I woke up Thursday morning and accidentally watched a video of Alton Sterling being killed by the police. In a world of social feeds and autoplaying video, I’m far from the only person who had this experience. Within 10 minutes I was reading descriptions of how Philando Castile had been killed, again by the police.
Like many people of color, I’ve been warned about interactions with the police since I was a little kid. Despite being a light-skinned, mixed-race black person, despite growing up in a safe suburban area, this warning was a part of my childhood.
And seeing, very explicitly, how easily two black men met violent deaths at the hands of people who are supposed to serve their communities, pushed me past my hard-earned emotional distance from the subject and made me feel scared. Scared and alone, even as I saw the reactions pouring out from people of every race, nationality, and culture, looking to express the same fear and outrage.
There are a lot of people from other communities or racial groups who want to express support, and a lot of people who want to explain why these men had it coming.
If you’ve made it this far, I’m going to assume you’re trying to find something positive to do or say, beyond offering hopes or prayers or condolences.
If you want to know what I’d consider the bare minimum of support you could offer to the people of color in your life, here’s a starting point:
1) Promise not to tell me what Martin Luther King would think
You do not know. You have not met MLK, probably haven’t actually read much about him or his life, and share almost none of his lived experience. Seriously, white people — stop telling me that MLK would be ashamed of nonviolent protest by black communities. It’s offensive on a nearly molecular level.
2) Understand that you are unqualified to tell me when something is "not about race"
The same way that I, as a heterosexual, cisgender man, am not qualified to say when something is not about sexual orientation or gender identity or sexism. If you don’t have the experience, the background, or the skin in the game, you aren’t able to credibly dismiss the assessment of someone who is impacted by that reality daily.
3) Accept that there is no time or place for protest that can be both a) acceptable to everyone, and b) meaningful
The only protests that are deemed acceptable by majority groups, and majorities within groups, are the ones that are functionally irrelevant — protests with no related context, no audience, no disruption, and no chance of coverage. Protest more or less requires disruption to be relevant. If you are asking people of color to be less relevant to make you more comfortable, you are not trying to help them, you’re trying to silence them.
4) Understand that telling me you’re an ally is like telling me you’re my friend; if I don’t agree, it doesn’t mean anything. I get to choose my allies, and I get to define the criteria that make someone my ally.
If you’re calling yourself an ally but you’re telling me to be quiet, be nicer, be elsewhere, and be less demanding when it comes to equality and equity, you are not an ally. If you’re allied to my community, that doesn’t mean we’ve signed over rights of self-determination to you. If a refusal to let you dictate how, where, and what actions are taken negates your "ally" status, you were never much of an ally to begin with.
5) Understand that race does not exist separate from other issues
It’s not black issues, and municipal issues, gender issues, socioeconomic issues, sexual orientation issues, anything. If you’re a racialized group, you need to engage with each one of these topics inclusive of race. People of color don’t have the luxury of being able to throw race to the side and ignore it when they’re dealing with everything else in the world. This like asking a visually impaired person to join a book club but refusing to consider or even discuss limitations in accessible publishing when making selections. It doesn’t matter how politely you phrase it — it’s fundamentally exclusionary.
Everything I’ve written so far is basically a list of things that would make discussing events like this, and the reactions to those events, less painful. If you want to actually be an active supporter, I'm going to suggest three relatively easy things:
6) Wait a week before asking the questions
There are probably at least a few people you know who you're hoping can explain what it's like to be a person of color witnessing these things, whether this is as common as it seems, and how it feels. Maybe a friend, maybe a co-worker, but someone who is more connected to the impacted community than you are, someone you trust to do the work of helping you get it.
Please wait a while. A week is a starting point. Please make sure this person is actually interested, willing, and ready to have this conversation with you. They may not be; many people of color are tired of carrying the weight of educating people who haven’t been engaging with these discussions. We understand there are conversations that need to happen, but people impacted by things like this also need time to get over it.
7) Be willing to make yourself and others uncomfortable, if need be
Someone you know (probably on Facebook) is making an argument that Alton Sterling had it coming, or that Philando Castile should have behaved differently. They might be standing up for the Platonic ideal of policing rather than discussing its reality, and they're probably insisting that ALL lives matter, in a tone that indicates the value of majority groups has ever been debated at a systemic level. I need you to tell them, respectfully if possible, that they're both wrong and part of the problem. It will be uncomfortable. It's worth it.
8) Tell your local politicians to do something, in language that matters to them
The hard truth is, as long as there are more votes to be gained by supporting police as a concept and community than by improving the accountability, training, and fairness of how policing happens, nothing is going to get better. Your political representatives will tell you they are sad, they are praying, and that they desire change, but they won't actually do anything.
If enough people make it clear that their vote is contingent on pushing for real reforms to policing, your local representatives might actually start working toward progress. Write a letter, or make a phone call. Let them know you aren't a signature on a Change.org petition — you're a person and a voter, and this is important to you.
Jon Crowley (@joncrowley) is a 30-something mixed-race black person, living in Toronto, Canada, and working at a leading advertising agency.