The First Step: an Open Letter to My White Loved Ones

As I typically do on writing days, I ended this morning’s worship time with a question: “What would you like me to write about today, Lord?” Sometimes nothing really comes back. Other times it takes awhile, but a vague idea crosses my mind. Then other days, like, today, the clarity nearly overwhelms me. 

Putting my feelings of imposter syndrome aside, I pray God would give me the words to articulate with clarity and compassion. 

To: My White Loved Ones
CC: All and Everyone
Subject: What to do in times like these?

[Leah Millis/Reuters]

Hey loved one. 

I hope I didn’t already turn you off by the way I chose to address you. It’s hard to not offend anyone these days; but I hope you’ll trust my heart as I try to articulate some things on my mind. 

I’m sure you heard about the death of George Floyd. The senseless murder of this man. The one that was documented on video from multiple angles? Yeah, that one. You may have been watching the reaction develop. You may have already drawn some conclusions — both good and bad — about the situation, the reaction, the way forward. I want to share a few things with you, from my heart. 

I’ve recently realized that the vast majority of my close friends, outside of my family, are non-white. This has given me a unique experience in that I experience life as a white American, but I also get an up-close perspective of life as a non-white American through the eyes of others. I don’t have to watch the news. My Korean friend already told me how she was glared at and recoiled from when on a plane in early March. My Mexican friend already told me the “go back to where you’re from”-esque slurs he’s been the recipient of. My mixed friend already has shared her struggles of being held to a standard at her job that all other whites are not. My black friend, who is the same age as me, already couldn’t believe that I’d never been pulled over before (and I’m an admitted speeder) while he’d been pulled over nearly 15 times (and has never intentionally sped on the road). All of these friends accept this reality as matter of fact: they hate it, sure, but what is there to do, they ask. 

Since marrying David, my perspective has only widened. I’ve seen women clutch their purses when he walks by. I’ve seen how a security guard will pat him down aggressively, and will only stop when I indicate that he’s with me. I’ve heard the condescending tone people use with him, incredulous that someone “like him” could be “from Africa” and speak “such good English.” We’ve been married barely six months, but I’ve gotten an education of another side of the world that I hoped didn’t exist. 

When we drive in the US, I never let him speed. I speed — because we both agree that  a cop would never do anything violent towards me for doing so; not so sure for him. When we fly, I dress in the most bummed-out clothes that I own; he dresses for the same international flight like he’s on his way to a business meeting. Why? He knows he’ll be treated better, perceived as less of a threat, and hopefully — hopefully — nothing bad will happen in transit.

As news broke of George Floyd’s heart-breaking death, I told him I wanted to scrap plans of ever moving to the US. “We’re safer here,” I told him. I couldn’t imagine losing him. Why go somewhere where I’d worry about him going out to fill up our car with gas after sunset?

Why am I telling you this, loved one? Because I’m trying to paint a small picture of what life is like as a black individual in the US. You can’t say any of this is from the news media or a biased opinion of a story: I saw all of these things. I know all of these people. If you trust me as a person, trust that these things are true. 

There are better-written articles with long lists of things that we can do to improve this situation. But I submit to you, there is one essential step that I beg of each of us to take: acknowledge that there is a problem. Acknowledge that far too often, black Americans are treated worse than white Americans for no other reason than their skin color (and how people perceive that skin color).

Let’s consider two recent situations.

I’m glad that this cop moved his buddy’s leg off of the protestor’s neck they were arresting. But why couldn’t the cops have done that last time with George? Was it because there were hundreds if not thousands of witnesses this time? Was it because this protestor was white?

I’m glad that the police didn’t shoot all of these civilians who were protesting (although it still freaks me out that the protestors showed up like this). But can you honestly imagine black Americans, armed, protesting at the state’s capitol — can you really imagine them not getting killed? At the very least, tear-gassed, rubber-bullet shot? They’re getting worse for the current protests without any guns slung over their shoulders. 

Notice what I’m not saying: I’m not saying that white Americans are never hurt by police, or that they are always treated fairly, or that they are immune to consequences. I am saying, though, that black Americans are disproportionately punished — usually violently — for the same kind of actions as white Americans. How can that be fair?

Now, sometimes the natural reaction can be taking this personally: are you saying, then, that because I’m a white person I’m automatically racist? No. I’m not saying that. But I am saying that you are an individual in a system that is racist, and you benefit from that system because you are white. And because you benefit from it, you are in a privileged position that allows you to help stop this racist system. 

As a white person, you and I have privilege in this broken system, whether we asked for it or not. We just do. And we need to accept that. We need to acknowledge it. Because if we keep pretending that black Americans aren’t the disproportionate recipient of police brutality, or we keep pretending that “well they probably asked for it somehow”, or we keep pretending that the media is overhyping it and that’s all it is — if we keep pretending, we’re never going to get better. Riots will only get worse, tensions will only increase, and injustice will only become more rampant. 

And so, person that I love dearly, please acknowledge this problem. I know it’s easier to ignore it or make excuses or get offended. But press into the hard reality that we have. Don’t turn away. I know it’s hard sometimes to know what to say or how to say it. But I’ll tell you this: just the other day, one of my closest friends wanted to know how I was doing after a recent bout with depression. He asked, “How’s your depression going?” Now, was that the best way to phrase that question? Nope. But he was doing his best to communicate his love for me and ask how I was doing. And I heard his heart, and wasn’t offended in the least. 

In the same way, we may trip up as we try to engage with others on systematic racism. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. I’m sure I didn’t phrase things in the best way here — but I’m trying. So please try. Read the articles. Read the books. Engage in conversation. Speak up when you see someone treated unfairly. Use your privilege — annoying though it be that we have it in the first place — use your privilege to speak up for those whose voices are often ignored. 

As a Christian, I know that this world is going to get worse, not better. As a Christian, I know that the hereafter, the new earth, will be a perfect world of love and true equality and peace. And as a Christian, I know that I am to live the ideals of heaven here on earth starting now, not then. God still urges us to be a voice for the voiceless and ensure that they get justice (Proverbs 31:8-9; Psalm 82:3; Isaiah 1:17; Micah 6:8). Let us seek to use our voice, to do the good we can, to support the causes we can, and to be the hands and feet and voice of Jesus to push for justice. Always. Once we acknowledge the problem, we can do so much more. 

In Christ’s Love,