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Charli Engelhorn

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An Open Letter to My White Would-Be Allies

June 27, 2020
black

By Charli Engelhorn

The “Last” button on my remote is wearing out. I’m pressing it every four seconds, hopping back and forth between CNN and MSNBC, popping in on my local Spectrum 1 channel because they supposedly focus on pressing news happening in my city. Maybe I have to check the networks. Did I see a “City Channel” in the guide? Back to CNN, then MSNBC, rinse, repeat… all in the hopes of finding some shred of coverage of the protests in our streets. I’m pressing, I’m hopping, but I’m not finding anything.

After fourteen days, the news channels have tired of reporting on the Black Lives Matters protests. Or at least they did until yesterday, when another black man was shot and killed in a public Atlanta parking lot. The protests are interesting once more now that their peacefulness teeters on the brink. But that will slip from the spotlight again and give way to the novel coronavirus, the un-novel and preposterous antics of Donald F-N Trump, unemployment, graduations, online yoga tutorials. And it’s finally summer. The beaches are open. The trails are packed. The ice cream truck is serenading your hood once more. No more homeschooling. No more cooking. No more hoarding of toilet paper. You finally have your lives back, and you intend to make the best of them. And your hair needs cutting, your nails need painting, the hedges need trimming. And look at what my cat just did! And this Black Lives Matter business doesn’t really affect you, anyway. The curfews are over, and if they’re not, they really don’t apply to you. Maybe your town never protested. And now you see protestors holding signs in German, the only words decipherable being “George Floyd” and “Defund the Police,” and if Germany cares, then everything must be in good hands. (Because, really? Germany? They don’t have their own problems?) But you don’t know about defunding the police. What about noise complaints and suspicious people in the neighborhood? What about people like Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer? Besides, you have your sign in the yard that supports science and feminism and—mixed in somewhere—black lives. And there’s still that “Hate Has No Home Here” sign in the window collecting dust from 2016. But there are other things going on. Like the bats. Did you hear about the bats? What about the bats in your attic?

I get it. There’s a lot to process in your world, other priorities besides black lives mattering. And you haven’t been hearing from me. You’ve noticed that I haven’t been on social media much these days. Maybe I’m upset about all things “Black Lives Matter” because I’m black. But you don’t see me as that kind of black, and I have a lot of white friends, like you, so maybe I don’t feel involved. Is it offensive to ask? And everything is just really depressing, so you’ve been taking a break—maybe didn’t even notice I wasn’t being vocal. If I was really upset, I would say something, right? I’m not shy. So if I’m not making noise, I must be fine, right? Right?

I am not fine.

There have been so many voices raised already, so for a while, it felt like mine could wait… that there would be a time when different voices would be needed. But the more conversations I have with my friends, black and white and everything in between, the more I realize how much you still don’t understand, and the more I realize it might be important for you to hear from someone like me: someone you know and care about. Someone who is not the first person who pops into your mind when you think about police brutality against black people—me, that light-skinned, sharp, friendly aspiring writer who just earned her MFA and can frequently be spotted laughing over cocktails with her white friends. Someone who grew up in white middle America. Someone who a friend once asked, “What did your parents say when they found out you were black?” Maybe if you hear it from me, a true understanding of how black people are experiencing this moment might occur, because I don’t want these issues to slip into the constant background noise of Everything Else. Because using my voice now may help keep the focus on racism from drifting away like it always, always does. Because black Americans don’t have the luxury of detaching or checking out. We can’t simply turn off the TV or pop in a movie (most likely a movie where no one looks like us anyway, which is another issue—one that is important to me and I’m actively working to change with that MFA I’ve worked hard to earn). We can’t turn away from the movement or the moment because we are “overwhelmed.” And, more importantly, I don’t want to.

To those of you who have reached out to me personally to see how I’m managing through all of this: thank you. I know you don’t always know what to say or how to say what you mean or maybe even what you are supposed to mean, but your making the effort is acknowledged and appreciated. The truth is, I haven’t been doing well. At all. But today, I’m finally on the other side of a lot of the pain and grief I’ve been struggling with the last two and some weeks—my emotions have balanced out to some degree, and my spirit has been lifted by the domestic and global response to this call for justice—and so, although my anger is constantly triggered by the continued violence against blacks and all the damn “Karens,” I feel heartened just enough to finally reach out. But please don’t think this slight uptick in hope obscures my daily reckoning with how to get through each hour. How to manage my sadness and anger. How to manage my resentment of the silence I still see so much of from so many of you. How to manage knowing how to break my own silence. How to navigate my grief and guilt over not being able to be out there fighting all day every day. Yes, I braved the virus and went out protesting more than once last week, and this week, I’m feeling a little under the weather. I don’t know if it’s the virus or a common cold or a physical manifestation of emotional grief, but regardless, I don’t regret protesting. It was important for me to add my voice and my body to this movement. It gave me a direction for my emotions, and it allowed me to fully engage in a fight I dearly believe in. I am being responsible and watching my symptoms, but make no mistake, if I am physically able, I will be back out there again.

What I really want to say to my would-be allies is that this movement is about justice for black people, absolutely. But it’s also about changing society in general. Because BLM isn’t just about police brutality. It isn’t just about the outrage we collectively feel when another black person is killed on the street, in their yard, in their own home, or in prison. It’s about the social ideology of race perpetuated in our homes, relationships, schools, jobs, parks, and minds. It’s about the divides we put around ourselves as individuals and groups to feel safe… to stay comfortable. It’s about changing our perspectives so black people can leave the house without having to calculate the risks involved in having black skin in white society. It’s about not having to feel unvalidated when our non-black friends tell us we’re being “too sensitive” or “judgmental” or “aggressive” or “angry” about our experiences with racism. So we’re not constantly having to explain why something is offensive or justify our right to be heard or assuage your discomfort or white shock that racism still exists. So we don’t have to resist the temptation to scream when we’re complimented for being educated, intelligent, polite, caring, successful, articulate, and [fill in with any positive attribute] because “good on you for rising above your blackness.” So we don’t have to keep fighting for the recognition and support enjoyed as a matter of course by those of you not living in black bodies. So we don’t have to keep telling people that “not seeing color” is not enlightenment—that, in fact, it’s the opposite.

Let me state this unequivocally: If you know someone who is black, regardless of what other racial composition they possess or neighborhood they grew up in, realize that they—that we—have experienced all the things you hear about. We’ve been profiled. We’ve been followed by police in aggressive ways for doing nothing. We’ve been pulled over for “a burned-out license plate bulb” in broad daylight and forced out of the vehicle. We’ve had people clutch their purses. We’ve had people warn others about watching their purses around us. We’ve had people move seats when we sat down. We’ve been assumed to be employees at sporting events, music festivals, department stores, and grocery stores instead of patrons. We’ve been followed around clothing stores. We’ve been asked where we live and what we’re doing here while standing in our own front yards. We’ve heard friends tell offensive jokes in front of us and tell us to “lighten up” because “funny is funny.” We’ve been called the “N” word. We’ve been treated worse than our white counterparts in school and at work. We’ve been accused of ridiculous things by bosses. We’ve felt our skin crawl because of a single look from across a restaurant or party. We’ve wondered if we’re in danger of getting beaten or killed simply for existing. We’ve felt our idea of home taken away because of a renewed and emboldened uprising of prejudice and racism in our country. We’ve questioned whether to attend events out of fear for our safety. We’ve struggled to find our voices and learn how to raise them. And for so many, we’ve been killed by those who knew they could kill us and get away with it.

This list is just the tip of the black experience. This list is just the tip of my experience.

So let me set some things straight, because there’s been some confusion in my world, and I know harm is not what was intended, but nonetheless… here are some truths:

  • I have no desire to get away from the protests. This fight is not bad or inconvenient or oppressive. It is necessary, hopeful, and inspiring. I turn toward it, not away from it. I don’t want things to calm down so I can forget and “go back to normal.” There is no forgetting, and there is no more normal. And, honestly, what passed for normal for you was never my normal to begin with.
  • Your support is appreciated, but please understand that our experiences are not the same. I know many of you are suffering, too. You’re dealing with your anger at the world. You’re reckoning with our country’s history and your place in it, large or small. You fear what’s next. You’re sad about everything that has happened. It is an exhausting situation for everyone. But the exhaustion we feel as black people is not the same. We are viscerally exhausted from dealing with racism for as many years as we’ve been alive. We are dealing with the trauma, pain, depression, and fear of decades and centuries of being treated as less than. And the damage from generations of trauma has altered many of our physiological beings to the point where we can’t even imagine who we could be in the absence of trauma. We are tired of swallowing the hateful words of racists and misguided words of those who fail to stop and think before they speak. We are tired of the silence of the rest of society, especially the silence of those who say they love us. We’re tired of trying to make people listen. We’re tired of having to defend our pain and outrage and anger. We’re tired of having to dampen our pain and outrage and anger to make you feel better. We’re tired of seeing just how much our lives don’t matter: in the inequities experienced by predominantly black schools; by the lack of support and assistance for black-owned businesses, even during a pandemic; by the disproportionate number of black deaths from COVID-19; by the disproportionate treatment of black men and women within the justice system; by the disproportionate number of felony convictions for black men and women; and by the degree of force relied on by police when dealing with black Americans, even when they are unarmed. You can’t truly get it, and that’s not your fault. But please know we are not suffering in the same way. No, we are not awesome. No, we are not all right. We are pissed. And we are ready for change.
  • If your gut reaction is to challenge my experiences or feelings about these issues or exonerate yourself from my message, please save it for someone who cares. It’s not me. There is absolutely nothing you can say that will change my black experience or how I feel about racism in this country or the movement to end it.
  • If you haven’t done anything to me personally that you can speak to specifically, don’t tell me how sorry you are. I don’t want your condolences or pity. It’s an earnest sentiment, but it’s not action.
  • Please don’t thank me for sharing my story. I didn’t do it for praise. Again, nice sentiment, but not action.

My white friends and aspiring allies: what I would love instead is conversation. This movement is forcing some solid policy shifts and new laws to be enacted, but that does not equate to sweeping change. Laws were enacted to give slaves back agency over their lives. Laws were enacted to desegregate our cities and schools. Laws were enacted to give blacks the right to vote. And yet… here we are. Here, where more than 40 percent of black men and women 20 and older suffer from hypertension, black men are more than twice as likely to die at the hands of police than white men, black communities have unequal access to health and community resources, and black women are underrepresented in high-paying jobs and make almost 40 percent less than white men and roughly 20 percent less than white women. Laws are great and necessary, but nothing is really going to change unless we change voluntarily on a societal level.

We have to be willing to look at ourselves and our prejudices and ask why we have felt as we have and been who we are and what we can do to move forward better. We have to be willing to have uncomfortable conversations about our experiences and those of lives we don’t understand. We have to be willing to ask questions and risk sounding stupid or awkward. We have to be willing to bring down our walls and see each other. We all have prejudices. And I mean all of us, whether you’re aware of them or not. And it’s not just across race lines; it’s also within them.

A simple adjustment in awareness is not the answer. We must have a fundamental paradigm shift about how we think of each other as human beings. We have to find a real way to break the psychological divides that create “us” versus “them.” We have to talk. We have to talk. We have to talk!

What would happen if, today, every single one of you said something to spark that conversation? I don’t mean just on social media. I mean in person, in our real lives. Say something inspiring or supportive of the BLM movement. Tell a friend about a moment when you felt prejudiced against someone and why. Talk candidly about what you felt, why you felt it, and how you feel about it now. Explore where you think that feeling came from. Read up on and talk with other white people about what you can do to feel differently. If you are a non-BIPOC, talk about a moment where you’ve felt prejudice from another. Tell a white friend or a black friend how it felt. Tell them how it affected your perspective of life and society.

We all have to start being honest about how racism exists in our lives, even at the micro level. None of us are immune, and that’s okay. We can still do the work to come together to make sure that Black Lives Matter, that BIPOC lives matter, so that we can truly stand up one day and celebrate all lives mattering equally.

This is my wish for us: communication and honesty. We have to change on a base level to move forward with integrity. We have to start listening and believing. We have to be brave.

So here’s my story:

I made a quick judgment about a conservative-looking white couple I saw in France last summer. They were wealthy, had southern accents, and fit every box on my list of people to blame for Trump. I assumed they were prejudice against me, which made me want to talk to them… yeah, it’s like that. I was overly polite when I asked them what part of the States they were from and was not surprised to learn they lived near Mar-a-Lago. I was surprised when they turned their chairs and started a lively discussion about how terrible things were back home and how much they looked forward to the next election. In that moment, I knew I had committed the same crime I’d accused them of. I’d judged them and held prejudice against them because of what they looked like. I was humbled by that experience and promised to be better at walking my talk. And I realized the reason I’m often quick to judge people who look like that is because it provides safety for me. If I assume the worst and fortify myself against it, when I’m proven right, it won’t hurt as much. The fact is it always hurts no matter what, and I’ve probably misjudged a lot of people along the way and missed out on enriching conversations. The talk we had with the couple was amazing. The wife even caught our French waiter trying to overcharge us. My heart opened a bit more that day. It really doesn’t take much.

I am so tired of being tired. But I will be back out there anyway, and I will keep talking, and I will keep listening.

Now… your turn.

Start the conversation in your social group. Use the hashtag #mytruecolorstory to start the conversation with the world. I’ve challenged some of you to engage in these discussions already, and I’ve been heartened by your willingness to be vulnerable and lay your experiences on the table. But it’s not enough. We must do more. We must keep the conversation going.

And if you don’t know me, you know someone like me. Reach out to them. Offer your support. They’re waiting for it, and they’re wondering where you are.

Charli Engelhorn is an award-winning writer, freelance editor, and creative writing instructor. She received her BA in English from the University of Kansas and MFA in creative writing from the University of California, Riverside Low Residency program. When not writing, she can be found playing volleyball, her fiddle, and one-sided fetch with her dog, Jacopo. 

 

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