Last summer, the day George Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges for the murder of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin, I locked myself in my room and cried.
With every story I heard following Trayvon Martin’s—and there were too many—my heart became heavier. The burden of remembering the names of the slain weighed on my shoulders until I could barely crawl out of bed. I hurt because of the injustice of the untimely deaths of young Black men around the country, taken down by white men in and outside of law enforcement. I cried because it felt like the lives of my people no longer mattered—or, worse, still didn’t matter.
But those aren’t the only reasons for the tremors in my hands or the quake in my voice after the failure to indict Officer Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown.
Dear White Neighbor: I want your presence.
As a teacher of primarily white college freshmen, I spend much of my time teaching my students that racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and religious intolerance are not only unacceptable in my classroom, but in this society. To be apathetic is to condone the violence that ultimately results from oppression. As a Black woman, it is demanded of me to fight for the rights of the underprivileged and powerless. As my white neighbor, I want you to support these fights because, as slavery taught the U.S., Blacks aren’t the only ones devastated by racist institutions. The hate and moral atrocities that surround racial issues seep into the bloodstreams of everyone involved. And that illness will kill us all. I want you to stand with us, in the streets, online, at the voting booths. You have the power to make this world a safer place for all of us—so I want your help.
Dear White Neighbor: Please do not invalidate my anger.
The first thing I hear after something race-related in the news enrages me is that I’m overreacting. The reason so many people in minority communities cry out in anger when one of our own has been wrongly killed is because of one very simple truth: that could be me.
When Darius Simmons was shot by his white neighbor in front of his mother, I thought of my little brother. The panic Trayvon Martin’s mother felt when she heard her baby was gone is the panic my mother feels every time my brother leaves the house. The same way women feel obligated to smile at strange men so as not to provoke an attack—like the woman who refused to give a man her number and paid for the snub with her life—is how Black men feel when they go outside: don’t look suspicious, don’t make sudden gestures, don’t wear your hat too low or your hood up, keep your hands where everyone can see them. This is an unfortunate reality. We cannot be expected to stay quiet and thankful for a life we deserve to keep when others deem us expendable.
Dear White Neighbor: Be an ally, not a savior.
At a party once, someone made an unintentionally racist joke in reference to what I had given up for Lent—“Alcohol? Why didn’t you pick cotton?” A white girl immediately jumped down the throat of the joker, telling him he had been offensive. He apologized, even though I hadn’t taken any offense—he was drunk, it was an accident. The white girl who defended me told me later, smiling and reaching for my afro, “It’s okay, my best friend is Black. I know what it’s like.”
There is a difference between being the white savior—assuming to know how minorities feel and therefore handing out punishments as you see fit—and being an ally in the fight. As an ally, color should be irrelevant. Knowing a Black person doesn’t qualify your understanding of race and ethnic relations, the same way knowing a woman doesn’t mean you’re a feminist.
As an ally, do what you can to be beneficial for the cause. Donate money. Share articles. Go to the front lines and protest. Write your representatives. Vote. But do not tell us how to feel, how to organize, or how to react. Do not assume the actions of a few—like those burning the American flag—are the feelings of the many. Understand that, as humans, our pain resonates and explodes in different ways. Some of us go to the streets, break things, tip cars. Some of us light candles and march down highways. Some of us write poems and blog posts and statuses pleading for peace. And some of us sit in our houses in the dark, drinking tea and crying because we’re too scared to go outside.
No matter how we show our grief, no matter how we show our rage, support us. Institutional racism bleeds into every aspect of our lives, regardless of your race. And if we keep dividing ourselves, blaming each other for the deaths of our loved ones, we will stay sick.
I, for one, cannot bear to be sick any longer.
Monica Prince is a performance poet living in Milledgeville, GA, currently pursuing her MFA in creative writing. She is producing her second full-length choreopoem, Something to Keep Me Vertical, and she spends her days writing, teaching, dancing in her kitchen, and searching for love.
Photo: Jack Johnson, Creative Commons