GT: I interviewed a colleague and friend, Phil Wesson, on how white folks can be better allies to the Black Lives Matter movement and in general during times of racial injustice. As a white person, I am uniquely qualified to influence other white people and my privilege places me at an advantage to make an impact. That’s what I hope to do here. Although I love to talk, I’m going to sit back and let Phil’s interview do the talking. I’m learning that being a better listener is part of being a better ally.
Tell readers a bit about yourself.
My name is Phil Wesson. I was born in 1980 in London, England to a loving family. My father worked (and still works) in finance, after being a Naval Officer. From London, we moved to Stamford, Connecticut, a city in Fairfield County. It's one of the wealthiest counties in the United States. Then, we moved to California, right outside LA in a neighborhood called Palos Verdes Estates, and then to a suburb of San Francisco.
I’m blessed that my father and mother worked as hard as they did to provide for my brothers and me, to show us the better things in life, and keep me sheltered from how others saw me outside of my circle. I’m a black man, and as a black boy, I had no idea how hated I was growing up. It was only until my first real, non-retail job when I overheard someone say, “I bet Phil only got this job because of affirmative action”.
From then on, I learned about how I had lost friends when I was growing up because parents in California didn’t want their children playing with a black kid. Today, it’s almost impossible to not see racism; it’s being ‘randomly selected’ four times in a week by the TSA, or the possible roommate asking if I work or just hang around. Or, on particularly bad days, it’s seeing people who look like me get shot on TV for having a broken tail light. And then, in some ways, it’s hearing your white friends justify the actions of police.
Why are you doing this interview?
If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that seeing the problem on social media or the news does little to actually address the problem. As long as everyone keeps their thoughts to themselves in order to avoid confrontational situations, we can’t expect anything to change. You’ve been nice enough (and conscious enough of the issue), to ask for my input, and I think this is the first step to broadening the hearts and minds of people who may not fully understand different sides of the issue.
What is important for people to know about current racial injustice?
“All Lives Matter” is repressive.
We all know that all lives matter. And to assume that black people are saying that all lives don’t matter is incorrect. “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” are direct responses to “Black Lives Matter’, almost as if the idea of that movement needs to be put down or tempered. First off, Black Lives Matter doesn’t mean that they matter more than any other lives. It means that they matter as well.
No one ever had to say white lives matter, because we all knew they do. If a white man, woman, or child is killed wrongfully, no one questions whether or not they deserved it. No one stops to say ‘Well, my life matters too. Why should I be concerned with this death?” But when someone says “Black Lives Matter”, it’s immediately countered.
All Lives will not matter, and do not matter unless black lives matter as well.
It makes me think of a scene from the 1996 movie, “A Time to Kill”. Sam Jackson is being tried for the death of two white men who molested his daughter, and Matthew McConaughey is the lawyer defending him. At the end of the trial, in his closing statements, he details the rape of the 10 year old girl to the jury, and closes with ‘Now, imagine she is white.”. Many in the United States these days aren’t imagining that this is happening to them, or their family or friends, so it’s easier to repress with the socially acceptable phrase, “All Lives Matter”.
Fear of other is very real.
There's an idea of us and them. I’ve been in elevators where women clutch their purses, followed in stores, and questioned about my ability to pay for things despite being college educated. I have a good job, pay my bills, and don’t break any laws, but it still comes down to this fear of other. As modern as our society is, we have a fear of someone who doesn’t look like us. It’s somewhat tribal and instinctual, but we should be past that and we’re not.
Blame can be improperly placed on black people.
Some think that the recent shooting of five police officers in Dallas was somehow instigated by the BLM movement, which is not at all the case. BLM never was about violence. It's about an equal place at the table. If they brought violence into the mix it would invalidate the argument that there is no difference between people of color and others. The shooter made it clear that he was not part of BLM, but many choose to not hear those reports.
Be careful with the language that you choose to use.
For example, the word thug is not okay. It’s the more socially acceptable version of the N word or ‘young black men’. If you hear it on the news, switch the two and you’ll get the true meaning. If you see something low-class or dirty, do not call it ghetto. For both of these, the connotation is associated with black people. I think it’s something we’re all guilty of. But, the issue is when we realize the connotations of those words, and STILL choose to use them, regardless of the subconscious effect that we know they have.
Psychological terrorism is a reality for people of color.
Obviously we’re feeling the effects of racism, but this almost extends to psychological terrorism. I don’t know who to go to if I’m in trouble. I have to consider now if I’m in trouble; do I call my wife first or do I call the police? I don’t know how the police are going to react when they see me. What if I call the police because I see something happening and then they come and draw guns on me?
My 2 brothers live in California (ages 38 and 23). They were out late playing Pokemon Go when 4 police cars pulled up, screeched to a halt, and one policeman immediately pulled his gun out on my brothers, handcuffed them, and detained them. The police said it was because they “fit the description” of a robbery.
Common knowledge for black people is that we all fit the description. It’s very easy for someone to say it was a black man or woman around 5 & ½ - 6 feet tall, wearing jeans. That could literally be anybody.
I’m a filmmaker both as a hobby and professionally. Often, I have to travel for work, and bring the majority of my gear with me. Recently, while packing my equipment, I started to get really nervous. All my gear is black and shiny. I started to seriously think about the fact that if I’m in an unfamiliar place, a police officer may see with my equipment, a camera with a long lens, and at a glance think it’s a gun. It’d be an easy mistake to make, but with all the tension, who knows what they may think in the heat of the moment. That terrifies me and my wife. I also completely removed prop firearms (even science fiction ones), from anything I’m writing, because of the off chance that (again), someone mistake what I have in my hands (or the hands of any of my actors) for something real. I can’t afford to take that chance. It would be easy for someone to claim that I ‘fit the description’.
How can white individuals be better allies?
Listening is the first thing a person should do when they’re looking to be a better ally. Take what you know about Black Lives Matter and put it aside. Everything you know or think you know is coming through some sort of bias (author, news reporter, politician). Instead, listen to what a black person has to say.
Despite what you may have seen on the news or the internet, we are very friendly people. Those who are willing to talk want to be heard. We want to be heard and understood. You’re going to get an honest response. Hear it from the source, don’t look at media.
Understand what racial injustice is doing to people from an individual level.
Recognize the importance and seek to understand the issues on an individual level. Understand how this affects people. “I don’t understand what’s going on and I need to understand it from your point of view.” You’re going to learn so much more than if you assume. Again, your assumptions are coming through a filter like the media, your white upbringing, etc.
I have a friend who lived in a very well-to-do part of town. She is a thirty something white woman, really attractive. She actually came to me and said “Phil. I don’t understand what’s going on and I need to understand what you see because I’m never going to experience this myself.” That really surprised me. She didn’t have to do that. She could live her life without ever having to be concerned with how this affects her, but she didn’t.
A lot of people can go through their lives and not deal with racism if they don’t want to. Black people don’t have that luxury.
If you speak to another person and begin to understand the effects on an individual, that will help a lot to start to understand what we’re thinking and experiencing.
Continue the conversation with other white people.
If I’m having a conversation with a group of people (mixed, white, asian, etc.) and I leave the room, I can’t be certain that those people are going to toss out what I’ve said. I’ve literally had people say to me “well, Phil, you’re not really that black, are you?” Which is not only ludicrous, it’s insulting. I don’t know how to be any more black than I am.
So, if you’re in a room and you hear something like this, something racist or ignorant, you almost have a responsibility to say “no, that’s not right.” They’re more likely to listen to a white person than a black person. Your word carries a little bit more credibility. If someone who doesn’t have any “skin in the game” is saying something, it carries more weight.
There needs to be social consequences and risks. Say to the person: “This isn’t okay. I don’t need to have you in my life.” Stand up for those who aren’t in the room that can’t defend themselves.
GT: I want to thank Phil for his bravery and willingness to speak with so much heart. I learned so much from this interview and I hope that it impacts you as much as it did me.
Takeaway #1: Turn down the news and turn up conversations with black individuals. Ask black Americans around you about their experiences.
Takeaway #2: Racism is a daily reality for black Americans in too many forms like psychological terrorism, profiling, improper blame placement, and fear of other. Do not repress the BLM movement by saying “All Lives Matter.”
Takeaway #3: Set aside your experiences, perspectives, and frameworks, and just listen.
How are you reaching out to people of color in your life, living all of this as a daily reality? Will you start reaching out after reading Phil’s interview? What resonated/what did you learn?
Originally published on 8/22/2016