After the grand jury decision not to indict the New York police officer who used an illegal chokehold to kill Eric Garner on camera—the latest reminder of the petty regard in which we hold black life in this country—the backlash was swift.
Thousands of people, no doubt already energized by the demonstrations in Ferguson and the recent shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, took to the streets around the country. On Twitter, the reaction was immediate, as it always is.
One particular hashtag began to pick up steam in response to the decision. #CrimingWhileWhite, I have no doubt, began with good intentions. Still, as we apparently constantly need to be reminded: intention is not the same as impact.
#CrimingWhileWhite was a way for white people to share stories about interactions they've had with the police that, had it not been for their whiteness, would have likely been handled with aggression, violence or callousness. I imagine the goal was to show the disparity between the way black and white people are treated by the police in America, although I'm not sure we needed that spelled out, as we were literally watching it happen in real time.
Maybe, for some people, the stories told by #CrimingWhileWhite were surprising. Maybe they revealed the utter magic that comes with being a white person in this country, which to many white people just feels like well-deserved life itself. But truly, is this anything new? Was anyone legitimately surprised to learn that white people are able to get away with damn near anything by the police?
My initial response to #CrimingWhileWhite was indifference, but as the night went on, my irritation grew. I thought: Wow, look at all these stories about the times white people were treated nicely and fairly and humanely by cops. I'm real happy for you, but Eric Garner is still dead.
This doesn't mean I can't appreciate the effort. For people who consider themselves allies with any oppressed group, I imagine there is a certain feeling of confusion and helplessness. These people I'm sure just wanted to help in some way.
However, this ain't the way.
Who is this helping? How is this helping? These are questions that all allies should be asking themselves. Because really, what are black people supposed to do with these stories? They don't really make us feel better. They don't embolden us with knowledge or tactics that we can use to fight the system. And they simply confirm what we already know: white privilege is fucking amazing.
In response to #CrimingWhileWhite, Ebony.com editor Jamilah Lemieux started the hashtag #AliveWhileBlack for black people to share stories of their interactions with the cops—not while committing crimes, but just while living—where they were treated with violence, carelessness and general inhumanity.
See, now, this is helpful. It amplifies the voices of the exact people being disproportionally targeted by police. It helps those who might be less familiar understand the breadth of this epidemic, and perhaps some white people will be able to see how many of their blacks friends have personally experienced injustice at the hands of cops. These experiences are often invisible to the privileged, where the extent of white privilege is—or should be—lost on no one.
We see people co-opt conversations about race all the time, but probably nowhere else more than Twitter. One of the best things about Twitter is that it allows us to cultivate conversations and engage in dialogue with people we have no access to otherwise. Still, as New York Times reporter Jenna Wortham pointed out, it can feel like a performance, as if these people are putting on a sort of show to prove how down they are with the cause by publicly recognizing their privilege.
That's all good and well, but once you've had the epiphany—once you've recognized that you benefit constantly from this thing called white privilege—there's no real need to trot it out all the time. The only prize for recognizing your privilege is that it illuminates the world around you and allows you to see the hypocrisy and injustice and bullshit. That clarity is your prize.
If you want to be about the cause, be about the cause. Talking about all the ways you personally aren't hurt by the cause is helping nobody and smacks of narcissism.
Nothing is more important to constructive dialogue than people who are already heard at great volume realizing that it's not about them, or their voices. It is about a specific group of people in this country and the system that allows them to be targeted by our law enforcement. The #CrimingWhileWhite anecdotes misdirect the conversation and add nothing of value. Arthur Chu articulated this exact point perfectly in response to people on Twitter changing the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter to #AllLivesMatter:
Nobody wants white allies to stop trying and stop fighting, but there are times when it is best to just sit down and listen. The immediate aftermath of the shooting of an unarmed black person by the police or the announcement that their killer will walk free is almost always one of those times.
I want your solace and support and action, but perhaps take a moment and think: I know this is horrible but I still cannot begin to imagine how you're feeling right now because I am not a black person living in a country that continues to prove that my life is worth less than others.
Because no matter what, you will not feel this pain the way we feel this pain. You will not fear the way we fear. And in times like these, your voice is not the one that needs to be heard.
Image via Getty.