I have hesitated sharing this story and letter because I don't want to say, "Look at me, I'm doing it right!" Because I am probably not "doing it right," actually. I don't want to hold myself up as an example of a white person tackling racism in some sort of perfect way. But many times in the past year especially, I have seen (online) people of color saying, in effect, "White people! Talk to your racist relatives! In situations where someone says something racist, SAY SOMETHING!" And I have heard a few white people ask, essentially, "How?" OR, more frequently, confide that they could not do that, due to fear of conflict.
I used to fear conflict very much and avoid it whenever I could. I understand now that conflict avoidance is a tool of oppression, a way to create polarized situations of "You're with us or against us" and keep dissenting voices quiet. Conflict avoidance is the day-to-day version of the idea that dissent equals treason.
What I've found over the past few years, with the help of some great mentors, is that conflict is perfectly normal and fine, and not to be avoided in the least. That is what our "communication skills" are for. And refusing to avoid conflict as a default behavior does not mean seeking conflict out. I means accepting life as it comes and showing the fuck up. Conflicts are inevitable at some point in most relationships, because without intending to, we bump up against each others' unconscious expectations, traumas, and also unconscious beliefs. This is a good thing! This unconscious material is coming up specifically to be healed. It is not random, it is not an accident. This is what is coming up to be healed.
The trick, if there is a trick, is to develop those communication skills (and, really, emotional intelligence and self-parenting) so you can really show up for the conflict well. (There are lots of resources to learn these things, once you start looking, but one of my primary teachers on this topic has been Luna Love www.lunaloveleadership.com)
So...when my super sweet neighbor, who is an older white guy, said something super racist, super anti-black a few weeks ago, I started a conflict. And actually I didn't do a very great job of it. I was shocked by what he said because I consider him a friend, and also absolutely enraged.
What he said was that the night before, four young black men had been walking down our street around 11:00 pm. One of our other neighbors, a young Latino guy, was just arriving home in his car when he saw them, and that he yelled at them to "Get the fuck out of here." My neighbor laughed like he found that hilarious, and there was a quality of him also telling me the story to warn me to keep an eye out.
This burning-hot rage filled my whole body so suddenly, and I don't exactly remember exactly what I said. We went back and forth a few times, him insisting that what he said was not racist, that they were truly car thieves, certainly, and he has lots of black friends (who are not car thieves), etc., and me telling him, what you said is extremely racist! You are saying that to be black is to be a criminal! You are saying that young, black men, walking down our street to get someplace are not safe here!
Back in my house, I trembled and my teeth chattered violently.
The next day, he hid from me.
So, as soon as I was able, about a day later, I wrote this letter to him. I have not edited it or changed anything about it at all, except to type it up:
You are such a kind person and wonderful neighbor. I want you to know I still know you as those things and I do not intend to withhold kindness from you in any way. We just find ourselves in our first conflict.
The thing is: Can you imagine how it would be for you, if wherever you went where people didn’t know you, you were thought to be a criminal?
If any place you walked, or sat, people called the cops on you, or shot you dead just for being there? Because they were so afraid of you simply existing?
This is the reality black men live with every day of their lives.
In my neighborhood back in Oakland, a black man was sleeping sitting up in the driver’s seat of his parked car one day, and a cop shot him in the head because he “looked like a murder suspect.” Turn out that man who was killed by that cop was not the murder suspect at all, he was just a random person. (This got almost no news coverage. I know about it because I was there.)
Then there are the famous cases, the stories of boys like Trayvon Martin. And the two black men at Starbucks recently, who an employee called the cops on just for being there.
Being black in America is very dangerous.
And black people deserve our deepest, humblest respect for surviving and thriving here at all.
Anything less than that is...actually bullshit.
Four young black men should be allowed to walk by our houses w/o being harassed for their existence.
I am firm on this. I am very happy to talk with you about all these things any time.
And, as I said, you are a very kind and generous neighbor. I invite you to extend that generosity farther, and put yourself in another’s shoes.
And I’m glad you said what you did, because now we can talk about it.
As I said, he was hiding from me, but I mastered myself and went over to his house with this letter and I found him in his garden. He was clearly hurt and furious with me. I told him I was ready to talk and I wrote him this letter. Would he prefer I read it to him or leave it with him to read on his own?
He told me to read it to him.
So I did. My voice shook. As soon as I got to the part about this being the reality black men live with every day, I saw his face soften. He cried. We had a long talk when I had finished. Initially he continued to distance himself from any idea of him being a part of institutional racism. He had the older idea that someone could be personally racist or not, instead of what I have been taught, which is that we all live in a white supremacist system and we are all in this mess together, we all have unconscious racist beliefs and reactions one way or another, sometimes subtle ones.
I didn't let him off the hook though, I didn't try to make things nice just to have it done. Instead, I repeated, You are a great person but what you said the other night WAS the definition of racial profiling. I invite you to reflect on this more in your own time.
He eventually conceded that maybe I was right, though he had not intended it that way. He could see where I was coming from and he did not want to be a racist. He doesn't hate black people at all. He was not at all interested in any of the anti-racist literature I said I could share, but he seemed genuinely moved and reflective.
By the time it was done, we had both cried, hugged it out, and were closer than we were before, but he was skittish around me for a few days. I find that many people expect abusive behavior in conflicts and they expect people to hold grudges. I do my best to do neither of those things ever (actually I am incapable of holding a grudge) and I find many people scared and skittish as they wait for those behaviors, not trusting the abuse and cold-shouldering won't come. After a few days, he relaxed and seemed himself again.
Did it help? Was it worth it? And what about the young Latino neighbor who actually yelled at the young Black men?
I don't know if it helped. I don't care if it was worth it. And the truth about the other neighbor is that he lives a bit farther from my house and I have never even met him. How am I in a position to reach out to him about this difficult and painful thing? I don't believe that I am in that position.
Did I do it right?
I don't know if I did it right. Are there lots of ways to screw this sort of thing up? There seem to be. Did I do enough? I don't know. But this felt more productive than not, and it wasn't something that I could have ignored. I want to share it because it feels important to share and I hope that it provokes thought and enkindles courage in the heart of even one person of any 'race' who cares about racial justice but hasn't yet had the courage to speak up. And....I welcome feedback, constructive criticism, and other thoughts. If I don't respond right away, likely it is because I am taking time to reflect on your words before responding.
Final thoughts, from the always inspirational Bunny Michael (@bunnymichael on Instagram):