The Truth About White Protest Distress


White liberals, this message is for you too.

“You want me to tell the truth? Sure, I want you to get what you need to be free from injustice. I just don’t want it to cost me anything. I don’t want to be afraid or insecure for my future. I don’t want your protest to make the stock market go down. I don’t want to lose symbols I am attached to. I don’t want to lose my favorite boutique. I don’t want to look to the future with uncertainty. I don’t want to look at what you are doing and be confused. I hate confusion, insecurity, fear and loss more than I hate the injustice you endure, if I’m really honest.

So, I will keep my certainty. If what you protestors are doing doesn’t make sense to me, then I will insist that it doesn’t make sense. If your way of protesting doesn’t seem right to me, I will insist that it isn’t right. Why can’t you be like Ghandi and Dr. Martin Luther King. Their protests didn’t threaten or disturb anyone, did they? Their protest followed the established rules of engagement for change, didn’t they?”


Well no. Ghandi and Dr. Martin Luther King succeeded in large part because they engaged by different rules. People in positions of power think they have the right to decide the rules of engagement for anyone taking issue with them. Of course, they only do so in a way that gives them the advantage. They aren’t stupid.”

European soldiers and European American soldiers fought in straight lines, faced off, in open terrain. Those native to this land did not fight that way. Had they tried to, they would have had no chance. They hid behind boulders, ridges, and trees. They used the element of surprise. So the Europeans, our ancestors, condemned this way of fighting as being uncivilized, morally wrong.

Those in power fault protestors for not working through the system rather than trying to settle things in the court of public opinion. They have more control over the system than the wild card of public opinion, which can force their hand. People in power know they will win if the issue is handled in the system they control. Anything else, they want to be wrong

Do white liberals really want what protestors of police racism and Black Lives Matter Advocates want, as they claim? What makes it suspicious are things like lumping all protestors together, to make them a “them,” a coherent group in our minds. It isn’t true and they don’t want that. If we don’t want nuance and complexity, then we don’t really want what they want.

When we insist they have clear goals and strategies, maybe we don’t really want what they want. If we can’t tolerate their process, we can’t really know if we want what they want. Our distress blocks our ability to understand the complexity of what they long for. Our impatience may be hiding our real desire for the protests to fail. When we insist that they aren’t protesting right, it is suspicious that we really want them to fail.

We are confused; we are threatened. We don’t trust the protestors to have power. What would become of us if they got what they wanted? We can’t possibly know. Maybe we are unwilling to do find out, to live with an uncertain future when the present is working so well for us. We want guarantees.

If we care enough to manage our distress internally, then we might be able to make the charitable assumption that the fact that I don’t understand means I have something to learn, not that they are wrong. The charitable assumption that if I feel threatened, I am invested in what is oppressing them, not that they need to be stopped.

With so many others wanting an end to the injustice that they endure, some of the hardest work for those who feel no need to be liberated, is to learn to get out of their way. And that means learning to manage our distress internally and being willing to lose something for the sake of what others can gain. For them to be safer, maybe we need to be less safe. For them to have more power, maybe we need to have less.

Anti-Racism Needs Difference More Than Commonality

People of color in our society who become more white have greater opportunity than those who do  not. The more like the people in power you become, the more opportunities they will give you. Unfortunately, as unjust as that is, it does work that way.

When a person is interviewing someone for a job, they unconsciously, if not deliberately, look for what they have in common with the applicant. It can be trivial – shared backgrounds of some sort, shared interests, knowing someone in common. The more in common, the more comfortable they are with the applicant. The more in common, the more likely the person will hire you. This is one aspect of how race and subculture systematically work for some and work against others.

If hired, the more in common, the more easily collaboration with co-workers will take place, so people can justify the wisdom of hiring and promoting based on commonality, comfort level, fitting in. This, despite the fact that it is unjust. Also, research shows better team outcomes with groups of greater diversity. The reason? More information to draw on. A system that tries to get people to be more similar will have fewer ideas to draw from. And, it will be engaging in injustice. There is a moral motive and there is a pragmatic one.

Despite moral reasons not to, the human brain looks for commonality, and race and culture are big ones. Some people try to overcome racism with the belief that down deep we are all the same. Differences are only skin deep, they think. All people really want the same things, is another. Some religiously and spiritually minded people try to promote focusing on the fact that we are all members of the human race. The strategy is to see beyond color to focus on what we universally have in common.

It is true that some unconscious racist reactions are negated by putting the other person into the groups you identify with. A person of a different color in the uniform of a team you don’t care about will be judged negatively. Put the same person in the uniform of your favorite team and you rate them higher. This has been shown to be the case.

But focusing on commonalities is how relationships become cordial but superficial. We can do better that that. To search for and value differences takes us farther than finding comfort in what we have in common. The marvelous truth is that others have accessed inside themselves things I cannot seem to access inside myself. I lose out on expanding my access if I just look for what we have in common.

This takes a commitment to retrain the brain to not seek comfort, but rather seek the stimulation of what is new and different. This is actually how many people learn to get along with different kinds of people in college or the military or work settings. They find that people who are different from them expand their horizons. People often realize they have hidden what is different about themselves. It is a fearful process only because of the expectation of judgment that is not diminished by the common practice of seeking commonality. When they don’t let themselves be constrained by that fear, they experience the joy of breaking free.

The cause of justice and the joy of human liberation are both served by learning to value differences more than seeking commonality.