Things to Avoid Saying About Ferguson and Shaw if You Don’t Want to Sound Racist

The recent deaths of Mike Brown and VonDerrit Myers and the resulting protests have stirred up a lot of emotions and opinions. People who would never consider themselves racist have been saying things that can come across as just that.

1. The protesters in Shaw are being ridiculous because Myers had a gun. This shooting was justified.

What you think it means:

Because VonDerrit Myers may have had a gun the officer was justified in shooting him. Officers are entitled to act in self-defense and it doesn’t make sense for people to be calling for justice in this instance.

What you should consider:

The anger of the protesters does not center exclusively around this shooting or the shooting of Mike Brown. These shootings took place within a broader historical context. People of color, specifically African-Americans, are disproportionately incarcerated despite committing at least some types of crimes at rates similar to white people. As evidenced by how many times the n-word is being thrown around on the internet these days, we still live in a world full of explicit racism. Possibly just as dangerous, though, are the biases many of us are unaware we are harboring. Biases that might lead officers to be more afraid of a black person than is actually warranted.

Even if you’re focusing on just the death of Myers, consider that he was stopped in a “pedestrian check” despite having every right to walk down the street of his own neighborhood. Or of any neighborhood. In New York City, where this practice has been studied, people of color are disproportionately stopped in these checks, likely due to the implicit and unexamined biases of law enforcement officers. Given the treatment people of color often face from law enforcement, it’s understandable that some might run in an attempt to avoid this treatment, even if they had done nothing illegal.

2. We can’t let them (the protesters) win.

What you think it means:

The protesters are making our neighborhood and/or city an unpleasant place to be. They’re making noise and occasionally damaging property and that’s not fair to the people who live here. We shouldn’t change our lives at all because that’s showing them that their tactics will work.

What you should consider:

What the protesters want, in addition to a fair trial process in the case of Mike Brown, is true racial equality, including an end to systemic racism and white supremacy. So letting them win would mean a society in which people are not targeted because of the color of their skin. Saying “we can’t let them win” sounds like you mean that you don’t want that. Or at least not enough to deal with what it will take to get there.Also, for the most part the protesters are people who live here. Asking them to continue to live in a system that means they’re way more likely to die at the hands of law enforcement officers than white people are isn’t fair to them.

3. I just wish they’d protest at a more convenient time and/or place.

What you think it means:

You fully support people’s right to free speech but they shouldn’t be doing anything that impedes traffic or keeps people awake.

What you should consider:

Protests at convenient times and places are really easy to ignore. People can just go about their normal lives and still not listen to the voices of the protesters. People of color and their allies have been asking, begging, pleading for true equality for generations and it hasn’t worked. Sure, we all want a full night’s sleep and it can be annoying to have to drive more slowly or take a different route. These inconveniences pale in comparison, though, to generations of policies and practices that put people of color at risk.

4. This isn’t about race. If black people just had self-respect and/or didn’t act like thugs they wouldn’t get shot.

What you think it means:

Racism isn’t really happening anymore. At this point people of color are just acting like victims which is keeping them in the position they’re in.

What you should consider:

It’s really easy to think racism doesn’t exist when you aren’t on the receiving end of it. For most of my life I thought racism was limited to some really ignorant or hateful individuals. It took conversations with people of color to realize that it’s still pervasive in our society in ways white people have to look really hard to see. Of course there is a level of personal responsibility in every situation, but it’s incredibly problematic to assume that’s the only thing needed to change what’s happening in communities across the country.

Sometimes when people say someone looks like a “thug” what they’re basing that on is that someone has a different style of dress, posture, or talking than they’re used to. Associating specific styles with crime is reflective of our own biases more than reality. As hippies argued in the 60s about long hair, people should be able to dress and talk how they want and not be automatically judged as a menace to society because of it.

Self-respect would not have kept my friend from having guns pulled on him in his own front yard because he’s black living in a white neighborhood and the cops thought he didn’t belong. Self-respect would not have kept John Crawford from being killed for holding a BB gun in Walmart. Self-respect would not help parents who were undereducated through no fault of their own be able to effectively help their children with their homework. Self-respect is important, but will not erase the explicit or implicit prejudice of others or the effects of inequalities embedded in our societal structure.

5. I’m all for peaceful protest but breaking the law or doing property damage is unacceptable.

What you think it means:

People would accomplish a whole lot more if they would just stay peaceful. The violence and/or trespassing is just making them look bad and not helping their cause.

What you should consider:

People of color in this country have been the victims of interpersonal and institutional violence for centuries, ranging from discriminatory housing practices that leave them without safe places to live to actually being owned by another human being.

Since white explorers arrived on this land, white people have been telling people of color what they’re allowed to do and how they’re allowed to show their feelings. Whatever our personal philosophies, it isn’t our place to tell people we have oppressed for generations how they are allowed to show their rage. It’s really easy to say, “You shouldn’t show anger that way” when most of us can live without fear of being killed for our skin color or the way we dress. There are plenty of instances of white people looting, throwing rocks, etc. It’s usually over a sports team winning or losing, though, and we use language that paints it as people just being silly rather than as an actual threat to us. If we can brush off some rioting in the name of sports, maybe we can be patient enough to let the many acting de-escalators within the protest community do their work.When it comes to peacefully breaking the law by participating in things like sit-ins, it’s good to remember that our country has a long history of civil disobedience. Without it we wouldn’t have gained, for example, independence from Britain, integrated public transportation, or the weekend many of us appreciate a whole lot. Had we been present for the Boston Tea Party or when Rosa Parks very intentionally refused to leave her seat, would we want to have been the people saying, “Breaking the law is no way to get what you want?”

I get it. Despite my support for and participation in the protests, I have some fear, too. I live a mile from where the initial protests after the Shaw shooting happened and I worried that a broken window would cause my dogs or cats to escape and get run over. My students live in the area and I worry they might be exposed to tear gas. Despite my deep desire for racial equality, I too grew up internalizing harmful stereotypes about black men that I struggle to eradicate. If we’re serious about wanting racial equality, though, it’s not enough to say that we’re not racist. We can acknowledge our fears, but still be willing to listen to the people who are demanding equality. This isn’t going to be an easy process. It’s going to be messy and uncomfortable. If we want a truly peaceful society, though, we need to be willing to put in the work to get to a point where everyone is treated fairly. This might mean putting aside some of our comforts and getting to know people who are different from us. If you find the thought of someone thinking you’re racist unpleasant, consider how your words and actions may unintentionally perpetuate racial inequality.