Dear White People, Educate Yourselves (By: Danny Bonaventura, MSW)
If you’re white, you don’t know what it’s like to be black in America. You might think you understand, but you don’t. I used to think I knew, I didn’t. In 2015 I moved to New Orleans to study social work and worked at a non-profit called the Youth Empowerment Project that served a 99% African American population. I spent every day working to help make sure the young men I served had the resources they needed, and were exposed to opportunities to better themselves. For the last five years I’ve worked with student-athletes every day, many of whom are black. They leave their communities to attend predominantly white institutions where they face unique challenges every day. Challenges that you can’t understand unless you’ve walked in their shoes. Trust me, I’m not trying to tell you I understand, but I have a better idea of what it’s like than your average white man, and I’m trying every day to have a better understanding so I can support them the best I can. There’s a significant amount of ignorance regarding the racial injustice the black community continues to face every day, and because of my experiences I want to use my platform to educate my fellow white people, and to let the black people in my life know that while I may never fully understand, I hear you, I see you, I feel your pain, and I’m never going to stop using my voice to help initiate change.
I first became aware of the discarding of black lives, and white people trying to justify it in 2013 during the Trayvon Martin trial. I’m not here to rehash the details of the case, you can do the research and make your own determination on what happened. The fact remains Trayvon was an unarmed black teenager, shot and killed in 2012 by George Zimmerman, a man who was on neighborhood watch, and I was just shocked at how many people were trying to justify why George Zimmerman was within his rights to kill him. Since that case, these are some of the cases in which unarmed black men, teenagers, and in at least one case, a child, have been killed.
This is not a comprehensive list of every black person who has died at the hands of police since 2013, but rather a list of the cases that I am acutely aware of where the loss of black lives could have easily been avoided if the individuals carrying out the violence didn’t have a false narrative about who these black men were when they encountered them. A false narrative based on stereotypes, fueled by historical oppression and racism, and fear because of a lack of understanding. In each of these cases black men were killed tragically, and to my understanding the Walter Scott case is the only one in which the police officer was charged with a crime and was actually convicted. Until these individuals gain a better understanding of the people they are serving, this will continue. Until they are held accountable for their actions, this will continue.
The Black Lives Matter movement was founded in 2013 in response to this violence. There seems to be a belief among many white people that Black Lives Matter is anti-police, or that it promotes violence against white people. It’s simply not true. That’s not the goal, and it never has been. Go to their website https://blacklivesmatter.com/. There is nothing on it to suggest the way to end this is through violence against police. When you see the hashtag, don’t respond with #AllLivesMatter, or #BlueLivesMatter. We get that all lives matter, but black people are the ones losing their lives at the hands of those charged with protecting us. I respect and appreciate the police that protect our communities, but changes need to be made. The first two items on this list are a great place to start.
Here’s another issue I have. White people were so offended by Colin Kaeperinick’s peaceful protest in 2016 when he decided not to stand for the national anthem. I heard, and continue to hear and read statements like “He could have found a different place to do it,” “he’s disrespecting the flag,” “he’s disrespecting the military,” “he gets paid millions so he doesn’t have to deal with inequality.” People were so desperate to ascribe their own meaning to what he was doing because they didn’t want to acknowledge the actual reason, which he stated from the start when asked about it. According to The Undefeated after being questioned regarding why Colin didn’t stand, he responded “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” And now as people around the country, both black and white, take their protests to the streets, the conversation is, “these people are looting and rioting,” “how could they do this?,” “they’re destroying their community,” “this isn’t helping anything.” If peaceful protests aren’t getting it done, people are going to revert to other methods, regardless of how you feel personally about their choices. You can judge all you want, but you can’t tell people how to protest if you’ve never been oppressed.
I don’t want to hear about black on black crime when a cop kills a black person. The black community is aware that gun violence, gangs, and drugs are a problem. If you don't have any interest in learning about historical oppression, systemic racism, and trying to fix it, on a micro, mezzo, or macro level you don't get to comment on it. You tell athletes to stick to sports, but want to be an expert on black on black crime because of what you saw on The Wire and the 5 o clock news. Black people deal with their own trauma every day, they don’t need white people rehashing it so they can avoid the issue at hand.
The cases I’m talking about above are just the tip of the iceberg. These are the cases that have become national news because these individuals were killed for no reason. This doesn’t even begin to cover the other forms of racism the black community deals with every day. When cases like this happen, I think of the young men I used to serve in New Orleans, and the hundreds of black student-athletes I've worked with over the last 5 years. I think about how difficult it must be for them to wonder if they are going to be safe to go on a run, or if they encounter a cop who doesn't understand who they are or what they're doing. I think about wanting to give them a bro hug and telling them I'm here for them, knowing I'm not adequately prepared to deal with how to help them, but wanting to try anyway. I think about wanting to tell them they're safe and this would never happen to them, but not knowing if that's true. All of us have a choice, are you going to be part of the solution, or are you going to continue to be part of the problem?