A letter to my white Austin liberals


      We are all hurting right now. The events of the past few weeks have left many of us lost, broken, sad, angry, in shock, in disbelief.  In short, grieving.  White folks seem to be grieving in many cases for the loss of a way of life, of a country and nationalism that they grew up knowing wasn’t perfect, but had not yet been exposed to its deep, wrenching chasms, especially as it relates to race.  This isn’t going to be easy, but I can’t let you off the hook.  You may agree with none, some, parts, or the whole of what I have to say to you today, and frankly, I don’t care.

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The struggle in talking to white folks about race

I can’t sugar coat this for you, there is a soul deep disconnect in the mind of white folks when confronting race and privilege. Some of you claim to be “colorblind,” most of you say you don’t “see race.”  Such problematic statements arise from the deep discomfort of the realities of race in this country. I know this hurts. I know how difficult it is to discover that the ideas we thought we were founded on are lies. That we don’t live in a country where there exists a level playing field. That policy and institution and laws have made it so we, as of yet, can’t be a country where there exists equality.

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You want to yell at me, “But… but… but… we’ve come so far since the old days!”  “We are desegregated!” “We have a Black president!”  “We all live together in one big happy!!!” But we simply don’t. And with the emergence of new images every day of the levels of brutality and murder our Black brethren face, we are reaching a head where we can no longer deny it.

Austin, Sweet “Progressive” Austin

So, today I am talking to Austin, and truly any white liberal who can hear this. I am talking to the white, liberal, progressive population that adorns this town and fights so hard to keep it “weird.”  We have a problem with race here. No matter how many black friends you have, or how much you love that one barista, and you were really outraged about Jumpolin; until you get to a point where you recognize your own racism and you force yourself to be uncomfortable when confronting your own privilege, you are a part of that problem.

       Hell, I am half white, with the privilege of looking white and I am a part of that problem myself. There is a need to acknowledge the roles we play when we are having these conversations about race.

        And, Austin, we really need to confront our hypocrisy. As Dan Solomon wrote last year: Austin is the only large, fast-growing city whose African-American population is shrinking. Why is that? The data suggests the rising property values due to gentrification in historically Black and Brown neighborhoods, better schools in the suburbs, lower property taxes.  All one really needs to do is look around East Austin.

From Michelle Mears’ 2009 book, “And Grace Will Lead Me Home: African American Freedmen Communities of Austin, Texas, 1865-1928.”

     Historically, Austin wasn’t once so segregated. I mean we have to take the way back machine pretty far, but there was once a large group of Freedmen’s towns here in Austin, that spanned the city.  As early as 1865, folks were flocking to Austin to create homes, communities, schools, and churches.  It wasn’t until a plan in 1928 to segregate the city and create a “Negro district” that we saw such a deep divide.

     The plan entailed a mass migration of Black folks from the city center to an area east of East Ave. (what later became Interstate 35) and force folks to move they did.  By 1932, the city had established separate schools, street cars, and parks divided along racial lines. The proverbial other side of the tracks. I have moved around this country, hitchhiking, homeless, and never have I lived in a more segregated city than this one. The insidious creep of subtle and outright racism not only exists in our own back yard, but we are in fact responsible for it.  Now, before those defences rise, let’s talk about how to overcome them. It is not enough to be non racist, you have to be anti-racist. Non racism implies passivity, a nod to your moral values, and while that is important, it isn’t actually doing anything.  Being anti-racist is an action.  It is a choice to be active in the fight for a better and more equal world. Part of being an anti-racist means confronting our privilege.

       Confronting my privilege?            

Racism 101 by Bell, Love, Roberts
Racism 101 by Bell, Love, Roberts


    So here’s the thing, you didn’t make this world the way it is. There is a distinction between individual and institutionalized racism.  The struggle we will face is that our implicit racial bias is always in play.  When you live in a world where, as Dr Robin DiAngelo says, “systemic and institutional control allows those of us who are white in North America to live in a social environment that protects and insulates us from race-based stress,” it can be extraordinarily difficult to know where to even start.  There are places where you can start, right now, in this moment.

      Consider the privilege that comes from never having to really think about race. From never having to wonder if that cashier was rude to you because of the color of your skin or because they are simply having a bad day.  To going to the store without being followed by a store owner because they saw only that you are white and that that meant you would be a thief.  Consider being a Christian and your every depiction of your God and Savior look just like you.  That Jesus was a Palestinian Jew who couldn’t possibly have been that pale with those flowing locks.  Consider the advertisement, the consumer culture for women built around long blonde hair and pale complexions.  Take notice of how often in your movies and television shows, the protagonists are white, and how often the “criminal element” is not.

sourced from Google
sourced from Google

     That of course, is wherein the danger of being “colorblind” lies.  It creates a rhetoric of erasure of whole swaths of your fellow community members who don’t have the above mentioned privileges.  We live in a world where the winners write history, I don’t have to tell you that.  You do, however, need to consider that in your lives.

     Confronting your privilege looks like acknowledging these facts. It looks like learning your history and doing your homework.  Researching the practices of redlining, the war on drugs, and mass incarceration.  It looks like educating yourselves and not asking the people of color that you know personally to educate you.  It’s sitting down and shutting up.  It’s listening to the heartbreak, fear, anger, sadness of the people who need it most.  It is not the job of the oppressed to educate the oppressor. And whether it upsets you are not, no matter how much you want it to not be true, you benefit from this system.  You benefit from a system built on the backs of slaves.  No one is saying that that is your fault, but…

A Call to Anti Racist Action

       Only through collective action, can anything change.  Only by getting down and dirty, getting into the uncomfortable conversations, putting ourselves at risk in the pursuit of equality, can we change this.

sourced from Google
sourced from Google

You don’t like that the police force is being infiltrated by white supremacists?  You think it’s unjust that the murderers of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray aren’t facing criminal charges?  How about Daniel Rocha, Nathaniel Sanders, Byron Carter, or David Joseph for that matter?  Get out there and do something. Something more than chanting in the streets.  White liberals, many of you can afford a misdemeanor disobedience charge.  Take City Hall, the police department, get out there and stop hiding behind keyboards because it’s safe.  If we want to see change, we have to fight for it.  Our privilege gives us that right.  You won’t be killed over a sit in.  You’re lucky enough that you won’t be found mysteriously dead in a jail cell 2 days later either.  That’s it. Therein lies the things you can do.

Let me reiterate in a list, because those are so popular!

  • Confront your own privilege

  • Confront your friends’ privilege

  • Confront your community’s privilege

  • Take direct action

  • Risk yourself, use your privilege

  • Be uncomfortable, sit with it, examine it

  • Be supportive, whatever that looks like for the folks who need it

  • Don’t be a dick

  An old friend of mine (Bingo L’Rouge) had a couple of wonderful points to make following the police shootings in Dallas. I am leaving you with this, because I think it’s of the utmost importance that this be heard:

“I’m getting pretty sick of seeing white people on my facebook feed posting MLK quotes about nonviolence or about ‘fighting hate with love’ as a response to the Dallas shootings. Especially (but not only) coming from white people who have been largely silent about the violence being inflicted on the black community by the police.

***Rev. King’s form of nonviolence cannot be practiced from behind a keyboard, and was never intended as a means of delegitimizing and silencing black rage. ***His nonviolence took place in the streets. It was a form of ***active and direct confrontation*** with the forces of white supremacy.

     …I have the utmost respect for the personal sacrifices and supreme dedication that Rev. King gave to the cause of black liberation. He and his followers put their own bodies on the line, intentionally made themselves irresistible targets, and suffered through brutal attacks at the hands of agents of the state and reactionary mobs alike in order to expose the inherent violence of this white supremacist capitalist american society. And guess what? His methods were scorned as ‘divisive’ and ‘too extreme’ by the white liberals of his day.

So if you’re out there in the streets marching for black lives, following the example MLK set by practicing nonviolent direct struggle and risking your safety to confront the police state that regularly murders black people and subjects them to extreme violence, then you have my respect and admiration, tactical differences of opinion regarding nonviolence notwithstanding.

But if you’re just quoting MLK out of context from the safety of your white privilege to justify your refusal to support contemporary black movements, or to somehow equate the violence of the oppressed with the violence of the oppressor – you’re spitting on the legacy of a great man, and you disgust me.”


Love in Solidarity!



2 thoughts on “A letter to my white Austin liberals”

  1. Rhie,

    Thanks so much for this post. I am a white liberal in Austin and am on the journey of waking to the truth. I am also a teacher in Austin ISD. I did an action research project this year to look at segregation in our elementary schools in Austin ISD. We are VERY segregated. It drives me crazy that we (white liberals) think of ourselves as progressive but send our kids to segregated schools. I put all of my data up on a website: http://austinforintegratedschools.weebly.com and started a Facebook group. I want to start meeting with PTAs and other groups once the school year starts. I want to put this data in front of white folks around the city, and ask if we think it reflects the values that we espouse. I also want to talk to parents and community members at Title I schools around the city, and hear what they have to say about this data. (Though, so far, it has been much less of a surprise to all of the POC that I have talked to about it, than my white liberal friends.) That’s my first step. Not exactly sure of my second step – but I hope it leads to some positive change. I hope for a school system in Austin that has black, Hispanic, and white students in classrooms together. I hope for a school system that is not concentrating poverty in some schools, with virtually none in others. I think that as a country we will be much more likely to work through some of our problems, if there aren’t so many “others”. If all of those people who we might see as others end up being our elementary school friends, or our kids’ elementary school friends.

    Thanks so much.

    1. Hi Valerie!

      I love this and I am so glad you have this data available. I am interested in how this progresses and would love to go more in depth with you sometime soon. Alas, I’m off to bed just now.

      Thank you for sharing!


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