Show Up, White America: The Opposite Of Support Is Silence

We’ve read the gentle rundown of facts. We were lucky to have Alaina write such a beautiful piece on the ongoing and often painful healing process as a black Christian. We winced when presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton declared “all lives matter” the same week that President Obama declared that for too long we’ve been blind to the way past injustices continue to shape the present. We felt the gut punch of Jon Stewart’s frank and despondent monologue about America’s disparity of response to the massacre at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, and then we felt it again and again after learning that blacks experience the most hate crime, that whites have a racist view of black protesters, and that the media will stop at nothing to humanize a white terrorist.

We still need to talk about Charleston, but we really need to talk about White America: a country defined by white supremacy, a country where institutionalized racism permeates every aspect of its citizens’ existence, a country that traded one kind of segregation for another kind of segregation and called it de-segregation. White America serves white Americans and rarely values the lives of non-white Americans. In holding White America accountable, we need to start with white Americans.


Steady or Not

As humans, we are constantly looking to others to model — and mirror — our behavior, good or bad. We do this every day without thinking, like herd animals, but it is wilder and more plaintive when something or someone kills us off en masse and we are forced to reckon with how badly we want to live.

We’d been outside gardening when the bombs darkened a sunny Marathon Monday in 2013, just six miles away. Loved ones found out before we did, and there wasn’t a phone line of ours that didn’t ring off the hook from 3,000 miles away to make sure we were safe and sound. Our inboxes and social media feeds were full of check-ins from family and friends; even people we’ve never met sent messages of concern and worry and love that week. Through the baffling and surreal nightmare of having an unprecedented manhunt rage across the Charles with the whole country watching in horror, their support made it possible to remember the light and good in the world.

When our worlds are rocked by terror, support can steady us, and sometimes save us.

Most of us like to think of ourselves as supportive, and know what it feels like when we’re not supported: the cliche of the empty seat in the audience from the perspective of whoever is noticing it, the forgotten birthday, the sting of disloyalty. We don’t even like a peripheral lack of support, and dislike the idea of others feeling abandoned, forgotten or left alone.

We were still sheltered-in-place on Friday morning when our daughter realized that her dad hadn’t tried to reach her. She asked us just to make sure. It would have been easy to lie, to change the subject, to make excuses. We could protect her from a terrorist that day, but not from the truth.

It turns out that the opposite of support is silence, and choosing one over the other shapes our relationships.

From backyards to battlegrounds

Three months later, Black Lives Matter was born. In many ways, white silence is public enemy number one.

Over the past two years, the movement has only become more relevant. In lieu of progress, escalation. White America’s continued silence and inaction coalesced in Charleston at Emanuel AME Church in sickening violence, robbing the blameless of life, of innocence, of redemption. What should make any barely decent human bury their face in their hands with anguish has driven White America to bury itself in denial.

In contrast, Black Lives Matter has never been louder or more poignant than it is now, including within our own LGBTQ communities.

chicahg-black-out

Chicago halts its Pride Parade for ten minutes for #BlackOutPride. [Source]

While I am not in the habit of keeping company with racist, misogynist or transphobic individuals, even by extension, this was easier to do back home, safe(r) in the confines of an old-school Bay Area bubble. If your priorities align with rape apologies for Woody Allen, supporting MichFest, or #AllLivesMatter, that’s your choice. Mine is whether or not to expose my own circles — black family members, trans friends, QPOCs — to that brand of blatant disregard for their lives. Friends often make their excuses — ignorant cousins, withering uncles, childhood friends they haven’t seen in years, the usual — in an attempt to wave away the aggression in their feeds and I, like many others, make a mental note and file it away.

Needless to say, I have a smaller circle now, both IRL and online.

What is usually quiet and steady but still only mildly depressing personal social work becomes crisis management whenever we are faced with a Charleston. White America loathes not controlling the narrative and having its silence challenged. You can almost hear it bristle whenever Black Lives Matter comes up (again), taking up space. If you don’t think there’s a timer on how long we’re allowed to talk about terrorism in connection with the massacre at Mother Emanuel (spoiler alert: the FBI’s still talking in circles despite Loretta Lynch and Hillary Clinton both making public statements), you need to pay closer attention. Ditto on racism and the Confederate flag.

On the flip side, POCs (and our allies) know our online backyards are going to become battlegrounds for an indeterminate period of time. Logging off is a luxury and its tax is a guilt that gnaws at your already raw conscience. Strategies like #blacklivesmatter aren’t effective because they are intermittent; they have to be indefatigable. We don’t get to stop patrolling the online real estate we’ve worked so hard to nurture and build (in many cases to escape or recover from offline or IRL racism), we do it running on fumes through crushing grief on top of all the “normal” stuff because we know what happens when we don’t.

USA, USA, USA

Nothing gets the salve of patriotism oozing like terrorism ripping a wound in our nation’s psyche, provided the act meets the criteria for White America. Goodwill bursts the usual societal dams we all get stuck behind and we bask in the light that shines from the brave smiles of those who’ve lost everything but refuse to give in to the terrorists. Patriotism doesn’t doubt itself. Of course it’s easier to get back on your feet when you know someone’s there to catch you, to cheer you on and put their unwavering faith in you. When someone believes in you, it’s magic. (Would we even bother with love or one another if not for that magic? I can’t imagine we would.) There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s one of the better aspects of human nature.

Four-Crosses-at-the-Boston-Marathon-Bombing-Memorial

Boston Marathon bombing memorial. [Source]

But when White America responds to an act of terror on the Black community by withholding the kind of support it has consistently shown itself, is that not racism exactly? 

Is White America so uncomfortable at history repeating that it’s just going to slide into a catatonic infinite loop of passive racism and hope no one notices?

White America will look you dead in the eye after a white policeman cracks open the jaw of a 12-year-old girl in a bathing suit or empties his bullets into a 12-year-old playing in a park, and say, without a trace of irony, “They’re just doing their jobs,” and go to the trouble of creating #NotAllCops because the idea that even the most innocent black lives matter is unpalatable. Efforts to bring attention to police brutality since Oscar Grant in 2009 have grown substantially, but the media still uses language to relentlessly shame and silence national protest, which gets parroted by White America in derailment Bingo-winning dialogue on any subject having to do with race.

Bree-Newsome-flag

Superhero Bree Newsome removes the Confederate flag from the statehouse in South Carolina. Photo by Dante Barry [Source]

When Bree Newsome, a bona fide superhero, scaled the South Carolina statehouse flagpole to take the flag down her damn self, she was arrested, the flag replaced and re-raised. Waiting for mainstream media to cover a possible string of arsonists targeting black churches in the south in the wake of Charleston is like watching a single ant try to herd a pack of elephants. We’ve already forgotten the five-year-old girl who played dead through a storm of bullets in order to stay alive in her own church. (Meanwhile, Batkid has a movie deal. Batkid isn’t the problem — when both children have fought for their lives, one against terminal disease and the other against pure, unadulterated hatred for the color of her skin, and we more or less pretend one of them doesn’t exist, it’s our society that’s the problem.)

When black people try to set reasonable boundaries, many of them in an effort to combat racism and save lives, White America seems to have one of two responses:

To stonewall with an astonishing efficacy or to issue a menacing Who do you hell do you think you are?

Business as Usual

The week Dylann Roof chose to terrorize a historical black church in Charleston, killing nine, Jon Stewart clocked in to work with genuine despair, an acute sense of resignation and that he wanted fuck-all to do with anything other than talking to a Muslim teen feminist Nobel laureate, and people noticed. It was an impressive broadcast of his inability to business-as-usual.

When President Obama let excruciating seconds pass without speaking or making eye contact with the camera before an audience of millions in his national address that same day, he also signaled the inability to business-as-usual. It was heartbreaking.

Two men, influential in their own ways, chose to communicate not with the usual pro-USA rallying cries of “They can’t beat us!” anti-terrorism, but with voices so heavy they sounded tethered to ten thousand ships at the bottom of every ocean on earth. The whole world was out there watching, and neither tried, not really, to hide the strain on their faces that said they barely had it in them to tread water, let alone do their jobs.

What does that tell us? Are we truly listening?

President-Obama-eulogy

President Obama delivers the eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney. [Source]

When Obama returned to the public eye a week later, he said that we absolutely cannot abide a blithe return to business as usual. That’s what we so often do to avoid uncomfortable truths about the prejudice that still infects our society.

But if black survival has so often depended on white comfort and black people forgive because they need to survive, how do we all move forward?

Southern Discomfort: “What is true in the south is true for America”

Jon Stewart didn’t even bother to ask White America “Where are you now?,” he just gave us the answer: “We still won’t do jackshit. Yeah. That’s us.”

President Obama said there is no shortcut, that we don’t need more talk about race. An open heart, “more than any particular policy or analysis is what’s called upon right now.”

He means yours, White America.

So I’ll bother asking: Are you going to show up or what?

What’s that?

I…I don’t understand the question.

Yes, you do, Rachel. Yes, you do, White America. So answer it. Show up. Stop making excuses, it’s killing people. Stand up to your friends and your colleagues and your family members. Support each other when you see someone standing up to racism. Power in numbers works both ways — use yours for good. Quit coddling ignorance because it’s easier, or because you’re afraid, or because it feels better. Take down the flag. Enact a gun control solution. (And save your damn breath on both those “issues” — it’s not hard and nobody buys the petulant, deliberately obtuse arguments in defense of either.) Don’t pretend you don’t see racism, don’t look the other way, don’t act like you don’t have a dog in this fight. You started this fight. It’s been two centuries and enough is enough.

Furthermore, you are not entitled to black people prioritizing your comfort and your safety over their own; refuse to enable people or situations that rely on this sort of harmful, racist gaslighting. Does that piss you off? Wanna leave a comment about it? A. That’s telling, and B. Too damn bad, we’re not going to sit here and listen to what makes y’all think you’re different from Dylann Roof anymore. Your cowardice is the same as his, and that cowardice trickles down and calcifies into a bedrock of systemic racism that destroys black communities, whether it’s a tiny white girl tear, a 10-gallon-full cowboy hat or the self-satisfied, faux-liberal killer mist of racism a la The Hunger Games.

You either care enough to do what’s hard and what’s right, or you are the same as him, you really are. Two sides, same coin.

None of this is going to feel comfortable. That’s what Netflix is for. You have to show up. As Hillary Crosley Coker at Jezebel wrote, “The jig is up. The world knows we’ve got a closet full of racism, that we’re no poster children, that we systematically subjugate people of color and the poor.” This country can protect you from a terrorist on most days, but not from the truth. Not from yourselves.

Choose silence instead of support, and the jig is up for you, too.


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Aja Aguirre is a perpetual late bloomer from SF who writes about style, fashion and beauty for Autostraddle. Her award-nominated style blog, Fit for a Femme, takes on both coasts' signature styles and draws on her experience as a personal stylist. Check out Instagram for her latest looks, and Twitter or Tumblr for QPOC Speakeasy x Femme Power vibes.

Aja has written 45 articles for us.

68 Comments

  1. I don’t really have any words to leave in these comments because you already said all of it. So I’ll just say: Thank you. From the bottom of this brown girl’s broken heart, thank you for writing this beautiful and painful and gut-punching and gut-affirming piece.

  2. Everything here.

    I think about this a lot. Especially ever since Friday’s SCOTUS decision re: marriage. So many of my straight friends came out the wood works ready to publicly support. Yet every day cricket silence regarding the issues affecting communities of color.

  3. Reading this made me feel like what I wanted and needed to feel when I was baptized as a teenager, and I know that’s overwrought and blasphemous, but I don’t care. I want to be made new, again and again. I will sit with this and let it wash me, over and over, until it reaches every part of my brain and heart and cleans even the most seemingly innocuous gunk it finds that makes me part of the problem. Thank you. Truly, I thank you.

  4. In 2014 there were 20 documented hate murders committed against LGBTQ persons. Of those, 16 were against Trans women. Of those, 11 were trans women of color. It seems that outside of the Trans community almost no one is talking about this.

    • Not talking enough, I agree.

      While I’ve noticed awareness outside of the trans community showing signs of improvement, the urgency isn’t there (and it needs to be, especially in mainstream news), and that’s clearly discriminatory and racist when trans women of color are affected in chillingly disproportionate numbers.

      I was surprised that Rolling Stone published this piece” yesterday — it touches on violence against transgender women, but also employment discrimination, poverty and health care, with data on trans women of color and black LGBT people.

      And while it was very encouraging to see #BlackOutPride happening coast-to-coast this year, there’s still a very long way to go. We’ve all got to keep showing up for one another.

  5. This is so powerfully and beautifully written. Too often it seems that the real guts of the issue are tiptoed around by all sides (or simply denied/ignored/devalued) which is the opposite of what you did.
    Thank you so much for taking the time to put all of these thoughts together, and to get other folks to think.

  6. Sometimes it feels like my support is just as bad as silence because I get written off by people who are convinced they know better and the more I argue back the more off-balance I seem. The more my “opinions” get taken as hysteria, being misinformed or brainwashed by the liberal media. Even if I often tear into the liberal media for not serving the people only their rating and sensationalism.

    I don’t care if people think I’m nuts I just want them “get it” and to think beyond the purview of their own narrow experiences, but it’s too much like banging my head into a brick wall.
    It makes me look nuts and accomplishes jack for anybody.

    Any other white people in this sort of space with other white people? Be they friends or family, your words feel almost worse than nothing.

    • Honestly, I feel like it’s worth it. Even if the other white people in your life respond poorly, it raises the possibility for them that there is another way to think about it.

      With some of my other white friends, it’s taken a long time but some of them have started to come around.

      • I second that comment. The more you talk to people the more it might be possible for them to change habits and the ways they talk and act about racist issues.

        I have also found it useful to give books about racism as christmas gifts, but I guess the people you give those books to need to be somewhat open about these issues to read a book in the first place.

      • It doesn’t feel like a thing one can call “worth it” but a thing where you either fight it or you’re a part of the problem. Right or wrong, yes or no.

        I think the problem is the people I guess fight with the most don’t have enough common ground with me for things to get through.
        Different generation Real Adult people who’s entire social circle reflects their beliefs or just accepts it as “that’s just how so and so is” and youngins that unlike me wouldn’t dare take on their elders.

    • Every time I think about this problem, my mind goes back to this wonderful article that Hannah wrote about how to change people’s minds. It doesn’t really give concrete solutions (for there were such a thing, then we wouldn’t have problems, right?) but I find it super helpful nonetheless.

      Catching Flies With Honey: How To Change Anybody’s Mind

      However, I am curious about how to fit this data and technique into situations in which pure anger seems the only appropriate response.

      • I remember that, but it’s hard to talk to someone who’s decided long ago every word out of your mouth is parroting liberul propaganda :C

        That advice works best on fresh targets.

        Step back from the object of anger inducement for a while and find your chill place, but that’s not always possible or sane. I believe anger is a natural thing that needs to be acknowledged like any other feeling and I know from experience bottling it up is not healthy.

  7. This was bloody epic, and so beautiful & powerful to read.

    I live in a port city in Australia that last weekend had a few US navy ships visit. I was on the train on Sunday morning as half a dozen marines were on their way to church. A couple of white marines were talking to a local woman (also white), who asked if they’d seen Obama’s eulogy. She said it was so moving, and seemed like a really important issue, and she couldn’t understand why nothing is done after so many gun attacks. The American guys kind of shrugged and were like, “yeah, it’s important but it’s just one crazy guy who probably had a bad life/mental problem/whatever”. A total non-issue. A bit later, one of the guys said to the girl, “I hear that your Aboriginal population is treated pretty poorly here?”, and the girl was like, “yeah, you know it’s a problem, but at least racism here isn’t very entrenched”… in a state that is literally closing by force hundreds of remote Aboriginal communities, in which our Indigenous incarceration rate is astronomically high, in which Aboriginal deaths in police custody is a huge issue but is totally ignored by politicians and media alike, in a country that suspended the racial discrimination act to “intervene” in Indigenous communities (and that’s just the start of a massive, massive list…).

    It’s fucking ridiculous the wilful blindness that we white people have for the deep, entrenched, toxic racism that exists in our own countries, and that white society thrives off.

    I don’t put myself above this, and an article like this is a (much needed) kick up the arse.

    • Yes!

      I find it infuriating how so many Australians look at this and go “oh the US is so backwards with their racism and gun laws, we’re so far ahead” but we’re not at all.

      The racism in Australia, particularly towards the indigenous community is abhorrent, it’s just not as out in the open because the population is smaller and less visible. Particularly in major cities.

      The discourse around the forced closure of remote communities us disgusting. In Melbourne there have been large scale protests and EVERY commercial TV news broadcast focussed on the disruption to commuters.

      It’s disgusting and inexplicable and it’s only getting worse with our current government.

        • Yes, so much yes for both of you! Australia is so disgusting right now. We have so much racism and discrimination, yet we have the audacity to point to America and go on about how much “better” we are. We’re not!

      • I hear the same thing in France, we think we’re so above Americans because we don’t have guns and we don’t have the same history re: slavery.

        It’s like French people forget about colonization, their treatment of POC, today’s horrible commentary on Islam and Romanis, our leaders going to Africa and declaring without flinching and very matter-of-factly that “Africans haven’t contributed to History enough” (as if to say “wtf Africa, what are you waiting for”?)

        The list goes on and on and on. We liked to pretend we were shocked 5 years ago when our ministers declared on national television that there were “too many Arabs in France” but now nobody even flinches. The media sometimes talk about racist white men to “denounce them”, but they NEVER EVER talk about POC, so the only narrative you hear about is from the pov of those racist white men.

        It’s infuriating.

        People hide it behind “economical reasons” and refuse to believe/hear you when you explain that wanting to close the borders/kick out immigrants IS racism too.

  8. I, too, talked about heartbreak when black and brown lives were filmed dying at the hands of police.

    I opened my Facebook feed the next day to a flood of posts that said: White America, this is not about you. Stop making it about you.

    I didn’t want to offend anyone, so I went silent. Now I see this. Do you see where allies might be getting confused? I feel things like empathy and grief, but if those are going to hurt you then I don’t want to say them.

    • Hi Catherine,

      In the spirit of this article, I am responding to you rather than sitting back and thinking of a response I’m too scared to type.

      I understand, as a fellow white person, feeling confused about the balance between involving ourselves in movements for racial justice (important, because as noted, not to get involved is to passively accept the racist status quo and continue to benefit from it) and not becoming involved in ways that make those movements “about us,” as you’ve said, or speak over others.

      However, I think this difficulty is ours to navigate and work within, and not something people of color need to clear up before we can offer our support.

      Here are two ways I’ve navigated this issue for myself:
      One, to actively share articles and posts written by the communities most affected–re: #blacklivesmatter, that means Black people, first, and more broadly, other POCs. That way I can avoid being silent/obscuring where I stand on the issue without worrying that I’ve spoken over others or framed the issue in a way that would be offensive or derailing.
      Two, to focus my attention on combating white supremacy in my own communities and in myself. This is a sector of the movement that Black folks don’t really belong in–it’s my understanding that for too long POC have been asked to educate white people, to answer endless questions that could be solved with a google search, to pour energy into white folks’ ignorance instead of using it to lift up themselves and their communities. By doing that labor instead, I make space for Black activists to have conversations that don’t center White America’s concerns and questions. This goes beyond expressing empathy or grief in ways that align my experience with a Black experience. My experience and my grief are different–including the fact that I and those I love cannot help but be perpetrators of racism, that this violence is enacted in my name. Acknowledging that and then working to disrupt racism’s operations in what I think, say, and do is crucial work.

      I’m not saying I’m perfectly right about any of these things. I might be wrong, but that’s part of the process. Lately I’ve been thinking about the oft-quoted, “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.” If I’m more afraid of being called out for my racism than I am silently harboring racism that goes unchecked, then wowww my priorities are TERRIBLE. (I mean, obviously there’s also the very real concern of causing more harm, but that’s where I’ve decided to do a lot of research and try to be educated as best I can and then trust that silence, especially as it regards talking to other white people about this stuff, is only going to get us so far and it’s not as far as I want to go.)

  9. Thanks. This is a powerful statement. My concern is that even though I am deeply sympathetic, I want to know what I can DO. Yes Black Lives Matter! But like with my passion for ending gun violence in America and getting equal pay for women doing the same job as men – I see little opportunity to DO anything other than lend my financial support to organizations that represent my interest. I will be among the first to admit this is not enough. We need education on effective strategies for standing to be counted. I want to know if there is any fund-raising going on to help reconstruct the churches that have been burned. Would there be opportunities for volunteers to go help? I can use a hammer or a paintbrush.

  10. this is so important. thank you. <3

    idk if this is too late, maybe people are not reading these comments anymore? but I've been thinking about this since this article was published and I was wondering if any of my fellow white Straddlers would be down to trade organizing/education/whatever strategies for taking this on. it seems like many of us are going through similar processes of developing awareness, and at least for me, it's pretty easy to get stuck on turning that into action. but often it helps to see what kind of work other white folks are doing, and to have a space where you can figure out your thoughts/feelings — wherever you are on this path — without hurting or exploiting POC. thoughts?

    tl;dr — let's build a network to turn silence into "courageous imperfection," yeah?

  11. This piece appears like its written to “White America” in an attempt to call them to action, but I feel like its more written to the people in the struggle in order to validate their pain and stir emotions in them. I say that because I read the entire article truly wanting to understand its argument and I feel as confused about this issue as when I started the article. I really, really want to understand the discussion here. If the audience you’re honestly writing to is white America, may I humbly suggest that you start from the beginning with some of these references and acronyms? A lot of them are new to me, so I’m guessing others are the same. I think a lot of people feel ignorant (but not apathetic) about the depth of the situation and how to change things for the better and I am one of those. I walk away from reading this not inspired, encouraged and understanding specific action steps to change things for the better, but rather deflated, accused (as I did NOT personally “start this fight”) and massively discouraged. I’m hopeful this author, who clearly has more experience with and understanding of the situation at hand, will continue to write more pieces that are more focused on catching those of us who really do care up to speed and offer specific, positive steps to take.

    • Hi Jen – there are a lot of resources out there that can help us, as white people, educate ourselves about racism and how to help dismantle systems of oppression. It is perfectly reasonable for writers of color to expect white readers to come to their work with a basic understanding of the underlying issues, or to do some additional research to aquire that understanding.

      One concrete step you can take to help in the fight against racism is to not treat people of color as servants – even servants in your personal journey towards understanding racial issues. As for the acronyms used in the article, POC stands for people of color and QPOC stands for queer people of color. If there are other acronyms or references that you did not understand, please feel free to ask me (or Google). I will do my best to either answer your questions or refer you to additional resources if your question would be better answered by a person of color.

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