It’s Time For White Folks To Get Off The Sidelines

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Use your privilege.  Get off the sidelines.  If someone says something racist, call them out.  Have conversations with your family and friends.  Don’t always get angry (this is my personal downfall).  Listen to the other side. 

I had just arrived in Sofia, Bulgaria in June 2019.  Tired from an overnight bus from Hungary, I decided before heading to my hostel I would grab caffeine in any form.  I found a small stand with a man selling espresso. Bingo.

“One double espresso, please.”

“Welcome to Sofia. First time here? Where are you coming from?”

“I’m from Brooklyn.”

“Isn’t that dangerous? You know, because of all the blacks?”

I wasn’t sure what to say. This man’s tone normalized his emboldened racist remark like it was as obvious as wearing a swimsuit to the beach.

“No, it’s not dangerous.”

“Yeah, but the blacks…”

“There are a lot of Bulgarians in Brooklyn, too.”

I paid, downed my espresso and walked away, frustrated with his ignorance.

As an American white woman, people feel completely comfortable expressing their racist point of views to me.  I don’t believe this is because they assume I hold the same views; I simply believe they assume I am a safe place for them to sneak in remarks that they may try to paint as funny, or superior.  They think they can get away with a language around me that they may not be able to get away with around a person of color.  For a long while, they were correct.  I grew up in a middle-class family in a predominantly white town.  The Westmoreland Central School system did not exactly educate us on slavery (it was briefly touched upon, at best) or on the civil rights movement.  Looking back, it seemed that part of history was washed away from my education.  Luckily, I left that town when I was young to flee to Los Angeles, where I was exposed to a sea of people from all different backgrounds.  I remember sometimes coming back home for holidays, and hearing homophobic or racist remarks that were most likely said in front of me my entire life, but now I was able to realize something didn’t sound right.  Despite this, I still never said anything out loud about my discomfort, other than maybe an eyeroll.  Perhaps, I did not understand what privilege was.  I had never heard the word “privilege” until I started doing my own research.

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Photo: Richard Anthony Policastro

Privilege is when you think something is not a problem, because it is not a problem to you personally.

Over the years, I exposed myself to different people and places all over the world.  I never said, “I don’t see color,” because, unless you’re colorblind, you do.  Seeing color does not make you racist, but saying you “don’t see color” is a form of covert racism.  I, instead, saw color very clearly, and saw that I was treated differently, many (most) could argue, better, because I was white.  I did nothing, and have done nothing, to deserve better treatment based off of this alone.  I am not perfect, and have definitely made mistakes.  In my past, I am sure I have said some insensitive things, put my foot in my mouth, not even being aware that what I was saying is offensive.  But the righteous woman who stands before you today is the result of learning from each and every mistake.  It took hundreds of cringe-worthy, wanting to claw my own skin off moments to even attempt to understand my privilege, and to understand just because I was born a white American, does not make me a better or worse person than anyone else.  What it does mean, is that I was born a few steps ahead because of that privilege.  It’s not to say my life has not been difficult, but none of the difficulties I have faced have been because of the color of my skin.  In the past few years, I have learned the importance of putting my money where my mouth is, and using my voice to fight for every single thing I believe in; whether that be climate change, reproductive rights, the end of child marriage, the dismantling of American racism.  I still have a lot to learn, but I remain open to learning.  I work on educating myself, and when I say something wrong, I do the work to learn where it came from, and why it should never happen again.  We need to all be better at catching ourselves in our own covert racism.  I am aware of how much easier it is to stay silent, to live in denial and proudly state But I’m not racist! just because you’ve never been caught saying the “n” word, or maybe you really don’t say it (pro tip: never say it).  Joining the fight to end racial discrimination is never too late, but you have to be willing to get extremely uncomfortable.  You will feel “white guilt” when you’re called out.  You will want to defend your case, but you will quickly learn you have nothing to fall back on.  White people, why is it so hard for us to take the backseat?  Why is it so hard for us to not be the center of every issue in the universe?  Why is our comfort more important than others’ discomfort?  Why is it so hard for us to believe that we created this problem?  If not us, then where should we lay the accountability?

I ask you to answer these questions, because the evidence speaks for itself.  One look at history no matter what year you land on, and there is no denying that white people are to blame for black peoples’ current mess.  White people continue to benefit from a system designed to work for them, and when people of color suffer, we stay silent.  Sure, we share an angry post on social media, “How does this keep happening?!”  It keeps happening because we choose to sit silently on our comfortable thrones of white supremacy.  Even if we’re frustrated with watching our black friends being treated differently, we still don’t join the fight; we simply cheer from the sidelines.

“Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”Benjamin Franklin

The difference of treatment between races can be found anywhere, but they reign supreme in the justice system.  Let’s take the case of The State of California against Brock Turner.  Brock Turner was caught by witnesses fingering an unconscious woman, Chanel Miller, behind a dumpster on campus at Standford University.  He was arrested, but was able to buy himself freedom after one day in jail with a $150,000 bail.  He hired top notch attorneys and essentially put the victim through hell instead of admitting guilt of something people saw him doing, not to mention the physical evidence from the victim’s rape kit.  After a year and a half, he was eventually convicted guilty by a jury on three felonies, but his privilege led him to spending three months in county jail (he was sentenced to six months but he was released early due to “good behavior”).  Based on the charges, the judge was advised to give him somewhere around six years but decided Turner had already paid gravely for “20 minutes of his life.”

Black Lives Matter
Photo: Richard Anthony Policastro

Now, let’s talk Kalief Browder.  Browder was accused of stealing a backpack in the Bronx in May of 2010.  He was brought in for questioning, denied having anything to do with the theft, but was arrested anyway after some cliché racial profiling.  His bail was set for $3,000, which he was unable to come up with, so was sent to perhaps the most violent prison in the country: Rikers Island.  He was held at Rikers Island for three years for a crime he did not commit, where he endured endless violence from other inmates.  During his time at Rikers, he was put in solitary confinement for a total of two of the three years he spent there.  He was only sixteen years old when he was initially arrested.  The United Nations believes solitary confinement should only be used in the most extreme cases, and anything more than fifteen days is considered inhumane torture.  Browder was eventually released after the prosecutors had to admit they had no facts to back that Browder did it.  He was released without explanation, thrown back into the real world after enduring years of torture for a crime he did not commit.  In 2015, Kalief Browder hung himself, ending his life.

This is one of hundreds of thousands of examples, but the difference in treatment of these two men is sickening.  In case one, Brock Turner absolutely committed the crime, no ifs, ands, or buts about it, and was extended empathy and humanization; and in case two, Kalief Browder had no witnesses, and maintained his innocence from day one, but was still treated like an animal.  Ask yourself, why do you think that is?

I both encourage and advise you to educate yourself.  Get pissed off and get involved.  Turn off The Office reruns for a day and watch something to learn about how America has a system designed to work against our black brothers and sisters.  I know you’re tired from a long week of work, and you may not want to engage in a sad reality, but if you ever want to be better, didn’t I mention it’s going to be uncomfortable?  Some of my personal favorites are:

When They See Us (Netflix)

A drama-series based on the Central Park Five, or the arrests of five innocent boys of color in 1989 when the infamous Central Park jogger (a white woman) was brutally attacked.

13th (Netflix)

A documentary exploiting America’s awful past with racial inequality in the prison system.

Time: The Kalief Browder Story (Netflix)

A six-part documentary series telling crucial details in Kalief Browder’s story, and the outrage that sparked after his death.

Black Lives Matter
Photo: Richard Anthony Policastro

If documentaries and dramatic series aren’t your thing, there are plenty of books, TV shows, podcasts, even music to teach you a thing or two.  There are countless resources that sit there collecting dust on white peoples’ hypothetical shelves because we have said for so long, “It’s not my place,” “it’s not my problem,” “I’m not sure what to do,” or “I’m afraid of saying the wrong thing.”  These are legitimate feelings, but it is your place.  By doing nothing, and saying nothing, you are agreeing with the oppressor.  Doing nothing and saying nothing translates to, “It’s okay that these things are happening.”  White people, you need to get off the sidelines and join the fight.

Police brutality against black Americans is hardly a new occurrence.  The police have been racially profiling and getting away with it for years.  White people need to step up and stand up, be the allies we’ve always claimed to be.  Then, maybe, in years down the road, when we read something horrific about another black man losing his life to an ignorant cop being given power that he was never worthy of, and we ask, “How does this keep happening?!”, we will finally know the answer; because we didn’t do enough.  We did not educate ourselves.  We did not make the calls to demand justice in the most trying of times.  We posted a picture of a black square and cared for a day or two, but ultimately, went back to getting our matcha lattes and working at our start-ups.  We continued to stay complicit through our silence in these times where our voices and action are needed.

Use your privilege.  Get off the sidelines.  If someone says something racist, call them out.  Have conversations with your family and friends.  Don’t always get angry (this is my personal downfall).  Listen to the other side.  The worst-case scenario is someone disagrees with you, but having conversations is essential in making change.  Your words may subconsciously stick.  The most important factor is to vote.  It’s so easy to blame Donald Trump because he certainly adds gasoline to a fire it seemed he started.  But he by no means started the current mess in America.  This has been a long-time coming.  Donald Trump is not the cause of what America is currently experiencing; he is the effect of a system that favors someone exactly like him.  Dismantle it through local votes.  Work from the bottom up so that we never have to face this type of turmoil of a presidency again.

On a personal note; to my black friends, I see you. I hear you.  I am with you. I haven’t always done my best, but I have always tried. I will continue to try. I will continue to fight. I will continue to say your names. I will continue to listen. I will continue to validate your feelings, your thoughts, your lives.

Kaitlyn Rosati

Contributor

Originally from New York, Kaitlyn was a musician/bartender before she left it all behind to embark on a solo round-the-world backpacking trip. She is passionate about preserving the environment, learning about gender equality throughout the world, eating anything that’s placed in front of her, saying hi to every animal she meets, and jumping off of cliffs into pretty blue waters.

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