I’m White and I’m Outraged by Ahmaud Arbery’s Murder. Now What?
A Practical Guide for White Allies and Accomplices
Dr. Taharee A. Jackson, Ph.D.
May 8, 2020
I’m tired of wishing dead Black men a Happy Birthday. And I don’t mean federal holidays.
Several years ago I penned a piece for Racism Review on what should have been Jordan Davis’ 19th birthday. He was gunned down in Florida for allegedly playing “loud” music. In that piece I also referenced Trayvon Martin, who was murdered as he walked home in his own neighborhood with just Skittles and iced tea in the pockets of his now infamous hoodie. He never saw his 18th birthday either.
And here we are again.
Today is May 8, 2020, which would have been the 26th birthday of Ahmaud Arbery. He was simply jogging in his own neighborhood in Georgia, where he was accosted and shot dead by two White men who errantly associated him with crimes he never committed. Happy Birthday, Mr. Arbery. You should have been celebrating with your family, as opposed to being celebrated posthumously as yet another unarmed Black man who was murdered for “suspicion” of a crime and tried on the pavement of your own turf.
But this piece is not about me. In fact, it’s not even for me. This is for White people who find themselves equally outraged by Ahmaud’s loss of life, and that of every unarmed Black man (we remember you, Walter Scott), woman (rest in peace, Sandra Bland), and trans person (bless your heart, Ashanti Carmon) who has lost their life not only to state-sanctioned, largely unpunished murder, but to racism itself.
This piece is for White people who read these headlines, shake their heads in incredulity, and genuinely wonder what they can do. You know something is wrong. You know all these people died under blatantly suspicious circumstances. You don’t even need a “deep down” feeling that something is amiss because the outrage of it all is superficial, right on the surface, and in plain view. You know precisely what is at play here and you are just as desperate as we are (people of color) to make it stop.
You’ve come to the right place.
For most of my life, and for the entirety of my career as a teacher, professor, researcher, and diversity consultant, I have centered my work what I refer to as the “upward gaze.” Rather than focusing on the end of racism as the burden of the very people who suffer the most from it, I have intently studied White antiracism and the role of White people in ending racism. In my research I have exclusively examined how people in empowered groups of any kind not only come to understand injustice and discrimination, but become advocates and allies for people who are dissimilarly identified.
How do you get an anti-homophobic heterosexual person who joins a gay-straight alliance? What happens in the life of a man who rejects domestic violence and attends the Women’s March as an outright feminist? Most importantly, how do you get an antiracist White person who not only understands Black Lives Matter for the love letter to Black people it is, but one who commits their everyday lives to dismantling racism? How do you get someone who can phenotypically identify as White, and enjoy all the privileges and protections thereof, yet still work toward racial justice in solidarity with people of color who look nothing like them? What happens for them in life? Who taught them that? How did they get here?
For many years now I have studied such White people, and I have good news: MORE OF THEM ARE NOT ONLY POSSIBLE, BUT INEVITABLE. I wrote an article several years ago in Race Ethnicity and Education about why any White person would work to overturn a system of racism that advantages them. Why would someone want to surrender any degree of power, privilege, or their dominant positionality? Based on my research, which included extensive interviews with White teachers, teacher educators, and some of the most well-known White antiracist intellectuals of our time (e.g. Peggy McIntosh, Tim Wise, Jane Elliott, etc.), I reasoned that, among other things, to live a life of antiracism is far more liberating than the constant act of lying to yourself. This is what every White person must do when a damning video of Rodney King, Philando Castile, Oscar Grant, or [Insert Name from Today’s Headline Here] is shown.
You know darn well that White men are quite literally storming state capitols during this COVID-19 pandemic with assault rifles and no masks, even being photographed yelling in the faces of police officers who withstand the abuse and do almost nothing in response. And you know that if these situations had played out in the reverse, with heavily armed Black men blatantly violating stay-at-home and shelter-in-place orders to brandish weapons and defy police orders, we would be counting their bodies, tallying their gunshot wounds, and for those left alive, still processing their arrests on multiple criminal charges. Questions like, “But what if the protesters were Black?” or “But what if armed Black men hunted down and murdered a White jogger in his own neighborhood and remained at home unarrested…and totally uncastigated?” cause so much cognitive dissonance that at some point you stop asking. You simply answer them for yourself and you get mad. In fact, you become enraged.
James Baldwin said that to be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time. What then, does it mean to be a White person in this country and to be outraged by the murder of this man?
And most importantly, what do you do?
If you are a White person and find yourself indescribably disgusted by this murder and the many others that are senseless, end innocent lives, and blatantly rooted in the inherent conviction of Black and Brown people before they can live long enough to be formally charged, then I am asking you to do some work. None of it will require you to leave the safety and comfort of your own home during the COVID-19 global pandemic, but all of it will require you to face yourself, your family, and some difficult-to digest stories and statistics. White people with eyes and a conscience, this is what you can do:
1. Start with Yourself
One of the most pernicious aspects of racism and white identity is that they are meant to be invisible. As a White person, your White identity and the structures that maintain White racial dominance are not meant to be discussed, uncovered, identified, or questioned.
This is why you are not even named as White in books. You are so often the main characters that we just assume you are unless otherwise indicated. For a more robust and convincing discussion of that, see Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.
One of the single greatest acts of racial justice that you, as a White person, could commit is to name your White identity and to claim your racialized experiences. Whenever we speak about diversity, difference, and race, we assume that people of color are the only ones with culture, or shared ways of knowing, believing, and being. This keeps the focus of racial dialogue on how Black and Brown people behave, what they need to do to combat and end racism, and how they are disadvantaged by a system of White supremacy.
When we focus on people of color alone, we miss the opportunity to discuss how White people experience race and how they are advantaged based on their White identity.
What we are asking you to do here is to honestly look back over your life as a White person and identify where it has been advantageous, beneficial, safe, and “normal” for you to be White. Ask yourself what would have happened if you were pulled over by the police and not been White? What would have happened if the police were called to your party for a disturbance and you were not White? Where would you have been educated and what neighborhood would you have been allowed to purchase a home in and welcomed with open arms if you were not White?
Do you even know what kind of White you are?
If you identify as simply “American,” “an American mutt,” or even a “blue-blooded American” who doesn’t know very much about your ethnic heritage (whiteness is an amalgam of a variety of ethnic White identities that you have the freedom to know or not know, unlike people of color who are asked about their heritage daily), then perhaps follow the footsteps of Gary Howard or Christine Sleeter and “go native.” Try to understand your ethnic roots as a White person and even more, your role in a system of sociohistorical advantage for you and your family, and disadvantage for people of color.
Where have you been let in when others have been shut out? When have you been hired or accepted when others were rejected and denied? Most importantly, in which spaces have you felt safe, protected, and kept alive when others have been accused, criminalized, more severely punished, removed, or even eliminated? For Ahmaud, he wasn’t even safe in his own neighborhood. Think about that for a moment…
If you are a White person whose immigrant history, ethnic heritage, or class struggle led you to pull yourself up by your American bootstraps and earn everything you have, please proceed to Step 2.
2. Start with a Story
Your class didn’t trump your race. Long before Robin DiAngelo wrote her now popular book on white fragility, she penned a piece in Multicultural Perspectives about what it means to be poor and White, but how your working-class status does not erase your White racial advantage. If you enjoy history, read Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White or David Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness. If you cannot latch on to the stories of authors of color like James Baldwin, or W.E.B. DuBois, or posthumous Pulitzer Prize-winner Ida B. Wells, then read the stories of White authors like Tim Wise, Joe Feagin, Paul Gorski, and Julie Landsman. When I interviewed these and other notable White antiracist scholars like Peggy McIntosh, who literally coined the term “White privilege,” they noted how they had not only learned from White exemplars, mentors, and scholars, but also from scholars of color who wrote about their experiences with race and racism, and from people of color themselves, who often led the way to their racial understandings.
If you are not a reader at all, be a listener and a learner of race. Spend time with the people of color in your orbit with whom you feel safe. You’ll find that many of us, although often exhausted from having to patiently re-educate White people on racial issues we’re tired of explaining, will take time to explain just one more time if you are willing to listen.
Not because you’re interested in finding out what we did to deserve to be gunned down, or because you’re seeking to explain how difficult it is to be White.
That’s not listening.
That’s just wasting our time.
What we’re asking you to do is to genuinely open your ears to what it means not to be White so you can better understand what you are free not to think about each time you leave your home or have an encounter with the police. We are happy to let you in on “The Conversation,” but you must be ready to receive it. And if you don’t even know what “The Conversation” is, you just might be ripe for the hearing.
3. Start with Statistics
For those of you who are more scientifically minded, I understand if you want statistics to supplement your stories. In my 17 years as a professor and diversity consultant, I have reached the conclusion that statistics alone don’t change hearts and minds.
But what I also realize is that my courses, trainings, and professional learning sessions have always been littered with White attendees who still need to be shown “the numbers” for how racism exists, how it functions in everyday society, and how, precisely, we can know if racism and not some other “variable” can account for the gross mistreatment, disproportionate outcomes, and unjust murders they are seeing in the media.
If you are a numbers person, I get it, but study up. Be sure to visit sites that are exclusively dedicated to presenting hard data, statistics, and numbers that objectively track the daily violence, injustice, and racial discrimination that leads to unnecessary Black deaths. Study the Southern Poverty and Law Center, which designates and tracks hate groups and crimes. Spend some time on the NAACP website, which has a trusted and longstanding history of regularly collecting and collating data on racism and racial disparity in America. If you are a policy wonk, visit the Pew Research Center and the Brookings Institution for thorough survey data, policy analyses, reports, and recommendations for racial equity. And by all means, avail yourself to the Antiracism Research and Policy Center at American University for numbers, tools, and research methods not just for studying racism, but antiracism and their effects on society. Now armed with statistics, stories, and self-awareness, proceed to Step 4 and start at home.
4. Start at Home with Your Family — Both Your Elders AND Your Children
To be honest, some of the easiest and most effective antiracism work you can do, White people, is in the comfort of your own homes. As a person of color, I cannot come to your house. I will not be invited to intimate dinners and discussions around your tables. And unless I am your nanny (which many a woman of color has been, self included), I can’t raise your children.
I wrote a book chapter in the #Broken Promises, Black Deaths, and Blue Ribbons: Understanding, Complicating, and Transcending Police-Community Violence book in response to Malcolm X’s request from a young White woman who asked him about her role in the struggle for racial justice. At first he turned her away and said there was no place for her, really. Primarily to just…do no harm to Black people, as though all she could do was take some sort of Hippocratic oath. But later in his life, he expressed deep regret for not having asked her to start with her own people, by educating her own family and those closest to her — in essence, to start at home.
If you are a White person whose heart aches for Ahmaud Arbery and every other Black person who is subject to racism in this country, we are asking you to speak about racism and antiracism to the people in your immediate circle. If your partner, siblings, or neighbors are discussing the murder of Ahmaud with a racist or even indifferent lens, we are asking you to speak up and to speak truth.
Now, many White people will dismiss even virulent and overt racism as a product of their upbringing in another era. As a professor, my students would regularly acknowledge outright family racists in the form of their grandparents, aunts, or elders. They would eschew confrontation at holiday gatherings or politely ignore the racist jokes and musings of Aunty Sally and Uncle Buck, and essentially excuse their behavior as a function of their age and having been raised “in a different time.”
I read a social media post the other day that said something akin to, “If your grandparents can learn to use cell phones, text, and Facebook, then they can adapt to the times. Please stop excusing their racism as a function of age.”
As a product of the rural South, I certainly understand how acceptable language can vary from region to region, and from generation to generation. Or even how language morphs, and we no longer say Negro as often as we did before. But what we all must recognize is that racism was always unacceptable, irrespective of who witnessed it in what ways. What we are asking you to do is to stand up for us, to rebut the joke, and to engage in difficult conversations about race and injustice not only with your “older generation” relatives, but with your children and those in your care. Nothing about racism is innate, and it is purely a function of nurture. Therefore, anything that is manufactured can be dismantled. Anything that can be learned can be unlearned. And anything that was created can be destroyed.
Please, for the love of God, teach your children that human beings are not better than human beings, and that there is a far better way to treat one another. Please teach them about their role and responsibility in creating a more just, fair, and equitable world. Even very young children are already capable of processing concepts of fairness and justice. Believe me, I was a preschool teacher for many years. And if you don’t believe me, read Debra Van Ausdale and Joe Feagin’s The First R: How Children Learn Racism.
Either way, please start at home.
5. Start at Work — Yes, Even as You Telework
If you are fortunate enough to continue working amidst the pandemic, and if inevitable conversations about race and racism arise, please be just as bold with your colleagues — even superiors if you have to — as you are at home with your kin.
I regularly tell my students and diversity session-goers that if you ever lose a job, a relationship, or an opportunity standing on the right side of justice, you will still never lose any sleep. Your morality is not for sale, and your conscience needs to be clear when you lie down at night.
Now, I am by no means encouraging you to lose your job during a time when 1 in 4 Americans is reporting a loss of income by someone in their household or someone they know. But what I am asking you to do is to confront racism and injustice in your workplace. When you look around, does your workforce — particularly those in power, in supervisory roles, and in decision-making capacities — represent the larger population? Or do those positions tend to be dominated by White employees? Specifically, White men? Who are the highest income-earning employees within your organization? Do you even know? When was the last time you participated in meaningful dialogue about implicit bias, hiring and promotion practices, and career development with people of color, women, and other minoritized groups in mind?
What comments are you hearing about people’s homes and social situations as you peek into your co-workers’ apartments and houses, and therefore their private lives? In what ways have your observations confirmed your assumptions about a person or group? What did your company do to protect essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic and what did this global health emergency reveal about racial inequities and disparities in your workforce? In society writ large?
These are questions we need you to pose to yourself, your colleagues, and even to your bosses. Racism is everywhere, and before Ahmaud was brutally shot in the streets of his own neighborhood, he was surely called back fewer times based on having an ethnic name, discriminated against in a workplace, or even kept out of an organization like yours. So as you check yourself, your stories and statistics, your families, and your children, also check your workplace for the types of casual and passive racism that lead to slower forms of injustice and death. Even if only the death of our spirits.
6. Start Somewhere — But for Goodness’ Sake, Don’t Stay There
This may seem like quite a bit. But can you imagine dying just because you’re jogging while Black?
What I’ve noticed throughout my career in diversity, equity, and inclusion is that White people are often clueless about where they belong or could appropriately fit in the racial dialogue and the wider struggle for social justice. I know this can seem overwhelming at times, but the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. A framework I find particularly useful for White people who know something is racially amiss, but don’t know quite where to start, is Jonathan Osler’s concept of moving White people from actors to allies to accomplices.
Osler indicates that actors are White people who are sympathetic to the plight of people of color and may even listen attentively to their injustices. But actors are not going to act boldly necessarily, and they are certainly not going to challenge structural forms of racism. Allies, who are further along on the spectrum of racial understanding, will act in solidarity with people of color. They may travel to a boss’ office alongside you to seek justice, or even speak about your injustice when you are not there. Allies are a valuable breed of people who are ready and willing to go a little further to fight for justice, and to take larger risks.
But accomplices? These are a rare and special breed.
These are White people who not only understand racism as more than, as Peggy McIntosh would say, “a collection of individual acts of meanness,” but are fully locked and loaded to challenge entire systems of racism. These are antiracist White people who know their power and become what I refer to as “conscientious co-opters” of their privilege. They understand racism, they work toward justice with or without recognition, and they don’t need to be prompted by anyone to recognize what’s right and go after that in the struggle for social justice.
These are White people who educate their children about antiracism without it being a school project or requirement. These are White people who confront racist language, jokes, and conversations without hesitation. These are White people who see the news, mobilize their White relatives and friends, and organize responses to senseless murders either in concert with others or by themselves if they have to. These are White people who take the shooting death of an unarmed Black man just as personally as would a Black person, and they are unapologetic about it. These are White people who fully understand that racism functions on multiple levels and must be attacked on all these levels — especially when it comes to structural racial inequity.
If you do nothing else, check out Osler’s White Accomplices website, which offers detailed suggestions on how White people can move from well-meaning to well-doing by directing their money, time, energy, influence, and protest power in every way you can imagine. And in all the ways that matter.
White accomplices fully recognize that of course all lives matter.
But where they stand head and shoulders above other White people is that they also fully recognize that Black lives are disproportionately harassed, punished, and taken, while White lives are disproportionately left unscathed.
White accomplices recognize that Ahmaud Arbery was trying to get some exercise, minding his business, and attempting to enjoy a sunny day in his own neighborhood. But they also recognize that his innocence is irrelevant when the arresting “officers,” street judges, jury, and executioners are accomplices alright, but to downright murder.
In a world of racism, which literally kills innocent people, please be the right kind of accomplice.
Happy Birthday, Ahmaud. Your murder was so egregious, we just might get the cross-racial coalition we need, which is the only strategy against racism that ever truly works.
Rest peacefully and don’t worry.
I’ve enlisted the antiracist White people, and with them we are unstoppable. The racism that killed you doesn’t stand a chance. It’s just a matter of time now.