This Scathing Open Letter To White Supremacists Should Be Required Reading For All

In August, Salt Lake City-based sculptor Jonna Ramey wrote a letter to the editor about white supremacy and sent it to the Salt Lake Tribune. It was published on Aug. 20; now, just about two and a half weeks later, it’s going viral. It contains all the things we shouldn’t have to say about white supremacy — the things we should know, both in our heads and in our hearts: That no group of people is better or superior to any other group based on things like race, skin tone, religion, gender identity, or sexuality; that other people gaining rights you already have does not oppress you; that hate and bigotry should not have a place in our society — and yet which we somehow still do need to say. But there’s still more to say, as well — because the message doesn’t just apply to white supremacists. It applies to all white Americans. White supremacy runs deep through the country’s history, and simply being "good white people" isn't going to help.

The letter’s reach has been far wider than what the Tribune usually sees; as the paper’s editorial page editor, George Pyle, described the 200-plus comments on the web version of the letter to the Washington Post on Tuesday, “That, by our standards, is a lot.” It’s been helped along by social media, as well — a picture of the print version has been circulating on Twitter:

Ramey wrote the letter in response to the violent white supremacy rally in Charlottesville, Va. that occurred on Aug. 12. “I was furious, and felt like as a white person, I had to speak out about white bigotry. It was important, I thought, for a white person to say something,” she told the Washington Post.

This is both troubling and true: Our society has a habit of ignoring legitimate concerns when they’re brought up by marginalized people, but listening when the same concerns are brought up by privileged people. This habit is a problem — but it’s one that privileged people can help address, not only by speaking up themselves when needed (although it’s important not to try to speak for marginalized communities, but rather in support of them), but more importantly, by listening and helping to clear the way for marginalized voices to speak and be heard.

Ramey’s letter begins with a statement both about who she is and about the history of fascism: “I am a 67-year-old American white woman. My parents enlisted in World War II to fight fascism,” she writes. Her mother was a nurse during the war, while her father was a navigator. “They lost friends in that bloody war so that all the world could be free of fascism,” she continues. “They did not fight so that some white people could claim supremacy or that Nazis could openly walk the streets of America.”

And then, she drops this (emphasis mine): “White person to white supremacist person: What is wrong with you?

Jeff Swensen/Getty Images News/Getty Images

What this question is really saying is, white people are not under threat, and to insist that they are is flat-out wrong. White people are not being marginalized or oppressed due to their race or skin color; in this country, they never have been. As Ramey puts it, “People of European heritage are doing just fine in the world. They run most of the world’s institutions, hold much of the world’s wealth, replicate as frequently as other humans. You’re not in any danger here.” Others, however, are in danger, and historically always have been — and that danger remains very, very real. Events in recent months and years have underlined this more than ever, but the truth which is so often ignored is that it has always been there.

The thing, though, is that white people also have to ask, “What is wrong with us?”Because the issue isn’t just white supremacists; it’s white supremacy, and the way the American system was essentially built on it and still remains supported by it. As Bustle’s Faridah Gbadamosi wrote following Charlottesville, it’s not enough to be “good white people”; “good white people … other racism, pretending that the conversation is about individual white supremacists, not white supremacy in America, a system which privileges white people above all others,” said Gbadamosi. “And by doing this, they get to absolve themselves from enjoying the benefits that white supremacy has given them.” It’s why #ThisIsNotUs is problematic, and it’s why white people can’t ask “What is wrong with you?” of white supremacists without asking “What is wrong with us?” as well.

Ramey ends her letter with a final message not “white person to white supremacist person,” as she began her missive, but “white person to white person”: “Like my parents before me, I will not stand idly by nor give up my rights or the rights of other Americans because you think you are better than some of us. It doesn’t work that way. All Americans stand shoulder to shoulder against your hatred and bigotry.”

To take that a step further, white people need to consider this point made by Gbadamosi (among many, many others): “The country doesn’t actually need ‘good white people.' What it needs are actual allies; allies who listen to people of color, allies who don’t speak over people of color, allies who do not need to be told that they are good, allies that do not center their activism around whiteness, allies who are not colorblind.” So, speak up, yes; but also listen. Educate yourself. Show up. Learn how to be a better ally. Read essays and books that will further your knowledge. Don’t demand that marginalized people educate you; take advantage of the vast amounts of information available at your fingertips (thanks, internet) and do the work yourself.

And most importantly, recognize that the issue is more pervasive than just one group of bigots. It’s vast and wide-reaching, and the only way to address it is with systemic change. It’s past time to get to work.