The Unbearable Whiteness of Protesting

White people and nonblack people of color have the luxury of treating these cases as injustices. For them, it is moralistic. For us, it's about survival. A conversation about race.

12.10.14 10:45 AM ET

JUDNICK: I feel like this is just an extension of the our “favorite” iMessage topic but in the light of the recent grand jury events with Mike Brown and Eric Garner (not to mention the promise of more to come with Tamir Rice and the others they’ve shot to death) I’ve been reminding friends that they do not have to answer to white people about their feelings.

RAWIYA: Unlike many people, I don’t work out of an office where I'm put in the unfair position of having to process my own very real frustration and trauma while being expected to manage the feelings of people who, no matter how well-meaning they may be, will never know what it feels like to be a walking target. Still, extrajudicial killings of black people happen so often that I’ve realized that I have developed coping mechanisms that almost resemble a routine. Do you feel similarly?

JUDNICK: Of course, despite the frequency of these killings, in each instance, black people have maybe 5 total minutes to themselves—at best one night’s worth of fitful sleep—to process how they feel. While white friends and acquaintances seem to understand that we are angry, disappointed, frustrated, and scared, it doesn’t always stop them from immediately asking our opinions. I’m quickly put off by this because it’s usually a trap to get you into some wild conversation that justifies the tragedy, where you end up speaking for all blacks, or a pandering to your sadness with white guilt. So I remind my friends that they do not have to get caught up in the jig, but it’s way more damaging than that.

When you have to explain yourself to someone who doesn’t fully understand what you are going through, or simply talk to the face of your anguish in a moment of complex emotions, it doesn’t even allow you the solace of grief or reflection. Unsurprisingly, it happens every time. I stepped out to a protest a mere 30 minutes after they announced the Michael Brown decision and when I bumped into a friend he asked me how I felt about the protest being almost entirely white people. “At least we know we won’t get shot!” I responded.

What conversations have you found yourself in or avoiding? What are your feelings about the wave of support that always immediately presents itself from the other side?

RAWIYA: When news about situations like Mike Brown and Eric Garner breaks, I find it difficult to focus or function in any meaningful way. So I often feel grateful for the fact that I'm able to sort through my thoughts and emotions in relative isolation—under a blanket, or with my headphones on at the gym, or in other spaces that I've designated as safe for myself—without the kinds of penalties that someone working a traditional job might have to face. That being said, I don't suffer fools gladly.

One of the fundamentally corrosive aspects of white supremacy is the entitlement it offers white people, implicitly teaching them that their opinions are always necessary and valuable. In truth, they're not. While you or I approach the non-indictments of Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo from an urgent perspective—being confronted with the potential impact racism has on our brothers, our fathers, our potential children, our own bodies—white people and nonblack people of color have the relative luxury of treating these cases as injustices, cruel ones even. For them, it is moralistic. For us, it's literally about survival, and I react as such.

JUDNICK: My reaction is so visceral that I immediately, like you, isolate myself so I can breathe. I live with a white person and have yet to have a single conversation with them about any of this. I simply don't trust their reaction. During the immediate protests for Michael Brown I walked in the crowd solo and mostly silent. I was able to be alone while not alone, processing the fact that while I was marching and chanting I could literally die. I am a moving target. The next night I went back with friends and as we saw very privileged, white young adults yell "hands up don't shoot" we became so enraged that we all left. I understand their "support" but when I see that white person with their hands up my first thoughts are, "When in the hell is anybody ever gonna shoot you?!" It was a feeling that resonated with my friends.

RAWIYA: I learned several years ago that in these kinds of situations, I have to prioritize my own feelings. I don't have time for it. If that makes nonblack friends or colleagues uncomfortable, well, then I urge them to remember that having their feelings hurt doesn't come close to the terror of knowing that someone who looks like you is killed by police or police-acting entities every 28 hours with virtual impunity.

How do you react when you see white people and nonblack people of color actively replicating racist structures under the guise of support? How has the Internet fit into your experience over the past two weeks?

JUDNICK: The immediate supremacist reaction is to equalize everything. It's the same jig that causes white people to say "we are all equal"—a statement that I always respond to with, "Until y'all learn rhythm and how to use spices I think not." We are not "equal" and you are not an ally if this is the childish base of your notions. It's not just about making the world a better place for everybody because the point is that it's already great for some at the cost of being shitty for others. I looked around and I was marching next to a parent with two small white children. While they were yelling "No justice, no peace," when they looked up at me and my large, black male friend their eyes resonated with a fear I've learned to recognize. While protesters yelled "We're doing this for Mike Brown!," my friend said "or for us, standing right here in hoodies." I have not gone back to a protest since.

RAWIYA: There are many instances of white people—leftist and radical, conservative and right-leaning—co-opting the struggles of the marginalized for their own purposes. When I went to a protest here in Toronto the day after the Darren Wilson nonindictment news came down, I stood next to a white couple who loudly chanted every single slogan except "black lives matter." That told me everything I already knew. The next day, a major Canadian newspaper covered a similar protest in Ottawa by focusing on the organizers' plea that white allies take up less space and amplify marginalized voices. The misdirection was both baffling and routine; even when people ask about our feelings, they’re not really hearing us.

The presence of white and other nonblack allies at recent protests is noticeable. Support is a good thing and the broader the so-called movement can be, the better. But when that support comes at the expense of black people’s voices and, by extension, black people’s lives, it becomes both meaningless and counterproductive. Seeing white people vocalize the value of black lives and oppose racist institutions is great, but only if they are taking those same values into their day-to-day experiences. Don’t hold up a Black Lives Matter sign in Union Square if you’re going to go into work the next day and replicate the racist structures you were protesting the night before. Don’t hold up a Black Lives Matter sign in Times Square if you’re going to clutch your purse when a black man steps into the elevator. Don’t hold up a Black Lives Matter sign on the West Side Highway if black lives only matter to you when it’s convenient.

A lot of this plays out pretty clearly online. Things like changing the Black Lives Matter tagline to All Lives Matter, and the #CrimingWhileWhite hashtag, effectively erase black people from a conversation that is ours to steer. They are often characterized as benevolent and admirable; when we do the same, we are angry and unreasonable. How has your experience been shaped by digital encounters and the social web?

JUDNICK: The Internet for me has been surprisingly powerful. After the Ray Rice fiasco I realized that it was very important for me to edit my Twitter feed into a safe space. Somehow I was successful because after both Mike and Eric's decisions I've done nothing but RT and see the best of many folks I love and even those I don't know. I was so shocked because I opened my Twitter app with one eye. I've noticed that many people on Facebook have been posting similar messages about unfriending people with racist and ignorant ideas. I see people fighting in comment sections and I simply turn it off. One of my favorite tweets recently was this in response to #AllLivesMatter.

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An intelligent conversation requires intelligent people. I am only able to ignore because I have had to have these conversations in person and that is the most traumatic experience. One that has been repeated in my life so much that I am now skilled in completely erasing it. I will not have any conversations with anyone I have to explain my humanity to. My survival no longer offers the time, but to see others expressing frustration they can barely put into words is helpful. To see the stories of protest as they are happening have given me strength even if I don't perceive those protests as safe spaces anymore. So I tweet things like "you don't owe white people any convos" to support others. It's amazing to think that someone in another country might provide you with 140 characters that allow you to breathe. It's insane that you are losing friends in real life because of their ignorance on the Internet. #CrimingWhileWhite was the most deluded thing I've ever seen. Blacks are quite aware of privilege, Dave Chapelle has a bit about it from 2000. That's 15 years ago! What did they expect to accomplish?

Have you found any outlets for yourself?

RAWIYA: Like you, I've been turning to Dave Chappelle for both levity and affirmation. I watch his stand-up, I watch Chris Rock's, I read Baldwin and Baraka, I listen to Kanye. I remind myself that no understands us but us. I also think of something Kiese Laymon wrote on Facebook a while back: "If you consider yourself a young writer or budding academic and you spend the majority of your time writing to a metaphorical straight white intellectually competent man in the hopes that he'll see you as—you know—smart, articulate, human, don't be mad when no one other than that joker reads your shit. there are mountains of folks out here waiting to be touched, written to, provoked, loved. we waiting. touch us."

I see friends and colleagues, people I otherwise love and respect, turn our anger into performance. Tweeting and Instagramming about their participation, making themselves the story like they want to be congratulated. Sometimes I want to yell, "STOP MAKING EVERYTHING ABOUT YOU." Instead, I try to take Kiese's lead and put my energy towards us. I don't want to beg white people to acknowledge my humanity; I want to remind black people that I see and love theirs, even when the world doesn't.

JUDNICK: I feel guilt at times when I don’t want to clap for all the added support from white protesters. Even in private conversation black people feel the need to clearly state that they aren’t against the added support. But honestly, how would it even work if everybody isn’t down? The reason it feels so infuriatingly endless is because it doesn’t really work if everyone isn’t on board but it also can’t work if everyone is only working to the level of their comfort. It seems backwards to applaud what is already necessary, what has already been clear for a long time. It’s not just what makes people feel better. To protest means to question not just friends but even yourself as a white person of privilege in this society.

I say a lot that in the story of racism in America nobody wants to be the villain. It’s something that seems so off-putting, vile even, that nobody wants to be tacked with it. Yet, the only “nobodies” that do not have to be are those that have the privilege. It’s hard to acknowledge and painful to swallow, not to mention “hard to prove,” but now I feel it’s not just us who are seeing the resistance that’s met when you ask for right of self, the right to live.

White people of this generation are witnessing what we have always lived, survived. It’s a crazy thing to watch and I agree with you: I’m not going to beg to exist. This thing is uncomfortable because it has always been that way, not just now. We already know racism exists. You don’t need to ask black people how they feel, ask white people how they feel. Ask them if they understand what they’re seeing and how they feel about it. Speak to the friends and people you need to root out in life and let that conversation flow. Feel that confusion, pain, disgust. The conversations are happening but I can’t say I have much hope for our lifetime. At this age I guess I think more and more about how we’ll be passed on.