Calling Out White Readers
From The New York Times’ misstatement of key facts, to Fox News’ petty op-eds, it’s clear how white journalists and news anchors perceived Jussie Smollett’s assault: another opportunity to keep their subscribers coming back for more hot takes and story updates. But, as seen last week, the media’s loud conversations told the wrong stories, leaving the world in shock and confusion as the ex-Empire star now faces up to three years in prison for faking his own assault—consequences his legal team points to as a sign of betrayal from “a [judicial] system that apparently wants to skip due process and proceed directly to sentencing.”
So, as news outlets turn their attention towards uncovering their next big stories, it’s time to reflect on who’s responsible for finding ways to help the media’s big industry players do better the next time another Jussie Smollett enters the public eye: white people. Finding these ways starts with listening to the right conversations. In her open letter on Instagram to “white 'allies’," singer and songwriter, Kelela, calls on her white followers to find real, tangible ways to dismantle white supremacy. Most white people who commented on it seemed relatively well-aware of their white privilege. Others, not so much. Jokes poking fun at “imaginary divisions between racial groups” and “black people handouts” were common reactions to talks of racial injustice and reparations for slavery.
But comments like this took the cake:
When reading between the lines of this cry for help, along with many others, white people’s biggest fear—their inevitable loss of power within systems that keep them happy, healthy, and ignorant—becomes clear. White allies may wonder how they can acknowledge their white privilege as an inherent part of their identity while breaking down the systems that abuse it at the expense of minority communities. For starters, they must understand their white privilege. In the event white people work to wish their white privilege away, they find a sense of comfort that has no place in a world where their communities continue to kill and/or traumatize black individuals. Towards the end of her letter, Kelela urges us to think about how we could help our peers understand and embrace the truths of white privilege by building community organizations like “white privilege book clubs.”
If you Google the term “white privilege book clubs,” nothing but a couple informative reading lists and an open invite to a privilege book club event pops up. This means one thing: organizations working to help white people understand, embrace, and deconstruct their white privilege are hard to come by. And even when one comes close, its self-selected members often live in ideological echo chambers and face repercussions as a result.
Last week, The New School’s Student Health and Support Services posted an announcement on Instagram to introduce Exploring Whiteness: “a supportive space for white identified students to explore whiteness from a social justice framework.” That same day, voices spoke out against it on Twitter—citing the post as another example of white communities’ tone-deaf politics. To teen model Aaron Philip (@aaron___philip), the attempt to create this “supportive space” was laughable. “I know nothing about the New School. I’m still a high school student. I’m seventeen, I’m about to graduate from high school. But I saw that [post] and I just knew it was nonsense.” Student Health and Support Services deleted the post, but, to Aaron’s point, the issue it captures still demands our attention. “What white people can do to address themselves and be better is an important conversation we can have in society right now. But the thing is, if it’s not executed right, it’s gonna come out ugly,” Aaron added.
When we envision white community organizations working to support black and brown communities, whether they’re online or on the ground, we realize we must do more than simply hold round-circle discussions amongst white people. Whether we’re organizing town hall meetings, hosting events, or developing after school programs, we should listen to black and brown voices as equals in our communities’ conversations—not to learn the do’s and don’ts of social justice, but to understand, embrace and implement real, tangible ways to take the right steps towards holding ourselves accountable for our own community’s actions.