YWCA Madison

It's Time for White People to Wake Up

It's Time for White People to Wake Up

If you have watched the news recently, you have witnessed the strangulation of a U.S. citizen, Eric Garner, by a police officer. Upon watching this, there are many possible reactions, but there are two which are most common. One is outrage: this is not reflective of our values as a country! The other is rationalization: you find yourself trying to make this tragedy fit with our national values. If you fall into this latter category, you may be thinking things like: Eric Garner must have done something to deserve this treatment, or the Grand Jury must know information we do not know.

As a white person pursuing racial justice, trying to debate people about Ferguson, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner pushes all of my cultural buttons. As a white person, I have often believed that if I just explain it to you logically with all the facts, data, and personal stories, you will come to understand the truth about racial injustice. But, actually, no. This isn’t how it works. As white people committed to racial equity, we try. We talk to our family, our friends, people on social media who we don't really know. We say all the things, but still we don't witness transformation. We don't understand. This strategy usually works: we say the facts, people are persuaded, things go our way. But not when we say the facts about racism.

Facts like: the incident with Eric Garner was videotaped. Facts like: the Coroner ruled what happened to Eric Garner was a homicide. Facts like: the chokehold used by the officer is barred. Facts like: Eric Garner was unarmed. Facts like: Eric Garner said "I can't breathe" 11 times.

People of color are probably laughing or angry when they read how naive I am. How ridiculous for those of us white people doing racial justice work to think it would be so simple. Don't we realize they have been trying that and a million other things for centuries? As a white racial justice advocate, I have often approached this work with the innocence of a new babe, whereas people of color have never had that luxury, that opportunity for racial innocence. They are schooled at a young age in our system of racism in order that they may survive. Hands out and in plain sight in a store. Move slowly, explain any motion, talk respectfully to the police. 

White people, I am begging you to believe in the possibility that all is not as it seems, to listen to the facts, and to join me in outrage. It is time for us to awake from our collective racial innocence. This is not the nation we want to be. This is not reflective of the values of liberty, freedom, and equality that we claim as the foundation of our country.

Colleen ButlerColleen Butler is the YWCA Madison Racial Justice Director, where she develops specialized Racial Justice and equity initiatives including: Racial Justice training, facilitation training, Racial Justice curriculum, and large-scale community events. Colleen is Chair of the Dane County Equal Opportunities Commission, was a member of the Dane County Task Force to Reduce Racial Disparities in the Criminal Justice System in 2009, and recipient of the 2012 Rev. James C. Wright Human Rights Award.



Date Created: 12/4/2014

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