Dear John: Letter to a would-be ally

Over the past few days, I’ve flip-flopped on whether or not to share this piece. For the time being, I’ve decided it’s here to stay.

I’ve been having a dialogue with a white male contact about racism and the current news cycle. In this piece, I’ve decided to name him John.

Recently, I approached John with a candid question related to Tom Cotton’s Op-Ed. I had read it, and was horrified. I didn’t think it should have been published in the first place.

In contrast, although he disagreed with Senator Cotton’s perspective, John thought it was important for him to be exposed. Initially, he also cited free speech as a defense for why his words were published.

I disagreed. We’ve continued to talk. And for the sake of others who may be engaged in these types of discussions, I’ve decided to share my reply to one of his messages. It’s been only slightly edited.

There are obviously exceptions. Nevertheless, it’s evident to me that in North America, straight white men are fed a particular type of messaging related to those who aren’t like them. And in order for racist systems to be dismantled, that has to change.

One final contextual note that might help as you read this is the fact that we’re both Canadian. As outsiders, our perspectives on America are based on its reputation. As a nation, the United States influences the world.

Now, then.

I began with a word about the very thing that John was determined to defend…

Photo by Kevin Bhagat via Unsplash

Dear John,

In your reply to me, you said, “Freedom of speech and the first amendment is what gives Americans the right to film police officers…”

You mentioned the First Amendment as a whole. Yet not once did I mention curbing anything to do with freedom of the press, or people’s right to petition their government.

How is it genuinely harmful to anyone’s freedom of speech to remove someone’s right to use HATE speech?

I realize that you gave me your perspective in your response. I didn’t buy it.

We aren’t talking about any random sort of speech, John. Some white people like to make claims like, “If you outlaw hate speech, then the next thing you know, I won’t be able to call my sister a dork!”

To that, I say, “Let’s see. Has your sister ever been humiliated or risked harm simply because others thought of her as a ‘dork’?”

“Collectively, within society, is there an entire set of people who are known as ‘dorks’? And if so, have they endured various hardships because of that status?”

A lot of white Americans love to suggest that doom will ensue if hate speech is limited. I can’t help but think about why this is, and speculate about the foundation that these people’s values are built on.

When people like me talk about hate speech, we are not being vague. We aren’t referring to random teasing that will result in someone pouting for a few seconds. We’re talking specifically about a type of speech that is weaponized against others.

Quite honestly? Your responses in our dialogue have given me the impression that you agree with some of the extreme American propaganda that is directed at white people. Here, I’m not talking about Klan pamphlets. I’m referring to the rhetoric stirring in media outlets that feed a particular brand of white audience.

Although not always explicit, the subtext is one of hyperbolic paranoia:

“Someone who’s not white wants XYZ. Therefore, that means they want to destroy everything. If we give them an inch, they’ll TAKE A MILE. And then, America will COLLAPSE!!”

Others may express their fears differently.

“Well, if THEY don’t let us do X, then the next thing you know, THEY will take away Y. And then, before you know it, things will go TOO FAR!!”

That’s a bunch of nonsense.

Even if those words aren’t used, pay attention to the way certain groups of people are talked about.

UNJUST ANGER

I am sick of this insistence on blowing straightforward requests out of proportion. Americans love to do this with all sorts of things.

Take guns, for example. Suppose I’m someone who is uncomfortable with unvetted civilians having AR-15s. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think people should be able to go hunting, or protect themselves from intruders.

Yet All-Or-Nothing Americans may hear my stance, and claim that I hate any and all guns. “She wants to take away our Second Amendment rights!!”

Sometimes I wonder why these people purposely misunderstand what others ask for.

They act like they need an enemy. They insist on misinterpreting folks like me who have no hidden agenda about our goals. And they do it all for the sake of upholding a certain type of white ideology.

I don’t know if you actually subscribe to that sort of thinking, but that’s what’s out there. And Black people who dare to speak out against it are depicted as crazy.

Yet there’s no actual harm in seeing things differently.

Thinking about you specifically, I also wonder if you’re someone who is committed to viewing American institutions as a set of flawless structures.

I went and reviewed the First Amendment, John.

It contains a lovely set of words. However, those words are not God.

Why do white people want to preserve the right to, for example

  1. Use racial slurs or other language to harass Black people
  2. Distribute literature which suggests that Black people don’t deserve to live
  3. Teach others outright lies about Black people and our history?

Of all the things in the world, to me, the fact that some white people want so desperately to defend their right to use hate speech is very telling.

I want white people to do something: Stop lying about the severity and extent of Black people’s requests.

The sky isn’t going to fall if one person can’t use hate speech. Going after hate speech does NOT automatically lead to dissolving freedom of the press. No sensible person would allow that.

I realize that to some, it’s romantic — this idea of a troublesome, dark enemy waiting in the shadows, longing to take over. But seriously? The hysteria has got to go.

To borrow from a modern-day saying, all we want is equality. NOT revenge.

SELF DEFENSE

In the way you’ve responded to me, for the most part, you’ve been very kind, but I’m going to speak my mind for a minute. Overall, regarding allyship, you say that you genuinely understand that people need to “listen”.

But when it comes to my feedback, you’re (politely) defensive. it feels like you don’t want to actually receive what people like me have to say.

Concerning racism, aka why this world is so messed up, there’s a type of thinking that you and other white people seem to be committed to believing. (If I were you, I admit that I might dig it. After all, it’s the heartbeat of a society that has worked in your favour for your entire life.)

White people are so accustomed to systemic racism, they view every request to change something that supports it as an attack.

That needs to stop. They need to grow up and get beyond that idea.

(They can start by daring to recognize all of the things that support racism in the first place. But that’s another discussion for another time.)

Honestly. If the masses finally decided that we needed concrete solutions for stopping sexual harassment and rape, would you believe that men know best?

Or would you think, “Hmmm. Maybe women know a little something about what makes them uncomfortable about the way some men behave.”

If white people actually want racism to end, they need to get over themselves.

READING IS REQUIRED

There are books out there about racism that you should read. Because of the way you think, I’m honestly not sure of which one will do.

I haven’t read many of them. Quite frankly because — to flip a popular phrase — “I already go here…”

Nevertheless, if we’re talking about books specifically written for white people, I’ve heard White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo is worth checking out, and I can definitely vouch for So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo. And long ago I read a book called White Lies by Maurice Berger.

As a white person, I know you may have your favourites, but your take on things tells me that you need to take a break from absorbing A Certain Type of Thinking, and take in the fact that Black people might actually be right about what it takes to dismantle racism.

Here’s a clue about what to be aware of: If you notice that people who aren’t white and straight have been complaining about a particular individual or type of programming, consider the fact that they may have serious reasons for doing so.

I don’t care how polite a white person is. This insistence that they are always right when it comes to legitimate critiques of what’s wrong with society is a part of the reason that we’re in this mess.

I also think you should also grab a book or two about nuanced racism because

  1. I’m communicating with you about this because I know you a little, and you seem to have some sense. If it were anyone else, I’d be charging them a fee. (Note: The decision to discuss racism with someone is deeply personal. And quite frankly, it can be exhausting. Don’t assume that because they know you, a Black person owes you anything.)
  2. There are people out there who have already done the work and broken down the details of what passes as socially acceptable, everyday racist nonsense. They also manage to explain why it needs to stop.

And even if you don’t pick up a book, I’m sure there are websites that can help you out.

AMERICA’S GOD

As an aside, I don’t know if you’ve seen one of my latest Medium articles. It’s about religion.

There’s a specific reason why I called it “American Jesus…”. It seems to me that around the world, white Christian people are, in their own way, taught to worship American Christianity. In my day, I’ve known a few of them. The way these folks think is…

Suffice it to say that it needs to change.

If I pull that example back and generalize, I would say that white people, in North America, are taught to worship America. Specifically, the idea of American exceptionalism. In your communication with me, it’s clear that you have come to revere a certain vision of America as an untouchable entity. Yet certain aspects of its culture are not flawless. Nor will the whole of America disintegrate if certain things are altered.

When you talk to me, please. Stop reciting platitudes, and think about what you’re defending.

You keep giving me these well-worn statements about what WILL happen… Yet do you actually know for a fact that they’re true? Your comments on the first amendment felt hollow. To me, they were like the equivalent of a parent’s “Because I said so!” Even if we step away from the amendments and address another element of what’s happening, I want you to SEE that there’s more to what’s going on than what you’ve come to believe.

People are beyond tired. White people hold a lot of power within society. And those of you who are used to thinking a certain way need to reevaluate and change the way you view others.

Word wrangler from the wonderfully wild North.

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