This column is part of a four-column series written by Yale students regarding the Mike Brown case in Ferguson, Missouri. Click here to return to the series’ Up for Discussion landing page.
The post here reflects the version of this column that ran in print on Dec. 1.
I rewrote this column three times, and even after the third draft, I almost decided to toss it altogether.
Because the question of how I, as a young white person yearning for change, should react to the controversy around Ferguson is enormously complicated and fraught with the temptation to make what should be a conversation about black America instead about white America.
But ultimately, it is a question we must be bold enough to answer forthrightly. And so I give my thoughts here from the perspective of a white American who lives in an overwhelmingly white part of the South in the hopes that others in similar settings might find how I have proceeded helpful.
First, we must admit that we are not experiencing pain. Though we may, and probably should, work with those who have been hurt, white people in America will never have to bear the burden of systemic racism that prevents black Americans from living as free a life as we do on a daily basis. We can be disappointed by the result of the grand jury decision, but to act as if Ferguson and America’s tendency toward racial oppression has caused us significant pain is dishonest, arrogant and ultimately offensive to black America.
Second, because this pain is not our own, we should rarely, if ever, allow our own voices to drown out black voices demanding validation in the wake of tragedy. Black lives matter. But black voices also matter, and we should allow those who have experienced discrimination to lead the conversation as we move forward.
Third, and this is the tricky one, we should do whatever we can to amplify — not usurp — black voices. Though it may appear in our Yale circles that black voices are all around us, a fair amount of segregation remains in America’s communities and social networks. In the absence of widespread black voices, amplify the black voices you have heard and read about, and leverage your white privilege for good. As someone who has unique access to all-white spaces (think the Thanksgiving dinner table filled with white relatives), you have the opportunity to address subtle acts of racism in places where they fester most. Use these opportunities to reshape the narrative. Take what will inevitably start as a conversation about looting and riots and turn it into a conversation about how each of us can treat all Americans equally, regardless of skin tone.
Finally (and perhaps most importantly), we must change ourselves. There is not a person alive who has not thought racist thoughts. And being brutally honest with ourselves about our own microaggressions against people of color and especially black Americans will help each of us to realize just how often we perpetuate a culture of racial discrimination.
After listening to several black voices myself, I have found these steps to be most helpful, though certainly not exhaustive. And I hope that anyone reading this will do their own research and listen to as many voices as possible first before acting.
Only then can we ensure Michael Brown did not die in vain.
Tyler Blackmon is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.