White people need to watch the new film, “Black Boys.” There is only one problem—I am worried that it will prove to be a siren song to white people. It will call to them, reach out into their living rooms and through their screens, touch the minds of both the newly woke and the old activists alike and say something like, “White people have failed. They must do better. It can start with you.”
There is only one white person in the entire film, an interviewer we see just a handful of times, and yet I believe the film will prove to be an irresistible pull to a certain kind of white person—to a certain kind of white savior—someone who thinks the film is speaking straight to them with an admonition to go be great in the world of “the other.” However, even in light of this danger, we white people need to watch this film. The ideas are too important, and there is too much to be learned.
But, be warned: “Black Boys” is not about us. It is about this generation of Black children that we too often call “young men,” aging them up before our eyes into bodies more worthy of being ignored or punished. No, this film isn’t about us, even as it is about the fruit of a society that we have created. This film is about boys—boys who will remind you of your sons and your nephews, your friends and maybe even yourself at a certain age. These boys, however, unlike you, are Black.
There is nothing easy about “Black Boys”. It is beautiful, yes, because it is human, because it is full of joy—of children playing and teenagers laughing and adults talking passionately about the things that matter most. But it is difficult because it is also full of sorrow—of statistics about the inequitable life outcomes a Black boy can expect as he grows up, of tears shed about hopes dashed and dreams deferred. You will watch Eric Garner be murdered. You will watch George Floyd be murdered. You will watch police footage of less famous Black men gunned down in the street for the simple crime of having once been a Black boy.
Where Do White People Fit Into This Conversation?
As you watch, you must resist the urge to save. Remember, “Black Boys” is not about us. Yes, towards the end of the film Jemele Hill will invite us to join the conversation about race and racism and Black boys and what we have done and continue to do to them. And, yes, it is imperative that we join this conversation.
We must decide that Black lives matter—not as performative allyship for our social media feeds, but as solidarity with a whole branch of humanity under constant attack. We must stand up and speak out; we must learn our terrible history, lament our role in it, liberate our hearts and minds to be accomplices in this long story of antiracism.
It’s not Black boys that have to be responsible for changing this nation. This country needs to put the mirror up and do the changing.
White people must watch this film and hold that mirror up to ourselves. As activist Lilla Watson once said,
If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.
Don’t for a moment start to think that you’re somehow needed in the schools, or the community centers, or the streets that you see in the film—don’t come to believe that your presence is required to save these Black boys. They don’t need you to save them. They might want you to teach them, or to mentor them, or to learn to love them—you may well already work in a space surrounded by Black boys—but they don’t need your salvation. Conan Harris, Executive Director of My Brother’s Keeper, says it best in the closing words of the film:
These young people don’t need saviors, they need believers. Once you believe in them, and know that they are great beyond measures, by who they are, not by what you bestowed on them, then everything else will shift and change as a result.
Watch the film, please; learn to believe in Black boys. But be careful how you react to that siren song. Chris Stewart and I were talking about white-savior teachers recently, and he asked a question that stuck with me: What happens to that naïve white savior when they fail for the first time in their life, when they come up against the entrenched structural problems in their classrooms only to find that they just can’t win?
Shari El-Mekki answers that question in rather stark terms:
It’s very easy to think, ‘I’m saving you, and if you don’t allow me to save you I’m going to punish you.
It felt like El-Mekki punched me in the gut. I remembered all the Black boys I have given up on over the years—I am in my 15th year of teaching Black and brown teenagers in Atlanta—and I knew that he had answered Chris’s question far better than I did: When white saviors don’t win, when the Black children under their charge resist the proffered salvation, the teacher comes back with swords drawn in punishment. And, as the film makes clear, in the long run the Black boys end up losing far more than that white teacher.
This essay isn’t about me, so I won’t tell you a trenchant story about a time I failed, a time I had a difficult child removed from my room because of my frustration and anger. Nor will I tell you a redemption song of a story about the success of this or that student or class. Instead I will just say that I have devoted more than a decade of my life to the study and practice of white teachers in Black and brown classrooms, and every time I think I have finally arrived, I find something in the morass of my racial identity that proves just how far I still have to go. Watching “Black Boys” was another such moment. You should watch it, too. But only if you are ready to get punched in the gut.
Take that punch in the gut as a warning shot—the world doesn’t need another white savior. Don’t watch “Black Boys” and be inspired to go fix this or that community in your city. Instead, hear this line from near the end of the film, when Malcolm Xavier London says,
It’s okay to acknowledge that there is no simple answer. And that love says I don’t know but I’m committed to finding out.
Black boys don’t need you to fix them. They have problems, yes, but you need to hear that there are no simple answers to these problems—and it is a fact that your presence alone won’t solve them. But hear that good word about “love” and commit yourself to finding out. Find out more about Black boys by reading, learning, listening, getting to know them and their families and communities.
They don’t need you. But, as Jemele Hill said, it would be nice if we were part of the conversation. Start with the film. You won’t be disappointed.