An Open Letter to White People

Hey, guys. It’s me, also a white person. How’s it going?

It’s MLK day, which we all love to celebrate, and all get frustrated if someone claims we don’t like it.

On this day, though, I thought I’d get your attention and explain something my friends of color already know: his work isn’t done.

I know this is true not because of crime rates, murder rates, or the disparity of earning for the races. Even the fact that we know descendants of people with a traumatic experience often have some symptoms of PTSD themselves isn’t the real base of the issue. Those things aren’t good, but they’re a symptom of the problem.

We can talk about those things, but if we don’t understand the root of the problem, we won’t ever fix it. I’ve got an incurable disease, so I know better than most how little good curing symptoms does when there is deep, internal pain. Martin Luther King understood the root of the problem, but since his death, that understanding seems to have been lost.

White Americans need to realize what the real problem is.

The root of the problem is one that goes back and back and back, not even to slavery, but to the idea that allowed slavery. America was founded on freedom and equality, and before the ink of the Declaration was dry, Americans were already rejecting those principles. Chattel slavery, the specific name for the type of slavery common in early America, takes a man and makes him into a beast, lower than a dog, and it elevates the master to absurd degrees of false virtue.

While some Americans understood and acted on the principles of America, of equality, liberty, and of Natural Rights, some were whipping their equals and claiming that it was good for them.

While some Americans were trying their best to abolish slavery, others were claiming a black man could not even be a citizen of the United States by twisting the words of the Declaration to not include them.

While some Americans were ready to fight for the freedom of their black brothers and sisters, others were proudly proclaiming that their Confederacy was founded on slavery.

And even today, while most Americans have never materially felt any sort of ‘white privilege,’ there are still some who disagree with the Founders of our country. There are still some who feel as though people of color are lesser than them. Thankfully, those people are few and far between, but they exist, and they are loud. Their ideas seep into everything, transforming the alt-right into another word for white nationalists.

This is the root of the issue. And if you don’t think Dr. King agreed with me – if you think the Declaration was racist and America was founded on racism – read it from his own most famous speech:

“I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

What is immediately clear from reading his own words is that Dr. King did not think America was founded on racism. He was not trying to change the American idea. He was challenging Americans to finally live up to it.

I think we still have some work to do.

So, fellow white Americans, how can you actually do something about the way that our friends and neighbors still feel marginalized? It feels impossible, doesn’t it? It feels like we’re already doing everything we can by not being racist in the first place.

The first step is education about America. Teach yourself, teach your kids, how to understand what the Declaration means, and what it means to be an American. Learn about American history and how we’ve always, always failed to live up to our own ideas. Then don’t be discouraged because we’ll probably always fail. The important thing is that we keep trying.

The next step is to actually be a good citizen. This means more than just voting. It means being a real part of the community you’re in. It means if you have a reason to complain about the local government you go do something about it. It means being a help to those less fortunate. This one isn’t racial at all, but once you start becoming a servant leader in your community and become a good citizen, your perspective changes.

The last and hardest step is to treat people as people. This is a dangerous balance. What this doesn’t mean is that you just simply “don’t see color.” The ability to not see color is quite literally what white privilege is. For us, the fact that we aren’t defined by our skin tone internally or externally – people of color in general face both – is our privilege. So recognize the different experiences everyone has, and then treat them respectfully. Don’t pretend you don’t see color, don’t kowtow and act way too nice to your black friends, just be yourself and let them be themselves. 

I’ll be working on these things just as hard as you will be.

I’m going to end with some of Dr. King’s words to think about:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I hope we can make that happen for the next generation, and the next, and the next. It’s what America is about.

Yours truly,

Jacob Nestle

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