Friends talking on park bench.

Some tips for white people who have opinions on Ferguson

For many activists, these past few weeks have been rough. From Thanksgiving to holiday get togethers, ’tis the season for hanging out with people of diverse political opinions. Inevitably, the topic of Ferguson, Eric Garner, and the ongoing protests against racist police violence comes up, and you may find yourself forced to explain institutionalized racism to a conservative relative. 

In these moments, I try to follow Spectra’s advice on what it means to be a true ally. Allyship means teaching other people of your privilege about oppression, even when it’s hard. Talking about racism can suck, but experiencing it sucks more. If you’re white, take Spectra’s advice, and don’t do people of color a further injustice by “claiming to stand in solidarity with [them] while really (really) excusing yourself of the hard work that is engaging with fellow white people on this issue.” Or listen to Stephanye Watts, who reminds us that “White people created the social construct of race to subjugate people of color, so you are the only ones who can change it.” The ball is in our court.

What I’m realizing over and over as I try to have these difficult conversations, is that it’s impossible for people who benefit from white privilege to understand me without evaluating their own position in the world, or even in the conversation. Lately, when talk turns to Ferguson, I try to remind my white friends of how their position might inform their knee-jerk reactions to words like “racist” and “white privilege.” Or you know, “history.”

In an effort to more quickly drive these conversations towards a more meaningful, transformative place — where we aren’t stuck debating whether Mike Brown stole something or not — here are a few suggestions for you to share with white friends who are just beginning to learn about institutionalized racism:

1) Don’t trust everything — or really anything — you believe.

Since white people became a people, they have constructed lies and sung them to each other like lullabies to keep their privilege and power safe. We aren’t violent, they are. White people are good, fair, and just. Anger is never the answer (unless we are angry). It takes a long time to unlearn these lies, but I’m asking you to try. You can start by listening to the people of color in your life, and considering that they might know more about a system that has been lying to you all these years. Franchesca Ramsey uses a great metaphor in her latest video on allyship: if you wanted to help build a house but had no experience doing so, wouldn’t you listen to those you are trying to support before jumping in?

Don’t just listen because it’s polite — listen because in all likelihood, you really don’t know what you are talking about.

2) Take a minute to step back and evaluate some of the mental gymnastics you are doing.

White people put unbelievable amounts of energy into propping up the myth that racism no longer exists. I’ve read arguments that defy all logic, looking past centuries of evidence. Really ask yourself: Why are you more willing to believe that thousands of people are protesting across the country for no reason than to believe that our criminal justice system is fundamentally racist? I’m here to tell you that you that the mental backbends can stop. You can rest.

3) Consider that if you aren’t angry, you probably don’t understand what is happening.

A lot of white people truly don’t (or don’t want to) understand the violence that the black community is facing at the hands of our state. These aren’t harmless, isolated incidents. Innocent people are dying and no one is getting punished. Children are being gunned down and our justice system thinks that’s cool. The people meant to protect us are actually killing us. If you’re not angry, then you are willfully not paying attention.

4) Identify what’s at stake in this conversation.

If you choose to believe what I — and the thousands of people of color taking to the streets — am telling you, you’d have to accept that our justice system is racist, that inequity still exists, and the game is rigged for people like you to win.

You’d have to face the fact that you are privileged because other people are not. That the police force was designed to protect your power, your life. That people are dying so that you can feel comfortable with how you move in this world.

So I can actually understand those mental backflips you’re doing. I’ve done them too from time to time. It feels like you have a lot to lose if you let go of the fantasy that we live in a post-racial society.

But while you are worried about your feelings, people are losing their lives.

And you are losing something too. Jaime Utt makes a compelling argument that racism does such a good job of dividing us that it dehumanizes us all, even white folks. “Racism robs us of our ability to feel, to empathize, to hurt in the face of injustice. Without those things, are we still human? Whiteness dehumanizes us as it demands that we give up that part of ourselves that should have said ‘This is wrong’ when the ‘no indictment’ verdict came back.”

You have a choice: stand down the lies you’ve been told, and embrace our common humanity. Or keep clutching a fantasy that is becoming hazier and hazier.

Let it go. Together, we’ll rebuild this house.

Header image credit

Bay Area, California

Juliana is a digital storyteller for social change. As a writer at Feministing since 2013, her work has focused on women's movements throughout the Americas for environmental justice, immigrant rights, and reproductive justice. In addition to her writing, Juliana is a Senior Campaigner at, where she works to close the gap between the powerful and everyone else by supporting people from across the country to launch, escalate and win their campaigns for justice.

Juliana is a Latina feminist writer and campaigner based in the Bay Area.

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