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A Letter to My Beloved White Friends, by Karla Johnson

Karla Johnson, a member of my spiritual direction training cohort from back in the day, has graciously given us permission to share powerful, needed words from her blog this month. Find the original post here, and subscribe to her blog to read more letters to come. The original text is reproduced below.

Dear White Friends | Denver CO | Fratres Dei Spiritual Direction and Ministries

Dear White Friends:

You are lost. “Hurt, mad, insulted, grief-stricken and enraged more than I can say,” as my dear white uncle said. You don’t know what to do. You want to help—and of course you do. You’re a good person. This is my attempt at sharing guidance, from someone who holds both black and white inside of my skin.

I love you, my dear white friends. Let’s start there. You are my brothers, sisters, best friends, teachers, cousins, nieces, and nephews. You and I belong to one another. I am also an African American woman, by bloodline, culture and identity. African Americans are my brothers, sisters, best friends, teachers, cousins, nieces, and nephews. I was born with inherited racial trauma. (Inherited trauma is a thing—you can look it up). I have hordes of relatives, but only one who is a cop; a close cousin, who wears his badge with honor, excellence, and commitment. He’s also black. I pray for him often during times of (visible) racial unrest, and break into scared tears every time I pray. My heart, through an odd positioning, spans the width of our collective racial anguish.

Still, there is something deeper than any other identity I carry, with the exception of my faith. I am a mother. A black mother of two young black men whom I carried, painfully labored into birth and successfully raised through some very tough times. Any mother can understand that my children are my greatest pride and my deepest love. So please understand that racialized violence hits me different.

My dear white friends, most of you don’t know what to do. Here are some tips, from your white-skinned black sister:

  • I want you to imagine witnessing a terrible car accident. Then imagine walking up to one of the wrecked cars, finding someone who is still bloody and injured, and saying: “watching you go through that trauma was hard for me. Can you please give me some emotional support?” That’s what you do when you ask black people to help you deal with your angst. The phrase I’ve been using these past few days is this: “As a black woman, I’m struggling to take down my own bitter cup. Please, dear white brothers and sisters, stop trying to pass me your internal poison so that you can find relief.” If you’ve done this, you didn’t know what you didn’t know. You’re forgiven. But please stop.

  • If you want to understand, do some homework. That can be as easy as a google search. There are essays, blogs, books and articles galore which can help you get a better feel for what’s happening.

  • If you have black friends (or friendly black acquaintances) please check in on them without agenda. If that feels strange, imagine that they lost a distant-but-important relative, because that’s what it feels like. Dear white friends, you know how to offer comfort during loss, so there’s no need to be intimidated. Just send a simple text: “Just checking in. Is there anything I can do?” or “Thinking of you. Are you okay?” Let them know that they are more than a headline to you. If you are a praying person, pray for them and let them know.

  • Don’t talk about the issue or the headlines unless you already have a strong friendship with that person. It is awkward and unwelcomed to bring discussions of racism to a random black person in the grocery store or some such thing. Just like you, all they want to do is pick up their eggs and get home. Part of the difficulty of being in black skin in America is constantly being recruited as teacher, sounding board and priest to white people’s racial angst. Please let black people go about their days without such recruitment.

  • When you interact with black people, for the love of God, stay white. Nothing is more insulting than watching a Caucasian person try to use language, inflections or gestures which are not theirs in some awkward attempt to prove—with neon signs—that they are not a racist. I know this sounds strange, but black people know you are not black. They can tell just by looking. If you don’t want to look like a racist, be yourself, no matter who you are addressing.

  • Embrace the fact that you are a good person on the wrong side of an ugly history. You would never pull a trigger on a black person just because they are black. But, like me, your ancestors built this system. People who look like you continue to perpetrate this horror. That doesn’t make you guilty, that makes you and I unwilling recipients of an ungodly inheritance. We can’t keep pretending that isn’t true. The good news is your heritage also gives you tons of power to affect change. Make peace with what your (and my) people have built. Then consider—-from your position of lament—affecting change, even if that change is in your own perspective and social circles.

  • If you experience anger against you because you’re white, learn to deal with it without lashing out or diving into shame. I’m sorry, my dear white friend, but you must let go of the idea that you can be part of the solution without having your sense of innocence disrupted or called into question. And if you don’t have any tools to absorb feeling falsely accused because of the color of your skin? That is something a person of color may be able to help you with, if you are sincere in wanting to learn and can come to the question with neither defensiveness nor agenda. 

  • Your guilt and your shame doesn’t do the tiniest bits of good to anyone, black or white. Work through it. It’s not helping.

  • Be aware that you are losing something personally important to you. You hate the circumstances, but as the scales of justice try to right themselves, you are losing your sense of security and your assumed power base. That loss is real. And eventually, that loss will make you feel threatened. (Even as you remain outraged against the racism.) That doesn’t make you a monster, that makes you a person. But please don’t take those feelings to the cause, and please keep tabs on your own, understandable defensiveness.

  • Especially in our culture, we hate to admit our own privilege—even to ourselves. I am an embarrassed participant in this dysfunction, and have often struggled to admit (much less claim) my own privilege. Please confront the lie that you are not privileged because, like me, your privilege is enormous. 

  • You need not feel accused nor ashamed nor “less-than” because you hold privilege. You have also struggled, endured hardships, worked hard, and suffered. You’ve known pain. Your privilege does not detract from, lessen, or mitigate that reality. You get to own your story without excuse, no matter what privileges you’ve been afforded. You need not defend anything.

  • As a Caucasian brother recently said to me, “white people murdering black people is not a black problem. It is a white problem.” I can add nothing to his words.

  • Imagine walking into a room full of black people, where you are the only one with white skin. Then imagine someone bringing up your skin color, and having the whole room swivel to stare at you, hoping for answers, jokes and/or comment. If you see one or two black people in mostly-white room, please don’t put them in that position. And if someone else does, be willing to speak up and align yourself against the awkwardness. The same goes for social media exchanges.

  • If you interact with a black person, don’t point out the differing skin tones. Again, they can tell you aren’t of the same race all by themselves. Treat them as a person versus a skin color. Kindness and authentic respect is what transcends differences and puts people at ease.

  • Don’t let the devil tell you that you have no right to be angry just because you’re white. Of course you should be angry. This is a human story, not a story contained in black skin. Your ethnic background does not cheapen your lament. Your anger is well-placed, valid and necessary.

  • Black people need your voice, and we need your involvement. Traumatized people do not make the best advocates. Traumatized people—no matter where the trauma comes from—are angry, shut down, and often counterproductive. As long as you leave it up to black people to speak out, you are making unreasonable demands of the group you want to help. Speak up, dear white friends. Step up and speak up. We don’t need you to share our trauma, we need you to stand against what perpetuates the pain.

  • You can’t crawl into a black person’s skin in order to understand what is going on. You couldn’t possibly know what it is like, and if you could for a moment, it would shut you down. I promise. You must address, understand and process this issue from your lens, your white skin, and your unique perspective.

  • If you want to help, aspire to becoming the white person who gives other white people a touch-point to their own racialized angst. Be a bridge which helps other white people engage without shutting down or blaming the victims.

  • Ask yourself what you are called to do. That will look different for everyone. Every bit counts. Just don’t disengage and leave it to the people who are being harmed.  We can all do something, as this is our nation.

  • If you’ve been guilty of any and/or all of the hardships I’ve mentioned, remember you didn’t know what you didn’t know. I know you didn’t mean it—that goes without saying. The only thing we can do is be truthful, be gracious, learn from our circumstances, and move forward. Like Maya Angelou said, “when you know better, you do better.”

  • You are a good person. Just be yourself, because sincerity goes a long way. Awkwardness and missteps can be forgiven—trust me, black people are used to it. Your genuine compassion and concern are what matter. And your sincere engagement matters even more.

Dear White Friends. I love you. You are my brothers, sisters, best friends, teachers, cousins, nieces, and nephews. You and I belong to one another. Keep being the people who may not understand, but who remain good, decent, and compassionate human beings. Embrace change, and if you want to help, start by taking hold of your own cup—it is plenty bitter enough.

And yes. If this has helped you, please pass it on, using this link.

Sincerely yours, Karla Johnson

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