Earlier this summer, the onslaught of media coverage surrounding the murders of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the victims of the Pulse Nightclub shooting had me reeling. I was torn between my own personal grief, and my knowledge that realistically, my white tears were useless.
Although I feel wounded by racial injustice and grieve the lives lost, for the most part I only encounter police brutality, murder, and widespread evidence of structural racism when I’m glued to a screen. When I close the apps on my phone and shut my laptop, I return to a world where my white body is safe and I don’t have to confront racism on a day to day basis.
That week, through the digital haze, I came across an event invitation for a march protesting the murder of Alton Sterling, put on by Justice for Mike Brown-Seattle, a group who have been organizing around racial justice since November 2014.
I had many conversations with white friends that week about how to get more involved in actions against police brutality and racial violence, and how to leverage our privilege.
In one of these conversations, I heard myself say, “I don’t know if the protest is the best place for me to participate,” hiding my discomfort.
I excused myself by insinuating that I had some other great scheme for applying my skills to the movement. And besides, I already had plans during the next march.
But in the following days leading up to the march, I felt ashamed. I’d responded to the most public and urgent show of support in my community with a cowardly excuse.
True, there are many reasons to consider your participation carefully as a white person headed to protest. This piece “For White People Who Want to Attend #BlackLivesMatter Protests” discusses how entitled behavior and superficial intentions can result in white people’s participation working against people of color.
But I wasn’t avoiding the march because I wasn’t up for checking my privilege and taking a support role, and I wasn’t looking for a pat on the back.
Attending a protest will never be enough, but it is something.
Privilege in check, smartphone put away, I went to the march. It ended up feeling more right than I expected.
If like me, you’ve heard yourself coming up with reasons you can’t make the next protest that don’t quite satisfy the white accomplice inside you, consider these reasons to attend:
1) It melts the digital fog
At some point, clicking through important articles posted on social media and getting more information about important stories as they unfold isn’t any different than watching cat videos. As much as I knew our national crisis was real, I felt disconnected from the truth of it.
A protest is a collective experience. Black and white supporters made eye contact and cheered on the protest, making my heart swell with the power of our gestures. Meanwhile, on the same streets, the white onlookers who appeared annoyed or amused proved just why this march was so necessary.
During the march, we stopped and rallied at intersections and people of color took the megaphone to talk about their stories of injustice and their hopes for a better future. I was grateful to help hold the space, to listen and be part of a righteous interruption of evening traffic. I felt my sense of isolation and uncertainty shift as my body joined with hundreds of people walking in step, uniting our voices for justice, in real life.
2) Your body counts
I was naively surprised when I arrived with my girlfriend and a friend to the rally and was not met with a crowd of thousands. Though many were present for the march, there were closer to a few hundred people gathered.
I ignorantly had assumed that in a left-leaning, protest-familiar place like Seattle, at least a quarter of the city us would make out into the streets for the protest after work on a Thursday evening, right? Wrong.
Protests are effective in mass quantities, if more of us made the commitment to turn our intentions into our actions, the bigger our presence would be and the more successful this tool will be to demonstrate the outrage from our community. Not only are numbers good, but the presence of white people at Black Lives Matter protests helps indicate that the fight for racial justice is not just important to people of color.
3) It’s not about you (or your fear)
To me, being surrounded by police and trailed by a parade of police vehicles with capacity to arrest a large number of protesters is pretty unnerving. The police are armed, they are near, and there are lots of them. But they’re not coming for me.
As a white person, this is probably the closest I’ve come to experiencing the embodied fear of what it’s like when the cops are not on your side. At a protest, this comes with the ability and responsibility to be prepared to use your body as a buffer between black bodies and police force. My discomfort, fear, vulnerability, and sense of risk are not bound to life or death consequences. I can be fairly certain I will not be a target of unprovoked violence, and I can be completely sure that this march is not about me.
As a supporter, I went prepared to listen, walk in back, to respect and honor the work that organizers had put into creating this action, and to hear the voices of black participants and absorb their truths, whether or not each voice or part of the process resonated with my expectations or beliefs. It’s not about me.
4) Perfectionism is a form of white supremacy
Processing accounts of racially motivated police brutality with my white friends, we mostly circled around trying to pick the right thing to do. Though thoughtful, an obsession with calculating the most correct anti-racist response is not only counterproductive, it stems from perfectionism, a value of white dominant culture.
Perfectionism creates a culture where mistakes make us bad people, and requires us to operate from a sense of inadequacy, focusing our orientation on criticism rather than praise of ourselves, and others.
I have to choose vulnerability and the possibility of being wrong to enact anti-racism.
Fighting against perfectionism by allowing myself to make mistakes and act before I’m ready, insisting in the belief that we are all in a constant process of learning, and creating a culture of appreciation, are small ways to work against white supremacy.
Reworking my orientation to mistakes allows me to take bolder action, attending a march even if I’m uncertain, and not stopping there. I can act on multiple routes of ending systemic racism without letting fear of imperfection stop me.
5) Black lives really do matter
White privilege offers the opportunity to access power within oppressive systems, and for white anti-racists the responsibility is to use that access to shift the systems. But this requires real effort and attention.
As a white person, my privilege puts me in the way of racism every day — mostly in spaces with white people, in jobs and community organizations that re-create white dominant culture. My good feelings about Black Lives Matter and my sense of injustice don’t automatically make me anti-racist if I’m still living comfortably within racist systems.
I have to choose vulnerability and the possibility of being wrong to enact anti-racism, and I will always have to dig deep into my discomfort if I have any hope of giving up my privilege. Attending a protest will never be enough, but it is something.