Jason Wallach tries to have patience.
He doesn’t understand what it’s like to have mostly white friends, or what it’s like to not believe that racial injustice still exists, or how anyone could not be angry about the treatment of black people in America.
Jason Wallach is white.
“I actually have to swallow my pride and say, ‘You know what, sometimes it’s embarrassing,'” he told The Washington Post this week. “The ignorance that some white folks show in their attitude is embarrassing to me, and it makes me want to distance myself.
“For me, at a certain point, I realize that I have to have patience and recognize that for some folks it’s going to be a process of developing understanding and empathy of inequality and of injustice in our society.”
Hours earlier on Wednesday, Wallach and about 50 other white people, many of them women, tried to shut down a federal building in Oakland. Chanting “white silence equals violence” and “black lives matter,” they blocked the front and back entrances to the building.
The idea was born out of a desire to contribute to the growing national conversation around race sparked by the decision of grand juries in Missouri and New York not to indict white police officers in the deaths of two unarmed black men.
Michael Brown, an unarmed teen, was shot to death in Ferguson, Mo., during an August confrontation with officer Darren Wilson. Eric Garner died after New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo appeared to use a chokehold during an arrest attempt in Staten Island.
Wallach, who lives in Northern California, explained that he and other white protesters wanted to “distribute the discomfort” felt by African Americans across the country and to send a message to white people just like them.
“The way that these things work, you have to put it on everyone’s plate even if they don’t want to eat it,” Wallach said.
White support for black human and civil rights in America is not new, but the outcry over the Ferguson shooting in particular has been predictably split along racial lines. Black people believe the case points to a systemic problem with justice in America, while many white people don’t.
In fact, white Americans’ confidence in law enforcement has gone up; for black Americans, that confidence has stagnated or fallen from already low levels. And a recent poll found that 58 percent of white people approved of the recent grand jury decision in Ferguson compared with just 9 percent of blacks.
But in the San Francisco Bay area, images of street protests night after night in Berkeley suggest that many non-blacks have taken on the cause, in spite of that racial polarization.
The racial gulf may be wide, but there are people trying to change that. That’s true even in a place like conservative Knoxville, Tenn., where Pam McMichael has been participating in Ferguson-related protests for months and has recently been in the streets protesting the Garner grand jury decision, too.
McMichael is the co-founder of Showing up for Racial Justice, a group that’s trying to create a network of white people organizing around racial justice. In the Knoxville community, she said, she has encountered some resistance to the idea that the use of excessive force by law enforcement disproportionately affects black people.
“It ranges, some say why are we saying black lives matter, all lives matter,” McMichael said in a telephone interview. “I think that sometimes people, depending on which news outlets they watch, buy into that. Some people have a sense that law and order is always right and that if someone gets hurt by law and order, it’s because they did something wrong.”
There are also the people who are frustrated that protests have interfered with their holiday spirit, she said.
“‘Do you have to do this during the Christmas parade?'” McMichaels recalls someone asking recently, as a protest was staged near a holiday parade. “Well yes, it can’t be business as usual.”
In Bend, Ore., where the population is less than 1 percent black, some people are wary of plans to host a march through downtown on Saturday, according to one of the organizers, Ron Werner.
“Folks are just worried, because whenever you make a public stand for something, conflict has come up,” said Werner, who is a member of the pastoral team of two Bend congregations. “Politics can get involved. There’s a level of maybe anxiety.”
The Oregon event is being planned by a group of clergy from different denominations and faiths, which is something Werner said he can’t recall ever happening in that town before.
“There are people who disagree with the protests and what I’ve seen more is people who I think have gotten caught in an either or — you’re either for police officers and grand juries or you’re for people of color or black people specifically,” Werner said.
“What we’re trying to do is say that it’s not an either or piece, but it’s a time for us to consider our own racial privilege,” he added.
The show of solidarity is not without potential pitfalls, however. Just this week, a white woman planning a candlelight vigil in Oakland faced intense backlash when she proposed inviting the Oakland Police Department to the event. She had not consulted with black-led organizations or leaders.
“This is an example of why white people need to check their s–t,” said Wallah, who opposed the event. “And make sure that what we do is in line with the black liberation work that’s been done so far.”
He added: “We’re not going to try to pretend that we’re somebody in this drama that we’re not. We’ve got to assume the role that society kind of defines for us in this white supremacist system. And that’s the role of the privileged. We can’t pretend that we’re the unprivileged at the same time.”
Werner said that his group would not use the slogans “hands up don’t shoot” or “I can’t breathe,” which have been embraced by African-American protesters and other, more diverse groups of demonstrators in other cities. Those statements, he said, describe an experience unique to black people in America.
“For white people to carry those signs — and this is something that we’ve learned from our black friends and black leaders — it’s not authentic,” Werner explained. “We may feel that way momentarily but at the end of the day for white people of privilege, if the march doesn’t work out we can stop marching and stop talking about it.
“To hold a sign that says ‘I can’t breathe’ would be disingenuous. That’s something that protesters are learning.”
In Bend, Knoxville and the Bay Area, many protesters are new to the cause. Wallach, who has been active in social justice circles for years, said getting it right requires education, since even the well-meaning can make mistakes.
“The challenges I have teaching white folks about racial injustice in this country are nothing compared to actually living that on a daily basis,” Wallach said. “So my job is really is to just go ahead and do it.”