White People: Let’s Stop Cherry-Picking MLK’s Words and Instead Listen to What We Need to Do for Change

By Meg Pawley

If you take a look around the Twin Cities today, you might mistake it for the year 1967. As a reaction to the repeated, state-sanctioned execution of black men and women that continues in the US today, an uprising has begun. What began as peaceful protests in 1967 became bona fide race riots all over the country. When discussing the riots, Dr. King said:

“Riot is the language of the unheard, and what is it that has America failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of White society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity.”

Those words are still relevant today, as the peaceful protests in Minneapolis and Saint Paul have also ended in riots. Engagingly, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, I have seen far more white people criticize the riots than the senseless act itself. Most of them accompany their (unwarranted) opinion with one quote or another from Dr. King that, taken wildly out of context, seems to only promote peace and love. 

When Dr. King was organizing his Poor People’s March on Washington in 1968, he spoke of it as a nonviolent army of the poor—an alternative to riots. However, he went on to warn that if the nation failed to recognize the nonviolent, emotional labor of black people, “God only knows what we will face.” Indeed, he considered it the “last desperate demand for the nation to respond to nonviolence.”

There seems to be a gross lack of acknowledgment of the fact that Dr. King was murdered for his actions. That was over fifty years ago. How long must an oppressed people be expected to “peacefully protest” their own demise?

We, as white America, need to wake up and realize that change can only come from us.  We control the systems, we put the systems in place, therefore it is our responsibility to dismantle them. 

I am stunned by the amount of shock I have seen from my fellow White folks. We are amazed that a Black man could be so obviously murdered in broad daylight in the year 2020, and yet we continue to question the legitimacy of our own white privilege. We cannot understand that privilege is the very reason we are blind to the violence that is inflicted on black people every single day.

White people seem to really enjoy quoting Dr. King because we think he did not actively try to change the status quo like Malcom X did. We do not see him as the radical he was. In his time, Dr. King was one of the most hated men in America. He called for the radical redistribution of economic power. 

Effectively, Dr. King has become another victim of the whitewashing of American history. Yes, he advocated for nonviolence, but that did not stop some of the marches he led from occasionally ending in riots. It was easy to legislate the integration of lunch counters, but when King campaigned for meaningful change, the kind that would disrupt the comfortable lives of white people, he was met with bull-headed resistance.  

The problem is that we as White people are so excited to work for change until it means actually sacrificing some part of our lives. We are all talk and no action. This issue has become even more pronounced with the infiltration of social media; we think we can simply repost something that says, “I see you, I hear you” and have it be enough.  

Black Lives Matter Protest in Kansas City. | Photo by Travis Young

For all the virtue-signaling on social media, there is a glaring disproportional amount of tangible action. We, as white America, need to wake up and realize that change can only come from us.  We control the systems, we put the systems in place, therefore it is our responsibility to dismantle them.  

One troubling response I have seen is the repeated criticism of rioting and looting. To be very clear, I do not condone these actions (although, ultimately, it is not my place to determine if this behavior is warranted or not). The response to the murder of George Floyd, compounded by the recent murders of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, has been dramatic.  

Rather than provide an opinion no one asked for, we need to meet our Black community where they are at and hear their voices. They are a people crying out in pain. This is the time for performative allyship to stop. Our black siblings need us to roll up our sleeves and start doing the hard work. They are in the trenches right now, fighting for their lives while they grieve for those who have been stolen, and it is not their responsibility to hold our hands through this process.  In her White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo writes, “It is white people’s responsibility to be less fragile; people of color don’t need to twist themselves into knots trying to navigate us as painlessly as possible.

As white people, we are the ones who need to hold each other accountable:

1. Listen

to the voices, stories, words, and messages of black people, as well as other POC.

2. Amplify

those voices and stories, giving appropriate credit and compensation.

3. Implement

strategies for anti-racism into your everyday life. This includes owning your racism and actively confronting it. It will be uncomfortable, and that’s okay.

4. Foster

a culture that rejects white fragility and encourages people to try, fail, and try again. It is perfectly okay to change your mind, remove posts, and give apologies when you discover new information.

Graciously, BIPOC have already amassed a wealth of resources for our learning. Remember to acknowledge the emotional labor this requires and compensate accordingly. Some of my top book recommendations are: 

Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

They Can’t Kill Us All by Wesley Lowery

I am asking my fellow white people to do some learning. Just as I have done, you need to come to terms with your white privilege and learn how to leverage it in the fight against systemic racism. Just as I have, you will feel ashamed, angry, resentful, defensive, and uncomfortable.  Just as I have, you will make mistakes and be called out and held accountable for them. But just as I have, you must continue to fight for justice and equity. Remaining complicit is no longer an option.

This piece originally mentioned White Fragility as a book to purchase. We recognize it is counterproductive to be promoting the purchase of any book written by a white person right now and have decided to remove that listing.

Meg Pawley is an anti-racist special educator. She is passionate about racial equity, sustainability, and accessibility. She lives in Saint Paul with her boyfriend, dog, and cat.

Travis Young is a Kansas City based photographer with roots in photojournalism and visual storytelling. He enjoys using film cameras to help him process, celebrate, and challenge his understanding in topics of race, gender, status, and mental health. When not behind a camera, you can find him creating things in 3D, obsessing over your grandmother’s dope Volvo Wagon from the 80’s, or getting lost in some tedious cleaning activity because he is a relentless Virgo.

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