren’t just the anger and alienation of Trump supporters. They are also the fear and guilt and perceived helplessness of white people who want to end the epidemic of state-sanctioned violence against black Americans. People like me and you and every white person we know who posts messages of grief each time a new name becomes a hashtag. It’s easy for us to stand back and criticize Trump supporters for putting anger and fear above facts. It can be much harder for white people who support racial justice to realize just how hung up on our own feelings we are.
This week, the Movement for Black Lives published an ambitious and specific policy agenda that acknowledges, “neither mainstream political party has our interests at heart.” It’s time for left-leaning white people to admit it: More action is required. Most of us are letting fear and shame and guilt get in the way of working for change on behalf of black lives. And it doesn’t have to be that way.
Luckily, we have help in the getting-over-our-feelings department. The national organization Showing Up for Racial Justice, which has affiliate chapters in almost every state, supports ongoing Black Lives Matter work in ways that explicitly address, direct, and utilize white activists. SURJ is like training wheels for white people who are new to racial-justice activism. The organization offers a structure where white people can pester other white people with their questions and concerns about how to show up. At every turn, SURJ also reminds its members to take their cues from black organizers — which is, as Collier Meyerson writes at Fusion, something that white allies have often had a hard time doing.
I saw this work in real time. Recently, I made plans with a friend to attend the L.A. Police Commission meeting, where there had been a large protest the week before. But I noticed that the latest email from White People for Black Lives, my local SURJ affiliate, didn’t mention the commission meeting. It directed white protesters to the ongoing occupation at L.A. City Hall, where activists have been camped out for weeks demanding that the mayor fire Police Chief Charlie Beck. (There is a similar occupation under way in New York City.)
Sending us to City Hall was a deliberate choice: Black organizers wanted to be present at the commission meeting, so they had asked white supporters to hold the sit-in space at City Hall. This was explained to us by a white organizer wearing a White People for Black Lives T-shirt who approached us right away at City Hall and briefed us on how to participate in the protest. That level of clarity, knowing a specific answer to the question “How would black organizers like me to show up as a white person right now?” came as a relief. But when I felt that relief, I realized I’d been hung up on my feelings. At some level, I’d been worried that I wouldn’t know what to do when I arrived, or that my presence wouldn’t be welcome.
“Blacks know we need whites in this fight. And organizers, I think, also genuinely want whites around,” Meyerson told me over email. “It’s such a basic and universal thought among blacks, but one that I think hasn’t penetrated the white liberal consciousness yet. And understandably so, when society is designed to keep us strangers.”
In other words, that feeling of hesitation was a signal to go and get involved. Many of us don’t have a lot of firsthand experience with social-change movements. We’re pretty good at expressing ourselves on Facebook, but we don’t routinely walk around with our views written on a sign. When you couple that unfamiliarity with most white people’s discomfort with being in the minority in a crowd, even those of us who want to show up at a protest can be hesitant. But that discomfort is itself a pretty good case for showing up. It tells us that there’s work to be done, and we have an obligation to help do it. “White people ought to challenge themselves to engage in more spaces of risk and difference,” organizer Umi Selah told the Washington Post.
There can be powerful lessons in these relatively insignificant white feelings of unease. Some low-level alienation at a Black Lives Matter event is nothing compared to a lifetime of being relegated to outsider status by the systems that run this country. “Empathy isn’t just remembering to say that must be really hard — it’s figuring out how to bring difficulty into the light so it can be seen at all,” writes Leslie Jamison in her book The Empathy Exams. “Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination. Empathy requires knowing you know nothing.” Acknowledging our feelings in the service of moving beyond them can lead to not just greater empathy but more powerful action.
“One thing is for sure,” writes Meyerson, “it’s the responsibility of whites interested in ending racism to sacrifice their comfort, ask questions, and take cues and orders from black people without relying on us to show you and tell you how.” We white people need to actively work on rising to these responsibilities. And, in order to address a problem as widespread and entrenched as anti-black racism in America, first we’ve got to get past our own feelings.