Look! A Story About a White Cop who was Once Nice to a Black Person! Racism is Solved!
A cousin I adore posted a story on Facebook about a white cop who, in response to protests and civil unrest, decided he needed to “do something,” and so he helped a Black utility worker by accompanying him to all his calls that day, thus assuring his safety. All of my cousin’s friends and some of our family chimed in with how wonderful that was. All except for me. I pointed out everything problematic about the story, and our collective white responses to it. The White Saviorness, the celebration of individual action instead of demanding the dismantling of a racist system, the belief that one (or ten or a thousand) good cops is a sign that things aren’t so bad.
Acknowledging the sweetness of the story she posted, I pointed out that the cop (and everyone commenting) is only doing about 5% of what white people need to do here. Sure, the officer is telling one Black person that he’s here for him, but he’s not telling those white people who are not outraged and bothered by the systemic treatment of Black people that he’s NOT here for them.
The bottom line is — we white people are not doing enough to confront our own communities about racism.
I asked my cousin and everyone who commented what they are actually doing to protect Black utility workers just trying to do their jobs. Are they going door-to-door in their own neighborhoods, letting their neighbors know that they don’t want them calling the police when Black workers show up? Or school kids selling candy? Or someone whose car broke down? Are they demanding that police in their communities be regularly trained, monitored and tested to eliminate their racial bias?
One problem here is White Savior Complex — the cop was helpful to one Black man on one day and the white people share the story and applaud him and each other and all of that does nothing. Why isn’t he forming a task force of white officers inside the police department who are committed to getting trained on eliminating all of their own bias and holding other white officers accountable for their treatment of non-white people? Why instead does he tell the story of him doing the easiest, most basic act, that’s already part of his damn job to serve and protect? Oh, right — there’s no hero-worship in the former. That doesn’t get shared and admired by whites. That doesn’t give us reassurance that everything is okay and we don’t really need to change.
Every time I see a Facebook post about race and someone starts to spout something wrong, and I confront them on it, it doesn’t take long before someone in the conversation leaps in to ameliorate them, to justify their opinions, or validate what they’re saying by agreeing on some level. I can’t tell you how often I get accused of “bullying” online for being smarter than the racist and destroying everything they’ve said. Rarely does another white person hop in to confront the person whose views need challenging, and not nearly as often as they plea for us to “agree to disagree” or demand peace on their page. Want peace? Tell the person whose beliefs are racially problematic that they are wrong. Without equivocation. And I don’t care how old they are, or how close to you, or how poor they grew up. This is what the Black community needs from us. Not more reassurances that we are on their side, but proof that we are no longer on the side of those who aren’t.
We also have to do this in a calm, dignified, patient way. As one of my mentors in this arena told me, “We don’t need white people screaming and shouting and going ‘scorched earth’ every time, because at the end of the day, they can just walk away because they’re not the ones who have to live with the burn.”
This is a huge challenge. Are you a big enough person to engage in this conversation without burning down the town? I try to be, but sometimes I know I get it wrong. I get too heated. I make it about me, instead of the community whose oppression I am trying to help alleviate. That’s not at all helpful, and why we must control our tone while maintaining the stance with those closest to us that harmful race-based attitudes need to change, and will not be tolerated anymore.
We are playing it safe by not taking on this task and it’s betraying those who truly need our voices to be used in this way, not just shouting alongside theirs. What they need is for us to do the behind-enemy-lines work they can’t do. We need to talk to the people who won’t listen to them. It’s easy to protest alongside everyone who thinks like you. If we really want to be allies, we have to start having challenging conversations with people in our communities (and our families) who don’t.
I keep thinking about Amy Cooper, who called the cops on the Central Park birdwatcher, and how many times she must’ve said, “I’m not racist” and how many times her friends agreed and then maybe she did or said something racially problematic and everyone just let it slide because no one wanted to make anyone uncomfortable and they all went on believing that they’re good people and not racists. This is what the rest of us white people need to stop. We have to be willing to make each other uncomfortable.
White people whine and say, “If I can’t do anything right, I just won’t do anything!” Here’s the thing, we can do something right, it’s just the thing we don’t want to do. It requires pointing out when someone posts some happy, heartwarming story about one white person’s one-time non-racist behavior that that is not a solution and no one needs to be hero-ized for that when other white people in our circles are still getting this so wrong.
This part is not fun. And it’s not easy. And it requires us to be uncomfortable. And to make other people, sometimes people we love, uncomfortable. And that’s just a small part of what it takes to be useful as an ally. Want to make a difference? Stop basking in the warm glow of the people who look like you who are getting this right and instead shine your spotlight on those who have room for growth in this area. Then help them on that journey.
It’s so easy for us to click Like or express our outrage among our Black and liberal friends, but until we are willing to take on the people closest to us who still have prejudiced beliefs, then we are failing as allies. We have to start putting ourselves at risk, quietly and without aggrandizement or hero-play and hopefully do more to make change happen in our own backyards.
Valerie Alexander is a renowned expert on Happiness and Inclusion. She has written several bestselling books on the topics of Happiness, Success and the Advancement of Women and her TED Talk, “How to Outsmart Your Own Unconscious Bias” has been viewed more than 115,000 times.