I Don’t Know How to Talk to White People About Ferguson

I Don’t Know How to Talk to White People About Ferguson

You might want to grab a hankie before you read. If you ever wondered whether empathy educates, sit back, peruse, and breathe.

Photograph; Ali Barthwell
Ali Barthwell | Originally Published at xoJane. August 14, 2014 at 12:30PM

I don’t know how to tell people that I’d rather be let down by white society than be let down by white individuals.

Witnessing racial violence feels more personal when you’re black. I couldn’t watch the video of Eric Garner being strangled by the NYPD because his large frame and dark skin reminded me of my father and my uncle. Trayvon Martin was killed as I was teaching black teens on the west side of Chicago who wore hoodies to class every day. The first time I had seen women with bodies like mine (full soft bellies and pendulous breasts) on screen was in the film “12 Years a Slave” as they bathed to prepare for auction.

The ongoing tragedy of police brutality, media manipulation, and injustice in Ferguson, MO, is unbearable to watch but I can’t tear my eyes away. I’m consuming every piece of news and every editorial that emerges from the tear gas and no-fly zone. Seeing images of black people like me lying dead or injured in the street is creating chaos and turmoil inside me.

But as a black woman in a mostly white social circle, I don’t know who to turn to and how to talk to them.

How do I talk to white people about this!? How can I possibly explain the rage, fear, sadness, and every other emotion I don’t have a name for yet as I watch these events unfold?

My white friends are tagging me in posts and articles about the shootings and subsequent protests forcing me to look at more images of racial violence because I’m their politically conscious black friend.

Will my white friends understand that those images remind me of my younger brother? Will my white friends understand that I’ve been lying awake at night wondering if my younger brother, who is the same build as Mike Brown, will be stopped by the police? Have they ever sat in front of their younger brother at lunch and said “I’m worried that the police might hurt you”? Because I did that this week.

How does that conversation start?

“Hey, did you catch ‘Top Chef: Duels’ and are you paralyzed by fear that when you step outside your house you or a loved one might be the target of police violence and your Facebook pictures will be used to vilify you after your death?…YEAH ME NEITHER.”

I don’t doubt my white friends’ capacity for sympathy and kindness. They wouldn’t be my friends if they weren’t kind and compassionate but I don’t know if they have the tools to adequately understand what is happening to me and how to talk me through it.

I couldn’t fall back asleep last night because someone set off a firework in my mostly white neighborhood and I assumed it was a bomb.

How do I bring that up?

“Yeah, I caught Dum Dum Girls’ set at Pitchfork. And crazy thing, I only got three hours of sleep last night because I thought that my home was being invaded by a white mob and they were going to drag me into the street and beat me with clubs…YEAH I DO LOVE THEIR MODERN TAKE ON ’60s LO-FI POP.”

I feel really vulnerable. I feel really scared. I’m feeling a lot of feelings right now.

I’ve noticed when I’ve been more affected by violence toward black people than the white people around me. In 4th grade, we watched a video about Martin Luther King that included an extended sequence of hoses and dogs being turned on non-violent protestors. I was the only one who found the images scary. My white teacher didn’t follow me into the bathroom when I ran out of the room sobbing uncontrollably.

I’ve noticed that white people often misinterpret my emotions about race when I express them. Last month, I was driving in my car in a mostly white neighborhood dancing and singing to show tunes. Two elderly white women approached me and told me they had been watching me and that I entertained them. The fact that the old women used the world “entertain” made me feel like I unknowingly stepped into a minstrel show. I felt suddenly ashamed that I hadn’t been more discreet in a white neighborhood, then I felt disappointed that I felt ashamed. I posted about it on my Facebook wall. My white friends told me I was hateful and full of rage.

I’ve noticed that my white friends don’t always understand when their words come from a place of privilege and might be a bit tone deaf considering the state of the world.

The Monday following Mike Brown’s death, I had an improv rehearsal with a team of women I regularly practice and perform with. I’m the only black woman on the team. Part of our improv form is telling personal stories. One woman took center stage to tell us a story about how she was wronged by the police and can’t trust them anymore. She was given a small ticket for riding her bike on the sidewalk that she felt she didn’t deserve and was chastised by the police for not remembering the license plate of a car that hit her.

Her story was over. That was it. That’s why she couldn’t trust the police.

It’s hard to bring up the incredible terror I feel when I’m stopped by the police. Or the white hot shame and violation I felt as an eight-year-old when a security guard grabbed my arm when I snuck a gummi bear from a bulk candy bin. Or that I began to cry so hard at the George Zimmerman acquittal that I had to leave work early.

It’s hard to bring up these feelings with my white friends as black people march in Ferguson against a white police force because I’m scared I’ll be let down again. I was let down by my white boyfriend who wouldn’t tell off his roommate when his roommate told me I was an angry uneducated black woman. I was let down by my online alumnae community when I was accused of censoring white people when I said it was “uncool” to treat black men and women as lustful and that’s why everyone should date one at least once.

I’m so afraid that I’ll be let down by white people when I speak up about how I see myself in the faces of the black people on the news in Ferguson, MO that I would rather suffer in silence.

Because I don’t know how to tell people that I’d rather be let down by white society than be let down by white individuals.

How do I begin that dialogue?

Ali Barthwell is a charming Chicagoland native who attended Wellesley College. There, Ali was a member of Dead Serious Improv and pioneered Wellesley College ImprovFest. This spring, Ali became a Bob Curry Fellow at The Second City in the program’s inaugural year. Ali dedicates her work to her parents, her brothers, the memory of her grandmother, her Wellesley sisters, and her friends.



  1. Chris August 18, 2014 at 6:05 PM - Reply

    This was as beautiful as it was frustratingly, understandably, heartbreaking.

  2. Marie August 19, 2014 at 3:08 PM - Reply

    Thank you so much for writing this essay, Ali. You captured most of my sentiments as well. I live in a predominantly white suburban community, and teach at a predominantly white institution. When a professor use images of “The Help” to talk about issues other than race, when they decontextualize the clip to prove an academic point, I only could lower my head and suffer in silence. I also feel the hurt of police abuse on black and brown bodies more than my white friends. I don’t have anyone who could understand the anger and sadness I feel as I watch the story unfold in Ferguson. I am let down when I attend a costume party and one of the attendees come in black face, but the host (my friend, who is white) says nothing to them…even as I am standing there looking visibly upset. Like you, I would rather be let down by white society than by my white friends. It seems to hurt less when it is “out there” rather than “close up”.

  3. Louise August 20, 2014 at 3:22 PM - Reply

    Unfortunately, some of us white people, we wouldn’t listen to you anyway. Which of course you know.

    As a white person, I hesitate to suggest to you what you can do, but do you have any white friends who could talk to them? Not a white person who would appropriate your experience and pain, but a white person who could be a cultural ambassador. Often, we white people won’t hear a person of color, but we will hear another white person. Which of course you also know.

  4. ann chamberlin August 20, 2014 at 9:02 PM - Reply

    White folks need to step up to the plate and call people out when they notice racism, i.e. blackface at a party, even subtle stuff like asking someone if they play baskeball (even though they are 4’9″)

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