White people need to be better allies in the fight against racism. That much is clear. So how can they do that?
This article has been updated throughout on 25 May 2021.
A year ago today, George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, died after police officer Derek Chauvin was filmed kneeling on the handcuffed man’s neck for at least eight minutes. Chauvin, who has had 17 complaints filed against him during his career (of which two resulted in formal reprimands), was later arrested and found guilty of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter.
A disturbing viral video of Floyd’s death prompted protests across the USA, with many defying curfews amid rising anger and frustration at the repeated failure of America’s policing system. Their anger and frustration were understandable: the footage made it abundantly clear that Floyd did not resist arrest. That he was both shirtless and unarmed when approached by officers. That he told them he was having trouble breathing. That he asked for help, repeatedly. That horrified onlookers, too, implored the cops to back down.
Officers, though, did not back down. And, as the video drew to a close, paramedics could be seen lifting the limp man on to a stretcher and into an ambulance.
Floyd was later pronounced dead in hospital.
It’s all too easy, as someone who benefits from white privilege, to express shock and dismay over the deaths of George Floyd. Of Jacob Blake, who was shot and seriously injured by a police officer as his three young sons watched from the car. Of Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed in February 2020 while out for a jog in the city of Brunswick early in the afternoon; of Breonna Taylor, who was fatally shot by police in her Louisville, Kentucky, apartment in March that same year; of Tony McDade, who was fatally shot in the Leon Arms apartment complex by an officer of the Tallahassee Police Department just a few months later in May; and of Jamel Floyd, who died in 2020 after being pepper-sprayed inside a Sunset Park federal prison.
It’s all too easy to be shocked over all the Black people who have lost their lives to police brutality; indeed, according to new reports, US police have killed at least 229 Black people among a total of 426 people of colour since Chauvin murdered Floyd just 12 months ago. At least.
And it’s all too easy to tweet your condolences, share a sorrowful post on Instagram, to pen a Facebook missive, before moving on with your lives.
As writer and activist Rachel Elizabeth Cargle pointed out at the time, though, this “passive empathy” is just not enough.
In a powerful post, which she directed at white people everywhere and granted us permission to quote from, Cargle wrote that she is sick of hearing us say “I’m shocked,” “I can’t believe this,” “I had no idea,” or “This can’t be real.”
“[It is] wildly offensive that our pain is so far off your radar that it shocks you,” she continued. “It’s actually hurtful to know that the news that’s been keeping me up at night hasn’t even been a topic of conversation in your world.”
Cargle went on to explain that actions, not empty words, are what counts when it comes to anti-racism. And so, when she continues to keep us “informed on the blatant abuse, racism, and trauma happening to women of colour and their families”, she doesn’t want us to be shocked. Instead, she wants to hear one of the following phrases:
- “I’ve found an organisation that helps in these types of instances and I’ve donated money.”
- “I’ve brought this topic up to my co-workers and family so we can talk through what’s happened.”
- “I’ve researched more on this and I have learned more about the history of this particular race issue.”
Cargle added: “Your shock isn’t enough. Your wow isn’t solidarity. Your actions are the only thing I can accept at this point. And if that is too much to ask of you, dear friend, feel free to let yourself out of this community because complacency is not welcome here.”
Cargle is 100% correct, of course. If white people are still “shocked” by racist violence, then we haven’t been paying attention. Indeed, in the year since she originally shared her post, we have seen a number of stories woefully similar to Floyd’s case make headlines.
On 13 March 2020, healthcare worker Breonna Taylor was fatally shot by police in her Louisville, Kentucky, apartment. The officers were investigating two people suspected of selling drugs, neither of whom was Taylor. They had been granted a no-knock warrant by a judge, which allowed them to enter Taylor’s apartment without announcing themselves, and they also weren’t wearing body cams. She was shot eight times and died at the scene.
On 23 February 2020, a young man named Ahmaud Arbery went out for a jog in the city of Brunswick early in the afternoon – something his father said he did often. He was pursued by two white men, Gregory McMichael and his son Travis, in a pick-up truck, and shot at point-blank range.
And, in July 2020, footage of a confrontation between a Black birdwatcher and a white dog walker in Central Park in New York went viral. In the video, which has been viewed well over 20 million times, Christian Cooper can be heard asking a woman to leash her exuberant dog, in accordance with the signs posted up and around the wooded area.
Her response? “I’m going to [call the police and] tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life,” she said.
Police officers attended the call but said no summonses or arrests were made over what the New York police department called “a verbal dispute”.
The list doesn’t end there, sadly.
In September 2020, Kurt Reinhold, a homeless Black man, was shot and killed by sheriff’s deputies in Southern California last September. His crime? Jaywalking – aka an infraction typically met with a ticket, not an armed arrest.
When authorities released body camera footage of the incident earlier this year, the officers involved could be heard appearing to mock a stereotypical Black accent as they tailed Reinhold. Indeed, one of the officers can be heard expressing doubt that any infraction took place, even warning his partner, “Don’t make case law.”
As such, John Taylor, the Reinhold family’s attorney, has said the encounter was “a blatant, racially motivated stop.”
“They create the confrontation. They escalate the confrontation. They are the first person to put their hands on him and they end up taking his life, shooting him to death,” Taylor told CBS News.
On 21 April 2021, just hours after Chauvin’s conviction, Andrew Brown Jr was fatally shot when Pasquotank County deputies in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, were trying to execute a warrant.
Since then, though, members of Brown’s family and his attorneys have been shown a 20-second clip from a deputy’s body camera. And Chantel Cherry-Lassiter, one of those providing legal representation for the family, has said the 20-second clip showed an “execution.”
“He wasn’t in the wrong at all, what’s in the dark will come to the light,” Khalil Ferebee, one of Brown’s sons who was one of two family members able to see the video, told CNN.
Days later, on 25 April 2021, an unarmed Black man was shot by a Virginia sheriff’s deputy about an hour after the same deputy gave the man a ride home, Virginia State Police confirmed to CNN.
An attorney for Isaiah Brown said his client was shot while on the phone with 911 after the deputy – who had returned to respond to a “domestic incident,” per state police – mistook a phone for a gun.
“After viewing the Spotsylvania County Sheriff’s deputy’s bodycam video and listening to the 911 call, it is evident that the tragic shooting of Isaiah Brown was completely avoidable,” David Haynes, an attorney for Brown’s family, said in a statement.
He added that Brown was “on the phone with 911 at the time of the shooting and the officer mistook a cordless house phone for a gun.”
These are just a few of the acts of racism that have made headlines over the past year. There are others, of course – some which have been reported widely, others which haven’t. The fact of the matter is clear: racial violence should not be cause for shock. Instead, it’s disturbingly prevalent. To claim otherwise is a form of gaslighting.
As Layla F Saad previously reminded us in her own Instagram post: “White supremacy is… our long-time white best friend who refuses to do their anti-racism homework. It’s the white people in our comments sections and DMs asking us to do the emotional labour work of explaining (proving?) white supremacy.
“And it’s the constant gaslighting – shock, white tears, spiritual bypassing, fragility, #AllLivesMatter, white centering, and trying to prove they’re ‘one of the good ones’”.
How we can all be better allies in the fight against racism:
This can be done by following the right people on social media, but we also need to read books which illuminate oppression and structures of white supremacy and white privilege.
Just a few examples of this include:
- Layla F Saad’s Me and White Supremacy: How to Recognise Your Privilege, Combat Racism and Change the World
- Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me
- Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race
- Crystal M. Fleming’s How To Be Less Stupid About Race
- Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want To Talk About Race
- Claudia Rankine’s Citizen
Talk to people
As previously mentioned, we need to talk about racism. We need to teach our children about it. We need to interrupt and shut down racist jokes or commentary. And we need to take a stand against injustice, and intervene in situations where racism is being passed on.
Acknowledge your white privilege
As Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu previously told Stylist, “all white people have white privilege”.
“That does not mean that you’re racist,” she explained. “It just means that you are given an advantage over a person of colour, irrespective of your social economic background, purely because of the colour of your skin.”
Stop saying “not all white people”
I know that it’s hard. I know that it makes you feel uncomfortable. But white people need to stop saying (or even thinking) the phrase “not all white people” when listening to someone talk about racism.
Why? Because doing so doesn’t add to the discussion or develop it in any way. All it does is derail and dismiss the lived experiences of people of colour, in a bid to absolve oneself of any guilt or blame they may be feeling.
Talk less, listen more
Yes, I know: I said we should all be talking about racism. And we should. But listening to what someone like Saad or Cargle has to say on the matter is infinitely more helpful than flooding social media with (albeit unintentionally) gaslighting messages of shock and dismay.
As Gina Martin said last year: “It’s not hard. Repost other people’s writing, posts, information. Give your platform to their words.
“If you’re not doing the work don’t speak on it. Further others’ messages.
Support the right charities and causes
We need to support the right charities. Consider donating to one or all of the following:
- Color Of Change
- The Movement For Black Lives
- Stand Against Racism & Inequality (SARI)
- Stop Hate UK
- Show Racism The Red Card
- NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc (America’s premier legal organisation fighting for racial justice).
And support specific campaigns, too
Not sure how? Here’s what to do:
- Donate to the official George Floyd memorial fund, a GoFundMe page set up by Floyd’s brother.
- Sign the petition urging Minnesota Mayor Jacob Frey and District Attorney Mike Freeman to charge the officers who killed George Floyd.
- Sign the Stand With Breonna petition, calling on the Attorney General Daniel Cameron to bring murder charges against the three police officers that shot Breonna Taylor.
- Donate to Jacob Blake’s GoFundMe page, which was set up by his family.
- Sign Color of Change’s petition to call for the firing and arrest of the officer who shot Jacob Blake.
- Support the Black Visions Collective, an organisation working specifically on racial justice within the state of Minnesota.
It might feel difficult and overwhelming to try and address racism as an individual who hasn’t experienced it, but engaging with the charities who do crucial work to fight racism, challenge inequalities and stop killings like this from happening is a really effective place to start.
This article was originally published on 28 May 2020 but has been updated throughout to include new information.