Auntie Starhawk’s Etiquette in Troubled Times—for White People

White People Manners 101

I’ve recently posted support for #BlackLivesMatter on social media, and have gotten back a variety of responses, most of them positive, some of them disturbing, many of them expressing the anguish, confusion and doubt many people with white-skin privilege are feeling in this moment.  I hear both “I’m ashamed to be white,”  “What can I do?” and “How do I talk to my black friends?”  And on the other side, I hear, “All lives matter” and “Why must we be divisive?”

I’d like to encourage everyone who is not, in this moment, a member of a targeted community, to fall back on something white folks are supposed to be exemplars of:  good manners.

Imagine you have a friend who has just suffered a terrible loss—maybe a child who has been murdered?  Would you say to them:

“All people suffer losses.”

Or: “Tell me what to wear to the funeral, and what to say, and what dish to bring to the wake?”

Or: “I know just how you feel—my cat died, and I’m so broken-hearted I can hardly function.  Why can’t you see that I’ve been hurt too?” 

Or: “I feel so ashamed and guilty that my life is going so well and will you please affirm what a good person I am and relieve my guilt?” 

Or: “Poor, poor you, your life must be a living hell and this trauma will blight it forever.” 

Or: “I don’t see death and loss, I just see people.”

No, you would not, because you are a kind and sensitive person, I am sure.  So why do kind and sensitive people say these things to their black friends, or post them as responses to the black community at large?

“But Don’t All Lives Matter?!?!”

Let’s look at one example—the response “All lives matter” to “Black lives matter”.

Every communication involves both text—the actual words—and subtext—all the nuances of tone, context, and the frame through which we hear something.  The phrase “black lives matter” is a text.  Those are the words.  The subtext, coming from the black community, is “In a time when black folks are being gunned down by cops on a regular basis, we assert the worth of our lives!  We are human beings, and deserve decent treatment.  Our lives are valuable.”

White people who respond “All lives matter” are hearing a different subtext—maybe “only black lives matter” or “my life doesn’t matter if I’m not black.”

Really?  Is basic human worth a zero-sum game, where if someone else’s life is valued ours must be diminished?  Are we really so insecure, so unsure of our own right to exist, that we must assert it in every moment and every interaction?

Save the Whales

Someone a while back on social media said it really well—when we say “Save the whales” it doesn’t mean “Trash all the other animals.”  It means that the whales are under a special and immediate threat.

So when someone responds “All lives matter” or “I don’t see color” or even “Can’t we all be as one?” the subtext is “I refuse to see the real threats your community is facing.  I am not willing to hear your pain, or acknowledge your reality.”

That may not be the message you intend, but it is the message that others are hearing, and it exacerbates the pain that black folks are feeling.  It reinforces the more brutally conveyed message of the bullet and the boot:  “Black lives don’t matter.”

Good Etiquette Requires That We Don’t Deliberately Say Things That Others Tell Us Will Cause Pain

In the last few weeks, we’ve seen a bound and handcuffed black man murdered in cold blood, in broad daylight, in a crowd, by a cop kneeling on his neck for nine minutes, subjecting him to the gross humiliation, torture, and ultimate death. 

That follows on a young black woman shot by cops in her own home, a black jogger stalked and murdered by white vigilantes, a black birdwatcher threatened with racist accusations by a white belligerent dog-walker in Central Park—and these are just the ones that made the news.  These are just a small selection of the most recent of hundreds of similar targetings. 

All this plays out against a backdrop of a pandemic that is disproportionately killing people of color.

Can we not understand that the black community is in deep grief?  Of course, everybody who has a drop of human compassion flowing in their veins is feeling this, but we don’t all experience the visceral fear that goes with being a target; the immediate, acute grief akin to losing a close family member. Grief encompasses many aspects:  sorrow, fear, helplessness, and exhaustion, and rage, just to name a few.

So What Do You Say to Your Black Friends?

How about, “I’m thinking of you. I care about you. Your life is valuable to me, and to the world. You are a precious, unique human being, and I will do everything I can to make this world safe and just.”

What if you don’t have any black friends? Many white people don’t—not necessarily because of their own prejudices, but because of the many invisible structures that keep us divided. 

Let us take a pause and acknowledge the grief of that—the incredible friendships, creativity, and sheer fun you are missing out on. Then ask, “How would the world have to be different for my circle of friends to be diverse?  What can I do to make it so?”

Etiquette—it’s there to help us navigate situations that are awkward, uncomfortable or painful. It’s hard to imagine a moment that calls for it more than this one. 

Use your manners.  

Work for justice. 

Then we can make a world where there is less grief, more joy, more true connection, more safety, freedom and justice for all.

4 comments to Auntie Starhawk’s Etiquette in Troubled Times—for White People

  • April

    Thank you Starhawk. You have been a blessing in my life from the moment I was introduced to you through, “The Fifth Sacred Thing”. Just Thank you.

  • Thank you so much for the classes you are offering!! My girlfriend and I started a non profit to support women under-represented in male dominated outdoor recreation/sports, (we were working together in the industry at the time) and it evolved into empowering women, networking with pagan sisters, offering education and support to women, and raising funds for giving back to the environment, and now we’re trying to apply permaculture in Alaska’s climate! But in all this, America is so tumultuous, and our work just seems to get bigger not smaller, and even with our mission statement that encompasses much, there is still so much more to do and sometimes our small slice of how we wanted to help doesn’t seem like it’s big enough. So I looked here, to my first teacher by way of your books, back when I left my parents conservative ideologies and went to college in the early 90’s and claimed a Goddess focused spiritual path for myself. There has been so much work and education done over the years, and yet here we are, still with so much to do. Thank you thank you thank you for being here and continuing to lead and educate and inspire! Full circle, goddess womben united. Looking forward to your class on Monday. <3

  • Ayla

    Thank you for explaining this so clearly.

  • I think as long as humans can “see” the superficial differences of skin color, they will react accordingly. If we were all color blind it would be a different world.

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