June 4, 2020

From One White Protester To Another

On Tuesday, I marched with approximately 60,000 other Houston residents through the city in response to the public murder of George Floyd. A few thoughts came to mind as I marched and observed those walking nearby.

I thought I'd share some of my thoughts with my fellow white protesters–and those considering whether to protest. For certain, I will get some things wrong in what follows. I'm well aware and resolved to the fact that I am going to make mistakes in what I share but I am committed to keep trying.

I also recognize that most people in Texas, where I've lived these last 4 years, probably have not thought of me as the activist-type. I lived a lot of life before I got here, new friends. I don't consider myself the activist I may have at an earlier stage of life. But I do believe in protest as a civic and Christian duty in response to injustice. And we are facing injustice.

The current president has threatened military force against those protesting police violence against black Americans. This posturing cannot deter the cry for justice. That said, we white folk are frequently unaware of how our presence impacts others in positive and negative ways. So, if you choose to protest police violence against black Americans, here are a few considerations. I humbly, incompletely and imperfectly offer these to you:

Did you bring a mask?
For the love of God (and neighbor) please wear a mask! We're still in a pandemic. If you are going to be screaming, your pushing all sorts of particles out that can infect others. Black people are speaking out to save their lives. Don't get them sick. And stop vaping! So gross.

What will you scream (and what you shouldn't)?
Speaking of screaming, white friends, don't holler chants such as, "I can't breathe." We are raising awareness of police brutality against black bodies. Not yours. You've got all sorts of breathe to spare (as long as you're wearing a mask). And when throngs begin to quote Kendrick Lamar's, "We gonna be alright." You have to remember that this is a statement of existential hope for black communities that have been brutalized for generations. White friend, you are currently alright. Right now. It means something very different when you say it. Only lead chants when called upon, we are not here to follow you. Be thoughtful about the shorthand terms you use with other protesters. Just because a person of color uses it does not mean you have permission to. Your presence matters but know your place and choose your words.

How will you use your presence to benefit others?
Speaking of presence, it is important to point out that black Americans risk much more than you, white friend, when protesting. There's a much higher likelihood that they will be abused by law enforcement. Remember all those people that were tired of stay-at-home orders that rushed city buildings and screamed in the face of officers? Mostly white folks. No brutal backlash. The response to black people protesting has been dramatically different. That's the gift of your presence as a white person. Walk alongside black protesters. If the moment arises, you can stand between a black person and those that would bring harm their way and diminish the chance of a violent incident. This is not full-proof, you could both get hurt. This does not make you a white savior either. You do this out of concern for black bodies rather than bravado in the face of authorities.

How will you relate to the authorities?
Speaking of the authorities, recognize, white friends, that if you demonstrate rage against authorities, destroy property or even simply litter it is not you but people of color that will likely pay the price. Do not allow your presence to be a weapon to further hurt black protesters. On the other hand, lots of white folks are going up to authorities during protests and thanking them, shaking their hands. As a Christian, I think that all people should be treated with dignity. That goes for the police as well. But when you thank the authorities you are giving them the credit that is deserved by those that organized protesters and trained activists. The self-monitoring of protests is incredibly important and has proven most fruitful. Violence avoided is due to organizer's and protester's choices. Thank those around you before you head home.

What will you do when you get home?
Speaking of arriving home (safely, I pray), like I said, we're still in a pandemic. When you get home, throw your clothes in the wash, including your mask. Take a shower. Use soap! Wipe down everything you brought with you to the protest. The CDC gave you directions. Follow them. The people around you that were unable or unwilling to march don't deserve to get sick. After you clean up, take a nap. After you take a nap, pray. After you pray, continue the work. Lift up voices that need to be heard. Have empathetic and brave conversations with people you disagree with.

How will you direct your passion?
Speaking of those whom you disagree with. When you begin to get involved with work like this, there is often a zealous passion that wells up within you. Before you know it, your screaming in the streets has turned into tweets in all caps, seething emails to politicians and people of influence, and shame wretched upon all who do not see or respond to the world as you do. We need everyone. We need people who scream. We need people who speak softly. We need people who run to the front and those who take their time. White progressive types are often heard telling other white folks to "check their privilege." Of course, self-reflection on privilege needs to be done! But, white friend, "check your zeal." Self-reflect on whether you are isolating others or encouraging folks in the right direction. Are you zealous about being right or about the rights of black Americans? I regretfully speak from experience here. I have isolated people who could have been allies. Guilt and shame are not healthy motivators for individuals. Listen thoughtfully to those you disagree with before you speak. Then, call people to the dignity and care of all.

Can you love yourself?
Speaking of care for all, you need to care for yourself. Do not expect others to be congratulatory of you showing up for the cause, patting you on the back. But know that you are welcome in this space. If you feel out of place, be reminded that this is how people of color often feel in spaces you dominate. You will make mistakes as you get involved, just as I have and will. Protesting is a complex, political act with a long, long history within the human experience. As long as there have been systems oppressing people, there have been revolts against those systems. The larger the protest, the more likely there are varied and nuanced agendas. Some ideas expressed in protests may at first seem brash to you but these are often well-developed strategies you have never been exposed to merely because you didn't need to consider them. Remember that many black Americans have been thinking about this a lot longer than you have ... because they've had to. You live in the 21st century. Google stuff you don't understand. Don't expect black people to be your teacher. Care enough for yourself to learn. You will find that some things you initially brushed off make sense after studying. You may even discover your assumptions were wrong! Forgive yourself. White guilt is heavy but you gotta let yourself be human, make mistakes if you want to do better next time. I can speak from experience. If you can't forgive yourself that often turns into shame or anger. Those will not help you or those around you.

It's been nearly 20 years since a group of Roman Catholics and Mennonites, people of color and white folks started helping me understand white supremacy and what it meant to seek justice for those other than myself. I am still learning. This doesn't happen overnight. Unlearning the racism you've been taught takes time. Be gracious with yourself and with others.

If you choose to protest ... be thoughtful. Calculate the cost. Take appropriate risks and cautions ... and pray without ceasing.

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