What White Folks and Non-Black POC Need to Understand About Systemic Racism

by Porscha Coleman

For much of the last 72 hours, the news cycle has been dominated by stories about the protests and uprisings in Baltimore. As a result of the surge in news coverage and opinion on social media, there has been a flood of white and non-black people of color entering the conversation. Some of those entering the conversation may be genuinely interested in engaging in dialogue, but have no idea how to address the issues of police brutality, race, or what they are seeing happening in Baltimore.

Thus, here is a point-by-point guide of what you should and should not do as a white or non-black person of color who wishes to be an ally as you share your thoughts about Baltimore.

1. Listen to what Black people have to say. 

The first and most important thing to know—and what I see is most often ignored—is to respect and listen to black voices have to say on these topics. Police brutality has overwhelmingly affected young black men, women, and transgender individuals disproportionately. Because of this, many Black people have an understanding of police violence that others do not. If a black person tells you that what you are expressing is problematic, harmful, inaccurate, or insensitive, heed what they are saying and correct your language.

2. Feigning colorblindness is not helpful; it can actually be downright insulting.

Black people have a rich history that started way before the Middle Passage, and continues to be present with us today. You pay no compliments to black people by pretending that we have no color or no culture different than your own in an effort to combat racism. We are a people of great achievement, painful struggle, and awesome tenacity. Do not tell us, “I don’t see color.” Do not tell us, “We are all a part of the human race.” By doing so, you invalidate and devalue my people’s triumphs and struggles.

3. Knowing a Black person is not the same as BEING a Black person.

I’ve seen way too many instances of white and non-black PoC using their biracial children or black significant others as an excuse to monopolize conversations about the history of race relations in America. Having a black significant other or even a black child does not give a white or white-passing person the right to stop listening, or to assume they know the struggle black people face. In these instances it is even more important to learn to listen, support, and become useful and respectful allies.

4. Stop telling us what violence will or will not solve.

History is replete with black community leaders, activists, and thinkers who have been killed because they dared to speak out against brutality and injustice—Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers are just a few among many others. Some of these leaders practiced nonviolence, but all of them put themselves in danger to fight against inequality. Thus, the myth that black people should remain passive in the face of police brutality for change to come about is false. This notion has been proven untrue for decades.

5. Do not compare "black-on-black" crime to state-sanctioned violence.

As a white or white-passing person it is imperative that you do not compare “black-on-black crime” to the systemic police brutality that has lead to the current uptick of unarmed black men and women being killed by police. There is simply no comparison. Intra-racial violence leads to arrests, trials, and heavy prison sentences for convicted perpetrators. Meanwhile there is a disturbing lack of justice for black people who have been murdered by cops. Instead, the offending officers are often placed on administrative leave with pay during the investigations that often end in with no arrests, convictions, or punishment.

6. Do not expect applause for being an ally.

So you have set someone straight about their racist, bigoted, and/or misinformed views on racism, police brutality or the protests in Baltimore? Thank you for doing that. Please do not feel the need to reach out to your black friends with a play-by-play update or expect an enthusiastic response for you being a decent human being. This is a very stressful, emotional, and triggering time for many of us. We simply do not have the capacity to applaud you for doing the right thing.

7. Black people are not here to educate you about racism or systemic inequality.

“How will I know if you don’t help me?” is not an acceptable answer when told that you should educate yourself on these issues. Advancements in technology have made entire libraries available online. The Internet provides direct access to writers, speakers, educators, and other resources that can help you learn more about the struggles that black people face in regards to oppression, police brutality, and the complex issues that happen in urban centers across the country. Asking me to educate you in the midst of my own trauma while I navigate this time of simultaneous struggle and pain is insensitive and tone-deaf at best—and entitled at worst. You are not owed an education from me.

While what is happening in Baltimore and across the nation is difficult to navigate and understand for everyone, it is even more so for black people in America. Thus, we need our white and non-black PoC allies to stand with us in compassionate and sensitive solidarity.

Photo: Jim Bourg / Reuters

Porscha Coleman is a writer, poet, incoming MFA student, and occasional podcast host. Porscha specializes in intersections of race, gender, and class and can be contacted through her website: www.PorschaLColeman.com.

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