Who Will Educate White People in the Movement for Racial Justice?

Black Lives Depend on It

Dr. Donte Newman | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

Often, I hear some black anti-racists say, “It is not my responsibility to educate white people.” For a long time, I could not identify why I rejected that statement. The source of disagreement surfaced during a recent FaceTime call with a friend of mine who vehemently condemned protesters who damaged property.

Wyatt and I have been friends for almost a decade. We met through a high school debate mentoring program where we both volunteered. As life has progressed, time and other obligations have permitted us to catch up about twice a year, but this time, the conversation took a turn to the topic of race. Race has never been a seminal topic, but the civil unrest throughout the country provoked us to share our varying opinions and life experiences. While we share a number of similarities, our lived experiences are different because his skin is white and mine is black.

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After the formalities of sharing life updates ​— ​marriage, career, and the respective lives of our former students ​— ​I noticed this call was different. Wyatt was checking in on me because I am black. As the conversation progressed, Wyatt was keen on sharing his thoughts about the protests and even characterized them as “bananas.” He further stated how he didn’t understand why people were protesting and destroying people’s property.

It was here that the challenge I’d faced all these years was made clear. I had a responsibility to educate my friend on this issue.

An officer who took an oath to serve and protect kneeled on the neck of George Floyd for eight minutes and 46 seconds. The trial, sentencing, and execution of a man’s life took place on a street corner instead of a courtroom, and Wyatt was discussing the destruction of property. Wyatt’s statements, which echoed others throughout the country, condemned the protest and not the murder.

“What do you value?” I asked. He knew what I meant with this question. It was a question we had both asked our students all those years ago. He made the connection. We were not having a conversation about a man’s humanity but our respective values. What is more important: life or property? No longer looking at me, his eyes in a distant glare, he responded, “life.”

The conversation that Wyatt and I had is no different than the millions of conversations happening at dining rooms, chat rooms, and virtual workspaces across the globe. Life cannot be restored, but stores can. When we position property as the most important value in this context, we devalue black lives. This is the purpose of the rallying cry being heard and written across America: BLACK LIVES MATTER.

There is no doubt that the destruction of property is a violent expression of protest, but it is a false equivalence to compare it to the violence against black bodies. This form of protest is a result of being unheard by our criminal justice system. The destruction of property is not a new phenomenon ​— ​these practices can be found in notable revolutions in Haiti, France, and even the Americas. The destruction of property is not senseless.

Maybe some black protesters destroy property because historically we have been systematically denied property ownership. Maybe some black protesters destroy property because our humanity was denied when we were legally defined as property. The liberation of oppressed people in our history has always come at the helm of violence. Unfortunately, violence has become a prerequisite for justice. 

At this point, we are weeks into an uprising, and America is having a value debate in response to the protests of police violence against black bodies, including the recent murder of George Floyd. The essence of that argument from white America is that property is more important than black life. Dr. Eddie Glaude Jr. says we have a value gap in America. That is, white lives matter more than black lives. Property may be an extension of whiteness, making it more valuable than black lives in the white psyche.

This value gap is important to note. It is important to discuss because as former president Barack Obama states, a change in values can lead to a change in policies. A change in values can also lead to a change in how we enforce policies. But how do you get white people to value black lives? It begins with moving beyond the statement of BLM and addressing the policies that must be endorsed by a change in values.

I understand black anti-racists when they say, “It is not my responsibility to educate white people.” It is not the responsibility of the oppressed to educate and be oppressed by the oppressor. While friends like Wyatt aren’t requesting the intellectual labor to explain the purpose of my humanity, it is incumbent upon me to teach, correct, and inform when opportunities on such topics present themselves.

So while there are some that are not interested in the movement to educate white people, perhaps this is something that we must do, unfortunately, because we value life ​— ​black lives. The neglection of this education can literally be deadly for us. I am tired of us dying because of white ignorance.

Educating white people is exhausting; it is tiring; protest is tiring; and even writing this article is tiring, but this is my march for racial justice; this is my protest in the movement; this is my role toward social and political change.

Wyatt and I concluded our conversation in a very different manner than usual. Instead of a goodbye, it was an apology for centering his focus on the protesters and not the purpose of the protest. He is now committed to increasing his knowledge about white supremacy.

Wyatt is not alone. Maybe you have a Wyatt (or you are the Wyatt) in the life of a black friend. Before you start a conversation with your black friend about recent protests, ask yourself: What do I value: life or property?

If you are a black anti-racist, I am not imploring you to join my crusade in educating white people at every hour of the week, because it takes a lot of mental, emotional, and physical bandwidth to do so, but you should in some capacity ​— ​and you should be paid because it is intellectual labor.

It is my hope that once you conclude this reading, you too will join Wyatt and me in the responsibility toward educating white people in the movement for racial justice. Black lives depend on it.

Dr. Donte Newman is a communication professor at Santa Barbara City College. He earned his PhD in communication from American University


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