Dear white people: it’s time to shut up and listen

This is an open letter to all my fellow white people:

Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd.

Those are just some of the names of black men who have been brutally murdered simply because of the colour of their skin.

That list doesn’t include people like Charles Kinsey, a mental-health therapist, who was shot when trying to escort one of his autistic patients back to his group home after he had wandered off. Luckily for Kinsey, he wasn’t killed in broad daylight, just wounded.

It wasn’t too long ago that we were outraged when Amy Cooper was caught on video calling the cops to say that Christian Cooper, a black man, was threatening her life. That story ended without violence, and Mr. Cooper suffered no physical harm.

Others, like the list of names above, haven’t been so fortunate.

In the days since Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, I have wrestled with what to say. What words I should use to express my outrage and show my support for the African American community in the wake of another tragic and avoidable death.

I came up with nothing — not because I don’t care, but because instead of adding my thoughts to the public discourse I thought it more prudent to do something else.


So that is what I have done, what I will continue to do and what I think all of us white people should do.

Yes, this is our fight, too, but we need to stop inserting ourselves and ‘white-splaining’ to black people how they should go about expressing their anger. Instead, we should be listening to what they are saying.

A lot of you will tell protesters that they are doing it wrong, that violence isn’t the answer. They tried the other way, and got called sons of bitches for doing so.

I know 2016 was a long time ago, but if you can remember that far back you might remember a famous football player decided to take a knee during the American national anthem to protest police brutality against African Americans. He did it the so-called “right way” and he was was pilloried, blackballed by the NFL, and yelled at for “disrespecting the flag.”

When peaceful protest doesn’t work, what is the alternative?

It all comes back to listening. Why did I choose now to say something?

It is because of what I saw and heard over the weekend when a collection of CFL fans began to chastise players for speaking out, mainly in regards to them calling out the league for their lack of response.

Many CFLers are African American and some of them — most notably former Ticats DE Adrian Tracy and Montreal Alouettes RB James Wilder Jr. — voiced their displeasure with the league for not making a statement regarding what is happening south of the border. The league finally released a statement on Sunday, hours after players like Tracy and Wilder excoriated them on being silent.

It’s hard to imagine those two things weren’t linked. Many applauded the league, but some told the players to “stick to sports” — and essentially said the CFL should do the same.

Ah yes, the old axiom that comes out when white people brush up against something that makes them uncomfortable. I’m sure the comment section of this post will also be filled with those types of comments as well.

But here is the problem with that: sports has always been intertwined with politics. We celebrate Jackie Robinson breaking the colour barrier in baseball in 1947 or Muhammad Ali refusing to fight in Vietnam, but we forget that those actions were not popular during their time.

We see people invoke the name of Ali or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who say and do things that are diametrically opposed to what those men stood for. We praise Dr. King now, but he was one of the most hated men in America during his life and — in case anyone has forgotten — killed in 1968, shot in Memphis, Tennessee by James Earl Ray. Ali is viewed as a hero by many who would have called him a traitor back in the 1960s.

When you tell an athlete to stick to sports you’re telling them you only value them as a vessel for your entertainment. You are ignoring that they are real people with real feelings and real opinions on things that matter.

As a teenager, I used to sneak out of the house at 2:00 AM to go to 7-11. I never feared for my life or worried about my safety. I knew I was safe, even if I didn’t know why I was safe. Being out at that time is dangerous (or so your parents tell you) but you don’t know why. But living in suburban Hamilton, I never felt in danger.

As a young adult, I would do the same thing when I lived in Toronto, going out for late-night walks in the downtown core just for something to do. It was a bigger city, but I still didn’t feel my safety was at risk.

I didn’t know then what I know now, and that is that my skin colour made it safer for me to do those things. I don’t have to worry about going for a late-night run to the store and having police assume I’m doing something illegal. I don’t have to justify to anyone why I’m walking around a quiet, suburban area at 1:30 in the morning. It’s just assumed that I’m not doing anything wrong.

That wouldn’t always be the case if my skin colour was something other than white.

Police brutality is something white people can compartmentalize because they don’t see themselves in that situation. When a black man or woman is murdered by police, many black people can see themselves in that same situation.

In Canada we love to talk about how open and accepting we are, but we ignore our own problems with race. We have an abhorrent record regarding the treatment of our Indigenous community.

“We aren’t as bad as the Americans,” we say, but racism isn’t a zero-sum game. It’s not a competition to be not-the-worst. We have plenty of problems with race in Canada that need to be addressed, but that shouldn’t stop us from listening to people who are fighting for their rights elsewhere.

When African Americans of any stripe — be they a regular citizen or CFL celebrity — talk about the plights affecting them, it is not for us to tell them how they should express their outrage. Don’t tell them why they are wrong. Don’t attempt to debate them. And please, don’t tell them that “all lives matter.”

When people say black lives matter, they aren’t saying black lives matter more. They are saying black lives matter, too. While that should go without saying, there are far too many people who believe black lives don’t matter at all. If you don’t believe that’s true, turn on the TV or check your social media. That sentiment is all over the place.

While we, as white people, have a role to play in reconciliation, it is not a leading one. It is more important that we listen to what the black community has to say and help them in the ways they want us to help.

Yes, this is our fight, too; this fight is everyone’s fight. But we are not the leaders of this fight.

Stop the “well, actually,” stuff. Stop the condemnation. Just stop.

The core message is simple: white people, it is time to shut up and listen.


A white dude

Josh Smith has been writing about the Ticats and the CFL since 2010 and was sporting his beard way before it was cool. Will be long after, too.