One of the most striking things about the images of Black Lives Matter protests is the number of white people in the crowds. In every city in the country and all over the world, white people are marching and protesting alongside Black people: they’re holding Black Lives Matter signs, wearing I Can’t Breathe t-shirts, covering their faces with Stop Killing Black People masks. And they’re out there with the same passion and urgency as the Black community.
I think it’s this unique quality, even more than the intensity and the continuing duration of the protests, that seems to give this moment a different feeling than recent BLM protests or previous cries for racial justice in America. I’m not the only one who’s noticed that this time feels different. And I think that this unfamiliar thing we’re feeling is hope.
It seems entirely within the realm of possibility that this will end up being the moment where real, significant, meaningful progress on racial equity actually happens. If so, it might be because black people and white people are finally standing side-by-side, working together to end racial injustice.
I think it’s in part because of the young people. There are so many young people whose circles of friends are truly multi-ethic and multi-cultural, and they need to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their friends who are in danger. Or maybe it’s because so many in the younger generations are themselves bi- or multi-racial. Or maybe it’s because in the same way that they simply accept that human beings fall along gender and sexual continuums, they understand that humanity is a continuum of skin-tones: race is a social construct rather than a fact of nature.
But there’s more to it than that. For the first time, I sense real cooperation between people. Is it just me, or do you feel as though, for the first time, the Black community and the white community are finally starting to work together?
Why did this moment take so long to get here? Surely we’ve all known for decades that racial inequality is alive and well in America. No one seriously believed that racial equity was achieved with the Civil Rights movement. And the election of Donald Trump and the ensuing increase in overt racism washed away any pretense that we had of racial harmony in this country.
I think that there was a time when white help wasn’t in fact welcomed in the fight. I know that in the past we’ve been told that the Black community didn’t need our help. I was once told “We aren’t sitting here waiting for white people to fix this for us. We have activists and leaders and lawyers and lawmakers. We can and will handle this ourselves.” In addition, we also heard “You can’t possibly understand what we feel or think, so we don’t need your opinions on how to fix it.”
Maybe the African-American community was understandably fearful that if they created a partnership with White America they would ultimately inevitably be betrayed. After all, how many times have they been betrayed in the past? Every step forward has been met with new ways that the white world invented to keep them back, from Jim Crow to separate-but-equal to redlining, police brutality, ultimately resulting in unacknowledged systems of oppression that are deeply ingrained into all of our institutions. It’s little wonder, given the long history of racial injustice in this country, that African-Americans believe that all whites harbor some degree of racism and would ultimately betray them. It’s perfectly understandable.
But the truth is, as I was told last week: “Black people can’t be expected to fix a system that they didn’t create.”
And until this latest round of protests sparked by the horrible murder of George Floyd, I think that even the most well-intentioned white people didn’t know what to do, or how to help, or whether our help would be welcome. And haven’t we always had the slightly awkward feeling that we were somehow intruding into someplace we didn’t belong? And so although we believed in the cause, we didn’t show up for the fight.
At first, we believed that the best we could do — the only thing really — was just to not be racist. That, and educate ourselves. So over the past half-decade or so, we’ve been having the difficult conversations. We’ve been listening and soul-searching. As the BLM movement grew we learned that we could be allies by openly confronting racist words or behavior. And we learned about how privilege has played a big part in the system of injustice that has existed for decades.
Let’s face it, profound change doesn’t happen overnight, although in retrospect the evolution does seem to have been glacially slow. But finally, we have understood that it’s not enough just to be allies. We can and we must show up in the trenches.
So, maybe African-Americans have realized that our help is necessary, and white people have woken up to the fact that our help is needed.
And suddenly there has been a profound shift; now everything seems different. I don’t know when it changed exactly. I don’t know where the invitation actually came from. But here we are.
And maybe this really is the moment that we achieve the critical mass necessary to make real change.
At any rate, I feel profound optimism at the infinite hue of faces that I see in the streets and the chorus of voices speaking up in support of Black Lives and against racial injustice and police brutality: Everyone out in the streets. Everyone raising their voices in protest. Everyone coming together to demand justice. Because if not now, when? If not us, who? Go grab a mask and make a sign and join a protest.