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Dear White Sisters and Brothers

Look with me.

Look at these racial “incidents” that have happened in the last week or so.  See the white people acting in outrageous ways – the officer who knelt on the neck of George Floyd until he died; Central Park Karen who knew precisely how to threaten the uppity Black man who had dared correct her.

Now look with me at how you and I are those people.

On the morning in 1983 after the United States started to bomb Iraq I was working in an intensive rehabilitation program with men in prison.  With the program director, we were driving down to Groveland prison to meet with a group there.  I was spouting my fury at this rush to war, at this aggressive invasion, at this violent reaction that would lead to the deaths of so many.  “How could they do this??” I asked, berating the U.S. administration.

The Director of the program, Jim Smith, let me spout off for a while.  Finally, quietly, he asked me, “What part did you have in that bombing?”  He might have said it in Portuguese, given how puzzling the question was to me.  He reminded me that I was a U.S. citizen, and that this was done in my name.  I wanted no part of that marriage, identity.  But ultimately I came to understand:  to the extent that I hadn’t spoken out, to the extent that I was passive about the build-up to that act, to the extent that I trusted in the military to “keep me safe,” to the extent that I relied on that administration to keep terrorists at bay, I was the bombardier who loosed those missiles.

Back to the present:

We’re horrified at what we witnessed Officer Derek Chauvin do to George Floyd.  He went too far.  See, the unwritten contract you and I had with him was that he was to keep law and order, preserve tranquility, keep the disruptive, dangerous elements in our society from harming us or our property.  We did not speak out when he demeaned people; we turned a blind eye when he pushed a grandmother to the floor; when he slapped handcuffs on a ten-year-old child; when he administered a few quick punches to a hand-cuffed person who had already stopped resisting.   Those incidents all happened in Rochester within the last couple of weeks.  But now, well, he had just gone too far.  We didn’t want him to do THAT!!

Can you see with me now:  that our silence is complicity?  Can you understand that our self-righteous outrage is tainted with hypocrisy?  Can you dig deep enough and honestly enough to comprehend that we’re late with our outrage?  Thousands of lives late?

And Central Park Karen disgusted us.  Look again with me:  can you perceive that instinct in you to view a Black man as a threat?  Can you recall those times you intentionally, instinctively, often sheepishly, steered in a different direction to avoid him?  Or skirted around a Black woman who was registering a complaint?  When you assumed that she was just angry, rather than angry with injustice?  With rigorous self-honesty, can you claim that deeply embedded, uninvited but entrenched devil called racism?  Can you recall those times when you were quite certain that your voice, your opinion, your accusation would be believed when held against that of a Person of Color?  And you believed that would hold, because you believed in your own superiority at that moment?  And you knew that your community would have your back?  Just as Amy Cooper knew the police would take her word over his?

Officer Chauvin was our surrogate.  We had not trained him well enough to know when we would be horrified and disown any claim to him.

We are Amy Cooper.  As long as we have those instinctual reactions of fear, of disgust, of superiority in us, we are Amy.  Even more so if we insist that those instincts are not there, if we deny that we are brain-washed from centuries of indoctrination in the social, racial hierarchy.

Is this too much for you, this concept of complicity?  I know it was the first time I was confronted with such realities.  Work with me on the healing task of self-honesty, the soul-reclamation project that is ours to do.  Then speak up, speak out, now, before the next “horrifying” event.

Very literally, lives depend on this.

26 thoughts on “Dear White Sisters and Brothers”

  1. Thank you Frank for your clear strong leadership, for “taking the post’ in the white community, for shaking loose the blinds of numbing comfort and unconscious privilege, and for calling me and all of us to greater personal responsibility and action.

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  2. Dear Frank,
    I so appreciate your blog and it’s intention to find solutions to this plague of racism that has such a long history. I understand the need for all of us to root out injustice wherever it is. I learned after all my years of activism that true change comes from a change of heart. Focusing on what can I do is imperative. I offer a glimpse into the idea of “Race Amity” as it is referred to as the “Other tradition.” That it is through building relationships and friendships that change has a chance, because it is honest, authentic and heart felt. I wanted to share a couple video clips that can be seen at the following link. The first and the third one on the page are the ones I recommend.
    https://raceamity.org/media/

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  3. Thank you Frank for stating the case so clearly. And for adding me to your blog :-). What really hit me like a two by four across the head this week was a black writer on Facebook who helped me see the inequity in the deadliness of fear and words alone between white women and black men in America. His fear and words alone about me won’t kill me but mine and those of people like me about him have led to many men losing their lives. My heart was broken, as it should be, yet he freed me from another irrational fear. My heart literally feels different. His courage in his transparent sharing was a gift of love to me.

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  4. Frank, Your words echo in my heart. I have been starting to educate myself around this issue because I realized that I am part of the problem and I didn’t even know it. I am aware that I have racist behaviors and I don’t even know what they are. I want to do better, be better, and not be complicit any longer and yet that scares the hell out of me. I don’t know if I can ever be accepted as a middle class white woman standing up for all people of color who are baring the burden and brunt of abuse, discrimination, and injustice. I don’t even know if this response is racist. I have been in my comfortable little cocoon of white middle class life for too long. I don’t know where too start! Thank you for helping me start on the journey.

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    1. Never too late, Melissa. You’ve taken a first step by (publicly!) acknowledging what you have recognized. Keep going with the education, and just begin showing up. Subscribe to Minority Reporter. Follow United Christian Leadership Ministries on FB. Follow Howard Eagle for direct, challenging assessments. Follow Ally Henny. Tune into nanettedmassey.com. Those channels will take you further for sure. Thanks for responding.

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  5. I am brought to tears reading your words of anguish, Frank….my heart is so saddened by all of “this”…. but that brings me back to our first Sacred Conversations” experience…remembering how I felt as I heard the stories of our black sisters and brothers in disbelief. I remember one person saying they don’t want us “white privileged “ to feel sad for them, to feel ashamed, to feel regret. They wanted us to DO SOMETHING to begin to move towards change…for them! That was four years ago, and reading your message today makes me realize how little I have done! I left that “experience” saying my life would never be the same. And, it hasn’t been because my eyes and ears and heart were opened during those days/hours we spent together sharing our stories….twelve white people from a suburban church and twelve black people from a city church. I was brought to a whole new level of Awareness and that brought Bill and I to getting more involved in racism issues in Rochester, participating in the first ten week program in Education for Action to Address Racism, attending many black churches for Sunday worship and other involvements which has led us to the many people of color we are now blessed to call our friends. Thank you for the incredible messages you share in your blog posts, Frank, and the challenges you leave us with to better ourselves and in so doing, to reach out and be the Hands and Feet and Heart of Christ to our brothers and sisters of color. For in Him we are all one!

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  6. You speak the truth Frank. Each of us must examine his or her or their role in where we are again and again and again.

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    1. Thank you Bob – and for the phrase “his or her or their.” I didn’t realize until one of my daughters reminded me that my title excluded people who don’t identify with the gender binary – including one of my own dear grandchildren!

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  7. This is a tough column to read — However, I think your words are true They challenge me to look deeply at myself. They also challenge me to see what part I can play in helping to shape a solution to this racist sin that is so much a part of our nation’s history.

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  8. I have read your statement “Officer Chavin was our surrogate. We had not trained him well enough to know when we would be horrified and we disown any claim to him” several times. I am ashamed to admit that I found myself thinking about his training. Was that the cause? Yes, I have had mental responses similar to Amy Cooper. I realize I need to change.

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