An Open Letter to White Men
Empathy and Advice from Another White Man
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the world is burning and you don’t know where the fire extinguisher is. In fact, you don’t know how to use a fire extinguisher. As you think about it, you’re not sure whether you’ve had the fire extinguisher re-charged, ever. Did you even buy a fire extinguisher?
As a white man, we’ve hardly ever had to put out a fire. Fires have always been other people’s problems. We’ve almost always been relatively safe and quick to bounce back when fire swept through our communities. We could watch it from afar, catch a whiff of smoke, and go back to our lives.
But now we’re seeing the damage that the fires cause others. We can’t escape the words, the images, the videos. The videos are on the news, the photos are in our feeds, the words are coming out of the mouths of our daughters and sons, and now our wives and HR are holding us accountable. We feel confused, shocked. We feel defensive, even a little guilty, and we make up that we are under attack.
I get it. As white man, we weren’t trained in the fire-fighting skills that are now so critical. We approach the fires with the tools we were given: intellect, simplification, objectification, repression, and a focus on ourselves. We see our brothers take to Twitter and Facebook to explain rather than to understand (“Rioting is wrong and never justified”). We hear them speak from their experience without attempting to extend compassion (#notallmen). So we just remain silent (like I did until now), afraid of saying the wrong thing, unwilling to risk anything.
I get it. We weren’t trained to engage compassion. We weren’t rewarded for humility or curiosity.
As little loving, open, little boys, most of the time we displayed those qualities, we were shamed or humiliated. The boys who displayed confidence, swagger, arrogance, and the ability to dominate led the pack. Empathy, confusion, or vulnerability were ignored or mocked.
We learned to display strength through power and individuality. We learned to display hardiness and competence by suppressing our emotions and the emotions of others. We learned how to stay safe by maintaining homogeneity and denying diversity. As a result, we don’t have the skills for this moment. And that scares the crap out of us. We feel secretly weak but we only know how to use the tools we have so we double down on machismo, rationality, impatience, disdain, and either silence or trolling.
But the good news is that there is another set of very powerful tools we can use. There is another way to feel and be strong. There is a way to fight the fire that we see sweeping our way. The tools are not new, they are not complicated. We’ve always had them; we were born with them. I am still learning how to use them and you can, too.
Try to remember how to be curious rather than judgmental. When you see people rioting or hear women demanding control of their own bodies, step aside from your own experience and ask some questions. An important tip is to ask those questions silently. Do not make further demands on people of color and women. They have been fighting the fire for decades and they are exhausted. Use your powerful, inbuilt imagination and compassion to put yourself in the shoes of others not exactly like you. This won’t necessarily be easy. As a white man, you’re probably out of practice. You have to put aside your “common sense,” which might not be as common as you thought. You will have to be strong enough to be uncomfortable for a little while. It will be like learning a new gym routine or hiking with a heavy backpack.
If you can’t extend your imagination into the experience of another, try reading books by and about women and people of color. Try watching movies by the same folks, but let those images and words sink in long after the two hour running time. It will feel awkward. You won’t feel good at it. You’ll wonder if you’re being judged. That’s normal. Those feelings mean you’re doing it right and getting stronger.
Eventually, you might even start feeling good when you extend curiosity and compassion. You might feel a strange tingling sensation in your scalp or a slight release in your chest, like the space between two of your ribs just increased by a millimeter. You might be alarmed but that’s what growth and increased capacity feels like.
Learning how to extend curiosity and compassion are just the first tools to re-remember how to use. But using them will open the door to other tools like collaboration, inclusion and collective action, that taken together, have the best chance at quelling the fire and allowing for re-growth that benefits everyone. And, for you, each of those tools will actually help you feel truly and fully a man: strong, engaged in your community, useful to the people around you, and capable of meaningful acts. The journey won’t be easy, but it is necessary for you and for the world. Let me know how it goes.