How NOT to say something racist about what’s happening in Baltimore

From my other blog:

Following the death of yet another unarmed Black man at the hands of police and the continuing protests in Baltimore, many white people are struggling to make comments on social media without saying something racist.  Most of these comments aren’t intended to be racist or offensive, and many are made in good faith, but that doesn’t make the comments any less racist or problematic.  To help white people navigate the difficulties of talking about race, here is a guide for not saying something racist.

Don’t quote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at protesters.  Chances are, you’re quoting him out of context — he was publicly against denouncing riots, period.  It assumes that you are more well-read than them (you probably aren’t).  It also imposes on them your way of thinking, because you’re probably selecting quotes that you already agree with.  It also ignores that we admire a number of white men as a society who used violence to solve their problems, e.g. Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, etc., so it creates a double standard where it’s ok for white people to be violent, but not for black people.

Don’t assume that MLK provides the only legitimate model for protesters.  When Wolf Blitzer demanded of Deray McKesson, “I just want to hear you say that there should be peaceful protests, not violent protests in the tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King,” this is an example of white people deciding for black people how they should express their anger and how they should try to create change.  White people can choose any number of white leaders who have often contradictory positions.  It’s why we have primary elections – because people who are often fundamentally in agreement on political goals also often disagree on the specific goals or means to carry them out.  Black people should be able to choose their own heroes and role models, just as white people are encouraged to do.  Some will choose MLK and Rosa Parks, but others will find that the ideas of Malcolm X or Huey P. Newton or Assata Shakur or Marcus Garvey are more appropriate or accurate in the current situation or for their own personal experiences, or they may even choose to follow someone who isn’t Black.

Don’t assume that rioting accomplishes nothing, or that it’s mindless.  See above re: social movement experts.  Some people are angry and the only way they can think of, or the only option they have open to them, is to break windows.  Some people are trying to take advantage of the situation for their own goals, which are usually either to avenge grievances they have against the store and its personnel or to materially improve the quality of their lives.  And so what?  Black people, just like everyone else, are told that their self-worth is measured by the possessions they have.  If you’ve grown up your whole life in a system of oppression and have worked hard since you were a kid but couldn’t save up enough money because of the demands of being poor, but now you have the opportunity to steal a pair of Nikes that will make you feel more like a human being, why wouldn’t you?  Or if you can steal food or toiletries that you and your family need?  Or maybe you’ve been ripped off by the check-cashing place down the street every week for your working life because there’s no banks in your neighborhood and no real regulation of a predatory industry, and you have a chance to cut into their profits.  Or maybe, after a lifetime of you and your friends and family being messed with by the police, you have a chance to throw something at them and feel just a little bit less powerless.  Everyone has different reasons for participating, and as white people we have no right to judge anyone for their own reasons.  You don’t have to agree with it, and you don’t have to do it yourself, but you don’t get to say that black people don’t deserve new shoes, that they shouldn’t be able to put food on their tables, that they shouldn’t do what they can to make a better life for themselves and their families, or that they shouldn’t be allowed to take action against people who have taken advantage of them.  As white people, we have so many more resources than black people do to accomplish these goals without rioting.  (See, for example, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article in The Atlantic)