What My Black Friends Want Me (and You) to Know About What’s Happening Right Now

What My Black Friends Want Me (and You) to
Know About What’s Happening Right Now

Doing nothing changes nothing.

by Mike Henson

USA shape

Photo by Julian Myles

I’m a white, middle-class man, and concerning the racial tension in our country, I haven’t always been part of the solution. I want to be, but honestly I’m not sure how. As a writer, I pride myself on having the right words, the smooth words, the words that set the tone and convey my message. But with this piece, I don’t have the right words because frankly it’s not my time to speak. I want to know how I can do better, be better, as a white man in the midst of this chaos, so I called up a few of my black friends and asked if they’d be willing to give me some wisdom. I also asked if it was ok for me to pass their words along to a broader audience.

My barber, Tarique, co-owns Collective Cuts barbershop in Mechanicsburg, PA. Before interviewing him, I asked him if this article was even ok for me to write. I asked if it’s tone deaf or inappropriate for a white guy’s name to be on it.

This was his response:

I get your hesitation, but I don’t endorse white guilt. You can have sympathy for the fact that life is harder for me as a black person, that’s fine, but feeling guilty because you’re white is counterproductive. It makes it about you and how you feel. And this movement isn’t about you. I’m a barber. You’re a writer. And you have white privilege and an audience, so if you can use your privilege and magazine as a platform to get my words out there, do it.

I told my friends I would probably need 15-20 minutes of their time, but each conversation lasted well over an hour, and each one brought me closer to understanding that this isn’t about me, and it’s not about how I feel or making sure I’m one of the “good” white people. I have a long way to go and a lot of growing to do, and I want to thank my friends, Brandi, Marcus, Jerome, and Tarique for their vulnerability and their insight.

What does this movement and shift in our country right now mean to you?

Brandi

Right now some people are listening. The movement never went away. It’s always been something we’ve been fighting for. We had a sleeping period during Obama because it was like “You have a black president, so that’s enough.” Right now though, people are listening, changes are happening. But I wonder how long the wave will last in terms of people’s interest in it. The movement will continue, but people will probably think it’s over until there’s another police brutality incident. MLK’s speech in the March on Washington, he mentioned police brutality, so this isn’t new.

Marcus

Everyday is very difficult because I’m constantly reminded that being a black man in America is “less than” a white man, less than any other race in this country. I’m nervous, hesitant everyday when I leave my house. Will I come home to my wife and kids today? However, I’m encouraged because for the first time in my 38 years, I’m seeing white people take notice. White people who would generally remain silent. I’ve heard from friends I haven’t spoken to in 20 years. They’ve asked how they can help.

pulled over

Jerome

When I look at the situation, the one thing that George Floyd did was give it a visual indication of what’s happening. White people watched an execution on TV. That’s different from just hearing about it. That was hard to watch, and I was reluctant to watch it at first. What I see now is that people are tired. African Americans are tired. For every George Floyd we saw, there were plenty that we didn’t see. Everyone has a voice in this.

Tarique

For me it’s about justice, not even in a legal sense as in a social sense…there are certain issues that have been repeated throughout history, and this is a time when enough is enough. Quiet mouths don’t get fed, and we’re done not getting fed. There’s a controlled chaos right now: the protests, the riots, they do have a meaning, there’s a notion behind all of it. My hero in these matters is Malcolm X, and he said “By any means necessary…” and I think we’ve reached that point. We will have justice, peace, freedom, and liberation, and now…it’s by any means necessary.

What does “Black Lives Matter” mean to you?

Brandi

To me it’s parallel to the 60s when people held signs that said “I Am A Man.” It’s very telling of where we are as a country that I have to remind others that my life matters. In the past, these movements brought about change that we didn’t ask for, like police body cams. We’ve been asking for accountability for decades – what we got are body cams. We don’t need more video of it. We can see it. We saw it with Rodney King. “BLM” being painted on a Trump tower or having a street renamed isn’t what we asked for: we want accountability.

i am a man

Marcus

For me it means that my life as a black person should matter as much as a white person’s or anyone else. My life should be equal. I don’t think about the organization itself. I see it as a rallying cry. I know a lot of white people find the organization itself divisive – and I don’t care about that either way. The movement is what matters. Hear my words: MY LIFE MATTERS. To me, “All Lives Matter” is a racist statement – to me all lives can’t matter until black lives matter. Yes, police lives matter, white lives matter, but they aren’t being unfairly killed at the same rate that unarmed African Americans are. So we say BLM to remind you that I’m a human and an equal.

Jerome

For me, for so long, it hasn’t felt like we’ve ever mattered, from the time that black people arrived in this country until now. I don’t believe all white people are racist; I actually think most white people are not. It just means we’ve had enough; we’re tired of being treated and oppressed in a way that shows how freely the racism flows in this country. These words are not meant to disrespect someone else’s cause. We’re not saying all lives don’t matter – that’s not what this is about.

Tarique

There’s a misconception that the phrase, sentiment, and ideology of the statement itself means nothing else matters or that nothing else matters as much. It’s on the contrary. The full implied statement is, “Black lives matter just as much as your life matters.” Historically, people in power in our country have either forgotten or ignored the fact that we’re equal. “Black lives matter” is a reminder – my life matters as much as anyone else’s. The expression is meant to be a peaceful summarization of this struggle.

who polices the police

What change do you want to see come from all of this?

Brandi

The result needs to be reform within police departments. Some of their tactics are being reformed right now, which is good, but I’d like to see citizen review boards. Who polices the police? I want to see outside investigatory organizations come in when there is a police incident, and we need to do away with retaliation when a good cop does speak out against racism in their department. Systematic racism will still be here if we’re just writing “BLM” on the streets in yellow and black paint. We need reform.

Marcus

I want to be able to live in a country where I don’t have to fear for my life as a result of being black. I want to live in a country where I don’t feel that my hardships that I endure are because I’m black. I want to feel that I am able to have the same opportunities as a white man. I want my kids to grow up not having to deal with as much racism as I’ve dealt with since I was four years old.

Jerome

I want to have equal treatment. It’s that simple.

Tarique

I want people to stop feeling like they have to have a rebuttal to “Black Lives Matter.” This truthfully is the definition of a systemic issue. The narrative that gets told is that the system wasn’t built for us, but it’s more than that: the system was built against us. That’s the product of hundreds of years of negligence and oppression, being viewed as a “less than.” I want to see that change. We need to be viewed as equal, whether it’s how we’re treated by the police or by a bank when we apply for a loan.

human rights issue

What do you want/need your white friends to know or understand?

Brandi

This is your job. When we yell “BLM” and you yell “What about black on black crime?” You’re missing the point. White people need to tell their white friends to stop being racist. When white people are sitting around posting memes about equality, that doesn’t help. We need you to be actively anti-racist. If you really care, then this is your fight. Saying “I have black friends” or “I’m not racist” isn’t as powerful as saying “I’m going to the rally.”

Marcus

I need them to listen. Listen to the experiences of black people. We’ve lived it. We’ve dealt with it. If you’re going to try to understand, then you have to listen first. Also please recognize that our experiences aren’t all the same; we’re all different. And don’t expect us to educate you. Do the work yourself. Read books, listen to podcasts, watch documentaries. Put yourself in a situation where you’re the only white person, go to a black church. Be willing to acknowledge that you’re ignorant and don’t have the answer but that you want to understand. A white friend isn’t going to get anywhere until they first and foremost acknowledge that white privilege exists – if you can’t admit that, you can’t admit that racism exists.

Jerome

If you’re a friend of mine, I love you and care for you. You don’t need to do anything. It’s ok to ask questions, but please be open-minded about what’s going to come back. Please don’t try to justify things from your own lens, just try to be open to seeing it through mine. We’ve all experienced hardship, but when it comes to race relations, be open to what someone else has felt and lived that you haven’t. Keep treating me with respect, and we’re good.

Tarique

Black people didn’t break this, so why do we have to fix it? You can sympathize, but you can’t relate, and that’s ok. If you’re my friend, I simply need you to be the best ally that you can be. Support this movement even when I’m not in the room. When you hear another white person say damning things about people of color, shut it down. Understand that you as my white friends have a set of privileges that you got simply because you were born white, and you can use that as a platform to help those who didn’t get it. Don’t close your mind to what we have to tell you, and trust that if I share with you an aspect of the struggle, I know what I’m talking about. Finally, you don’t have to do everything. If you can’t go to the protest, sign some petitions, that counts.

black man suit

Should I, as a white person, start a conversation about this with a black friend?

Brandi

Yeah you can, and you should start it with your white friends too. Honestly, that’s more important. Ask your white friends, “What are we going to do to stop racism?” Black people are on the receiving end of it, so it’s not news to us. Yes, you can bring it up.

Marcus

Absolutely. And it should look like you being honest, acknowledging that you don’t know the answers, that you may not say it in the right way, but that you want to talk about racism or your friend’s experience as a black person in America. Just be honest that you care. Because of the society in which we live, I don’t see how a white person can not have racist tendencies. Frankly, as a black man, it’s hard for me to not look at my own race in a negative way. Society has taught me if I see a group of black guys standing on the street corner, that’s probably dangerous…and I’m black. Yes, you can and should talk about this.

can i talk about this

Jerome

Absolutely, yes. I can see the struggle of a white person trying to understand, and I think it’s important for black people to allow white people the chance to try to understand. Ask your questions, seek to understand; you have just as much of a right to start this conversation as anyone else. And I hope that your questions will be received with the same openness that I’m asking of you. This is not a battle between friends – this is a battle against a system that’s been set up against us from the beginning.

Tarique

Yes, I think so. Take the color away and it’s still your friend, and you want the best for your friends. If your intentions are coming from a place of wanting to understand as opposed to a place of challenging if I’m in the wrong for wanting to be equal, then go for it. As a white man, you’re not going to know this unless someone teaches it to you, and if I’m your friend, I should want to help you understand.

battle between friends

What are some ways I can be part of the solution?

Brandi

Talk to your white friends. Read more. I make it a point to read both sides – there’s value in having a complete understanding of where racists are coming from. Be willing to listen – right now the country is split between two sides and no one is listening. Join in the local movements. There are plenty of local organizations organizing rallies, and if there isn’t one in your neighborhood, start one. We all start feeling a sense of helplessness sometimes, and the way to fight that is to take some kind of action.

Marcus

Reach out. Ask me “Are you ok? How are you? What can I do to help?” Check in. Also, understand change starts at home. Teach your children that we are all equal. If you really want to be an ally, then teach your kids how to not be racist. And when you see something, say something. If you hear something, say something. Speak up. Speak up for those who can’t, for those who may not hear it. Don’t tolerate it.

Jerome

Continue to get involved in the conversation and be open to listen, and please share if you don’t understand. We can’t grow if we both stay in our own corners. Let’s talk about this. When you hear something insensitive or racist, speak up. Don’t just speak up because you have black friends, but speak up because it’s right. It’s one thing to get checked by a person of color, but it’s another to get checked by another white person saying, “Hey, why would you say that? Not cool.” If you agree with equality, then take advantage of the opportunity to actually show it.

Tarique

Ride for us whether we’re in the same room or not. We need advocacy and compassion. Know that you’ll never completely understand what we’re going through step-for-step, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take the journey with us. Biggest thing, everyone, especially black people, needs to vote. Educate yourself on who you’re putting into office and what they’re going to do once they get there. This is systemic; it’s bigger than just the one-on-one interactions between us.

white silence

What’s off-limits for me to talk about as a white person?

Brandi

Some arguments become frustrating to hear, like when we talk about BLM and we hear “What about black on black crime?” And please don’t use MLK quotes against us. “All lives matter” isn’t helpful. Don’t come to the conversation with no background knowledge. Go read, do some google searches. Go read both sides, then let’s talk. I can’t catch you up on everything. Come to the conversation seeking to understand instead of seeking to simply be argumentative.

Marcus

Please don’t say you know how it feels. You haven’t experienced this. Maybe you’ve experienced being the only white person in the room, or you took a mission trip, and everyone looked different than you. But that’s not the same thing. I didn’t choose to be black, and there’s nothing you’ve experienced in this country that could make you say you understand.

Jerome

Not off-limits – but the one thing that gets to me sometimes is when a white person challenges a black person about why they use the N-word. It’s not that simple, and we don’t all use that word, even with our friends. I think it’s ok for us to discuss it, but don’t try to use it against us.

1%

Tarique

Don’t ask me, “how come I can’t say the N-word but you can?” That’s low-hanging fruit. Don’t say “Well you know, my family didn’t own slaves, so you and me, we’re good.” This is taking the issue and putting the focus on yourself instead of focusing on people of color and their struggle. Trying to prove that you’re one of the “good” white people detracts from the purpose of this. I don’t care who did and who didn’t own slaves; I care that there were slaves period. Instead of talking about how you didn’t do anything bad to me or my ancestors, let’s talk about what good you’re going to do.

Also, don’t bring up looting – you don’t understand why it’s happening. You can disagree with it, but what was the catalyst? Oh, that’s right, capitol murder: Floyd, Brooks, Taylor, and those are just this year. Unarmed innocent people being killed. If that’s what led to looting, is the looting really as bad? You can restock a shelf; you can rebuild a building. But those lives that were lost aren’t coming back. Not to mention, this country was founded in part by looting those who were here first. Looting in the name of patriotism is ok, but in the name of social justice, now it’s an issue. If the 1% of bad cops don’t represent all cops, then don’t tell me the 1% of less-than-ideal protestors represent this movement.

no one is listening

Anything else you want to add?

Brandi

Just a quick story: During the pandemic, we got a phone call from the school principal to let us know our thirteen-year-old son was nominated for student of the semester because he did such a great job keeping up on his virtual schoolwork. They were going to do a little drive by teacher caravan in front of the house. It was a big surprise. We didn’t know what time they were coming, and the first thing we heard was a police siren because they got a police escort, and then all of the teachers’ horns honking. We got our son outside and took pictures, neighbors were yelling congratulations. That evening I looked through all the pics and my son wasn’t smiling in any of them. I asked him why and he said “I thought the police were gonna kill me.” I said “Did you do something wrong that I need to know about?” He said, “No, mom, but you know how police just come kill black people.” This is 2020. My son lives in a suburban neighborhood with both of his parents. Black kids still have fear of police…even though we were standing outside, cheering, my husband and I were smiling ear-to-ear, and my son was scared shitless.

Marcus

I have a very blessed life. I have more privilege than a lot of black people in this country. I’m educated; I have a great career, had both of my parents, I’m happily married, and I’m respected. But somehow, I still suffer from the effects of racism every day of my life. The harsh reality of my black skin is thrown in my face everyday. All I have to do is turn on the news, watch any cable TV show, any advertisement, walk down the street, and I experience racism. But it’s not just externally. It’s also within me because it’s been so ingrained into me that I constantly have to think about my blackness. I dress a certain way to compensate for how the world views a black man. I’ve been laughed at for refusing to “dress down” at the workplace, but how I dress is part of my armor. I’m treated differently by wearing nice clothes as a black man. Oh, and here’s a fact for your readers: I’ve been driving for 22 years, and I’ve been pulled-over over 70 times. How many times have you been pulled-over?

Jerome

Dialogue breeds the opportunity to respect each other’s point of view. We have to keep talking about this.

Tarique

There is not going to be a race war. That’s not a thing, that’s not a narrative or a fear that holds truth. If there’s going to be a war (and really I mean a war of ideology) it’s going to be people who are racist against people who aren’t, and you can choose which side you want to be on. Choose right. Please be on the right side of history when this is said and done. Are you for equality, or are you against it? It’s that simple because at the end of the day, this isn’t a black issue; it’s a human rights issue.

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author bio image

Mike Henson is a literature teacher in Hershey, Pennsylvania. He enjoys shooting 35mm film, restoring vintage straight blades, purchasing too many American-made goods, and spending time with his wife and their three daughters.