I’ve (she/her) got White Family Facebook Drama over police racism, regarding my (male) officer cousins, D and A. I began publicly supporting the Black Lives Matter movement in 2016, and they became distant but civil. (It was hard because D and I had been friendly on social media before that, but I didn’t want to hide anymore.)
A’s family supported #BLM lately. We agreed often. Then Aunt L (my godmother and A’s mom), posted a “don’t let the bad apples define your view of police” meme. I wrote what I thought was a sensitive but firm refutation: (1) American policing is an institution, (2) the institution is systemically racist, (3) all members are culpable and responsible for fixing it, even the officers we love. I re-read and rewrote it several times.
I really hoped L would at least reconsider the tone-deaf meme, instead all hell broke loose.
The word “disrespect” was thrown around constantly – I disrespected D and A’s families and our great-grandfather who died in the line of duty, questioned D and A’s integrity, etc. I argued I’m talking about institutional culpability and the blue wall of silence. None of my relatives agreed. A few days earlier, I’d posted an image of the “thin blue line flag” with the blue line peeling away to reveal a swastika underneath. L’s family found that and ripped into me again. I provided sources on how the Blue Lives Matter phrase and that flag are racist symbols used in opposition to BLM. Aunt L vehemently disagreed and defriended me.
My mom says I’ve caused an irreparable breach in my once-close-knit extended family and was insensitive because my police families are scared for my cousins. Friends involved in BLM say I was right. I don’t think my words were wrong, but it eats at me that I’ve estranged so many at once. Many of my (white) family love the blanket “but I’M not racist” excuse, which I loathe because I think we too have systemic responsibility. So I’ve wanted to break that disclaimer, but wasn’t trying to use dynamite, let alone on a Facebook post!
I know what’s done is done. Is there anything I can/should do now, either to fix things or come to terms with this estrangement? Right now I just feel alone and lost.
Well, this is certainly topical. 🙂
I made an action plan for you and for any of my fellow white readers who are getting sucked into the same set of racist Facebook arguments with family we’ve been having since there was a Facebook that also serves to answer the influx of “I want to help but what do I actually do” questions.
LET’S DO STUFF.
1. You mentioned that you’re feeling lonely and isolated, so it’s important that you check in with your close, trusted friends who don’t make you feel awful. Get some love and comfort. Eat a food, drink some water, take some deep breaths.
2. Real quick, read this Twitter thread by Ijeoma Oluo (Author of the excellent book So You Wanna Talk About Race) about whether individually convincing every single white supremacist relative you have is the best use of your time right now.
3. Read How To Talk To Relatives Who Care More About Looting Than Black Lives by Rachel Miller. If and when you want to dig in and have some of these conversations, she’s made you about the gentlest road map you could hope for.
4. Still in a reading mood? Try Michelle Silverthorn’s heartfelt piece about talking to children about whiteness instead of asking Black friends for reading material or tutorials about Blackness.
5. CLOSE FACEBOOK. Turn off notifications, uninstall it from your devices (so you have to open a browser and log in if you want to use it), and ignore your family for right now.
You’re clearly taking up space in your relatives’s heads, good work! Don’t let them take up all the space in yours.
6. There are better uses of your time. Your racist relatives are still going to be racist in a couple of weeks. There’s stuff happening right now that needs your power more, people putting their lives on the line right now who need your help.
7. Redirect your energy and do something tangible to support the protests and end racist policing in your community. (Don’t worry, I’ll elaborate later).
8. You don’t have to do it alone. Those supportive friends you checked in with? Once you’ve got them together, ask them what they’re doing right now that gives them hope and purpose. Can you help? If they don’t have anything going already, congrats, you’re an organizer now, so make a plan of action for what you are going to do together to end racist policing in your community. Use the buddy system to create accountability and safety for following through and doing it.
9. Every time you open Facebook or another social media platform to share an important take or spend time arguing with a racist relative, do something tangible to end racist policing in your community instead (or in addition to). Aim to spend 5% of your time Collecting Your Personal Timeline Racists Like Off-Brand Pokémons and 95% of it Making Them Irrelevant because the necessary reforms are happening in your community with them or without them.
Several Tangible Actions White Readers of Captain Awkward Could Take To End Racist Policing Starting Now:
- Join the protests in your community. Maybe there needs to be a visible-from-space wall of white women in those photogenic pink pussy hats from the Women’s March between police and Black protestors right now. I don’t remember cops beating us up?
- There are a jillion “how to safely protest” guides right now, this is the first one that a search engine turned up that looked comprehensive and covered the important points. Good enough!
- If you can’t physically join a protest, I and my delicate lungs believe you. Disabled people have been organizing actions and supporting street protesters online for years, so find something else you can do and do that. Here’s Teen Vogue with a starter guide.
- If you can’t join a protest, clogging the mentions of organizers who are directing people to the streets to explain why you, personally, can’t possibly be expected to protest is derailing and distracting as fuck. Do what you can do. Don’t do things you know will harm you. Don’t make me let The Good Shepherd (formerly known as The Goat Lady) loose on you for their incredibly thorough lecture about this. (They have a spear now. 🙂 )
- If you have money to spare: Free somebody (donate to a bail fund or legal aid organization that gets people out of jails). Feed somebody (donate to a food bank, mutual aid fund, or other organization that keeps body and soul together). Here is a very user-friendly guide and here is a really, really detailed spreadsheet of nationwide resources I’ve seen organizers I trust share.
- If you have no money to spare, that’s okay! Amplify & share fundraising that will free somebody or feed somebody.
- Find out what your community is doing about ending racist policing, and find out what local Black organizers want your community to be doing about ending racist policing. Most of us (me included) don’t know because we’ve never had to know. Heads’ up, Chicago, check and see if your alderman supports the Civilian Police Accountability Council, or CPAC ordinance. There are a few holdouts on the North Side who need to get their inboxes and phone lines rattled. I’m not going to pretend that I knew about this before exactly this week, but it took me about 15 minutes to get familiar and send a couple of emails. That’s a start.
- Use your best “Hello, may I please speak to the manager?” voice to move those organizers agendas forward. That could mean:
- Call mayors and public officials where you live to demand release of protestors from jail. Demand that they lift curfews and stop “kettling” protesters.
- Ask elected officials to support specific policy proposals. “Hello, I’m a voter in your ward concerned about [topic]. I’d like you to [support/do/vote yes on/vote no on X].” “But phone calls make me anxious Captain Awkward.” Me too! Use phone, fax, email, social media, text, ResistBot, postal mail, postcards – whatever method you can sustainably do – to add to the pressure on public servants to do the right thing.
- Give public comments on city council proposals and proposed state legislation on line. Virtual meetings are on Zoom (and similar platforms) now, you don’t even have to leave your house.
- Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper. Is the paper covering police brutality even close to as much as they are expressing concern over every broken window? Are they repeating police talking points without fact-checking? Are they actually talking to local protesters and organizers and making sure their concerns are front page news? Can you publicly state that you support the aims of the protestors and demand that your mayor or city council stand down the police from violence toward protesters and investigate police killings and violence like any other crime? Politicians really pay attention to this stuff, especially if you mention a politician by name, since they tend to have staffers who track all media mentions.
- Yes, voting still matters. Time to look hard at the people running for local and state positions like prosecutor, district attorney, state’s attorney, attorney general, and judges where you live. Also past time to look at everybody in charge of the logistics and security of elections and ask what they are doing to make sure that votes can be safely cast and counted during a pandemic and in light of known election security issues. Is the president terrifying? Yep. He’s gonna do what he does and you’re going to keep doing all the stuff you’re hopefully doing now to bounce him from office like a bad penny. You don’t have to comprehensively debate and track every single nuance of everything he sharts onto the timeline. These local offices matter a ton to justice and quality of life and have been neglected too long.
Bonus Workplace Edition:
If you’re a manager or corporate employee and you’re trying to figure out how to support Black employees and show that your company is moving with the times, here are some suggestions I’ll give you for free:
- Give Black people you manage mental health breaks, unofficial flex time and time off (that doesn’t come out of paid vacation balances) and tons of flexibility on deadlines wherever possible. If there’s something you could take off a coworker’s plate that would relieve stress, that’s probably better than white people awkwardly “checking on” Black acquaintances (vs. friends) to ask if there’s “anything” you can do. If you’ve got the power, lighten their loads, literally!
- Give Black employees a respite from exhausting meetings and situations where they have to perform being ok and ‘professional’ or undertake the burden of educating white coworkers on “Diversity and Inclusion” initiatives. Now more than ever: Could this meeting have been an email? Read this, about the cruelty of forcing and expecting professionalism in times of trauma.
- Before you, a white person who manages people, try to do ANY “roundtables,” etc. on racism in the workplace, I think you have a duty to look through all the notes from the last time or seven you did Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion stuff in your workplace, and also look at the exit interviews of all the non-white people who quit your organization in the last five years. In those files, chances are you already have all the data you could possibly want about what Black people need to thrive professionally at your organization and how to make sure your company doesn’t publicly embarrass itself with racist messaging. Be honest with yourself and your management teams. Did you do any of it?
- If not, maybe don’t put everyone through the fantasy that you care about this a lot, and better yet, start doing whatever you can right now without forming a committee or commissioning a study or making people sit through yet another planning meeting. If past and present Black employees said “We need pay equity” and “We need more recognition and professional development” then you obviously need pay equity and more recognition and professional development. “But Captain Awkward, we don’t have anything like that because not enough Black people work here.” Well, you’ve identified your problem as a recruiting & retention problem. So what are you going to do about that?
- If you’re asking Black people (and people from other marginalized groups) to do public speaking, sit on panels, author papers, social media posts, and other communications and otherwise be the “face” of your corporation, try a) backing them up with sufficient resources for a change b) not making them the only non-white person at the dance (for once?) and c) asking them to present on topics *other* than race (gender, etc. etc.).
- Re-examine the way your organization contributes to the problem of racist policing and a white supremacist justice system. How does your company use, support, and cooperate with police? What data do they supply to law enforcement? There are numerous organizing efforts within tech companies, universities, school systems, and unions to divest from intrusive surveillance, militarization, and profiting from human misery. This bus driver refused to transport protestors for the NYPD. How can you be like that bus driver in what you do for a living?
- Review tactics for de-escalation and bystander intervention and use them on your known loudmouth trolls. Debating “but what about looters, tho” with Racist Dale from Accounting in the company Slack might feel really righteous and satisfying, and it’s not that racist harassment doesn’t need to be shut down, but consider that giving space and energy to nonsensical debates continues the notion that a) “white supremacy” vs. “howabout….no?” is still somehow debatable b) “winning debates” is the most important thing we can do about white supremacy and c) it forces all of Dale’s targets to have to deal with his crap. Even if your “Dale” outranks you, it doesn’t mean you’re powerless, you can distract him and occupy him with something else. “Oh hey Dale, now that you’re online, here’s this absorbing and urgent work task that needs your immediate and thorough review.”
- “But Captain Awkward, shutting down debate won’t change anybody’s mind and might actually make him more racist.” Oh no, not a slightly-more-racist Racist Guy From Work! That was definitely caused by not hearing him out and perhaps answering his debate club gambit too tersely. Look, people are dying, this isn’t a White Supremacist-fostering rescue where you try to gently make racists adoptable to a non-racist forever home someday. Protecting people from racists is more important than redeeming or reforming them, and by the way, don’t you have a protest to get to? It’s almost curfew.
Get And Stay Informed To The Point That You Can *Act*
Hey, look, as a white person who likes to know things, explain things, and be good at school, I know that the catching up we individually and collectively need to do on the subject of racism can feel like those anxiety dreams where you are sitting for a final exam for a course you don’t remember even registering for, sweating bullets over your blue book while the clock ticks loudly down to the time where Everyone Will Be Able To See That You Don’t Know The Answers.
Except the things we don’t know about race mean that people in the real world die of neglect and violence.
If you’re feeling like you’re in one of those dreams right now, like, “There’s so much I don’t know. How can I not know? What if I get it wrong because of the things that I don’t know?” that feeling is real. You gotta feel it for a minute so you can do something about it.
Then, your family says a bunch of racist stuff, and the feeling gets worse. These are, in some cases, the people who should have taught you this stuff. Why didn’t they know? Why did I go on 10,000 family trips and school trips to a place called The Freedom Trail and have to memorize “One If By Land, Two If By Sea” every year, without anybody ever mentioning that the building we ended our trips with ice cream and souvenirs was named after a slave trader? That feeling of betrayal and disconnect is real too, and you gotta feel it for a minute so you can do something about it.
You know you’re supposed to act on this feeling, so you start to think, maybe if I learn everything there is to know about this, I can find the perfect way to make the case to my family, and maybe if they know what I know, they’ll finally agree with me. If I can just find the right book, the right syllabus, the right reading list, the right resource, I’ll know exactly what to do and say and I won’t be so anxious about messing up and getting it wrong.
The bad news is that white supremacy isn’t an education problem or an arguments problem or a proof problem or an information problem, it’s not still around all these years ’cause it just needed a few more facts to get thrown on the bonfire to reduce it to ashes for good. It’s a power problem, calcified in our institutions, including the most hallowed educational institutions with all the best libraries and archives you can imagine.
The good news is that whatever we were taught in school and in our families, whatever gaps there are in our knowledge and understanding, the information we need is available. We can do the reading, and we can try to be people who do antiracism work in our families and maybe eventually win a few hearts and minds. It’s just not the most urgent task, the way our feelings of shame and weirdness about white supremacy are not more important than what’s happening to the targets of it.
The right-the-fuck-now news is: Knowing stuff and doing something about it are not the same thing. Black people have imagined, articulated, designed, and advocated for multiple visions and concrete plans, adaptable in real time, for what needs to happen next to shift the balance of power away from white supremacy and make their communities safer, happier, freer, healthier, and more prosperous. Right now. Today. The right things to do next are not only knowable, they are known. You don’t have to become the world’s foremost expert on this topic, you just have to listen to the ones we already have and follow their lead.
White people are the world’s busiest procrastinators. We (collectively) loooooooooove to study a problem, analyze it, form commissions, hire consultants to prepare reports, debate the merits of each individual bullet point on every slides, request more data, debate the problem some more, try to build consensus, debate some more, form a task force, disseminate findings, and then restart the whole thing again. We also love to talk about how there is no point in doing anything at all unless we can diagnose and fix every possible underlying issue, oops, time for another study. We love to do literally everything except believe Black people the first time when they tell us what they’re experiencing and give them exactly what obvious thing they told us that they need. That’s the one solution that never gets tried, or in the rare instances when it does get tried, it immediately gets cut from budgets and abandoned when racist white people object to it, which means that we all lose. (This episode of the 1619 podcast succinctly explains how racism killed universal healthcare for all U.S. citizens better than anything I’ve ever read or seen btw)
I’m never going to tell people “eh, don’t do any of the reading, it doesn’t matter if you’re ill-informed.”
But I am going to tell my fellow white people that if Black people say that starving their neighborhoods of city services while spending half (and sometimes more than half) of the city budget on violent policing isn’t working for them and here’s what would work better instead, we don’t actually need to do 400 years of reading catch-up to know that that’s the right thing to do before we do something about it. They are experts on shit that we just admitted we don’t really understand! We just showed up yesterday! Let’s do it their way! That is our urgent project, right now. Lives depend on it. We have power to help and a duty to fight in solidarity.
So yes, do your homework, and yes, don’t let your racist relatives say racist things unchallenged in your homes and your online spaces and your workplace, but also, do not fall into the trap of treating this as a project in building and perfecting better white people who know more stuff about racism.
If you’ve got one hour today, do one hour of something that accomplishes the goals of Black activists and protesters who are fighting for their lives and communities.
If you don’t know where to find any of that, use today’s hour for research and vetting purposes and tomorrow’s hour for helping.
If you’ve got one extra dollar, use it to free somebody or feed somebody.
You Have More Power Than You Think
You didn’t make the rift in your family by saying true stuff on your social media, so reject the notion that you need to apologize or repair it in some way and return that awkwardness to sender.
It’s telling that your family has made this about your supposed “disrespectful” behavior. You a) expressed solidarity with an important and popular civil rights movement b) shared a true comparison about racist policing. *Edit* As readers have rightly pointed out, throwing swastikas around on your timeline means that your Jewish friends and have to see and deal with swastikas, so maybe find another way to make the point about white supremacist infiltration and recruitment of police from now on, like this long fact-checked article about known white supremacist infiltration and recruitment of police.
Still, if “D” and “A” aren’t speaking to you directly about this or even following your posts, why do you have to offer them and your incredibly dead ancestor “respect” in absentia? If they are good men, they’ll be the first to say, “Yep, I work with some totally racist dudes and they are the ones who make my job harder, not Black people for existing.” Your meme isn’t the thing that’s making police look bad right now. Like, come on.
Your family uses the word “disrespect” because they want your silence and compliance. Withholding your silence and compliance from authoritarians is how you reclaim power, that’s true whether the power struggle is big or small. Your family is treating you like someone who they think they have the power to bully into being silent and compliant. And yet, if the truthful things you say didn’t have power, they wouldn’t press you so hard to shut up.
If you have family who seem to really want to talk about the protests a lot and you do want to engage with them, see if you can leverage their concerns into actions. (Donations count as actions).
- They’re concerned about property damage? “Oh hey, did you know there’s a fund to help some of the local business owners clean up and rebuild?” + Link them to it and (for best results) ask for a specific amount of money. “I bet even $10 or $20 would go a long way.”
- They say they support “peaceful protesters”? Great! Interrupt them before they get to the “but” part of the sentence, since what comes next will almost certainly be racist, then link them to a local activist organization that does work year-round. “I love Assata’s Daughters in Chicago, they do a ton of youth programming and organizing with young women. I was planning to send them a little money this week, wanna match my donation and we can bundle it together?”
- They say they don’t agree with what the officers who killed George Floyd or Breonna Taylor did? That’s a start, you can work with that. “Hey, I’m not okay with it either, that’s why I’m tuning into the city council meeting stream tonight. I want to learn about what we do about violent officers and police brutality here where we live. Want to join me?”
- They say they’re worried about the protests spreading Covid-19? Me too, and while it would be true to point out that the surge in infections we’re seeing right now is from the Memorial Day frolicking and the anti-lockdown people who really, really wanted to bear arms and get haircuts, maybe a more strategic thing to say is, “Me too, and the jails are real hot spots for spreading the illness, which is why it’s important to get people out of confined spaces as soon as possible. Here are some legal aid organizations that are working on that, could you throw in a few dollars?”
Let’s be real, I know that most of our racist relatives who want to express their deep “concern” about the lamp supply at the local Target and who only share videos of people hugging the police are not going to suddenly donate money to Black Lives Matter-bail funds or be inspired to civic participation. Ask them anyway. Keep on asking. Part of organizing is meeting people where they are and inviting them to join you in changing things.
If your family members realize that every time they run their mouths or keyboards with the same racist set of “concerns” that accompanied “kneeling quietly during a song during football,” you now actually expect them to do something constructive about those concerns, they’re gonna either get real helpful or real quiet.
The protests are working. The pressure is working. If we keep pushing, eventually your more persuadable family members are going to act like “Black Lives Matter!” was *their* idea all along and you won’t have to persuade each one individually, and also, good news, the country will be less racist.
Keep your receipts, but also, take your victories where you can get them.
I love you all so much, be smart, be safe, be kind.