Al and Dean are two old friends and neighbors who live across the street from one another. Every so often, they’ll get into a little discussion over things. What follows is one of their more recent conversations.
Dean: Hey Al…
Al: Hey Dean, you’re looking kind of blue.
Dean: You been watching the news?
Al: Yea, sure
Dean: The riots…
Al: Yea well, an innocent man was killed by the police before that.
Dean: I know.
Al: You ought to say something about it.
Dean: What, like the way you do?
Al: No, the way you do.
Dean: I don’t have anything to say, man.
Al: That’s not true. I’ve heard you speak. Granted it was like ten years ago.
Al: You’ve been kind of quiet since.
Dean: Yep. I guess I have.
Al: Why is that? Have you really given it much thought?
Dean: Not that much.
Al: Why do you think?
Dean: I think I’m afraid to admit it.
Al: I’m a friend.
Dean: Yea, I know…
Al: Go ahead.
Dean: You know I’ve always had a problem adding my voice to something that I know to be common sense, an obvious truth. What really could I say? People evidently were failing to grasp that obvious truth anyway, no matter how strong and eloquent people spoke about it, and so I felt like anything I did say wouldn’t make a difference.
And the worst part about it was that I started feeling a little numb to it, to the point that a part of me stopped caring. I even turned a little bitter. For one thing, I figured why should I care about anybody outside my family and friends, anyway? They don’t care about me, and I figured few people in the world actually cared about justice–justice for all people–half as much as they let on anyway. Few people genuinely, sincerely care about a complete stranger.
Al: Well I don’t–
Dean: What they do care more about is being right. They care about shaming and pointing fingers, more than they care about having a real discussion with the other side.
Al: Well, wait a minute. What about those voices on the front lines, the ones you were just talking about, the voices I know you still admire, advocating for social justice–
Dean: And doing so far more powerfully than I ever could. So again, what is the point?
Dean: What is the point beyond reassuring those who already know me that I stand on the side of common sense and decency? What are the chances that my voice really contributes anything of value to the many voices already out there making a difference? Or at least trying their best.
Al: Well, how do you know your voice couldn’t make a difference?
Dean: I know.
Al: Why, because you’re white?
Dean: Well, in the end…what do I really know about the suffering they’re going through?
Al: That might be, but that doesn’t mean don’t say anything at all.
Dean: Ok…but where do you want to draw the line of moral outrage when it comes to the history of this country? Because I tell ya, I think once you start down that path, it becomes hard to stop, or at least harder to draw the line.
Dean: But you know, I’m hesitant to say any more on that last point, even now, because I think the truth of the matter is too frightening for any of one of us to face without falling back into the same…well, the same kind of apathy I experienced.
Dean: You think I’m a creep?
Al: No I don’t.
Al: No, and I don’t think you’re entirely wrong. But of course, you’re not right either.
Al: First, I don’t think it’s any big secret that apathy is easier to indulge when you’re white. When the cost of inaction isn’t so directly consequential to you that it could mean your life, or the life of a family member. Black people don’t have that luxury because they experience most directly the consequences of inaction.
Dean: Yea. I agree.
Al: Well, there you see…I got this feeling you’ve already made up your mind about speaking out, before we even started this conversation.
Dean: Yes, I think I have.
Al: Right. I mean, nothing I’ve said so far is anything you don’t already know. George Floyd isn’t the first man to be murdered because of race.
Dean: No, he’s not.
Al: So what’s brought you back to wanting to speak up? What’s brought you back from your apathy?
Dean: I can’t pinpoint one specific cause. I think, for one thing, I needed to listen, and make good use of the time to figure out how I wanted to say certain things before I even said them. There’s a lot of noise out there and it’s only getting louder. And so, I think if you’re going to speak out, you ought to make it count, you know? And to do that, you need to figure out how you effectively carry that message across. It’s worth taking some time to figure that stuff out, otherwise it just blends into everything else and adds to a cacophony of noise, which people get numb to after a while. Anything you say goes unheard, and then you’re back at square one, questioning why you even said anything to begin with.
Al: I see, so practicality was more important than principle.
Dean: Well…yea. I guess so. You think I’m a creep?
Al: Of course not.
Dean: What, you don’t believe me?
Al: I do believe you. I just think it’s an interesting admission. I don’t know that I agree, but I do understand where you’re coming from.
Dean: I’m just still a little mixed up about where to start now.
Al: I’ve got some ideas.
Dean: Let’s hear it.
Al: Ok. First thing is to stop being guilty over being white. I’m not saying that you are, but just in case you are, don’t be, because in the end, we’ve got bigger fish to fry.
Dean: Well let’s say I was a little guilty. Can you blame me?
Al: Yes I can blame you. It’s the way you were born, so get the fuck over it. Nobody cares. You mentioned before, “What do I really know about the suffering they’re going through?” The answer is “Little to nothing.” But all of us, to some extent, are limited by the sphere of our own life experiences, and we have far less control over that, I think, than we could ever know. The control we do have begins in our ability to listen and empathize. So listen to people. Really listen, so you can truly begin to empathize.
Dean: I have been.
Al: Yes, but not exactly the way you should be, at least it doesn’t sound that way. It’s gonna be hard to keep listening and internalizing the problems of the world if you’re so busy punishing yourself and feeling guilty all the time. Especially when you’re already a good person. Guilt won’t do anything but inhibit you, so drop it. In the meantime, remember that being white does still enable you, for now, with a greater privilege and political advantage in improving our world, so use it.
Dean: Yea. I hear ya.
Al: Now, the most fundamental thing to remember is that there ultimately is no them or they. Never has been, never will be. Those are distinctions of our own creation, illusions which have led to humanity’s suffering instead of its progress. So I think it’s important to recognize that black people are not them or they. No matter how much we’ve convinced ourselves otherwise…in the end, there is only us. Our society and history tells a different story, of course, but if a behavior is learned, then it can be unlearned, at least enough to make a lasting difference in our institutions.
Al: When I look at any ‘people’, that is, any community in the world, I see them as my people. First and foremost. And they’re my people because they’re people. This is the most fundamental and universal truth.
Al: Second, they are American. My countrymen and women. And as such, an attack on them is an attack on me. That is what a country is, and if it isn’t…then it needs to be.
The riots we see are a result of these basic truths being denied for hundreds of years in what is essentially a violation against nature. And the violence will continue so long as people are denied the basic freedom to be what they are, so long as humanity is kept from living in its rightful state before nature, or if you think this way, before God. Living as equals, each serving his or her own vital role in one life-force that is humanity.
Dean: That’s heavy man.
Al: Yea but it’s really simple.
Dean: So you say…
Al: Begin by unlearning the biases we’ve been taught from our friends, family and media. Divorce yourself from prejudice and recognize the act not as political correctness, but as mere reality.
Dean: How do I do that?
Al: Well I think everybody has to find their own way. Some might turn to books and other resources, while others might consult alternative perspectives elsewhere. For others still, maybe people like you, the decision itself might be enough. Again, everybody is coming from their own specific experience and perspective. I mean, I think it’s important to remember that outside the laws of physics there is no objective reality, only perception and our ability to interpret data as constructive or destructive. To that point, for thousands of years, we’ve experimented with prejudice and the conclusion is that it’s destructive.
Al: We are responsible for the world we create, so let’s start by creating a sustainable one, by recognizing that we are all equally human, as equally flawed as we are capable of creating something of beauty and of lasting value.
Dean: Then what?
Al: Then we roll up our sleeves and get to work. If there’s someone in your life who harbors their own prejudices, remember that those prejudices are taught. So they can be untaught. Don’t be so quick to condemn that person or judge them, otherwise that person’s ego is going to step in the way and dig them deeper into their beliefs. The same applies to someone who fell into the same apathy you experienced. The conversation might be uncomfortable, but that’s part of doing the work. Simply speak, and stand up for what you believe. You can be respectful and firm at the same time. You may not convince them, at least not that day. But you will have achieved one thing at least, in the name of decency and creating a better world.
Dean: What’s that?
Al: You weren’t silent.
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