The following is an excerpt from my book A Riff of Love: Notes on Community and Belonging, available wherever you buy books. There are lots of other folks doing amazing work in dismantling racism. You can find good guides here and here and here, and in lots of other places. It is especially important to learn from Black and Indigenous people, and the three books above are excellent guides to the work. After you work on their stuff, you might also buy a copy of my book or to have me come and speak. I'll even play some saxophone for you for free.
Dear JT and Z,
I am writing to you because I love you. And as it is with people who
love one another, I have to try to tell you some hard things, things that are
difficult to understand and even harder to change. But we cannot be free
until we change them, and we cannot change them until we understand
You know already from the history you have learned and the lives that
you live that we live in a land where not everyone is treated equally. As
white people, every aspect of our lives has been built to make us believe
that we are superior. Our people—people like us, people who are called
“white”—were born into the places where we were born not because we
deserved or merited those places, but because we are white and for no other
reason.* You may not feel this all of the time. You might never feel this.
But history bears it out. We are expected to make peace with our terrible
mediocrity, and at the same time to have it rewarded as excellence. Our
ambition is to be without limits, as are our appetites, because we can claim
anything we want as ours. We need little discipline, for we can go where we
want and do what we want how we want without fear of having our bodies
confiscated, and without being allowed to fall too far. Our society spells out
with brutal clarity, and in every place we look, that we are superior human
beings. You know this is not true, and I expect you, and us together, to live
into something that is true.
Do you remember the trips we made to the state fair in the fall of each
year? Among all the stuff to do there—the food, the rides, the animals—you
and your mom sometimes went into the fun house. Along the path through
the fun house, there were mirrors. One made you look like you had the
legs of a giraffe. Another made you short and as wide as a hippopotamus.
One made you look big and tall and wide, and it blurred everything else
around you. The images in those mirrors are like how our culture works.
Our culture, the culture of white people, distorts reality. It makes us see
things differently than how they really are.
In America, the fun house mirror moves people around. It takes people
like us and moves us to the center of the reflection, and moves people
like our neighbors—people with more melanin in their skin—off to the
edge. Sometimes it moves them out of the picture altogether. The mirror of
our culture makes us and our families look bigger and more important, and
our neighbors and their families look smaller and less important.
You have already learned that this hurts our neighbors. We often talk
about some of the ways it hurts them. Sometimes they lose their homes,
or they do not have enough food, or their families have to live apart from
each other because of unfair laws and unfair policing. You know this, and
you see it, and you hate it already, and I love that about you. But I need to
tell you that although you cannot see it yet, this culture is harming you, too.
And me. And everybody who thinks they are white.
When we see the reflection that places us at the center, it keeps us from seeing the truth about ourselves. It gives us a role in the story that does not belong to us, at least
not all the time. There is a long history among our people of thinking we are
heroes who bring good news and save the day. There may have been times
when our people were heroes, but many times our people have been on the
wrong side of stories. We have taken other people’s land, or their children.
Our people stole other people’s futures. There are bad chapters in our story.
We have to tell them also. We especially have to tell them, so that we can
stop repeating them.
Though we try to love our neighbors, trying does not stop us from getting
hurt by the mirrors that distort reality. In this place called the United
States of America, we start to see funny. Our vision gets messed up. Even
though we know it is wrong, we start to think that the fun house mirror is
a real mirror. We start building neighborhoods of fun houses, which turns
out to be no fun for anyone.
This is hard to understand, my children, and it keeps getting deeper.
It begins to feel natural that the world works according to the rules of race,
even though there is nothing natural about race. Neighborhoods are not
naturally divided by race. People’s ability to earn and save money and then
pass it on to their kids is not naturally different because of the color of their
skin. Mayors and governors and presidents are usually white, but this is not
because our people are always best fit for the jobs. And we don’t have superior
hearts or pancreases, even though our neighbors have heart disease
and diabetes more frequently than our families do.
All of these differences have come about because of decisions our ancestors
made when they were building the United States and its culture.
And those decisions have a cost. Choosing one thing requires leaving
something else behind. Some of the costs of the cultural, and political, and
economic, and theological decisions that our ancestors made along the
lines of race are easy to see. You know already that our neighborhood is
being torn apart by gentrification and the forced movement of people we
love. You know some of the history of our city, that this is not the first time
forced movement has happened. You don’t know the fancy terms for it yet,
but you know how unfair rules have been forced on our neighbors. You
have seen the violence done by policy. Together, we are learning to name
that violence—health disparities, lack of opportunity, the education gap,
mass incarceration, the school-to-prison pipeline.
Learning to name those issues is important, my children, but learning
only matters if it moves you to act. The first act is to turn around. To stop
looking in the fun house mirror. To face the other way and to see the world
as it really is, and to see our place in it, and to run towards freedom. I would
like for us to run together.
But running towards freedom does not mean running away from our
people. Once we get our eyes fixed, we will have to go back. You see, white
folks have been using the fun house as home base. They even send out missionaries
from there, and get other people to think those crazy mirrors are
real. Together, we have to return to them, and to the mirrors of distortion,
and preach some good news. That sounds easy, but our people love the
distorted realities of the fun house. It will take a while to talk them out. And
who knows, sometimes we might get drawn back in ourselves. But if we
stick together, and pray together, and sing together, and listen to what we
have heard our neighbors teaching us, we will start taking that fun house
down piece by piece until it is no more. And when we finish, we will look
out at the crowds of the carnival. And they will be so beautiful. My God,
they are beautiful. And finally, we will get to be a part of them.
The work will be hard. It may be dangerous, for the demand of white
folks above all else is that we keep the silence and maintain the lies of race.
But we have lived too long near the ugly underside of those lies. We cannot
be silent anymore. We will not be silent anymore. Besides, we come from
a long line of malcontents and ne’er-do-wells from the rolling hills of the
western piedmont of North Carolina. We owe it to them, and we owe it to
ourselves—and maybe most importantly, we owe it to our neighbors—to
finally rebel for the right reason.
Yours in Love,
*6. This sentence and the rest of the paragraph mimic closely the structure
and grammar of the first section of James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, but in a way that addresses those of us who are given the unmerited privilege awarded to white folks in the system of white supremacy. If you have not read The Fire Next Time, please close your computer, put down your phone, and do it now.