Last Sunday, Seattle was rocked by a police shooting of an African American woman. Charleena Lyles called the police to report a burglary at her apartment, two white police officers responded to the call. Many are asking how a call about a burglary ended with the death of an African American woman. Many in the community, especially in communities of color, are demanding that the deaths of African Americans and Black people stop.
The death has shaken our community again. The violent death of anyone, especially a person of color, should make us pause, and the death of an African American by the hands of an authority figure should make us absolutely stop. We need to stop, and white people especially need to stop. We need to stop posting to social media, we need to stop centering white people in these conversations, we need to stop the cycle of systemic racism and white privilege and power, and we need to stop shooting each other. We need to stop with the allyship theatrics, we need to double down on centering communities of color, especially African Americans/Blacks and the intersections of identity — mental health and disability, parenting, poverty, etc. In a conversation about race a week before the shooting a colleague said: “There should be a rule, the first five comments on posts about race [on Facebook] should be by people of color.” How different would the rest of the conversation be if we centered people of color and people of privilege listened?
White People Stop
White people, I want you to stop. Yes, there are times when we ask what you to be an ally, but I also want you to stop making racial tragedies and allyship about you. After the news of Charleena Lyles’ death, white people started posting and started shouting about institutional racism and how our systems failed her. In other words, abruptly YOU showed up and started caring. You showed up and took the focus away from Charleena and the African American community. You became a convenient ally. To your peers and others, it made you look good. And where were you the week before? Where were you in giving up something valued so people of color and other underserved groups can have a seat at the table? Spotting and calling out institutional racism isn’t easy and takes digging deep into looking at root causes and centering communities of color. I’m calling fakequity on your manipulative use of the tragedy. Being seen as an ally feels like you’re doing something, it makes you look good and it isn’t about you, you may even score some woke points. It is time for white people and pocs of privilege to stop and listen to African Americans and Blacks about racism and things that make us uncomfortable. Don’t wait for someone to die before you decide to inconvenience yourself with listening.
I’ve seen on Facebook where friends of color are calling out the injustice in the killing and white people, mostly white males, are quick to defend the police or say, ‘slow down and let the investigation happen.’ This silencing tacit is out of line and again centers the white institution rather than Charleena and her community. It isn’t necessary, white people read the post and reflect on it. You don’t have to agree, your job is to give space for people of color to say what we need to say.
White people, you are entitled to your opinions and stop shoving them in the faces of people who are hurting. We didn’t ask for your thoughts and opinions, we don’t need your whitesplaining. We hear your opinions daily. We live in a society where your thoughts cost people of color lives – sit with that thought for a while. White people, your fragile egos will be ok not sharing an opinion. If you need to talk it out, find other white people who can help you understand why we don’t want to hear about the investigation or why we shouldn’t be outraged. Yes, we often tell you to stop talking to white people, but in this case if you need to process don’t do it at the expense of people of color, doing so sucks up precious air and energy that should go into the healing of a community, don’t make your pain Black people’s pain.
Stop Focusing on You
If you need to do something, then do it, but don’t make a show out of it. Don’t post to Facebook or Twitter how outraged you are and how you are collecting donations, attending vigils, or are incensed. If you want to do these things, do them and do it quietly and reflectively. If you want to invite other people to join you, do so privately and with the intention of being an ally and not being a voyeur or taking up more energy that should be invested into communities of color. If you want to donate, do so but don’t make a big deal about it, save the savior mentality for another cause like trees and rescued animals. If you want to encourage others to give too then ask them through a personal relationship, we don’t need to see you being an ally, just be ally.
At the Othering and Belonging Conference an African American/Black speaker from Color of Change said, “presence doesn’t equal power.” His message was having a presence online, at a march or vigil, no matter how large or how many likes, doesn’t change power dynamics. White people, your existence in this conversation must be about you reflecting on what power you are holding whether knowingly or unknowingly and how you share it. Use your presence to follow the lead of the African American/Black community. Don’t take up their space, humble yourself and follow, do as asked respectfully and with humility. We will all be better when you create space to hear from others.
Posted by Erin Okuno, with thanks to Heidi, CiKeithia, and Minty whom I’ve never met and doesn’t know it but helped to influence this post.
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3 thoughts on “Reflections on Charleena Lyles: White People Stop Centering Yourselves”
ohhhhh, I totally get that POV…it’s like all the pussy hat selfies at the Women’s March that had me wondering if it hadn’t been posted all over FB would it have really happened. I get the backseat/row thing because it isn’t about me being there, it’s about the action itself…and I absolutely shouldn’t be in the front row posting about “getting it.” I think it’s different than when I put up an article about privilege or redlining which is not about me inserting myself onto the “good actors” team, it’s about (at least I think it’s about) trying to present a logical historical backdrop to illogical crazy talk from people I should probably just unfriend already. Thanks, great piece!-)
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As someone who has been guilty of posting on social media when I just can’t take any more news reports, unnecessary deaths or the consistent unfairness of it all (okay, I get it, no more Facebook posts about it but is it not possible that FB can/should be a place for more than pictures of my food or my dog?)…what am I supposed to do because my behind the scenes efforts through my work, my choices about where and how I try to have influence, where I put my money don’t seem to be changing anything if my colleague of color is still pulled over in the community I call home?
Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Please continue to act, we need white allies to do their part in changing culture and policies. What we’re asking is for you to do it without making it about you. Please continue to donate, attend meetings, and rally but don’t make a big show about it. Such as if you attend a rally, think about what you can do to center communities of color. Such as at rallies be in the back, or having white people march on the sides and creating human shields if things get rough — much like Standing Rock when the Veterans were there as allies. At Standing Rock the Veterans brought supplies, and acted as a shield for the Native Americans — as much as they could, they used their presence to highlight the injustice experience of Native’s. Continue to support communities of color and make it about pocs, not white people being seen.
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