I’m a white high school senior at a private high school in Calabasas, California. If I wanted to ignore the Black Lives Matter movement, I could. What a sad luxury.
There are thousands of people like me though: white teenagers who are outraged by the way black people are treated by society in general and the police specifically. We can never feel the kind of powerlessness that these people feel. How powerless must Charlene Lyles have felt. You remember Charlene Lyles, right? She called the police on a Sunday morning to report a burglary. The police came to her home, and there she was, rightfully upset, pregnant, with four children to care for. The police killed her in her home.
Maybe you don’t remember Charlene Lyles because her story is, sadly, not that rare. Maybe she’s blended with Sandra Bland, Aiyana Jones, Eric Gardner, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Haraesheo Rice, Alton Sterling, Eddie Russell Jr., Rekia Boyd, Brian Ziro, Antwon Springer, Aaron Brandon, William Matthew Holmes, or any of the hundreds of black people killed by American police this year. With Jordan Edwards, the 15-year-old boy who was fatally shot by police with a rifle as he rode in a car from a party with his brothers. Keith Scott, shot and killed by police while reading a book in his car, waiting for his son to get off the bus. Maybe you, like me, forgot or didn’t know some of these names. This is a kind of powerlessness I have never known.
But I do feel powerless sometimes, to help. What can I do? I am an outsider. I am a kid. And then I remember that I’m neither of these. I’m not an outsider, because I’m part of the community and country that causes this harm. And I’m not a kid, because someone my age is more likely than not to be treated like an adult if they commit a crime. If you’re in my shoes, and wondering what you can do, here are some ideas.
Educate Yourself and Others
It’s first on every list of actions you can take: educate yourself. It’s good, but not good enough. I don’t need to make a list of links here. You know where you should find a list of links? From someone who is black. Let someone who has lived the experience tell you what to read as a starting point.
Don’t stop with educating yourself. It’s important, sure, especially as you become a part of the work force and a taxpayer and a voter. But right now, if you aren’t any of those things, you can educate others. What does that mean?
- Share articles and information with your parents and their friends.
- Don’t let people get away with making racist statements or jokes. If someone is dismissive of Black Lives Matter, call them on it. Be relentless.
- Challenge your teachers to share and discuss current events. Challenge white-washed impressions of history given in your history classes.
- If you have Black students in your classes or clubs, make space for them to share their experience on the topic. Use your privilege to give them the floor.
Maybe you can’t be a part of a march. Maybe you can’t leave school to petition or to make your voice heard. But do you have $10? $5? $1? Donate to the defense fund for those wrongly arrested. Donate to the Black Lives Matter movement. Money can be transformed into the most necessary resource, whether that’s bottled water or legal defence.
If you believe in something, put your dollars where your mouth is. Give up that latte and make a difference – and encourage your friends to do the same. There are 42 million teenagers in America. We are 13% of the American population. If we each donated $5 to a cause we cared about, that’s $210 million dollars making a difference. That would certainly make people listen!
Physically Join the Movement
You can look for a chapter of SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) near you and join. You can go to a local protest and use your white privilege to make space and safety for others to share their message. Look for a FB group within or near your community that is sharing ways to get involved, and join. And then go to one of the events, even if you’re uncomfortable.
And, What not to Do
Just as important is what not to do. It’s a long list, but here are some things I see otherwise well-meaning white people do.
- Ask black people to explain the situation to you. Google it yourself. Then ask how you can help.
- Say what you would do if you were black. Because you have no idea what you’d do, because you aren’t black? Okay, great.
- Say that protesting and rioting causes destruction so it isn’t a worthwhile way to communicate. Aiyana Stanley-Jones is in that list above. She was seven years old and asleep in her house when she was shot by police. Was she being too loud?
- Talk over black people. Your opinions and actions matter, but it’s good practice to listen to the people who are directly affected and believe their lived experience.
- Talk without black people. Does your world have no black people in it? Maybe! It’s okay for you to work with people you know and love to make a change, but if your entire world is only white people, maybe a good first step is changing that.