Faith, Love, Politics, and Social Justice

Dear White People Who “Celebrate” MLK Day

Dear white people who “celebrate” MLK day,

Please do not ask me to hold hands with you while we all get teary eyed singing “We Shall Overcome” unless we can at least agree that a big part of what WE need to overcome lies in US. (Even then, we may not want to engage in this ritual but let’s at least start here.) Ever since MLK day became a holiday white America (and yes there is a white America and yes it does differ from non-white America) has been busy watering down and trivializing his legacy. We hear small clips from “I Have A Dream” and love the part about being judged by the “content of our character” and not the “color of our skin” because, when you listen to that all by itself, you can almost convince yourself that MLK himself would endorse our “colorblind” fantasies of race being a thing of the past and all we have to do is hold hands and sing “We Shall Overcome” once a year and it’s all good (which, btw, is why we maybe shouldn’t). But then there’s the rest of the speech, like the part about check marked “insufficient funds.” Can we talk about that? Even if it means we might have to fund it? Just asking.

Can we read the “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” along with its indictment of white people and churches and even liberals and face the facts that even those of us who make a big deal out of being “good people” have failed to be just in a most fundamental way when it really counted?

How about this quote? “Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.”

So, when we, as white people, say WE shall overcome, what is it we are overcoming if not our own ignorance, our own internalized privilege, and our own sense of superiority?

I know this is an uncomfortable conversation to have. Part of the reason is, I think, so many of us think admitting to white privilege means saying we are bad people (and let’s not even get started on what admitting to a legacy of white supremacy might do!) I keep pondering the reasons why overcoming racism is so hard for us as white people and I think it all boils down to shame. Deep down we know something is wrong, but we are too ashamed to admit it. It threatens our sense of goodness and even our deeper sense of self worth.

So let’s look at that. Does admitting to the racial ignorance and sense of superiority MLK accused us of having mean we are bad or worthless as people? Actually, I would say the opposite is true. I think being willing to admit these things, and then WORK to OVERCOME them is a sign of recognizing one’s own true worth.

James Weldon Johnson said “in large measure the race question involves the saving of black America’s body and white America’s soul.” I believe my own soul is worth saving. That is why I choose to do the work and invite you to join me. So, instead of holding hands one more time and singing that song one more time, how about we REALLY try to overcome something, starting with ourselves?

42 responses

  1. Rev Addae Kraba

    I have actually left the room just to avoid the hypocrisy of holding hands and singing”we shall overcome”! I’m tired of teaching well educated White what should be fundamentals regarding AA people living in America!

    January 17, 2016 at 7:24 pm

  2. suzanne sharp johnson

    i was just introduced to Ruby Bridges’ story. she humbles and awes me. she also encourages my/our very best efforts to follow in her footsteps.

    January 17, 2016 at 7:26 pm

  3. Meme

    Amen!!!!! LET’S DO this!!!! NOW

    January 17, 2016 at 7:35 pm

  4. I like the video game analogy. There’s levels of difficulty, and white people are generally at the easy level.

    Not trying to whitesplain. We have so far to go.

    January 17, 2016 at 8:27 pm

  5. I don’t ‘celebrate’ MLK day so much as I mourn how little has really changed. The whites-only fountains and bathrooms have come down, but the attitude that spawned them is alive and thriving. And when I hear colleagues grousing about Black Lives Matter activists, I remember my aunts and uncles and grandparents complaining about those ‘troublemakers’ Malcolm and MLK when I was a kid. As they say around my end of Brooklyn, Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt.

    January 18, 2016 at 4:27 am

  6. Human Being

    Dear Author, I’m tired of the reverse discrimination in this country by people like you. Saying “Dear White People” is just as racist as “Dear Black People”. You have not walked in everyone’s shoes, so stop the labeling.

    January 18, 2016 at 5:06 pm

    • I am leaving this comment up here as an example of what I believe we need to overcome.

      January 18, 2016 at 5:22 pm

      • Karyn — I don’t take issue with anything you wrote. My frustration is when I read something like your “letter” I am still left not knowing what to DO…….or stop doing. I can agree with you all day long, but still it is a head trip. “try to overcome” “start with myself” OK — but what does that mean? Really need some help here. Feeling like “what must I do to be saved?” If it’s not hold hands and sing — then what is “it?”

        January 18, 2016 at 8:59 pm

      • Diane, While I would not underestimate the power and importance of consciousness, I do understand and agree with your point about action. My favorite organization for anti-racist white people who want to support the Black Lives Matter and other movements, is Showing Up For Racial Justice. Their website is

        January 18, 2016 at 9:11 pm

    • Ali

      Your response has spectacularly demonstrated the point of the author. Look inward, find peace, look outward, fight for real justice.

      January 19, 2016 at 12:25 pm

  7. There is much about this post that is 100%+ spot on. The one thing to be careful of in fighting against the racist, generalization of a people is to not generalize those on the other side. To assume there are no white people doing their part to fight the sins of the past is wrong, and there is a hint of that in this. This comes down to individuals. You can’t say, all white people start doing THIS today and expect it to happen. It has to happen one person at a time, with all of us that want to see it happen working to MAKE it happen.

    Now, does this country have much to make up for, particularly the white supremacist attitudes that governed it for so long? Of course it does. As a people we have done horrible things in the past, and segments of our country continue to do so today…large segments, to our shame.

    Some of the issue boils down to human nature. If, in pointing out the issue, you sound like you are attacking the person in the wrong don’t be surprised when they attack back. It is insane to expect people to just bow their heads and cringe in shame if you approach them in that manner. Self-defense instinct takes over in that situation…simple fight or flight responses. The point is, be careful how you approach someone that needs to shift their paradigm on this. Such shifts are hard, and if fighting and running away are the easier path because you give them a less pleasant one then that is what you will get.

    January 18, 2016 at 5:08 pm

    • Patrick, I did not say that there are no white people doing anything. I am, however, challenging us to do better and I will continue to do so, even if it generates defensive responses. I never engage in personal attacks, but I will not water my message down in order to help others feel more comfortable in their ignorance or sense of superiority. We will not save our souls by putting our feelings ahead of black lives. We can, and must, do better than that.

      January 18, 2016 at 5:30 pm

  8. gatheringplaceseasonfour

    I found it instructive that the Nigerian character in fiction book “Americanah” says “I had to come to America to become Black” (there is no “Black” in Nigeria because all people are human).

    January 18, 2016 at 5:56 pm

  9. lericsson2016

    The real issue we need to address is bigotry! We all have a degree of tolerance for others be it racial, social, economical or just plain “I don’t like because..”. Matthew 19:19 sums it up very nicely: “love your neighbor as yourself”. A command impossible to obey completely but a command we should all strive for nonetheless.

    January 18, 2016 at 7:27 pm

  10. Heather

    I was thinking along similar lines this morning, but why no call to action? White people who want to help black and brown people need to put some money in the game. This is a great way for us to overcome our racial ignorance.

    January 18, 2016 at 8:05 pm

    • Heather

      Thank you for posting the link above, it will take you directly to the Black Lives Matter donation page.

      Here is the short essay I wrote about why I donated to Black Lives Matter today:

      On this MLK weekend, my daughter and I are listening to Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s speeches together. Because there is still so much work to be done, especially in my community (Riverside, CA), where we encounter racism and intolerance on a daily basis.


      “You know, Sandra Bland was just too loud. That’s the problem with black people. Wherever I go, they’re just so loud. If they would only quiet the hell down they wouldn’t have so many problems”

      –direct quote from one of the mothers at my daughter’s school–

      What do we do when the white people in our community are so racist that they force black and brown people to live in fear? More importantly, what do we do when white people insist that black people dress a certain way, behave a certain way, etc?

      Simple. We stand up for black and brown people’s right to freedom of expression in all forms, in every way possible. We politely ask how we can help and *we take direction without judgment or comment*. We donate to causes like ‪#‎blacklivesmatter‬, even if our skin color, culture, and worldviews may be different. We realize that all that is needed for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.

      I implore all of you to donate to #blacklivesmatter. Because lives are at stake. Because ‪#‎TamirRice‬, ‪#‎EricGarner‬, ‪#‎TrayvonMartin‬, and so many others were murdered (and their killers never charged/convicted), for one reason: racism. ‪#‎SandraBland‬’s death, while not technically a murder, would never had occurred had she been white.

      Too many white people will listen to the Reverend Dr. King’s speeches today and stop there. If you believe in social justice for black and brown people, that is not nearly enough. Donate to #blacklivesmatter, or at the very least educate racist people in your community in the ethics of tolerance and compassion. Because you know someone racist. Sadly, we all do.

      January 18, 2016 at 8:23 pm

  11. Steve

    This is a bunch of BS because given the fact that more blacks are racist against whites and the reason is there great great great grandparents were slaves so the feel payback is in order and the fact that they can call each other the N word or how about the fact that their music uses the N- word a lot but that’s no problem for them but if they have what they call an opportunity to make free money by pulling the black card against a company or what have you it’s ok or If they lose there jobs because of not working at work or not following the rules that everyone else has to follow and I could go on but to the point is if you want equal rights and equal pay the follow equal rules and work equally as hard as the next guy or gal .
    Unfortunately none of this will ever happen because there will always be racist of all colors because of the way people are brought up or because of the surroundings where we are raised

    January 18, 2016 at 8:14 pm

    • Hank

      How exactly were you able to come up with the statement that more Black people are racist against whites? Was there a study done? Or is this just your experience? Please enlighten me. Also what is it about the “N word” that bothers you? Are you bothered by the fact that Black people use it but they get a little uptight when white people want to use it in the work place? The “N word” is such an emotionally charged word. Why do White people want to use it?

      November 13, 2016 at 2:36 pm

  12. jeff nolan

    I am a Caucasian. Do not use that filthy derogatory term, white, on me. It was a term placed on the Indo European settlers of the North American continent by the Aborigines of that continent because the settlers were charitably giving them blankets with smallpox, burning their villages, murdering them, killing the Bison so that they could not eat and burning their crops. Do not put that bullshit derogatory name on me, I don’t deserve it. I don’t celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday, I celebrate his ideology, his teachings, and his writings, all of them. I don’t need to explain any fucking thing.I apologize for nothing, nobody in my ancestry ever owned anybody in the African American race! Had I been alive during the Civil War I would have been an engineer on the Underground Railroa!

    January 18, 2016 at 9:22 pm

    • No one on the Underground Railroad talked like that.

      January 18, 2016 at 9:23 pm

      • Heather

        Rev. Karyn: While I respect and admire Stand Up for Racial Justice, your silence on donating to Black Lives Matter speaks volumes. You need to read “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” over and over again until you see yourself in the white clergy who refused (with their silence) to help during the Civil Rights Movement. Yes, eventually white clergy did participate in the Selma march, but only after the Black protesters were attacked. Black people are gunned down every day in 2016 simply for the color of their skin, so I ask you, directly, why do you refrain from asking white people to donate to Black Lives Matter?

        January 18, 2016 at 11:47 pm

      • January 19, 2016 at 3:17 am

  13. Heather, I participate in and contribute to the Black Lives Matter movement and encourage other white people to do likewise.

    January 18, 2016 at 11:53 pm

    • Heather

      Okay, next question: why is it the role of white clergy, especially Unitarian white clergy, to help their congregants feel better about themselves? Your essay asks people to “overcome” themselves; self-help books say the same thing. So what differentiates the Unitarian Universalist movement from the self-help movement? What has happened to the Unitarian Universalist commitment to social justice? The UUA has an entire page devoted to the Black Lives Matter movement, yet you fail to mention it when asking white people to do better, and had to be asked *twice* on here just to acknowledge it. And it’s not just you. Two other UU churches in Southern California refuse to say “Black Lives Matter” out loud. What is the source of your own hesitation? What do you need to overcome to truly lead your congregants in the fight for social justice?

      January 19, 2016 at 12:44 am

      • I am American Baptist, not Unitarian Universalist, so I cannot answer for them. That said, I have no problem saying black lives matter. Black lives matter.

        January 19, 2016 at 12:48 am

      • Anita

        Our UU church totally talks about the Black Lives Matter movement, and as you mentioned the UUA has an entire page devoted to that movement. I’m not sure what you are taking about. Members of our congregation are very active in social justice of every form. If you have an issue with a particular church, maybe bring it to them directly. The UUA and most Unitarian Universalist congregations are very, very active in social justice including Black Lives Matter.

        January 19, 2016 at 2:02 pm

  14. monicaplace

    Karyn, while I agree with much of your post, the shaming undertone could leave people who are undecided, or interested but unsure, defensive and uninspired. Good for you for being strong in your messafe, but shaming will not help.

    January 19, 2016 at 12:04 am

    • Kay Reese

      How could you be “undecided” about what is the right thing to do, which is working for justice towards Black and other minority peoples? Racism is deadly both to the perpetrators, and to the victims. Shame is an appropriate response to finally realizing just how unjust white society has been, and can be an acknowledgement of your part in sustaining the injustices through your own personal lack of action either actively or passively. If you aren’t ashamed of the white racist attitudes in our society, then, your denial is part of the problem.

      January 19, 2016 at 1:23 am

      • Eileen

        Why alienate anyone who wants to take part in a more unified movement? I’m white and I refuse to be alienated. What is your motive in trying to exclude anyone? I am committed to Black lives matter…all lives matter.

        January 19, 2016 at 1:44 pm

  15. Peter deBlanco

    I have the misfortune of being white. I’m so guilty. Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. I live day in and day out with the guilt of living a life that is privileged simply because I am white.

    The guilt is just overehelming. I could join Black Lives Matter, but the privilege of being white would remain.

    I hate myself. I hate all white people. My consciousness has been ra8s3d, and only the deep deep despair that comes from realizing that being white means being privileged remains.

    I think I’ll just end it all. Then I won’t have to feel the unrelenting guilt of being white and privileged. If you’re white, you should also just end it all. The world would be so much fairer without us and our privilege.

    January 19, 2016 at 1:36 am

  16. Michael boucher

    CAn you cite where the king quote comes from . I’d love to be able to reference it in the future. Thanks for a powerful reflection!

    January 19, 2016 at 3:46 am

  17. Jamal Johnston

    I would like to add one thing here, and I hope it rests in your spirits to dwell on.

    Racism is not about individuals and their attitudes/thoughts/actions toward minorities. In this country, it’s about an entire system built upon racism, genocide and slavery…..indeed the entire foundation of this country is steeped in the blood and bones of Indians and African Americans.

    Racism is SYSTEMATIC. Our “justice” system…..systematically punishes blacks. Our educational system purposely miseducates blacks, defunds schools where they are the majority……our economic system closes nearly all doors to success for all but a few blacks. Redlining……corporate glass ceilings……political avarice……these are are very real and very detrimental to blacks.

    Black Lives Matter is highlighting the issues in the criminal justice system, but the real problem is the premise of the group…..that black lives simply don’t matter to most (white) americans.

    Until this changes, there will ALWAYS be racial discord. MLK spoke extensively on this…….and to this day, most whites don’t get it. White supremacy is an institution. We cannot dismantle it if most deny it exists. Blacks aren’t the highest risk group for every disease known to man on accident. Blacks aren’t the highest incarcerated on accident. Blacks aren’t the most likely to live in and never leave poverty on accident. All of these things are man made problems.

    If you are white, you need to understand these things. I would suggest you volunteer at an inner city school to see things from their perspective. Mentor a young minority child or teen academically so that you can understand their REAL struggles and see from their view how different America is for them. We can’t come together without understanding, and from Black America’s view, there has never been an ATTEMPT by white America to understand.

    Blacks are sitting at the table. Are you willing to join them?

    January 19, 2016 at 1:35 pm

  18. Art Franke

    It must be a terrible burden carrying all this hate around. I feel so sorry for you. You can’t even look around and see that we live in a world filled with love and opportunity unprecedented in human history.

    All of us can look back to historical inequities and feel victimized if we are so inclined. Alternatively, we can look forward to the tremendous possibilities available to us.

    You are so busy looking for hate, you are blind to the love all around you. I was there once, but I grew past it. My wish for you is that do as well.

    January 19, 2016 at 2:15 pm

    • Really? You think anti-racism comes from hate? Guess again.

      January 19, 2016 at 2:18 pm

      • Art Franke

        I take you at your word that you are anti-racism. To the extent there was such a message in your post, it was lost in the antipathy articulated towards your fellow man. Always looking for the worst in others and even yourself and always finding it whether it is actually there or not must be a depressing process. I don’t recall any Bible references to Jesus using that thought process. Perhaps you can direct me to some. I prefer to look for the best in people. Maybe you could give that a whirl for a change of pace sometime. It might work for you.

        January 19, 2016 at 8:18 pm

  19. Hearing from my Mom about the March on Washington and watching clips on PBS it struck me how blacks and whites were holding hands together singing we shall overcome. She said there was a real sense of unity. I do not feel this sense today. Even as a Quaker I feel our group could do much more (AFSC was the first distributor of King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail). If what happened in Ferguson, Staten Island, Chicago and Charleston doesn’t hurt us to our core then we haven’t moved far from the Selma days. Would a white man be stomped on the back for selling a loose cigarette or shot in the back while running away from a traffic stop? I can’t say what needs to be done but I hope folks give Bernie Sanders a long look as peace starts at home and our militarized police and our permanent war footing go hand in hand. Brendan Glynn

    January 19, 2016 at 9:35 pm

  20. Tim Brennan

    Really I think you need to go back and reread DR King. Listen to your self and tell me how it squares with kings message. “Can we read the “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” along with its indictment of white people and churches and even liberals. vs king ” I look forward to the day when a person is judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin”. i have nothing to be ashamed of by the color of my skin,,,,and either should anyone lese no matter their hue. There is one America and I can proudly say we shall overcome becuase I am an american…..american that is the WE. It is calls like yours that is delaying the dream but will not prevent it.

    January 19, 2016 at 11:55 pm

  21. Eve

    Hi Karyn! Great post, but then you’ve always had that way about you.

    Some of the responses make me think about “white fragility” – a term I recently stumbled upon and which held a great big mirror up for me to look at. Those of us with pink skin who feel “shamed” or “uncomfortable” or “discriminated against” when the topic of racism comes up really have a long way to go . . . expecting that a movement toward undoing racial injustice should wait till we feel comfortable, or better about ourselves, or fully appreciated, well that is seriously missing the point.

    Thanks Karyn.

    January 21, 2016 at 7:38 am

    • Peter deBlanco.

      But those of us with pink skin can never,if we a honest, feel comfortable. Because we’re Guilty. And no mater what we do, we will always be Guilty.

      So it’s not a matter of “white fragility”. It’s a matter of the fact that we white people are guilty of racial crimes. We will always have our privilege. There is nothing we can do to rid ourselves of our guilt, privilege. We will always – because we are white – be guilty of race crimes.

      That’s we hy the only solution is unremitting war against white people – remind us of our guilt, our criminal nature, and our utter worthlessness.

      January 21, 2016 at 12:33 pm

  22. Rev John Kennedy

    I guess I don’t understand how you make this comment as an authority or as someone who has traveled any farther than the rest of us white folk. I have studied in-depth Dr MLK, Thoreau, Gandhi, Malcolm X, The SCLC for 37 years. Have spoke at MLK day celebration both black and white. I lived through the civil rights days when white folks wrote N-lover on our parsonage and church windows as a pastor’s kid, when our church helped integrate a town in the early 1970’s. Before becoming a UCC pastor like my father I worked 12-years as a cop in the busiest district in America’s 11th largest city. Until you have been deep the tension and heat where neighborhoods burn and children kill children its all just self-righteous theory. I know what it’s like to look inward and see color with my eyes and no longer with my heart. I can qoute virtually any of MLK’s books from memory and have written many papers, speeches. I have written probably 5 papers on the Letter from the Birmingham jail and preached about it. I know that MLK said that many of his toughest critics and adversaries were members of the NAACP, and other civil rights movement that had in-fighting. Check out “Testament of Hope:Martin Luther King’s Essential Writings”, ” Bearing the Cross and the SCLC” etc etc etc. I’ll stack my knowledge with black or white. And I have still much to learn. Rev John Kennedy

    January 22, 2016 at 11:45 pm

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