How To Contribute to Protests (When You’re Very White)


Somewhere between the TikTok user who did solidarity blackface and the DJ who offered a "shoutout" to George Floyd's family before dropping his shitty new EDM track, I began to suspect that some white people weren't handling current events with grace. I am not an expert on the many complicated issues fueling the news but, as someone eating a delicious mayonnaise sandwich while listening to the Decemberists and praying for the return of hockey, I am a Rhodes Scholar in being white. So if like me you have strong opinions on the use of accordions in your sad fedora boy music, try to keep in mind that...

Now Isn't The Time To Make Protests About Yourself

By the time you read this, the headline story will probably be about Donald Trump ordering the Smithsonian Zoo's tigers to be burned alive so he can jerk off into their cage's American flag. But, as of writing, we have Instagram's Blackout Tuesday. It began life as a dubious music industry stunt and ended up getting slammed for blocking out everything. A bunch of well-meaning doofuses added the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag to their blank posts, flooding away the documentation of fundraising efforts, police violence, and other protesting essentials. Oh, and someone used it to promote their goddamn #standagainstracism smoothies.

The trend of "I don't care what stance I'm taking as long as I'm seen taking one" is easy enough to spot on the corporate level, as the San Francisco "We Helped Push Colin Kaepernick Out of the NFL" 49ers and the Washington "We're Called the Goddamn Redskins" Redskins were among the many organizations criticized for making mealy-mouthed announcements. We're about 48 hours away from Elon Musk declaring that self-driving Teslas will prioritize running over people of color to draw attention to their plight.

But we also have influencers pretending to help clean damaged storefronts before walking off once their photo is taken, modern Narcissus Jake Paul using the protests to milk views, and perpetual petulant 16-year-old rich girl Lana Del Rey putting people at risk so that everyone could be extra certain she stepped outside. And then there was this incredible clip of a woman taking advantage of police barricades to get her Instagram pictures taken on an empty street, like if in the background of Liberty Leading the People some aristocrat was getting a new portrait done on a road freshly swept clean of human corpses.

The impulse to do nothing and feel proud of it is powerful, if this video of people "renouncing their white privilege" is anything to go by. But talking about how great you intend to be in the future is like telling your neighbor about your renovation plans while their house is burning down. You don't have to spend long on social media to see a friend or family member declare "I might lose some friends over this, but after many careful days of reflection, I have decided that violence is bad. Why can't we all just #getalong?" out of what feels like a grim sense of obligation to acknowledge that they exist in this reality but have no strong feelings on that fact.

There's a temptation to dodge big, scary phrases like "police brutality" and "systemic racism" and instead attribute violence to some ephemeral natural cause, as though black Americans are dropping dead of heart attacks after being startled by vengeful poltergeists. But saying so little is like boldly saying that you oppose natural disasters after an earthquake, and the ability to say you care while knowing that you will never be harmed once you stop caring a few days from now is, ironically, the exact privilege that's being renounced like it's a hat you can take off. So, what can you do? Well...

Don't Ask Your Black Friend To Be Your Personal Encyclopedia

"I have black friends" is the well-known rallying cry of people about to explain why the joke they borrowed from a book originally released in 1912 isn't racist. But if you've been as unproductively glued to social media as I have, you've probably noticed another concern from black users, who are experiencing a wave of friends and acquaintances reaching out to say "I'm really sorry about what you're going through right now, I hope you're doing well, and by the way could you please explain the entire history of racism to me?"

This isn't new, but it's been kicked into overdrive by people shocked into thinking "Hey, maybe I should look into this whole oppression thing." And hey, better late than never. I understand the instinct to ask, because my minority friends often ask me to explain why I complain that Subway's turkey is too spicy. But thinking "Black people seem really upset about recent events, therefore they must be the most qualified to explain them to me" is like thinking "My friend who was just beaten up should explain the nuances of assault cases to me." You should, at the absolute minimum, let those wounds heal.

Putting aside the fact that "Surely every black acquaintance I have must be a Ralph Ellison scholar" feels like 2020's woke intellectual equivalent to assuming that every black person you meet has strong opinions on Knicks management, doing this puts the burden of solving a problem on the people who suffer from it. "I would help but I don't know how" is one hell of a stance when a few minutes on Google will reveal everything from reading lists to advocacy groups that could use your financial support. You don't solve racism forever with your friend's convenient lifehack; you work on being a better person for the rest of your life.

The clearest directive I've seen from a black writer was Kotaku's Ash Parrish explaining that they're exhausted and just want to escape the pressures of reality for a bit with Animal Crossing. The responsibility of following through on that desire to help is on you. Otherwise you just want people to know that you want to help, which isn't actually helpful in the slightest.

Try Not To Equate A Department Store With Human Life

Given that a key moment in America's founding mythos is the destruction of property by people fed up with government oppression, it always takes a certain level of mental gymnastics to denounce the exact same act when it happens again. There's a temptation to decide that history was fine when it happened to those old dead people in books, but now that history is supposed to have ended it's very rude of it to suddenly start rearing its head again just when you needed to go buy a new shower curtain. Any suggestion that the society we take for granted is fraying at the seams can make us uncomfortable, but from there it's possible to drift into being more concerned about the fate of department stores than the fate of black human beings, especially if you've spent more time in the former than around the latter.

The motivations for looting, and the efficacy of it, are complicated enough that entire articles are needed just to broach the subject, but the TL;DR is that for every opportunistic asshole with an urge to smash shit there are far more people who have run out of patience from trying and failing to be heard peacefully. Regardless of what you think of violent protest, there's a perverse both-sides-ism that equates human life with insured Target stock, that considers a Hard Rock Cafe to be the beating heart of a community whose occupants are themselves somehow largely irrelevant.

And that's how you end up with the insane Philadelphia Inquirer headline "Buildings Matter, Too," an article that has a sub-header of "Yes, they can be rebuilt, while lives are forever lost," and yet somehow still continues beyond that. It was later toned down to the still baffling "Black Lives Matter. Do buildings?" but given that the small business owners having their windows smashed are saying "It's a glass door, it's not much to fix. I care more about black people not getting murdered by the police," the answer is apparently no.

The actual article makes a reasoned attempt to argue that a damaged city is one that can be rebuilt to be even more inequal, but the headline is only meant to scare you (writers rarely write their own headlines, which is why my recent column on why I deserve to be on Playboy's Top 40 Under 40 Lovers list was re-titled "DATABASE ERROR: DO NOT CLICK"). It's the same disingenuous bullshit used by the NY Post headline "Looters swipe $2.4M worth of watches from Soho Rolex store: police sources," which adds, as a quick BTW four paragraphs in, "But the store's spokesman said 'no watches of any kind were stolen, as there weren't any on display in the store. There were simply windows broken and some vitrines smashed.'"

Reframing a sprawling, complicated protest movement as crass opportunism is a way to scare people into demanding a return to the normality of when they didn't have to grapple with difficult issues because people had the common decency to get murdered without a big fuss. That's also what produces a black Twitter user saying "A riot is the language of the unheard," and white Twitter users replying "That quote is taken completely out of context. The great MLK would never condone any kind of activity like that" while failing to note that the original tweet started with "As my father explained during his lifetime." Yeah, if there's one single thing you absolutely shouldn't do during these protests, it's explain Martin Luther King Jr. to his own son. I can't wait until they get to the shocking twist ending of their MLK biographies.

So while I'll admit to feeling uncomfortable when I see protests turn violent, I'll also admit that I've never had to witness a public debate on how many stolen microwaves are the karmic equal to the murder of someone with my skin color. On that note...

If You're Feeling Uncomfortable, That's The Point

Everyone thinks of themselves as the protagonist of reality, as the hero who's had to overcome unique challenges to obtain even a modicum of success. When you're asked to acknowledge the fact that you've at least been fortunate enough to dodge a few specific obstacles, that fantasy is shattered. Grappling with this can be uncomfortable, but feeling uncomfortable is better than looking at human suffering and feeling nothing.

We can (and have) rattled off the systemic problems that minorities face in America, but given that state violence is being employed against people waving all those scary "Please murder fewer of us" signs while a few weeks ago white men faced no consequences when they used AR-15s to protest the tyranny of having to wear a mask when picking up takeout from Shoney's, the double standard should be as glaringly obvious as it's ever been. The pushback that's inevitably made in moments like this -- "Don't all lives matter?" and "Oh, so we should be ashamed to be white?" -- is a way to demand that reality always be about you, that everyone else be reduced to background characters who help fill your needs but never have their own.

No, you don't have to feel guilty about being white, but there's a difference between guilt and responsibility. It's not your fault when it snows, but it is your fault if you don't shovel your sidewalk and someone slips and breaks their hip on the ice your negligence allowed to form. (I don't know what the warm weather equivalent to this analogy is, probably something to do with alligators.) The most traumatic experience I've ever had with law enforcement was when my (white) neighbor called the police to accuse me of stealing her mail, a situation which was resolved by me saying "No I didn't" until the cop got bored and left. It would be insane for me to dismiss that as "Huh, I wonder why I never got the 'Here's how to not get murdered when you're pulled over' talk from my parents, I guess they just never got around to it" instead of acknowledging that there was a bigger issue at play.

So while it's probably beyond the scope of our readership to solve centuries of systemic inequality, shit, do something. Donate money. Don't just chuckle nervously when your friend tells a racist joke. Ask why the management team at your workplace has the pallor of a roving gang of Draculas. When your uncle waves away police violence as being caused by a few "bad apples," politely encourage him to finally get around to reading the second half of that expression. Otherwise you can post all the hashtags you want, but you're still letting the snow pile up.

Mark is on Twitter and wrote a book.

Top Image: Langladure/Wikimedia Commons

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