Nonviolence for White People

Malcolm X
Sometime in the mid-60′s, when America’s black-led freedom movement was at the center of daily news, a white man asked Malcolm X why he did not accept and teach the nonviolence of Martin Luther King. Malcolm replied that he had not experienced a great deal of nonviolence in America. “If you believe in nonviolence,” he said, “why don’t you go teach some nonviolence to white people.”

More and more, I’m convicted that Malcolm’s challenge is something of a call to me. Gandhi taught nonviolence to colonized Indians, which was a great gift to the world. King demonstrated the power of nonviolent love at the heart of the black church’s experience in America. This, too, was a gift.

But I am not Gandhi or King. Still, the longer I live and pray against the realities they sought to change, the more convinced I am that white repentance–white conversion–is absolutely necessary if we are to become the beloved community they point us toward.

Maybe the most important thing is for some of us to learn what nonviolence means for white people.

Here’s a start on my working list:

1) Demystify yourself of the myth of the white hero. I went to see Lincoln after Thanksgiving, and I enjoyed it as a story. It’s well told. Spielberg is good at what he does. But let’s be honest: Lincoln didn’t free the slaves because he knew from the start that it was his moral duty, come hell or high water. (The first meeting Lincoln ever held at the White House with African-Americans was to discuss a plan to move black folks back to Africa.) And I don’t mean to disrespect Mr. Lincoln. Lyndon Johnson didn’t stand before Congress and say “We Shall Overcome” out of the goodness of his heart either. In his case, we have the White House tapes to prove it.

White men in American history are not Messiah figures. We’re Pharaoh in this story. At best, we “harden not our hearts,” step down from the throne, and admit that something’s wrong with the whole system.

Related: The Pollution of Racism – What White People Can Do About Racism

2) Get in touch with your hidden wound. On the wall here at Rutba House, we have a quote from the aboriginal sister Lila Watson: “If you’ve come here to help me, you’re wasting your time. But if you’ve come because your salvation is bound up with mine, then let us walk together.” Sure, we’ve got to give up trying to be the hero. But, more than that, we have to learn to see that addressing histories of oppression and systems of injustice is about liberating our own souls from the death-dealing, schizophrenic patterns that we’ve inherited. White people have to learn how to name the ways racism has hurt us too.

3) Decide who you’re going to follow. Part of learning the new way of nonviolence is learning to listen to the leadership of people who’ve experienced the “other America.” White people have to figure out how to put this into practice. Join your local NAACP. Listen to some of our best thinkers and leaders today: Michelle Alexander and Cornel West; James Forbes and Marian Wright Edelman; William Barber and Bernice Johnson Reagon; Vincent Harding and Diane Nash. Go where these people are leading, even if you don’t yet understand why it matters to you.

Brave New Films

4) Don’t call the police. In all of our cities today, we’re experiencing a new attempt at integration in the form of gentrification. John Perkins often says that integration was that time between the day when the first blacks moved into a neighbor and the day when the last whites moved out. But in scores of neighborhoods today, it’s us white folks moving back in. And when we feel threatened, we do what we’ve been told to do. We call the police.

But here’s the problem: when we call the police on neighbors we haven’t taken the time to know, we participate in a system of mass incarceration that sends one out of three black men from neighborhoods like ours to prison.

I’m not saying that we don’t have neighborhood safety concerns that we all have to work on. I’m saying that we cannot trust the institutionalized violence to fix our neighborhoods for us. So before you call the police, get to know your neighbors, join the community association, and learn why some people have legitimate reasons to not trust the police.

5) Don’t confuse nonviolence with powerlessness. Maybe the worst thing white people can do in neighborhoods like ours is to act like we have no power. We need to repent of the ways we’ve abused power. We have to listen to people who’ve had a very different experience. We must learn to follow. But we also need to tap the resources we have access to, call on friends we know, leverage our generational wealth, and spend our social capital on behalf of our friends and neighbors. Anything less than real redistribution is disingenuous. Our friends will notice.

Well, that’s a start. What would you add to this list?

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is the author of The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture and Common Prayer. He is an author, speaker, and activist who currently resides in Durham, NC at the Rutba House. You can reach him at his website,

This post originally appeared on Jonathan’s blog, The Everyday Awakening

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About the Author

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

Jonathan Wilson-HartgroveJonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is the author of Strangers at My Door (Random House) and Common Prayer. A popular speaker and spiritual writer, he lives in Durham, NC at the Rutba House. You can reach him via School for Conversion, www.schoolforconversion.orgView all posts by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove →

  • Akj

    Id add the list of leaders and thinkers today to include Latinos, south asians, native Americans and others who have experienced “a different America” to learn from them as well

  • I would add reforming our churches away from monocultural aesthetics, preaching, and social life, to include forms of worship, communication, and sociality that a lot of White people find difficult or uncomfortable, not as a “tool” to do “outreach,” but as a way to internalize the radically cross/counter-cultural message of the gospel.

  • bluecenterlight

    I heard the incomparable Ann Coulter the other day on Bill Maher say that there are more child molesters than racists in this country. Her point was not that America is filled with child molesters, but that racism has been pretty much wiped out in America. My initial reaction was anger of course, her constantly misrepresenting Christianity for personal profit grates me to no end. My first thought was she didn’t grow up in my family, she also has never worked on a construction site. Anyone who has would know racism is alive and well in America. But it hit me, I don’t think she was being disingenuous, she probably does not experience racism. When you live in gated communities, and you have a couple token black friends who believe what you believe, it may appear that racism is a thing of the past. Black America for most of us, is something you drive through, windows rolled up, doors locked, Taylor Swift cranked up on the radio, on the way to the mall. If we were to get out of our car and talk to people, we might get a different impression. I guess I don’t understand Christians who decry compassion for the disenfranchised as “white guilt”. I’m not responsible for the lingering results of slavery. I have not rounded up one native American and forced them to live on a reservation. But Jesus was pretty clear that he lives on reservations, that he dwells in subsidized housing in the inner city. At some point how can I claim to be “close” to Him when I’m too afraid to go where He lives. I guess Malcolm X was right, it does seem a lot like bait and switch to teach non violence to the oppressed when we play fast and loose with “love your enemy” thing ourselves. If we glorify and justify violence to protect, or throw off the yoke of oppression for ourselves, I sure hope the oppressed in this country don’t latch hold of that “gospel” we might be in trouble.

  • There are many issues we as white people need to think about. I was attending a conference at a previously all white conference ground (I had never seen any Black conferees there before) and a large black church held their worship and prayer weekend there for the first time. It was expected that the worship would be loud and exciting, but our white conferees began to complain at night when the fellowship went on loudly in the halls. They complained the next day, but I was at the desk and argued against complaining because I felt the conferees would feel unwelcome. Yes, if it was a secular hotel, it would have been okay to complain…but, this was the beginning of integration of this all white/pristine place…I felt we were shooting ourselves in the foot if we complained over this before they felt welcomed by several really good experiences at the conference ground.

  • KathleenL7

    Maybe I’m totally wrong but I see violence as less of a racial problem and more of a problem with the misuse of power in general. As a white, 65-year-old woman I have been the object of violence. And I have learned we’re all in this together and that nothing will ever come from violence except more violence.

  • Wonderful list. I agree with Akj below. Racism is not just a black-white problem.

    Personally, I’ve found point 3 to be one of the most crucial. In a lot of instances possibly the best thing white people can do is somehow create open space in their minds (“you mean the white man does not have all the answers!?!?), sit down, shut their mouths open their ears, listen and then walk away different knowing that their reality is not THE reality.

    Great post.

  • Small Farmer in Frisco

    Seems to me that part of our challenge is to also stop being so mobile…taking time and giving attention to making a community home not just for us but for three or five or seven generations down the road is important…it is easier to be wise in a place where your family are known and friends and neighbors can pass on traditions, mores and values in daily living together. I realize this sounds fanciful but it worked in Jesus’ days…

  • YammerHammer

    Do you even live among any black folks dude? I know many who don’t feel that way about “whitey” anymore and would be the first to call police if needed on their own.

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