An Open Letter (and Apology) to Whites from a Black Man

I’m publishing the letter below that was written by my black husband. (It originally appeared on his Facebook page in November 2014.)


To my White Friends and Acquaintances,

I owe you an apology. I know that some of you think that the decision in Ferguson, to not indict the accused officer, was an instance of “justice.” I know that I have done my part in allowing those of you who feel this way to perpetuate the viewpoint that we live in a post racial society where we all have equal footing, opportunities, and civil liberties. At times like this, I feel responsible for perpetuating that viewpoint. Because I have been silent about my own experiences. And for that, I am sorry.

If you’re reading this on my Facebook feed, you’ve probably shared meals, libations, good times and fraternity with me at various points in the last 46 years. What you don’t know is that on the way to and from many of those parties, volleyball matches, practices, and banquets, I have been targeted, harassed, and detained (for hours at times) by law enforcement officers. I have been pulled over more times than I can count. I have been stopped and questioned while walking in public places. ME. Most of you could attest that I’m about as “thuggish” as the average kindergarten teacher.

Officers usually begin with, “what are you doing around here?” As if it were impossible to comprehend that someone “like me” could have a legitimate reason to be walking around in public areas or driving in certain neighborhoods. These episodes typically consist of having to produce my driver’s license and registration, and wait while the police officer checks DOT, FBI, and INTERPOL, and discovers that I have no outstanding warrants. I am either discharged with “a warning” (without ever being told why I was detained – at times for up to 90 minutes) or I will be issued a moving violation. These tickets are usually for offenses that are hard to disprove, like driving on the median strip or coming to a “rolling” stop at a stop sign. Things I wasn’t doing, by the way.

I was issued a ticket on my first day out driving at 16. I was so excited that I smiled at a police officer as I drove past him. He told me that he pulled me over for giving him a “wrongful look.” I was issued a ticket for an “illegal u-turn.” What I had actually done was use a driveway to turn around.

When I was 22, I was pulled over deep in the South Hills of Pittsburgh. I was tailgated by a police car for 2 miles. And I was driving as safely as anyone does when they notice a cop car behind them. I was finally pulled over, and after some time (running my info through checks that came up clean) I was issued a citation for “passing on the right.” It was a two-lane road and I was in the right lane. When a red light turned green, I accelerated faster than the car in the left lane as we both pulled forward (still below the speed limit). Knowing this was a mis-application of the law, I decided to contest the ticket in court. I was informed by the judge that he and the officer had already discussed the matter, and he had made his decision. The ticket would stand, and I would not be allowed to speak. I’m pretty sure that’s illegal, but at 22 I was too naïve to contest it.

Let me get back to my apology. I have shielded the white people in my life, and many of you are dear friends, from this type of ugliness.

I am sorry that I didn’t tell you this sooner: I am affected by racism in this country each and every day. It has occurred in subtle ways, like when women clutch their purses and cross to the opposite side when I walk past them in the mall parking lot. And it’s occurred in overt ways, like when someone shouts a racial slur at me as they drive past in their car.

I’ve not told you about that. I’ve allowed you to enjoy the myth that America is fair, and just, and full of wonderful opportunity for all. You all know me. I’m cheery and jovial. I guess I didn’t think that you cared about the harsh realities of what I’ve truly had to deal with every day of my life. My hope is that you do care. And not just for me. I want you to care about the experience of every non-white person in this country.

This isn’t “sour grapes” or “race baiting” or any other nomenclature you may want to attach to it. These are the experiences of a middle class, professional, black family man. I shudder when I think of the experiences in the lives of blacks with less privilege than me.

If this was just about me, I could probably let it go. It’s hard for me to have these kinds of conversations. Maybe it is for you too. Still, I’m sorry that I haven’t told you all sooner.


by Val Pennington

2 thoughts on “An Open Letter (and Apology) to Whites from a Black Man

Thank you for posting your husband’s experience on your blog. I’m from St. Louis originally and had black friends. But I remained clueless about their experiences because I never asked. It wasn’t until I was getting acquainted with my brother-in-law in a friendly give and take about whether women or blacks experienced more discrimination that I began to stop talking and start listening. That was many years ago when I was learning what it meant to be a feminist in what was largely a white middle class movement at the time. Even though he became a successful artist, his day to day experiences have mirrored those described by your husband. Meanwhile, I have continued to “enjoy” the white privilege you described in your “How to Get Pulled Over” blog.

Since Ferguson especially, I’ve started to listen to (and they’ve begun to share) similar experiences from my black friends. Like Val’s here, they continue to stun and grieve me. I think it’s vitally important to keep putting them out there. I watched Monday’s episode of Kamau Bell’s “The United Shades of America,” and thank God every time black people bring elucidation to this horrific inequality. So thanks for publishing this. Val, keep teaching.

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