A picture of a white woman and a black woman covering each other's faces

I know you want to help.

I know there are times you feel helpless and overwhelmed. I know sometimes you feel paralyzed by fear. I know that you don’t want to say the wrong thing, but you also don’t want to say nothing. I know that you know a social media post is not enough. (You are right. It isn’t.)

I am writing this letter to you in hopes that we can come to the table and have honest, open dialogue. Ask me what questions you’d like. There’s space here—even for the questions you may think are dumb or small. I promise not to grow impatient or frustrated by your questions. If there are moments when the questions become too much or too heavy, I may walk away from the table, but I will promise to always come back.

I need a few things from you, too. I need you to promise to listen—to truly listen to an experience that is completely and utterly different from your own. It might get uncomfortable. It might get painful for you to hear what it’s like to be me. It might—no, it absolutely will—get uncomfortable at times to hear the unkind things people say and do. Let’s come to the table anyway.

I need you to promise to listen—to truly listen to an experience that is completely and utterly different from your own.

I need you to not try to lead this conversation. It has to come from me and people from the black community. We need to speak. We need to lead. We need to set the tone of change and what it will look like. I need for you to listen with humility and open ears and hearts. This cannot be your war to wage.

When I tell you that I am often followed in stores for no reason, I don’t want you to try to relate. I just want you to hear me when I explain how dehumanizing it is. How I leave stores feeling sticky with the negative labels and stereotypes of what it means to be black in America.

I need you to hear me when I say I’ve worked in spaces where I was constantly silenced and “other”ed. I need you to not minimize or negate my experience. I need you know how an office culture with surface-level inclusion can be as dangerous and problematic as overt prejudice.

I need you to not make excuses. Maybe if he would have not raised his voice. Maybe if he wouldn’t have run. Maybe if he would have kept his hands on the wheel. Please don’t make excuses for others’ costly mistakes. You may be trying to hope for the best or mitigate the situation, but instead, you unintentionally gaslight. You erase the experience of people who look like me, and make us feel wrong for living through it to tell the tale.

I don’t want a knee-jerk reaction of emotion from you. It’s great that you post on Instagram. It’s great that you are speaking out, but I need more from you. I need more than a one-time display of compassion, grief, anger and empathy.

I need you to intentionally choose to engage in this conversation. I need you to ask black friends in your world if they are open to share their personal experiences. I need you sit with your children and tell them the deep history of racial injustice and bigotry this country was built on. I need you to tell them it’s wrong and to teach them to be better.

I don’t want a knee-jerk reaction of emotion from you.

I need you to get politically active. I need you to vote out any council person, district attorney, mayor or governor who is not for justice and accountability. I need you to vote for legislation that holds leadership and law enforcement accountable. I need you to educate yourself on the policies in your city and state that adversely affect communities of color.

Trust me when I say that the viral videos are just a small glimpse into what it means to be black in America. We may not post about it on social media today or tomorrow. We need time and space to grieve, to weep for another soul lost.

I may not know about every murder of an innocent black man or woman. Trust me, I will find out. We know. This is our day-to-day experience. This isn’t new.

We know. A routine traffic stop for a broken tail light could result in a wrongful death. A walk through a store in the mall can result in us being followed. Being in the wrong neighborhood with my skin color can get the police called on us.

We know. We know about Emmett Till, the Birmingham church bombing, about Travyon Martin, Tamir Rice and Rodney King. It’s forever etched into our brains.

This is not new. It is our daily existence. I understand why you call to check on me. That your heart is breaking, and that’s OK. It should break.

Your heart is breaking, and that’s OK. It should break.

Let it break and let it compel you to action. Let it compel you to conversation with your families about race. Let it compel you to call out coworkers, friends and relatives who make racial jokes or stereotypes in jest. Let it compel you to jump in when you see prejudice and injustice—to literally jump in. Let it compel you to question if there is any bias in your own heart.

If you feel the need to call your black friends every time another name is added to the list of wrongful black murders, you will be calling us a lot. Trust me, we already know. We need more than your words. We need you to actively choose to engage, even when it’s hard, even when it gets heavy. For the longest time, we’ve been doing the lifting by ourselves.

How will you actively engage in the conversation on racial reconciliation? How will you make a difference?

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2 comments

  1. Hi Nami,

    Thank you for this kind note. It brought such a smile to my face. It is such an honor to be even just a little impetus for you to engage in this conversation and use your voice. It matters.

    All of these are great questions. I’ll do my best to answer them. You are so right that there are a lot of companies and institutions that are seemingly diverse. That post and say the right things, like in the article I wrote last year. I’d say it has to first start with heart change. People can share lists of books to read on racism and post diverse pictures, but it won’t mean a thing until the people on the inside care about people, all people. So it can be hard to know who is being real and who is just simply giving lip service. As far as demonstrations and protests, they’re definitely central to American democracy and culture. Thinking back to the Boston Tea party, it’s how our country got it’s start, protests aimed at changing the government. They can be effective because they seek to disrupt corrupt systems by disrupting everyday life, like traffic flow and orderly day-to-day society. I hope that helps some! Thank you for reading.

  2. Dear Stephanie,

    Thank you for giving me the courage to write this response to your letter. Normally I wouldn’t have the nerve to engage myself in such delicate subject but after reading your letter, your compassion, sincerity and patience has pushed me to write this reply to you.
    I am also African American (from my father’s side) but I grew up in Japan and life is very different here. Racism definitely exists here in Japan too but it is not as extreme compared to the U.S., as you might already know. I believe that’s another reason why I feel so hesitant and uncomfortable whenever I engage in these conversations because I’m fully aware of my own privilege and upbringing. Most days when I hear or see the news I can’t even bear thinking about it but after reading this and pushing myself to write this I am inspired to go and do my own research and see what is it that I can do as a U.S. citizen living abroad.
    I also read your other article on your work experience and I am truly sorry that you had to go through such humiliating experiences. But it also makes me wonder, how are we to even change these companies that promote diversity when we can be easily deceived through social media? Also this is more of a personal question and excuse me for my ignorance but how effective are protests and demos? Truthfully, and I don’t mean to disrespect, but I sometimes struggle to understand the purpose of it since I am not used to seeing demos or protests of any kind where I come from. I suppose it’s a cultural difference, but I would genuinely like to know what kind of effect it has on our government.
    Once more thank you for sharing this letter with us Stephanie and I hope that we can create more opportunities and conversations like this for people that are looking to help in these grave times.

    Nami

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