The Unacknowledged War on Black and Brown People by Arielle Nobile
Updated: Aug 19
Photo by John Minchillo
It is a natural impulse as a “good white person” to want to take action to “diversify” workplaces and friend spaces and all around prove that you are not part of the problem. I have this tendency myself. When I first heard #blacklivesmatter, I too had a knee jerk response that went something like this, but don’t ALL lives matter? What about me?
This just goes to show how accustomed, I, as a white person am, to being so at the top of the heap that to not be included feels downright wrong. What I’ve come to learn and reckoned with in the past several years is that the only reason that we need the #blacklivesmatter movement as badly as we do is that for centuries Black bodies and Black lives have been considered dispensable by the white supremacist majority in this country and planet-wide.
Black and Brown bodies have been not only enslaved but, even in a supposedly “free” society such as our own today, they have become the brunt of cliches or jokes that are encapsulated by concepts such as “driving while Black,” “jogging while Black,” or it would seem just plain “breathing while Black.”
All of these are everyday human activities that we as white people take so for granted. It is unfathomable to imagine any of them being perceived as a threat, while ALL of these actions are potentially life threatening for Black people, disproportionately for Black men.
And so, after a weekend of both violent and peaceful rebellion and protest, I wake up to an email from a well-meaning white woman I know. The subject is “Let’s talk about race.” And like many well-intentioned white women, her concept of talking about race means, “let’s find a way to include more people of color in our community” which in the predominantly white community where we live and work is akin to tokenism.
I refrained from joining that particular conversation as it is my morning to write and also because I felt that in writing this, I might best gather a response that would be most heartfelt and effective.
I wanted to say, ok, let’s talk about race. Let’s talk about whiteness. Let’s talk about why there are so few Black people here. Let’s talk about redlining. Let’s talk about the long-term psychological effects of ostracizing and "otherizing" Black and Brown folks and then take a long hard look in the mirror of why they may or may not want to join our little community.
I want to ask her, why do you suddenly want Black and Brown bodies to join this community when it never seemed to be a priority for you before? Do you think it makes you safer or proves you are indeed a good person on the right side of history? What about having more People of Color would satisfy you?
I know this is not the most mature or conscious response though. I know she is attacking the problem from where she is and that I likely would have thought even a few months back that just having Black or Brown bodies in the room meant something. And I’m not saying that we should not welcome anyone into all of our communities, but first we need to tackle the root problem.
We need to look at our foundation and see why it all seems to be crumbling around us right now.
It’s like the parents of an addict trying to solve the problem by throwing money at it.
Or a prisoner trying to plead for her life by writing a song that no one hears.
Not going to dig ourselves out of this one so easily fellow white people.
And also, I get it.
For the longest time I wouldn’t have really identified myself as white. I would have said, but wait, I’m Jewish, so I’m a minority too. Or I’m a woman! Or I’m married to a Latino immigrant. I would have tried my darnedest to align myself with minorities and underprivileged all the while deep down feeling and feeding my own hypocrisy.
The truth is I grew up in an extremely white, extremely privileged, extremely segregated suburb of Chicago with affluence, vacations, all the lessons and extracurriculars I could have imagined and a world-class public-school education that made college not just a natural path but actually easy in comparison.
I grew up with a synagogue that valued social justice. People always remarked how our Rabbi marched with King! (I, to this day, am proud of that fact by association.)
But what does that matter when we did nothing as a community to have conversations around whiteness, white privilege, and how our whiteness and our system of meritocracy helped to create the conditions for Black and Brown bodies to be continuously and forevermore oppressed, repressed, and doomed to a life in the shadows of our gleaming white system?
And yes, my Jewish ancestors likely suffered for their religion. They faced pogroms and Antisemitism and hate crimes and all the rest that goes with being a minority in this world that villainizes and scrutinizes any difference. And yet, on the outside no one could tell my ancestors were Jews by the color of their skin. No one can tell by looking at me (though I used to swear that my nose was a dead giveaway.)
Ever since I married someone with an Italian last name, despite my first name being Hebrew in origin, I’d say most people never suspect that I’m Jewish just by the outward or superficial indications. I can pass just as many very light-skinned Black and Brown people have historically been able to pass in order to make a better life for themselves and their offspring.
The question I feel we MUST be asking ourselves as white people is, why would anyone want to pass for white?
Why do People of Color go to such lengths to lighten their skin or discourage their children from playing in the sun for fear that they will get darker?
Why in even predominately Black societies like Jamaica (where I spent lots of time in my childhood and where my father now lives) are whites and lighter-skinned Jamaicans the ones in power?
Of course, all lives matter. Of course, police are people too. And yet…
White people and police currently hold the power.
When I decided yesterday to tell my innocent nine-year-old daughter about the murder of George Floyd and then show her a photo of the cop nonchalantly kneeling on his neck while a bystander photographed and filmed the whole murder, after a single tear rolled down her cheek, she asked me, but why?
This is an important question, that we all must ask ourselves as white people if we truly do not yet understand why some police feel it is not just their right but their duty to routinely and publicly kill Black people.
I did some googling to get more of the “facts” in the case and discovered that his crime had been to allegedly use a counterfeit 20-dollar bill in a bodega.
So that means that his life, to those cops, was worth the same as a counterfeit 20.
That means that they felt that they had the RIGHT to murder him in broad daylight while others looked on.
She then asked me the question that always burns in my mind and heart too, why didn’t the person filming try to stop them?
This is also a good question we need to ask.
Why did that person choose to film a murder and then share it on social media rather than running for more help, calling 911 or just pushing the police off of them?
I wasn’t there and I don’t know. But what I imagine is that quite possibly that person was also a Person of Color. I imagine that when weighing the fact that these police were clearly off their rockers and acting with complete impunity and also heavily armed, the only act of rebellion and use of civil liberties was to point a camera.
We have a whole new genre of porn--trauma and murder porn. I can’t help thinking, how could someone stand by and watch someone else be murdered and film it!?
And then I ask myself what I would have done.
And I have to admit, that even me, a middle-aged, white woman may have frozen in the face of those cops.
But let’s just say I didn’t. Let’s just say I used my privilege and my power to command them to stop. Let’s just imagine that I even tried to use physical force to stop them. What were some of the likely outcomes?
As a white person, I might have been beaten, tased or harmed in some way, but I likely would not have been murdered on camera.
As a white person, they might have heard my pleas and come to their senses. I could have appealed to their egos and their consciences reminding them that they would lose their badges, their livelihoods and the respect of the wider white community if they murdered this unarmed man.
I could have reminded them to think of their mothers, their families, and tried to appeal to their self-respect, their humanity which must have been lurking somewhere deep inside of them.
Now, let’s imagine that the person filming was a Person of Color. Let’s imagine they tried to get in the way of those police.
There would have been a few likely outcomes, none of them pretty.
Likely both George and this witness would have been killed or severely maimed and no one would have heard about it because there would be no public record.
It is so commonplace for Black and Brown bodies to be abused by those representing the Law of the land that we have become numb as a society to the stories.
It only causes public outrage when there is a murder that we have to witness and then we all cry out in pain because this is not who we WANT to be anymore.
And yet, this is who we are, White America. This is who we are.
And it breaks my heart, but my heartbreak is fuel for these words.
I will not stop until this is so unthinkable and so unimaginable, until Black and Brown parents can send their kids out to play in ANY neighborhood or to the store, or to learn how to drive without a series of serious talks about the present and imminent danger that our law enforcement and entire "justice" system poses to People of Color.
This is the first and most important step for us as white people to grapple with, to educate ourselves as to what it is truly like to be a Person of Color and what the differences are in every single small action that we as white people take for granted on a daily basis.
So go to marches, make signs, post all you want, but until you decide to grapple on a deep level with what it means to be white and what it means to be a representative of a white supremacist system, all other actions will feel empty.
Until you are as uncomfortable, fed up, outraged, and heartbroken as any Person of Color you will continue to be a cog in the wheel of racism.
Until you are committed to educating yourself in large and small ways everyday about what it means to be white, you are part of the problem.
Until you are aware of the fact that each and every day you have a choice whether to pay attention to race and racism or not and that People of Color do not have that same freedom or privilege even when in their own homes (Google “Breonna Taylor” or “Fred Hampton” to learn about Black people who have been murdered in their own beds by police for decades).
As a white person, ask yourself the following questions:
What have you taught your children about race?
When you think about race and racism who comes to mind for you?
When was the first time you had a conversation about race in your own family of origin? What was the context? What was the messaging?
How often do you think about yourself and your life in the context of race?
Who do you feel is responsible for either abolishing racism and white supremacy or keeping it as the current system of power?
How would you feel if your street suddenly became desegregated and many families of Black and Brown people began moving in?
How much did unconscious racism play a role in your decision to live in the neighborhood or community that you currently live in?
When you talk about good or bad neighborhoods or good or bad schools, what are you really referring to? Are you aware that these designations are inherently filled with racism as they are coded ways that we as white people use to talk about good=white and bad=Black schools and places?
When was the last time that you read a book by a person of color or by a white person seeking to educate you about race/racism/white supremacy?
Why or why do you not see yourself as being a force for change when it comes to abolishing racism in this country?
When people compare the US system to South African apartheid do you understand why?
What efforts have you made to truly get to know People of Color outside of work or service roles in your life?
I want to keep going but I also don’t want to overwhelm you which I probably already have.
I know that this is a lot to consider.
I know that you’ve probably been taught that racist=bad person and so to recognize that as white people we are all a key component of perpetuating racism is downright painful and a notion we have a knee-jerk no reaction to.
It is not about how single individuals are to blame or responsible for the whole system but the ways that we as a whole racial group are responsible for allowing the system to continue in the ways it does by our silent acquiescence.
We, in our silence, have given permission to those cops to act the way we do.
We, in our silence, have allowed Black and Brown children and parents to feel terrified when out and about in predominantly white communities.
We, in our silence, have allowed our white children to grow up believing they have special abilities, capabilities, and talents that allow them to flourish rather than teaching them that white supremacy will play a role in the leg up we all have in a system that not only favors but celebrates whiteness from the media to education to our political leaders.
We, in our silence, have allowed ourselves to believe that we are not part of the problem or that racism is something that People of Color must end.
We, in our silence, have relinquished our own voice and our own power and have aligned ourselves with the oppressive, colonialist, terrorizing forces of white power.
We, in our silence, have stomped on the notion of justice and liberty for all, simply by ignoring the facts and current evidence of how People of Color are treated in our current system.
We, in our silence, have allowed our tax dollars to pay for a modern-day slavery system that is mass incarceration, illegal lofty bail bonds, inequity in healthcare, healthy foods, education, neighborhood maintenance, and every other system that our hard-earned dollars help pay for every day.
We, in our silence, are complicit in every racist policy that continues to perpetuate a world where people are so desperate and traumatized that they take to the streets, risking their lives and freedom so that we will simply pay attention to their existence.
What was your reaction when you heard about the so-called riots of the past few days?
Was it fear? Were you worried suddenly that a gang of Black youth, mostly men, would show up in our white neighborhoods and start terrorizing our communities? Were you afraid that your children or property would be harmed?
My fear is that in this uprising, this rebellion of oppressed people, more Black and Brown lives will be lost because what I know from growing up and living mostly in communities of white privilege my entire life is this: Police are bored here. They are likely hungry for action. And they are on high alert every time a Person of Color, especially a young Black man, appears in our communities.
It is probably as dangerous for a young Black man to walk down the street in an affluent white neighborhood as it is in some war-torn parts of the Middle East.
Maybe this sentence strikes you as outrageous.
Maybe you think I am exaggerating or being overblown.
Maybe you, like me, want to reach out and make Black and Brown people feel wanted and comfortable on your street, in your neighborhood.
The only advice I have is to ask yourself why they aren’t currently a part of your neighborhood, if they are not. And if there are Black and Brown people in your hood, what are you doing, or have you currently done to make yourself non-threatening to them?
The current system has brainwashed us white people to believe that Black and Brown bodies are a threat to us.
The opposite is literally true.
White people have been a threat to Black and Brown safety for centuries and this threat continues now more than ever.
I have a list of resources here that I am continually adding to and I hope you will chime in too.
Listen and support artists, change-makers, policy makers who are making a stand to create a system that truly is one of liberty and justice for all!
We’ve all heard about the War on Drugs, the War on Terror, but so far no one has named this War on Black and Brown People.
Let’s name it and end this war.
Let’s create a society where Black and Brown children feel just as entitled to be, do, and have anything white children do.
Let’s remind ourselves what freedom truly is and how we will never, any of us be free, until we ALL are.
If you truly believe that All lives matter, then be willing to look in the mirror and grapple with what it means in 2020 to be white.