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Hey, White Friends: What to Say to Our Black Friends After Charlottesville

By Sherilyn Stevenson


Since becoming part of a biracial family, I’ve explored possible answers to this question more times than I ever previously imagined. Events like the recent White Supremacist rally in Charlottesville force the questions. Where one answer resolves, more questions pop up faster than youths at a newly-blessed refreshment table.  


Sorting through the quagmire of questions, one truth continues to surface. When white people who care about their brothers and sisters of color say nothing (in the grocery line, on social media, at the polls, in class, church, work, and school), the two voices resounding are the overt racist and occasional victim. The result? More polarization. More pain.


Since the majority of America falls (silently) somewhere in between, what will inspire us? How can we help turn concern into action? More questions, I know. I offer an analogy with the intent to encourage my white brothers and sisters who find themselves in support of those who suffer at the mouths and hands of others’ hate, but don’t know quite what to do about it.


Sometimes people skip a funeral, because they don’t know what to say to the survivors. At some point though, nearly all of us will feel compelled to attend, because we care for one or more of the survivors more than we care about our own comfort. Or, maybe we know what it’s like to lose someone. Inside the funeral home or church, as we wait to approach our grieving friend, we rehearse what to say.


I don’t know what to say…How are you?…Let me know if you want to talk…I’m so sorry…   


Nothing will sound right. Nothing will sound like enough. It’s okay that words fail the situation. It’s awkward. Grief and loss are the worst! This is a key time when our presence means more than words. They will remember that we were there, and it counts. It really does.


Today in America, people of color endure heightened threats to employment, liberty, and life, and tragically, some threats become realized. With every white supremacist rally, violent act, or racist-fueled murder, our brothers and sisters of color inside and outside the Church lose something — dignity, security, confidence, and I don’t know what else. Let’s ask. And then, listen. 


Like a funeral, we will not receive an invitation to attend their grief. Instead, we must watch for it in tweets, on Facebook, across the Church pew, and anywhere else we notice our grieving friends and family members. There will not be a scheduled time to approach. We don’t have to dress up, or rehearse. Just show up! Say anything to acknowledge their struggle. Their loss.


I don’t know what to say… How are you?… Do you want to talk?…  I’m so sorry…


Nothing will sound right. Nothing will sound like enough. It’s awkward. Though, just like at a funeral, our presence will matter. So would our avoidance. Either way, actions speak.


Following the horrors in Charlottesville, another one of my Facebook friends, a black man, posted about his experience in a Utah ward on Sunday:

“I sat in church today with a silent prayer for some indication that God was aware of me and the concerns of my heart. Sacrament meeting was wonderful, and the talks were balm to my soul. Sunday School was timely, BUT Priesthood Quorum–oh Priesthood Quorum!!! Tim Heaton gave what will likely go down in history as the greatest prayer I’ve ever heard and that was followed up by words of encouragement from Bishop Kemp. I think I have one of the most culturally affirming congregations in the church. Redwood Ward, you showed up today!! Thank you!!”


Let’s be the Redwood Ward! Let’s circle around the scared and love the hated. We will get better at it. And when we do, we will wonder why we were ever silent about something as basic as the right to be.



(If you’re already doing what I’m suggesting here and want to do more, check out this article, “Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Resource Guide.”)


How is this working in your ward and community? What are ways we can support our threatened brothers and sisters?

About Sherilyn Stevenson

Prose Editor at Segullah, Sherilyn Stevenson's essays and poetry appear in Dialogue, The Friend, LDS Living, Mothers Always Write, and other publications. She earned a Masters of English with a creative writing emphasis and works for state government in Utah.

8 thoughts on “Hey, White Friends: What to Say to Our Black Friends After Charlottesville”

  1. I expect that we can and should support "our threatened brothers and sisters" in the same manner we support those in our midst who are law enforcement officers who go to work everyday threatened by the anger of blacks wanting them dead. In the same manner we support those who are serving in the military who are called to serve in harm's way. In the same manner we support those who are grieving the death of a baby, child, parent, or other loved one. How about the same way we support those whose spouse has betrayed them and committed adultery? Or those who grieve because of the rebellious choices of their children? Or those who mourn the loss of physical health because of disease or age?

    Oh there are so many ways to grieve and mourn and feel vulnerable. We just need to support each other in following the Savior along the Gospel path; helping each other, no matter what color or circumstances, to feel the power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ in our lives. And to feel the love and support of fellow saints who are also struggling with the vicissitudes of life.

  2. We agree on most points, Rozy. Where we differ is comparing the threats to people of color to that of police officers. My father was a police officer, and I respect the job and those who do it. There really is no comparison here, though. Officers have chosen their profession and are paid for what they do. They can also choose to remove themselves from their profession. People of color have none of those choices. Please know, too, that my speaking up for my son and others of color does not in any way diminish the suffering of any of the other groups you've mentioned.

  3. I almost posted a comment expressing this sentiment after your last race-related post. (I think it was yours; the author attribution is never clear when I read on my phone.) But I want to say it now:
    I think one of the greatest debts we owe to POC, especially our Black brothers and sisters, is to have the humility to accept that we, as white people, are not the experts on experiencing racism and oppression. Even if we are not personally racist, we have to accept that POC experience America differently than we do, and we have to defer to their experience. If I may add some suggested reading. Each of these taught me something of what living without white privilege is like.
    1. "Poem for the Young White Man Who Asked Me how I, an Intelligent and Well-Read Person Could Believe in a War Between the Races" by Lorna Dee Cervantes http://www.ohio.edu/people/hartleyg/poems/young_whiteman.html
    2. Ta-Nehisi Coates's "The Case for Reparations" https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/
    3. Hasan Minhaj's work on The Daily Show around Trump's election. (Warning: salty language.) There two clips in particular. In the first (which I couldn't find, so you'll have to take my word for it), he's interviewing Trump supporters (pre-election) at a rally. The Trump supporters were all so nice! Seriously, they were so nice to him. And Minhaj, who is Muslim, asked them what would happen to him if Trump were elected president. One woman paused and admitted she'd never thought of that. To me, the moment encapsulated white privilege: she didn't think about how Trump's policies would affect regular Muslims because she didn't have to. The second (https://m.youtube.com/watch?feature=youtu.be&v=ZsHwtfcZoY4) was after Trump's election when Minhaj spoke movingly about his mother, a US citizen, who was out of the county visiting his grandmother. She was legitimately worried she wouldn't be allowed back in the US. This is not a problem white Christians have.
    4. I've also followed BLM leaders on Twitter (when I was on Twitter). I didn't agree with everything they said, but I learned a lot.
    So, basically, my point is that racism is very real in this country, and if white people want to contribute to the solution, we are obligated to listen and believe the people who are experiencing its negative consequences.
    I hope this isn't too long; as I said it's been on my mind awhile. And I think I'm replying to a comment, but that was an accident. My thoughts are not directed at any comment in particular (I'm on my phone and fixing the problem is more trouble than adding a disclaimer ?).

  4. One of our family's oldest friend's is a police officer, and another close family friend is in the army and has deployed several times. The fear their families feel when they are out there doing the best to protect the people in our community or in our country is very real and very palpable. For you to say it doesn't compare is very insensitive. Police officers especially face more danger when there are groups such as BLM chanting, "Fry them like bacon" and implying that every arrest is just them being a jerk.

    We should teach our children not to be racist and we should be thoughtful and kind and sensitive when threats against POC are in the news. I'm glad that ward stepped up for your friend. Friends serving together in wards are such a great way to build trust and amazing relationships. Small daily actions like this are the way forward, and I'm so glad you're encouraging them.

    But the reality is that white supremacists are a VERY VERY tiny fraction of the population and most people that we all run into every day are good people that have respectful interactions with others. Until a few months ago a black man was president of the US, and the most successful woman in the US is black. Exaggerating the racial situation in this country only heightens tensions and makes good racial relations less likely in this country. I hope you'll not take part in the exaggeration.

  5. Alisha, I'm so glad you replied this time, and can't wait to get to some of what you've listed here! I agree about Coate's "The Case for Reparations." And your, "We are not the experts on racism and oppression," are wise words. Thank you.

  6. I do not disagree that the feeling behind the threats to police officers may very well equate to the threats people of color feel. The difference again, though, goes back to choice. A threat that cannot be escaped (skin color) is much more of a threat that one that can (occupation).

    As to exaggerating the issue of racism in our country, I also agree on your point that the extremists are a small number. However, they are not the reason "racism" exists. It is complicated and systemic and cannot be overcome without more of us speaking and acting out against it. To that end, I will continue to do so.

  7. There is much to be said about the idea that racism is not all or nothing. Too often we reduce BLM to violence rather than hearing the voices of the marginalized. Too often we reduce police officers to reactionary weapons who shoot before thinking. And thus there is nuance on both sides. If we hope for nuance on the side of police, we must acknowledge that there is nuance in BLM.

    Sometimes it's easier to see racism in the voices and actions of people like Richard Spencer and vocal white supremacists and not see the subtle racism in the world all around us. Having a black president/friend/boss/successful neighbor does not mean it doesn't exist.

    I'm so grateful for your words, Sherilyn, thank you for your courage to speak out. It's ok to say that POC matter without marginalizing other groups. By saying that black lives matter, it does not in any way lessen the value of any other person's life. So while I imagine that there may be some few people that feel on the extreme of this issue (just as there are police that exist on this extreme scale as well), the vast majority of people are just like us, hoping to make a valuable, happy, content, and blessed life for themselves and their families. Love to you all, friends.

  8. "Like a funeral, we will not receive an invitation to attend their grief. Instead, we must watch for it in tweets, on Facebook, across the Church pew, and anywhere else we notice our grieving friends and family members. There will not be a scheduled time to approach. We don’t have to dress up, or rehearse. Just show up! Say anything to acknowledge their struggle. Their loss."

    I love this. Trauma theory explains that a wound cries or bleeds out to be seen and heard; to be witnessed. And it is in this acknowledgement that the wound cries less, bleeds less, and can begin to heal. There is a power in witnessing and empathy. There is a need for witnessing and empathy.


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