An Open Letter to Everyone I De-friended on Facebook
First off, I see the irony in writing an open letter to you, who I effectively cut off communication with, but hear me out. If I de-friended you recently I think you deserve to know why, and I think it’s important for you to hear my reasons.
I de-friended you because you either made a racist remark, or you posted something that either implicitly, or directly, furthered racist actions or attitudes.
“What? That’s ridiculous! I’m not racist! How dare you call me racist!”
This is the reaction most people have to being called racist.
This is the reaction I had when someone accused me of being racist.
Five years ago, I moved into a house shared with three women, in a nice, upper class white neighborhood. I did so at the urging of my friend from church, who lived in the house’s converted garage apartment. I was excited for us to be roommates.
During this time, a group of us from the church decided to grab dinner. I drove alone, and on my way to the restaurant, saw a man close to my age in a business suit walking down the street, getting soaked by the pouring rain. Feeling bad for him, and not wanting to listen to the voice in my head saying, “don’t offer strangers rides”, I pulled over, rolled my window down, and asked if he needed a lift.
As soon as the man got in the car I knew I had made a mistake.
He was strange, and incredulous about why I offered him a ride.
“I could hurt you, you know, I’m a big, tall guy.”
It was a tense ride from the safe, comfortable neighborhood, to an abandoned looking home in one of the worst areas of downtown Jacksonville, where he apparently lived. After pulling into the driveway, I spent five minutes diffusing his attempts to get my phone number.
“No really, I was just doing this because, you know, Christians are supposed to be kind to strangers.”
“Well, let me call you sometime and thank you….”
I finally acquiesced, just wanting him to get out of my car, and sped off towards the restaurant, a little shaken.
When I showed up late and soaking wet, my friends asked where I had been.
After re-telling the story, my friend Doug shook his head, “that was really stupid, Emily, picking up some strange guy.”
Without thinking I shrugged my shoulders, “Yeah but he was a white guy. In a suit.”
The table fell silent, and all eyes turned to my roommate, the only non-white person at the table.
She became visibly upset, shook her head and pushed away from the table. When she eventually came back and sat down, she refused to speak to me for the rest of the meal. Another person informed me I wouldn’t be giving her a ride home like I thought, as she preferred to ride with him.
I was defensive. “Oh come on. I was just making an honest statement, there wasn’t ill intent.” More excuses came to mind. “I mean, more black men are in prison than white men, and, and, that’s just statistics, not racism. And the suit really meant more, if it was a black guy in a suit I would have probably stopped too!”
Planning to bring these to her when she calmed down, I kept up my firm belief that I was not racist, and that she was over-reacting. I let myself blame her for the conflict, and felt annoyed that she would dare make me feel like a racist.
When we spoke, and she shared why she was upset, I realized with stinging clarity that what I had said was indeed, incredibly racist. Truthfully, I can’t remember what she said, but I remember exactly how I felt.
And really, really naive.
There was no longer any doubt in my mind that my way of thinking and seeing the situation showed just how much I didn’t, “get it.”
Now I get it.
I get that my belief that a “white man was safe” shows that I thought a black men wasn’t. Not based on fact, science, or experience, but instinct. This is common. It’s what causes so many people to call the cops on “suspicious” looking black men. This wasn’t a belief I was raised to have, or one I actively worked to hold. It was just what I’d absorbed through the news, TV, movies, friends, and experiences. Through society and culture. This is racism. The tricky, passive kind. But racism still the same.
Today, I’m ashamed of those words that came out of my mouth. I’ll never forget them. But I’m grateful for the wake-up call my friend’s reaction gave me. I’m glad she spoke up, and didn’t just brush off my comment.
It wasn’t until I consciously made an effort to try and understand what she felt and what her perspective was, not just in this situation, but everyday, that I finally “got it.”
“It” is realizing that racism is not just burning crosses and casual use of the “N” word.
Racism is bigger than that.
It’s a way of thinking that makes people take more offense at being called “racist” than the racism all around them.
It’s a refusal to acknowledge prejudice.
It’s what drives people to be angry that a dead black boy is getting more media coverage than a “more deserving” innocent white child.
Racism is the underlying current that floats throughout our society and only stops being dangerous when people acknowledge it, and work to reverse it. Racism is not, “in the past.” It’s very much in the present. And if you don’t see that, it’s because you’re white, or look white enough to not have to experience it everyday. Like me. Who only saw racism when it smacked me in the face. Once.
If you have the privilege of being white, you’re going to have a hard time seeing racism unless you open your eyes and look for it. Because it doesn’t effect you.*
The reason I un-friended you, and others, is not because you said something as directly racist as, “black people deserve to die,” or something equally horrible. I un-friended you because you never even tried to see the racism that affected not only the Travyon Martin case, but the entire media and social phenomenon around it.
It was because, by saying things like, “race had nothing to do with it” or, “well these people weren’t angry when OJ was acquitted,” you showed not just ignorance, but callousness. Your statements showed a way of thinking that I just don’t want to be around, because it’s poisonous.
The truth is, when you become devoted to helping a marginalized group, it changes you in ways you don’t even expect. I’ve never really done anything to fight racism, other than occasionally speaking against it. But I do a lot of work fighting against homophobia. And constantly shifting my view from that of the privileged, to that of the disadvantaged, has shown me just how good I really have it, as a straight white woman. It’s humbling.
You don’t have to agree. But the great thing about Facebook is, I don’t have to constantly be exposed to the reasons you disagree. I can just click, “un-friend” and be done with it.
The other thing that’s great about Facebook, is that this choice isn’t irreversible. So if you ever want to re-examine those beliefs that made me step away from you, let me know. I’d be glad to have you back.
*I’m not going to touch the ridiculous theory of “reverse-racism” that some white people claim they are victims of, because I think other people have done a much better job of diffusing this nonsense.