When You Hear White Privilege, Here’s What to Say in Response

Image by Damien Conway.

This piece is not about klansmen. It is not about those who cheer when they see George Floyd die at the knee of a police officer.

We need to talk about a much larger part of the population. Those who will say “well of course it’s horrible what happened to George Floyd,” but will then list 6,000 caveats as to why they can’t get fully on board.

These folks wish we said “all lives matter,” instead of “black lives matter.” They’d love to support the protests, but only if 100% of people protesting did so in the “correct” way.

Many Americans don’t take white privilege or black oppression seriously enough, even if they may feel some level of sympathy.

Here are five of the most common things people say to attempt to downplay police brutality and its repercussions. And how to respond.

You’re ignoring the fact that we have a system that shields, enables, and even elevates the bad apples. Simply acknowledging the existence of bad apples is not enough, you actually need police departments that are unnervingly committed to removing the bad apples.

Right now, 99% of police killings from 2013–2019 have not resulted in officers being charged with a crime.

Ask the family of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor, whether it makes a difference to them whether there are a couple bad apples, or more than a few, or any other number. Getting to sit back, relax, and estimate the number of bad apples in our police system is a good sign that you have the privilege of not being scared of every single cop.

So what does removing bad apples actually look like? Let’s start with two ideas for now.

  1. Nationwide ban on police use of chokeholds. Since 2015, officers in Minneapolis have rendered 44 civilians unconscious using neck restraints.
  2. Third party investigations for all allegations of police violence. Today, many city police departments get investigated by their local district attorney’s office. This creates a tremendous conflict of interest. Because cops work regularly with the local government, there is a bias towards not charging officers when they commit murder, in order to maintain a workable relationship between the police. Depending on the level of corruption in a city government, this can amount to the police policing themselves. Maryland has recently made improvements in this area.

Yes, lots of people have difficult jobs. Your doctor has a difficult job. But if your doctor recklessly kills someone, they get fired, they lose their license, and they might be criminally charged with manslaughter. Just like everyone else.

We all have the responsibility to look after one another. So the idea that police should be given a pass because their job is dangerous, when it is exactly their job to keep people safe, is completely backwards.

There’s a lot to unpack here.

  • First, remember that peaceful protestors are by far the majority, not the exception.
  • Notice that there is a very fine line between who you call a “protestor” versus a “rioter.” This has a lot to do with whether you agree with their cause. You can see this in the president’s tweets. White people who were marching to open up the economy are protesters. While a combination of white and black Americans protesting police brutality are called rioters and thugs.
  • Third, not every individual who is committing violence on the streets right now is doing so in the name of racial equality. Amidst the crowd are badged and undercover cops who escalate and provoke violence. There are also people who hate the protesters and are trying to play the role of of vigilante, like this man who drove into a crowd of protestors in Minneapolis at 70mph. He is a violent protester if there ever was one, but he definitely doesn’t care about police brutality––so you can’t use him as an excuse.
  • This brings us to another point: how few violent protestors you need to make everyone look like a wild mob. For example, if there are 1,000 people protesting peacefully on a street in Minneapolis, it might take only 5 violent protestors to turn the whole situation dark. Again, this is partly because of the way law enforcement responds to threats with escalation, responding with even more violence than there was to begin with. But think about what a disservice you’re doing to those 1,000 peaceful folks if you dismiss the whole crowd as a bunch of rioters.

Saying all lives matter is saying two things.

First, all lives matter ignores history. It ignores the centuries of American history (including this century) where black lives mattered less. By trying to drown over Black Lives Matter with your All Lives Matter, you are working to keep that history buried.

Second, saying “all lives matter” suggests that advocates for racial equality don’t believe that all lives matter. As if BLM only cared about people of color. This is wrong, and it also makes no sense considering the millions of white Americans who support racial equality.

The “all lives matter” counterpoint is part of a broader problem: the emotional discomfort of white people being considered more important than the loss of black lives. Many white Americans feel as if they’re being left out when they hear “black lives matter,” and feeling left out is new to them.

But instead of confronting their own discomfort, it’s much easier to lash out or play word games, nitpicking the name of a movement instead of acknowledging what the movement stands for.

In this current moment, saying “all lives matter” comes across as a disingenuous attempt to claim superiority and attention over those who want nothing less than to be recognized.

Imagine you’re the boss at a workplace, and you just hired a new employee.

This new employee is legally deaf. She needs insurance-funded hearing aids. She needs a cubicle facing the exit in case of an emergency as well as several other reasonable accommodations that other employees don’t need.

But you, the boss, refuse to give this employee any of the help she needs in order to ably work on a daily basis, because you vow to “treat everyone equally.” Do you see the problem?

While there are many differences between the disability and race, most of which I’ve unfortunately glossed over, the basic point still stands. Race is something that you don’t get to decide for yourself, and can often lead to disadvantages.

There are plenty of situations where treating everyone equally is the right thing to do, but not everything is that simple. There are times when treating everyone equally is cruel.

Equality vs. Equity. Source: Interaction Institute

A better goal, I think, is treating everyone with respect. That means acknowledging who they are, what they’ve gone through, and the ways in which you can help.

Thank you for reading.

I think it’s nearly impossible to understate the importance of mental health during a time like this. If you can, please consider donating to the National Alliance of Mental Health, a group which helps provide counseling and support to Americans across the country. Here’s the link.

Hi there. I write about public policy, politics, the presidency, and culture.

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