Protests and marches have erupted across the country in broad support of the Black Lives Matter movement, even in alabaster-white cities with negligible black populations. The top of The New York Times’ bestseller list was seemingly fueled by the same energy — White Fragility, Me and White Supremacy, How to Be an Anti-racist, So You Want to Talk About Race — undoubtedly as a result of the many, many reading lists published in the last few weeks meant to help white people think more critically about race in the United States.
Our own podcast shot up to No. 1 on the Apple Podcast charts; it was frequently mentioned on the aforementioned lists. And with it, our social media accounts gained tens of thousands of new followers, many of whom appeared to be white, over the course of just a few days. At the same time, several major polls showed that white support for the Black Lives Matter movement, which was underwater at the time of the Ferguson, Mo., protests in 2014, had spiked in recent weeks.
Some major shift appears to be happening with a large cohort of white people. But why now?
The events that catalyzed this zeal among them were clear in their urgency. There was the horrific video of a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, which followed the police shooting of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, which followed the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia. But, of course, the recent history of the United States is replete with disasters such as these. Eric Garner’s death on Staten Island in 2014 at the hands of police was eerily similar to that of Floyd’s. Philando Castile was killed by an officer in 2016 in a shooting not far from where Floyd was killed. Both those encounters were captured on videos that went viral and became national news. Weren’t those cases sufficiently outrageous?
So I decided to ask our new white followers on Instagram what had changed — either in the world or in their personal lives — that moved them to “finally get off the sidelines,” as many of them were putting it in their posts on the platform. Their responses (and there were many) were a stew of zeal, frankness and some embarrassment. Many people said they weren’t sure why this moment was different. There was nuance and personal texture to the responses, but several overarching themes quickly emerged.
The first, perhaps not surprisingly, was President Trump, who was referenced directly or obliquely in almost every message I received. Some people said that his demagoguery on race made the problem of American racism legible to them in a way it hadn’t been before. (“If more than half of my country supports Trump and agrees with his views, we have much more work to do [than] I had previously imagined,” one person admitted.)
Others said the shock of his election sparked their personal political awakenings, after which they attended Women’s Marches and became more active in their communities and online. So by the time this current moment arrived, they were more plugged in and experienced political actors, more habituated to protest.
Still other people saw Trump and the federal government’s mishandling of the pandemic response as a big factor. Indeed, the role of COVID-19 in general was another major theme in the responses: as a threat to their own health, for example, or as a disrupter of routine. Some people said straightforwardly that the moment has caused them to worry about their physical and economic well-beings, and the lock-down had taken away many of the distractions that allowed them to ignore inequality.
“During COVID I’ve also felt a physical vulnerability in the face of the virus that’s made me more empathetic and shifted my priorities to some degree,” one person wrote. “In some ways I think that increased vulnerability has also re-sensitized me toward images of violence against black bodies, which my privilege had allowed me to tune out to some degree before.”
And the final major theme among these respondents? To them, it seemed that their (white) peers had become more outspoken this time around. Some people I talked to wondered if perhaps the people around them were being pulled along with the current.
“One motivating factor that I am not proud of but that I have recognized as relevant — in my personal circle, a larger number of white people are speaking up, and unconsciously I think that makes it feel safer and more important to care,” one person wrote. “I recognize that this is … highly problematic … But I wouldn’t be telling the truth if I didn’t recognize this as a layer of this moment for me.”
Another person echoed that idea. “From what I noticed in my own feeds, in the past it was conspicuous to be speaking out about BLM as a white person,” they wrote. “Now it feels conspicuous to NOT be sharing a post, linking to places to donate, etc. [A repeated] claim I’m seeing from white friends is ‘notice who of your friends is not posting right now.’ “
But this wave of anti-racist signaling didn’t just create pressure from white peers — it also created permission. “It became inappropriate to be silent, and seemed like there would be less social [repercussions] from being that white girl who is always talking about race and equality,” a person wrote. “Which is extremely uncomfortable and embarrassing to admit.”
What people didn’t say was also illuminating. Few people who responded to me said that they had become activated because of social proximity to black people — which isn’t surprising, given how few white people have nonwhite friends.
So while much of the conceptual space and groundwork for this moment was laid by black organizers, these messages suggest that much of this political foment among white people is happening because of contact with other white people. Thanks to LA Johnson/NPR