Don’t Celebrate White People Being Late to the Fight
Photo: Ira L. Black-Corbis/Getty Images

Don’t Celebrate White People Being Late to the Fight

Yes, this moment is different from other moments…

No one really knows why the world took to this moment over others. A popular theory is that after months of quarantine, people were eager to do almost anything in order to connect to something real. Another notion is that Floyd’s murder was captured so cleanly that it rose to some new level of violence; that, more than all the other videos of Black people being attacked by police, this one might actually be criminal.

This was a moment I knew, and not just from watching Eyes on the Prize every February. When the Rodney King tape hit the news, America was shocked, home-movie technology revealing what Black people knew all along. And we protested. The video was never going to be enough. When the four officers who brutalized him were acquitted, I sat on the living room floor of a girlfriend’s apartment — a girlfriend who was breaking up with me — watching Los Angeles burn through the night. And we protested.

This is not a moment without wins, which is part of what makes it seem so different. The decentralization of movement leadership is working. It feels like a movement is supposed to feel: like it could go on forever. Police remain immutable, but there have been key firings and resignations just when the movement needed the extra fuel. Companies are bending over backwards to appear to care about Black issues, even if they aren’t crossing the finish line on what it means to care about Black people. Policy disparities are being exposed. Karens are being punished for weaponizing their privilege. Bookstores barely kept anti-racism books on shelves; now they can’t keep them in stock. These are not touchdowns — but someone is moving a ball somewhere.

But I know these moments, too. Even taken collectively, these actions are not sweeping reform; they are hot spots guided more by politics than justice. Some may become precedents to be used at a later date, but for now they’re headlines. Ask Breonna Taylor’s family if a win in Minneapolis feels like a win in Louisville.

Black discomfort is expected; encouraged, even. How will we create the next blues or hip-hop if we, too, become comfortable? But White discomfort cannot be abided.

Last week, it began to seem as if we were approaching the point at which Black people’s collective grief gets cut short by America’s need to get back to normal. But just when I thought the end of the track was in sight — when the fatigue sets in and the crowds disperse, when politicians wrangle a placating concession of reform from the bowels of some long-inactive committee, me fixing my mouth to whisper Well, we had a good run, didn’t we? — an Atlanta officer killed Rayshard Brooks. This moment felt different until it didn’t.

So the protests persist and grow. There are protests where protests have never been, meaning where White people might be the only ethnicity in the crowd. I applaud the diversity of this moment. There is no question that the critical mass of many of them is owed to White people opting into action this time around. We have always needed White people to step into the fray with us to move the needle of change.

But I have to ask, White people: what took you so long?

That is not a rhetorical question. I genuinely want to seek out every White person who is newly aghast or enraged in this moment and ask them, “What took you so long?” George Floyd shouldn’t have been killed, but he also shouldn’t have stood out. Two months before he had the life pressed out of him, Breonna Taylor was shot while sleeping in her bed. Hers is a case that is, in some ways, even more egregious than Floyd’s, in that there is no what-if smoke to blow. You cannot be more non-threatening than when you are asleep. There is no resistance, no talking back, no sudden movement or negotiation. Every element of procedure we are decrying in this moment came spilling out of her home that night, all the evidence one could ever need to bolster a case for reform present and accounted for. Though we carry her now, the world did not catch fire for Breonna. Her moment did not spark The Moment.

And just as Black people must interrogate why that was true for us, White people have to sit with why the things that we have been telling them for so long are only now sinking in.

All of the books by Black authors on the matter of race that are currently sold out were already published, already sitting on shelves or in libraries or on booklists we made the last time this happened. All of the Black organizations we set up to educate people about White supremacy or to tackle systemic racism were already formed. We were already having the conversations and the meetings. It is work Black people want White people to do, and it is work we do not want to, should not need to, train or supervise. There is nothing new in any of the books you just ordered on Amazon. DuBois was saying what we’re saying a hundred years ago. Garvey been said it. Lorde been said it. Morrison been said it. Davis said it. Baldwin been said it better than everybody. Why do you think we’ve been putting them on Black History Month posters all this time?

Americans do not sit with uncomfortable things. Comfort is our preeminent value, and White comfort has always been the twist in the DNA of this country. It is why property damage is so disconcerting to them, despite property damage being the chief tool used to pour the foundation of this country. Black discomfort is expected; encouraged, even. How will we create the next blues or hip-hop if we, too, become comfortable? But White discomfort cannot be abided. White people don’t do awkward silence when it comes to race. They shut down. They walk away. They weaponize fragility. They flip the channel to something less challenging. They retreat into the America they own and that everyone else is just leasing — and because Whiteness permeates every culture nook, they don’t have to travel far.

If White people are willing to engage the question of what took them so long, I don’t want them to do it with me. I want them to ask themselves, to interrogate the place within them where lies go to die, to upend their family dinners with the question. I want them to ask it every day of their lives. As long as they are asking that question they are not clutching their pearls, not surprised by the world that affords them so much and others so little. As long as they ask themselves why they did not notice or care before this moment, we won’t have to start from scratch when the next moment comes.