An Open Letter to My Fellow White Americans

 

Dear Fellow White Americans:

On Saturday, I read an article in the Roanoke Times about a man, Walker Sigler, who was shot in his home by police in 2018. It seems there was an open door that led to suspicion of an active crime and five officers attempted to enter the home. When they mistook Sigler for an attacker, the officers shot him in the leg.

After a number of surgeries, Sigler will have to live with permanently damaged vision from blood loss and a leg that I’m guessing will never be quite right, though he is able to walk, happily. He sued the officers for $12 million and the just-closed settlement is said to be the largest in the history of Lynchburg, Virginia, even with the largely undisclosed terms.

I’m grateful. I’m grateful that the officers had the presence of mind to shoot Sigler in the leg rather than the torso or head. I’m grateful that he’s recovering and with pretty doggone good function. I’m grateful the police were held accountable.

And I’m struck, yet again, by the contrast. As I look at the picture of Sigler, a white man, walking away from the courtroom a wealthier white man, I wonder: Would he have had that luxury had he been black? Would the police have shot for the legs? Would the settlement have gone so completely his way?

History – and I’m not talking about the distant past variety – says no.

Breonna Taylor was also in her home. There was also suspicion of a crime that was ultimately determined unfounded. Instead of a bullet to the leg to subdue the alleged criminal, Breonna’s home was sprayed with 20 rounds of ammo; Breonna died in her bed when eight of those bullets hit her.

Time and again in recent history, we’ve seen this same pattern play out.

George Floyd was killed in the midst of being arrested for allegedly attempting to pass a counterfeit $20. White men who have been in the act of perpetuating mass shootings, on the other hand, have been arrested without injury. That includes the man who killed 23 people and injured 23 more at an El Paso Walmart, the man who killed two people and injured four more at UNC-Charlotte – both last year- and, in 2018, the man who killed 11 people and wounded eight more at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

To reiterate: I don’t wish any of these white men had been killed by police. As has been said by so many notable activists, these comparisons are meant to highlight that police forces across the nation have both the training and impulse control to take even the most violent of offenders into custody safely and alive.

That each and every one of us born in the United States was bred on centuries-old fodder of racial biases and racist systems is not our fault. This country was built on and by the racist rhetoric necessary to allow European people to console themselves for committing the atrocity that is chattel slavery.

Doing the work of facing and opposing racism isn’t about taking the fall for the actions of long-gone generations of slave owners or more recent Jim Crow supporters. It’s about exploring our complicity – our often silent and passive complicity – in keeping the inequities in place.

While black lives are being sacrificed daily to disparities of treatment in every arena from housing and healthcare to, of course, the legal system, we white folks are being asked to do the emotionally uncomfortable work of unearthing our unconscious biases and challenging them. We’re being asked to do the emotionally uncomfortable work of holding ourselves and other white people accountable for our words and behaviors. We’re being asked to do the emotionally uncomfortable work of figuring out what it means to use white privilege as a tool to shine a light on racism rather than a shield to protect ourselves from its continued wrath.

Over recent weeks, starting when Ahmaud Arbery’s gruesome murder was finally brought to national attention, I’ve had a number of coaching sessions and personal conversations with people of a variety of skin tones and backgrounds who feel helpless, even despondent.

My job in these moments, as I see it, is to support people in moving toward the discomfort of their sliver of opportunity to make change – responsibility to make change.

My job in these moments, as I see it, is to remind people that progress, however dishearteningly incremental, has been made because without seeing the progress, we lose all energy to fight for more.

And to you I admit that the image that arises time and again in my mind is one of continued lynchings, and our precious little progress is that we no longer picnic under the hanged black men.

We can do better. Black lives, and our souls, depend on it.

Your fellow white co-learner,
Sarah B Rawz

P.S. The work of learning, of activism, is a forever process worthy of the investment of both money and time. Some resources I value include:

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