A Message To My White Friends

by Ashley DeTar Birt

Over the past several days, I’ve watched a lot of things happen in our country. An unannounced march in the night with Hitler shirts and tiki torches. A white supremacist rally ending in violence, injury, and death. The president going in front of cameras and defending the white supremacists. It has been infuriating, frightening, sickening, and unavoidable. To escape conversation about what’s happened means to avoid all news and media and to perhaps not leave your home or converse with friends.

Online, I’ve watched my white friends attempt to process what has happened. 

Many are shocked at what happened, never imagining that this could be our present day. Some are ranting about what our president said or didn’t say. A few pastor friends posted about rewriting their sermons at the last minute. I’ve even seen discussion about whether or not it was okay if someone didn’t rewrite their sermons to include the latest news in racism and antisemitism. Reading these responses has been interesting to say the least. They’re all so far away from mine.

Right now, the thought I keep coming back to is driving to camp.

For the past three years, I’ve been a workshop leader for a youth and young adult conference in Pennsylvania. To get there, I fly into my hometown of Pittsburgh, rent a car, and drive a couple hours until I arrive at the camp center. The drive itself is more or less on one long main road and, minus some twists and turns, isn’t particularly exciting.

Still, the fact remains that, even though that camp is one of the highlights of my summer, the drive to and from it scares me.

Growing up, we had a saying about my home state: Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, with Alabama in between. 

We said this to emphasize how the major cities were liberal oases in an otherwise conservative landscape, but we also said it because we knew that, outside of those cities, people of color faced the possibility of racism usually assumed to be the purview of the South. Neither Pittsburgh nor Philadelphia are without their racial issues, but the more central parts of the state have the reputation.

Every time I make the drive, I think about this. I’m a black woman, driving alone through potentially hostile territory, in a car that isn’t mine. If a cop felt like targeting me, I’d be an easy mark. If someone at a gas station felt like coming after me, I wouldn’t have any support to stop them. I post online so that my friends know where I’m going and when my arrival should be, and that makes me feel a little safer.

Truth is, though, if something did happen to me, if I never posted that I arrived, what could anyone do to help me? I could end up in jail or hurt or dead and, as a queer black person, I might not even get the recognition of a hashtag.

When I’ve told white friends about my fear, many of them have acted as if I’m being paranoid. 

They ask if anything’s ever happened to me before. They ask if I’ve ever heard of anything happening in Pennsylvania. I’ve been made to feel like I’m crazy, driving while looking over my shoulder in case the KKK or Nazi bogeyman wants to come get me. And yes, sometimes I feel that way, too.

But then I remember the stories of my friends who were stopped by the cops and cried because they thought they would die. I remember those who have been chased in cars by screaming bigots. Just because my white friends hadn’t seen the bogeyman didn’t mean I was making it up.

Beyond personal stories, I have statistics on my side. Pennsylvania is, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, home to 40 known hate organizations, and the majority of them have some sort of white supremacist focus or agenda. This makes Pennsylvania sixth in the nation for hate groups, behind California (79), Florida (63), and Texas (55), but ahead of Mississippi, South Carolina, and even Alabama, all of which have fewer than 30 groups each.

This is what I drive through every time I go to that camp. 

It’s what I drove through a month after Sandra Bland died. It’s what I drove through as I played a game counting Confederate flags and Trump signs. And if I tried to save money and drive from New York? I’d be driving through a state with 47 known hate groups. Who knows what I’d drive through then.

The bogeyman has always here. It just took something like Charlottesville for a lot of white people to believe in it.

The white supremacists at that rally? They weren’t all from Virginia. They came from different states, from different walks of life. The man arrested for hitting and killing people? He traveled from Ohio, Pennsylvania’s neighbor.

These are not fringe groups. These people were not outliers. They are university employees. Students. Perhaps barbers. Bartenders. Cops. Teachers. Neighbors. Family. Friends. Church members.

I don’t know how to tell my white friends not to be surprised that this happened. 

If I had been believed before, if so many people of color had been believed before, it wouldn’t have been a surprise. What I can say is this: now that you know, act. Go out and march if you’re able. Donate if you can. Preach against white supremacy over and over and over again until you’re as sick of it as hatred makes us sick. Go read the Barmen Declaration and remember what Christians standing up against bigotry looks like. Reckon with a church that is so afraid of “offending people” that it has allowed itself to be a pillar upholding white supremacy. Reckon with a Bible that has been used to both honor and defile life. Believe people of color.

You know what I know now. Do something about it.

Photo by Larissa Puro

Comments (1)

Janet Edwards

Deepest thanks, Ashley, for

Deepest thanks, Ashley, for your generosity of spirit to share your experience with us despite our obtuseness. I will take your call to action to heart!!

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