My Skin Tone Doesn’t Give me the Right to Hijack the Conversation

Can white people learn how to listen to non-white people?

Photo by Maria Oswalt on Unsplash

“Are you writing about America?” is the question I don’t know how to answer anymore. I’ve written extensively about America but seldom about my own Americanness, which, to some, will always remain a questionable yet undeniable privilege.

This bothers me.

Many immigrants still labor under the illusion that naturalization makes you as American as someone whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower.

Nope.

Many immigrants to the US fail to pay proper attention to the plight of Black folks otherwise we would have known better.

There’s your red flag right there, prospective immigrants, this is what you’re moving into so you’ll either be automatically disenfranchised upon arrival or you’ll directly benefit from the system, depending on your skin tone, means, and the ethnic composition of your household.

Think of America as the politically correct and socially acceptable of apartheid in the age of social media.

Ronald Reagan’s famous quote may be generous to fault and hanging in poster format on the wall of USCIS field offices around the country but the reality is other.

Equality has never existed in the United States, a country built on slaves labor whose entire modus operandi has ensured the status quo endures to this day. Hopeful though they were, the Obama years didn’t reverse it.

“Trump isn’t Hitler, he’s the reincarnation of Robert E. Lee,” snaps my friend, who is neither prone to circumlocution nor American.

Civil war. Guns. Armies and militias and vigilantes.

But what is painfully obvious to the rest of the world isn’t to all Americans yet.

What to do when violence comes from the top, the culture you encouraged, enabled, and empowered? How do you keep yourself safe?

This question, too, always bothered me.

It is further evidence that we, as a country, as a collective, never existed. The civil unrest setting American capitalism ablaze transcends our differences, it isn’t just against the buffoon and his cronies at the top, it isn’t just against one police force or several or all, it isn’t just against the systemic and systematic dehumanization of Black folks.

It is against all of the above continuing a moment longer.

Civil unrest is about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for everyone without exception.

So why are white folks hijacking the conversation again, bleating about being poor allies and making it all about them?

Instead of atoning publicly for spending a lifetime being self-centered, just stop centering yourself and listen.

You’re desperate to remain relevant, you’re desperate for eyeballs, and you’re desperate for clicks and bucks and a pat on the back for being the good white person you want others to think of you as.

And yet, you’re showing off and profiteering.

This civil unrest is bigger than all of us.

This civil unrest is against the system many of us helped maintain, especially white people profiting from disempowerment. It’s a system founded on oppression and dehumanization and it’s never been good to native folks, whose land colonizers stole, to people of color, to immigrants of lesser means or without documentation or both, non-Christians, non-binary folks, sick folks, disabled folks, gay folks, women…

The Venn diagram of hatred is vast yet many of us exist where it intersects time and again, our identity a melting pot of everything deemed undesirable.

The American experiment doesn’t have a pulse anymore.

And much as my immigration experience is a cautionary tale of sorts — and regardless of the ethnic composition of my extended family — I am white, I will always be white, and, in America, my lily-white ass gives me the kind of power I never bargained for and emphatically do not want.

This awareness isn’t unpatriotic, quite the opposite. It means you know the system is broken because it doesn’t work for everyone even though it may benefit you.

Worse, if you were born into it, it’s also all you’ve ever known.

But we can all think for ourselves if we try.

The vulture media culture spilling over every single inch of the internet still treats Black deaths as entertainment. Thanks to the internet, we’re all media now so this is on us all.

Using the internet to incubate a more thoughtful, more considerate, more respectful society isn’t a new idea but we’re not there yet. Until then, anger let loose is always a desperate cry for a seat at the table. Those of us who have been sitting around it twiddling our thumbs need to get up, give up our chair, and go stand at the back of the room for a bit.

We must let others speak, we must let them share their emotions, their feelings, and their fears, we must make space for them then hold that space.

And while we’re at it, we must make this process as safe as can be.

In The Social Contract, Rousseau argued that laws are binding only when they’re supported by the general will of the people.

But when the laws are designed to favor some people over other, there can be no general will of the people.

Even if the laws are comfortable for you because, again, you benefit from them, understand it’s at the expense of someone else.

And let them speak.

As long as white folks continue to interrupt and butt in with their ‘big feels’ without second thought for anyone who isn’t them, trigger-happy cops and randos with guns will continue to use Black people as live target practice.

Human pain isn’t a consumer product.

We must help stop the pain and we can do that by not going on about ourselves for a while, by not writing a hot take, by not assaulting unsuspecting eyeballs with another SEO-optimized lengthy tirade designed to fan the flames of outrage while achieving nothing other than personal enrichment at the expense of the most disenfranchised, again.

Yes, it’s a habit but you can lose it if you make an effort. This is mine.

What’s happening now is a fight for survival, for the right to live freely in a country that considers many people on American soil second-class humans.

You, personally, may never know what it feels like to walk around with a target on your back but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t at least try to put yourself in the shoes of someone whose reality it is. All you have to do is listen.

Find your empathy, find your compassion, find your courage and then do something.

Many white people still don’t know how to listen to non-white people though, do we? And it’s mightily hard to make us care because the status quo is the kind of comfortable setup few would admit to benefiting from out loud for fear of being labeled a racist, i.e. a bad white person.

Why expect anyone to mollycoddle your lily-white ass as you expound ad nauseam about what it’s like to be the monster in the system? Who’s even got time for white fragility when people are dying?

Why is white fragility still a thing?

There’s no excuse for turning a blind eye to what’s going on, there’s no excuse for failing to understand that survival and safety are community projects, not just about you, the white person who had a hand in creating this mess.

How do we keep one another safe as humans on American soil right now?

This is a societal problem that transcends all our differentiators; if we fail to protect one another, genocide beckons.

What else do you call state-sanctioned execution?

This current administration is prepared to kill to defend the status quo and enforce order because violence is the lifeblood of American society. As evidenced by the COVID-19 death toll, lives are so cheap they’re disposable.

Non-white lives don’t even register.

White people don’t get to lead the conversation on equality.

Many of us lack the experience of life-threatening discrimination so we don’t know what we don’t know. And we will never find out unless we shut up long enough to listen and, perchance, come up with some helpful perspective.

Since privilege is seldom self-aware, it might take a while or not happen altogether.

We must accept this and keep listening, keep educating ourselves, keep thinking about how to turn the ideals America was founded on into a reality.

If not now then when? What else will it take? How many more deaths?

If civil unrest doesn’t affect you directly, personally, you may still be struggling to understand what’s going on so here’s a shortcut: Your skin color makes you an architect of the system, just like mine.

Own it.

Then listen some more to those who aren’t you, honoring feelings that aren’t yours, and amplifying voices that desperately need to be heard.

Not everything is about you or your lily-white ass, it should never have been.

For once, you too can be a messenger instead of being the message.

I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor now based in the Netherlands. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio. For perspective, see below:

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