An Open Letter to White People Reacting to Police Brutality



Image via Odyssey

Hang on a minute.


Before you post that Facebook comment.

Before you wave your #AllLivesMatter flag.

Before you turn to a black person—a black person you may or may not know—and regulate their grief, their fear, their anger, their burning sense of injustice. Before you make a call to “just follow the rules and you’ll be fine.” Before you say “People are dying by the thousands in other countries.” Before you say “Let’s make sure we hear both sides of the story” when cameras have already captured every angle there is.

Before you do that, stop. Take a deep breath.


And when you do, I hope you’ll realize a few things.

It is not your place to tell someone how they are allowed to feel in the face of brutal and blatant injustice. Their pain does not need your approval. Their pain has never asked for it.

It is not your place to tell someone their suffering, their anguish, their lives do not matter to you. Because when you remain silent, when you change the channel, when you close your eyes, that is what you’re doing.

It is not your place to question someone’s lived experience based on your opinions, hearsay, and sound bytes picked up from cable news.

Because when another person of color is murdered by police.

When the punishment for selling CDs, or carrying a handgun with the proper permit, or breathing air on American soil while black.

When the punishment for these crimes is death without asking questions.

When all of these things are true—and more than true, they are common—no one needs you to play devil’s advocate. 

The devil has enough advocates as it is.

Before you bring up the victim’s previous run-ins with the law, remember that our constitution protects citizens’ right to trial by jury, not summary judgment at the barrel of a gun. Remember that a criminal record is not grounds for murder at any time and without warning.

Remember that white people committing mass murders have been arrested without incident, and taken to Burger King before heading to prison, and white people committing heinous crimes have been bewailed as “young men with potential, and their whole lives ahead of them.”

Remember that.

Remember that the same people who search for proof that victims of police brutality deserved what they got, that there was something about them that made their death justified, those are the same people who set up a Kickstarter campaign to support Darren Wilson and George Zimmerman.

Before you say anything about the five officers killed at protests in Dallas last night, before you join the crowd condemning the entire Black Lives Matter movement for the violence—despite, at press time, it being “...too early in the investigation to say whether there was any connection between the shooters and the demonstration—ask yourself this.

Yesterday, did you speak the words “a few bad cops”? Yesterday, did you remark that “isolated incidents of violence” can’t be used to criminalize a whole group who, by and large, just wants to protect the lives of Americans?

(Which, by the way, I also believe. Which is why opposing police violence, racial profiling, and the inequitable and corrupt system we now have, that is not the same as “hating cops.”)

You can’t use that rhetoric for officers, then turn on a dime when black people are involved. That’s not how logic works.

Oh, and before you say “isolated incidents of violence” again, remember that 566 people have been killed by police since January 1, 2016, and that young black men are nine times more likely to be killed by police than other Americans. I don’t know when something stops being “isolated,” but it’s certainly well before the 500-a-year mark.

500 a year. That’s approaching twice a day.

Before you share the videos.

Before you drop them on a black friend’s timeline and say “oh isn’t this horrible?” Before you spring them on people who aren’t expecting it, who do not need to see black lives broken again, who already understand what that looks like and do not need reminding.

Before you do that.


You don’t get any bonus ally points for treating the loss of black life as entertainment. You don’t get to fling it around showing how woke you are, with no regard for the trauma you are leaving in your wake.

You are sharing the murder of a human being.

You are sending trauma to your friends and loved ones. You are autoplaying trauma in their timelines.

If that doesn’t make you want to throw up, honestly? What is wrong with you?

This is not the time to center your feelings. Yes, it hurts. Yes, you feel helpless and sad and angry and sick. I do too. I feel all of these things. I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t. But this is not about our feelings.

It is about our silence and our indifference. And that needs to stop.

Amplify the voices of people already out there doing the work. Collect your fellow white people when they say something fucked up and racist. Take the burden of explanation on yourself.

It’s not people of color’s job to do that work. It’s not people of color’s job to exhaust themselves having the same conversations over and over, in this real moment of trauma.

That’s on us.

White people, we can do better. And we MUST.

We must speak when it is our turn to speak, and only then. And we must also listen.

Writer Ashley C. Ford puts it this way:

Screen Shot 2016-07-08 at 7.04.06 AM.png

America’s history with racist violence is long, and it doesn’t disappear the day after an incident. It endures. It has endured for hundreds of years, with or without hashtags, with or without body cameras. And it will continue to endure until the day we all demand better.

Those demands are being voiced. We cannot give up until they are met.

It is literally a matter of life and death.










Confessions of a Former Writer of Sexist Fiction


In the process of moving to a new state for a new job, I spent a whole mess of time packing up all my stuff into cardboard boxes. This led to the discovery of every writer’s waking nightmare: those short stories and novellas you wrote before you had any idea what “narrative structure” or “scene setting” meant. If you ever want to spend an afternoon alternating between sheer horror and vague retrospective enthusiasm, try reading those notebooks. It’s a trip.

Sometimes, when you take a nostalgic writer’s trip, you discover some things. I found two:

1. A sentence from a totally useless story that I immediately cut and pasted into my current manuscript, because it was perfect and I re-fell in love with it instantly, and

2. The following realization: “holy shit but I wrote a lot of misogynistic patriarchal sexist bullshit between the ages of 13 and 18.”

You want to know what kind of cultural tropes and baggage society gives us? Check out the way you thought about gender roles as a child. No filter, no sociological un-learning, just straight regurgitation of the dominant worldview.

Here are two of the most popular tropes I found myself using over the course of my youthful forays into fiction. The sad thing is, these are not exclusive to children. They’re everywhere: in movies, in TV, in mainstream fiction, in video games, everywhere. And the sooner we start breaking them down, the better shot we’ve got at stopping them.

1. Women as Plot Devices

Uncomfortable truth be told, it seems I’ve always been more comfortable working with male protagonists. I don’t know why this is. Well, I kind of do know why this is. Despite the steady diet of female empowerment my parents and I sought out, from Tamora Pierce (guys I don’t care how old you are go fucking read Tamora Pierce) to Little Women (#JoMarchForever), most media produced in America is phallocentric.

There’s a reason we invoke the Bechdel test as often as we do: because so many things fail it.

You know what the test is: the film must have two or more female characters, both of whom have names, and who have a conversation with one another about something other than a man. Should be a given, right?

Check out this list of which 2014 movies passed and failed the test. Then think about how many of those passing films were billed as “blockbusters” or “must-sees.” How many of them got heavy advertising? How many of them weren’t dismissed as genre films like “young adult” or “teen girl” or “chick flick”? I count maybe ten. And that list has 159 movies.

And this is fucking 2014.

No, this doesn’t make me feel any better about the number of variations I wrote on this story: charming yet disadvantaged male goes through dramatic adventures (piracy, vampirism, the Napoleonic Wars) only to discover that the only female in the story is the love of his life, and that he’ll do anything (kill the captain, commit suicide in a vampire/hunter street fight like West Side Story with fangs, feed the rival suitor to a hungry bear) to obtain her.

Easy Solution: Start telling women’s stories with the same authenticity as men’s.

Obviously, I’m not saying that we should throw out all male protagonists. (#notallmen.) But all I’m saying is that we have to make an effort to even the playing field. Women make up 50% of the world’s population. Asking for a few stories about women who aren’t only focused on marriage shouldn’t be so much to ask, but apparently is.

It’s also worth pointing out that bit parts like scene-setting servants, whores, crowd characters, or personality-less mothers don’t count. Female presence is not the same as female representation. As writers, we need to get as deeply into the heads of the women in our stories as we do the men. It’s especially disappointing to me as a woman that even I frequently did not do this. But it’s never too late to re-correct.

2. Objectifying and Sexually Skewed Adjectives

Guys. Guys. I can’t make you understand on an emotional level the number of times I referred to the female character in the aforementioned nonsense vampire novella’s “emerald-green eyes.” (I know, I know, I’m selling this vampire novella really hard.) I blame this partly on Harry Potter: flip through the series and see if you can find a color adjective unmodified by another adjective. But the sum-total character development I gave this girl was deciding she had “emerald-green eyes.”

Occasionally, “shockingly emerald-green eyes.” Though how this could possibly shock anyone after I’d already written it forty times is beyond me.

She wasn’t the only one to receive this treatment. I’ve read through at least nine stories written between 2004 and 2010 recently, and nowhere in any of them is there a female character of any plot importance who isn’t the most beautiful woman the narrator has ever seen. Statistically speaking, that’s not exactly likely. Worth noting that there are male protagonists, in my writing and elsewhere, who look all kinds of ways. Yeah, I skew toward a type (okay, yeah, I skew toward this type). But it’s not the only goddamned type.

There’s a reason that an unattractive female protagonist (and not a “you don’t know you’re beautiful” type, a genuinely unattractive female protagonist) still feels like a revolutionary idea.

Women don’t have to be “classically beautiful” to be important. Beauty isn’t the only trait that determines a character’s value to the story. If we don’t spend all our time describing the male protagonist’s jawbones or the way you can see the shape of his pelvis through his pants, we sure shouldn’t be constantly talking about a woman’s body more than about what she’s saying.

Easy Solution: Kill your adjectives with fire.

I’ve become super highly attuned to the work my adjectives are doing. Specifically the patriarchal work. Description is great, guys. I once spent an afternoon doing nothing but drinking iced coffee and writing descriptions of various rooms, just for practice.

But when description replaces your characters’ agency, you’re leaning too far in the “show, don’t tell” direction, and it’s high time for you to come back to us.

Also, please delete every time you describe the color of something with more than one word. Every. Damn. Time. There is nothing wrong with “green” or “blue.” Take it from me, your future self will thank you for it.

I feel a little weird outlining my shortcomings as a writer, especially when I haven’t been called out on it by anyone else. (This is because no one is every allowed to read that vampire epic. It should be clear by now why.)

But I really think it’s important to be honest about the way writing works. Feminism isn’t a banner you take up one day and then never do a sexist thing again. Writing isn’t a skill you pick up at Target and then deploy perfectly heretofore. Both are processes, and both require training and continual sensitivity.

Constant vigilance, even.