An Open Letter to a Racist Friend


Dear Friend,

This is not a letter I wanted to write. In writing it, I am taking two positions simultaneously; I am arguing, in a sense, as two different people, even though I am only one person. I have struggled for years over whether I even have a right to argue from both sides of this fence, or if I should just accept one or the other as “myself” and be done with it.

Yet I am going to attempt to be both people. Because I can be both, and more importantly, because you need to hear from both. And I find myself in the peculiar position of being perhaps the only person in the world who can make you see both sides – and, by so doing, help you see exactly how steeped in white privilege you are and exactly how racist your words and behaviors have been.

(If I could just link you to stuff white people do, or this fine analogy between race and disability, and call it good, I’d do it. But it has not worked in the past, and I do not expect it to suddenly work today. If it has, kindly disregard the rest of this letter.)

You know me as white. We talk together in the “White” Midwestern non-accents of Brian Williams or Katie Couric. Visually, your brain interprets me as white – as well it should, based on the number of jokes we’ve had about my complete inability to find a foundation light enough to match my skin tone. I watch hockey, I drink lattes, I wear scarves and saddle shoes.

And because you know me as white, you take for granted that I’m basically a person “like you”; that I care about my family the way you do, that I get all giddy and stupid when I fall in love and crushed when I get dumped the way you do, that I work my ass off for very little like you do, and that I generally deserve the good in my life and don’t deserve the bad – like you do.

Which is all well and good, and which I sincerely hope you keep doing as you keep reading. Because here’s the kicker: I’m actually one of “the brown people.”

I’m Romanichal, one of the many strains of “Gypsies” that inhabit Europe (in my family’s case, the British Isles) and a distinct ethnic group. As far as we know, my ancestors wandered out of India some thousand years ago and still have not stopped travelling west. My own family has been in the United States for over two hundred years.

And every time you open your mouth about how blacks are lazy, or Hispanics are out to steal “our” jobs, or you compare our President-Elect to a monkey (and then announce that’s not “racist,” as though you, who have never been compared to a monkey based on your skin tone, have any sort of right to know what that even means), I cringe. Not only do I cringe because you’re being incredibly insensitive, but also I cringe because I fear that you will find out that I am not “one of you” – I am “one of them.”

Am I a lazy job-stealing monkey now, too?

But I’m willing to say it now, because frankly, keeping my mouth shut is exactly what’s wrong with racism in America. You and everyone who shares your ideals need to hear that the people you mock and deride are people; that, in many cases, we are people you personally know and care about.

I cannot speak for black people, whom you particularly seem to dislike. Blacks, in America and elsewhere, have suffered a long history of discrimination and oppression that is unique to them. But I can speak, in a limited sense, for the Roma. And our own history of discrimination and oppression mirrors that blacks face in many ways. We are both a people still dealing with the psychological scars of having been enslaved for hundreds of years. We are both a people still fighting, in too many parts of the world, for the most basic of rights – clean water, a square meal, the chance to learn to read and write or to raise our own children. And some of the worst human rights abuses are still perpetrated on us today solely because of our skin colour.

What you don’t understand is that your own assumptions are flawed. Being white, you’ve grown up in a world where you can get anything you want if you apply yourself, and therefore you assume that people who cannot get anything they want must not be applying themselves – and are thus “lazy”, “entitled,” and the like. What you never realized is that the reason applying yourself works in the first place is that no one is actively trying to stand in your way. But be born another colour, another person, and see how far you get when the world takes every available opportunity to deprive you of an education, pass over you for work, take your kids, call you a cheat, a thief, a liar, a criminal, a druggie, a “welfare queen.” Or promise to tear down your homes and drive you out of town in order to get votes – which then succeeds. Or shoot you like a dog and leave you to die.

Why? Because you’re the wrong colour.

This is why I have spent a lifetime living as though I am “the right colour.” Being white has gotten me my education, my career, my apartment, probably even my cat. And I know it. I know damn well how hard life would be for me if I were visibly darker, and I thank the god of pigmentation, whoever He is, every single morning that he made me look more like my one gazho grandmother than my ten thousand Romanichal ones. Because you and I live in a world where white wins.

If you’re still reading, you’re probably right pissed at me. After all, I know damn well you’ve never burned down someone’s house for being the wrong colour. You’ve never taken a textbook or a school lunch away from a kid for being the wrong colour. You’ve never shot anyone, period – let alone for being the wrong colour. And I’m sure you think I need to get off my fucking high horse and stop talking like you are, because that’s bullshit and I know it.

I do know it. And here’s what you need to know. Yes, I know you’ve never forcibly sterilized anyone, or taken their children, or refused them jobs. But you have called minorities derogatory names. You have said that blacks are lazy, selfish, entitled, and that they need to get off their asses and stop waiting for handouts. And because you continue to believe and to spread this false, derogatory crap, you are part of the problem. Because who is going to believe that blacks or gypsies or Hispanics can be trusted with jobs or children if they’re all just lazy selfish entitled bastards anyway? Who is going to treat a black man – even a black leader of the free world – with dignity, and listen to what he has to say, if they’re thinking “he’s a damn chimp!”? How is any brown-skinned person supposed to stand up and be the fine upstanding member of society you keep insisting they become if no one will treat them like they’re capable of it?

I don’t mean this letter to insinuate, in any way, that I know what it’s like to be black – or, in many cases, even Romani, when it comes to the horrors we still face in many parts of Europe. I DO mean this letter to make you understand that racism is very real and that it is perpetrated on me, and people like me, every. single. day..

I’m saying this both as a white person and a brown person: you cannot have it both ways. Either all people are human beings capable of developing their own talents, or some people are and others are lying, dirty, lazy, selfish, entitled, whining bastards. PICK ONE.

And please do not pick the one that ends our friendship.


5 Responses to “An Open Letter to a Racist Friend”

  1. Very very powerful post.
    I’ve had to write letters like this, too.

    Mind if I link to you?

  2. ding: Go for it. 🙂

  3. Cheers! Lovely post!

  4. This post is very powerful. Just… wow. You’re writing from a very caring and a very patient space in your heart, and I commend that.

  5. I imagine as people sit down with family and friends this Thanksgiving, many people of all races are going to have to manage all kinds of racial insanity.

    Hopefully your excellent letter will provide a road map on how to manage that.

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