'Letters To My White Male Friends' Is A Call To Action And A Reflection On RacePlay
After the murder of George Floyd last year, Dax-Devlon Ross wrote a letter to his white male friends — the same people who were reaching out to him to see if Ross, a Black man, was doing alright.
At the time, protests against systemic racism and police brutality were erupting across the country. Ross wanted to let his white friends know — some of whom are his closest friends, he says — how they could be better allies in the fight for racial justice.
His letter ended up circulating far and wide, and is now published as a new book titled "Letters To My White Male Friends."
While penning his note, he says he wanted to zero in on the emotional reaction of his white friends and how racism also negatively affects them.
“I have this sense that the way we talk about race in America tends to focus explicitly on how racism impacts and influences the lives of people of color and Black folks,” Ross says. “But I really want my friends to recognize that it impacts them, too.”
He began to explore the ways in which middle-aged white men are harmed by racialization and the notion of “colorblindness” that many in Generation X were raised on, he says. Limited education and engagement in nuanced conversations on race in the “post-civil rights world,” as Ross calls it, led to many having “underdeveloped understandings of the ways in which race and racism operate,” he says.
The Supreme Court's political rollbacks in the 1970s, school bussing and segregation in suburbanization contributed to race-related problems, he says.
“A lot of young friends of mine, my buddies, their parents moved them to the suburbs. And many, many times our education, our lives became very resegregated when in fact, the intention was for us to be engaging with these conversations,” he says. “We were not at all.”
Ross points to his own experience of how his educational environment growing up rarely reflected his lived experiences as a Black child and how little race was discussed in his classrooms. He attended Sidwell Friends School, an elite, mostly-white private school in Washington, D.C.
At the time in Washington, D.C., Black middle-class families were sending their children to independent schools — Sidwell being one of them, he says. Within the “very privileged environment” at Sidwell, his classes didn’t engage in deep conversations about structural racism — a function of the ‘80s time period, he says.
In the book, he explains how this led him to believe that because he had gone to school with children of powerful white people that he was, in fact, one of them. The journey to learning he actually wasn’t required a lot of learning and self reflection, he says.
“What happens when a young Black person like myself, you end up in an environment where we don't talk about differences?” he says. “In my mind, I start to believe that the world is going to treat me the same way I'm being treated by my white friends in this kind of very isolated environment.”
He got a glimpse into the real world when he left the Sidwell bubble and entered college, he says.
Throughout the book, Ross details how racism has harmed Black people for generations but has also hurt white people by robbing their lives of fullness and meaningful relationships. When conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion are brought up, white people often meet the subject with “uncertainty, fear and even defensiveness.”
He’s seen the trepidation in white men when they meet him for the first time, he says, which obstructs their ability to build a real relationship.
“But [white men] in many ways have been socialized to believe that I'm different,” he says. “So the harm, I think, is broad in the sense that we miss out on a lot. We miss out on a lot of different people and experiences and engagements that we could otherwise have.”
Eliminating assumptions and participating in nuanced conversations can “unlock the potential for us to live with more joy, more fullness,” he says, a notion at the heart of his book.
Ross has been having these conversations with white men, especially more now after the death of Floyd. Putting energy into educating friends and strangers has been “exhausting, but necessary,” he says.
“I want people to feel like it's OK to start the conversation with me. Please understand that I'm going to check you if I feel like you might be approaching something with sort of a lack of empathy or a lack of awareness, I'm going to try to fill that gap in,” he says. “But I'm not going to turn away from you in the conversation.”
There have been moments that inspire him, such as when he witnessed groups of white men coming together after reading his letter. They dedicated time week after week to hold space for real conversations about race and racism.
White men’s societal power means they need to do the work to be involved in solutions, Ross says.
“We got to have white men in these conversations,” he says. “We cannot have a racial reckoning without it.”
Julia Corcoran produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Jill Ryan. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web.
Book Excerpt: 'Letters To My White Male Friends'
By Dax-Devlon Ross
I will never forget one night in Cape Town when I was out at a dance club with a group of fellow law students. My friends and I were clustered by the bar, spending our overvalued cash with an all-too-eager-to-please barkeep, talking loudly as Americans often do without even wondering if it’s obnoxious, when I noticed something unusual out of the corner of my eye. Picture this scene with me. The dance floor was dark and crowded, thick with grinding bodies. But there was one body—the one that caught my attention—moonwalking around the perimeter of the floor in its own orbit. How often do you see anyone in a club moonwalking? It isn’t the type of dance that one performs alone in a club. I’m not certain that it can even be classified, in the classic sense of the word, as dance; it’s more like a move within a dance. Something that precedes a spin and drop-down split.
I couldn’t get over what I was witnessing. I nudged my friends, who looked over and chuckled before returning to their conversation. Not me, though. I decided to climb to the balcony overlooking the dance floor so I could look down on this mysterious moonwalker. Round and round he went without stopping. After his third or fourth circumnavigation, my laughter petered out and something else started to emerge. The moonwalker didn’t give a damn. Whoever was watching or whatever people thought had nothing whatsoever to do with him.
Why begin these letters to you with an anecdote about a stranger I witnessed moonwalking in a club twenty years ago? What possible connection does that experience have to race?
The simplest way I can put it is that at that point in my life I believed, whether or not I was ready to admit it to myself, that there was a single standard of the successful and therefore acceptable Black man, and either I met that standard or my life was a failure. A successful and acceptable Black man had a clean record, credentials from the most prestigious institutions that would have him, and a career in a field that white America held in high regard. He rose above his race, excelling without complaint or excuse. He spoke with perfect anglophone diction and dressed impeccably though conservatively. Most important, he was always on time.
But I knew another side of that Black man.
He was, also, trapped in a role he was assigned to play in order to survive and gain some measure of stature and stability in a hypercompetitive, hyper-individualistic society. He was my dad. He was so many of the Black men I grew up around. Collectively, they were my first heroes. I just couldn’t live their Black lives. For them, succeeding in newly integrated America depended on their ability to swallow racial slights with a straight face and keep climbing the ladder. It hinged on how well they tempered their Black cultural identity and mimicked the white middle-class cultural norms that most workplaces rest upon. Whatever unconventional or nontraditional life paths they might have longed to pursue had to be surrendered for the more noble cause of advancing the race on white America’s timeline.
Witnessing this as a kid, I became resentful of the stirring sense that if I wanted any kind of respectable future, I had no choice but to fit into a Black-male mold meant to manage the anxieties of white people. Doing so would have been inauthentic to my experience inside white spaces, where, for better and worse, I had been reared since middle school. No one told my white male friends that they needed to be a credit to the race. They weren’t taught to code switch so they could assimilate and appear competent.
Rather, they were groomed to govern, treated as individuals, and assured ever so subtly that they were the standard by which everyone else was measured. And because I was there as well, right beside them, I received the same education. Consequently, comporting myself to white America’s standards of success to advance the race did not appeal to me.
It would have required me to repudiate a part of my experience, blot it out, which struck me as a most vicious act of self-betrayal, a twisted kind of self-hatred.
Selfishly, I couldn’t go on harboring the resentment and rage inside. I was angry with my parents’ generation for settling for middle-class crumbs. Angry at my Black peers for not being angry enough. And angry with white people for comfortably and obliviously wielding dominion over it all as if it were an ordained right.
Even then I knew quite well that all of that anger would eventually poison my well. I’d seen bitterness ruin Black lives. Seen it sprawled on street corners, slumped over bar counters, and strewn across the entire American landscape. I knew I needed to create my own Black life that included white people not just as coworkers I joked with superficially and neighbors I waved to but distrusted and kept my distance from. I needed to be able to hold white people close as fellow, flawed travelers on an imperfect journey toward justice and healing. One that I might not live long enough to see the end of. But for that to happen, I still had searching that I needed to do, questions I needed to answer, feelings I needed to reconcile. Maybe you can relate. Maybe, friend, at a similar age you also felt as if you had to make a choice between invention and convention, between hunkering down and remaining open despite the storms ahead. For me, the mysterious moonwalker became a liberation metaphor. At critical life junctures over the next twenty years, his image reemerged to guide me on my path into the unknown. Go. Live. Take the risk. Be bold. Make your own way.
It will be okay. You will be okay.
The book you are holding is not a handbook on how to be anti-racist. That book exists. This is also not an attempt to exploit anyone’s pity or guilt. Nor do I want to call out, humiliate, or shame anyone. To be sure, I employ my personal and professional journey to illuminate and illustrate larger societal events and trends that have shaped a generation’s story. My journey has placed me in proximity to the criminal justice system, recent social-justice movements, the nonprofit industry, urban development, urban education, and workplace diversity and inclusion. I have thus spent my career thinking, reporting, writing, and otherwise working to reform the inequitable systems, practices, and policies that many of you, maybe for the first time, are encountering and grappling with as parts of a broader system that protects and exalts white advantage. In my experience, this inexperience has led my white friends and colleagues to often name problems and propose solutions for Black people without understanding context or appreciating the extent to which those views and solutions stem from an unexamined acceptance of certain truths about the society we inhabit.
I write the letters herein to my white male friends because you are everyone’s target but no one’s focus. You and I both know that you hold immense power, wealth, and status in our society. That power strikes fear and invokes intimidation. It instills a sense of incontestable authority and certainty. Consequently, no one ever speaks to you directly.
No one challenges you to push beyond your comfort zones. In short, when it comes to conversations about race, white men are typically coddled and appeased.
For us to collectively move toward racial healing and justice, you are going to have to reckon with your role not just in what has been wrought but in what we are building.
From "Letters to My White Male Friends" by Dax-Devlon Ross. Copyright © 2021 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.
This segment aired on June 21, 2021.