What (relatively small) prices have I paid in the name of anti-racism?

NOTE FROM BGIM: While much of the content at BGIM Media is definitely for the education and mobilization of white people to fight racism, I have tended to reserve the space for “feelings” primarily for Black and other people of color. There is a need for safe spaces for white people to “work out their shit” but it is not my ministry to provide such space (nor should that generally fall to any person of color; that’s white people work). That being said, it probably bears reminding to some people that white people striving to be anti-racists do have significant internal struggles and do pay prices for their efforts. And so with that in mind I run this latest post by Heather Denkmire, with the caveat that even more so than most of her posts, this is primarily aimed at the white readers of BGIM Media.

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We white people need to have more conversations among ourselves where we process what it’s like to be effectively anti-racist. The costs can be small at first, but they can feel big. I suppose this is a kind of a trigger warning for Black and Indigenous people as well as other people of color: This post will be addressing my white-person feelings. In future posts, I will address some of the larger prices we white people might have to be willing to pay as we practice being anti-racists.

Recognizing that I can benefit from racism and still be a good person was a complicated process that I’ve already written about. It’s ongoing. I have to remind myself regularly that while I’m trying to break free from the whiteness that has been my reality for all of my life I’m also still benefiting from other people’s oppression. There are many resources available to explain what “whiteness” is, but Nell Irvin Painter’s piece in the New York Times is an excellent primer. So, one price I pay is space in my brain for a lot of cognitive dissonance: good person but benefitting from a bad system. Both are true.

At some point in my racial identity development, a bell rang that hasn’t yet stopped ringing. I can’t just watch television, listen to songs, attend social events, hear about my daughters’ days at school, sit in a coffee shop—all of my everyday life is permeated with awareness of how white supremacy has built it up, how whiteness rules most spaces, and how it used to be easy to not know. It’s not the same as when I started to be aware of my own racism, it’s not something that makes me socially uncomfortable most of the time. It makes me angry, frustrated, and it sometimes makes me feel helpless. Again, this is uncomfortable. I have had to do some grieving now that I am keenly aware that almost everything I know is infused with white supremacy.

Grieving the loss of once-pure parts of our lives certainly isn’t a whites-only experience. In great part because of Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement, many of us have had to change how we view people we used to hold in high esteem. Would I ever consider watching The Cosby Show again? Not enjoying a television show certainly seems a small price to pay, but when awareness of racism means just about everything is now tainted with the stench of white supremacy, it requires some adjustment. It also requires emotional and intellectual effort to not adjust in the ways white supremacy wants me to: numb it out, minimize it, look away, change the topic, somehow pretend it’s not so bad. Or maybe make a big deal about it, get outraged and furious and tell everyone how awful it is to continue enjoying [insert latest #MeToo disclosure] person’s work. Sometimes excessive outrage can be another way to distance ourselves from the ugliness.

Similarly, a price I pay is the awareness of white supremacy coloring how I experience so much of what I have loved in my life. For example, my daughters’ beautiful childhoods were extraordinary in part because of the ways I benefit from white supremacy. With this new lens, can I still feel sweet nostalgia for the days when I sat with my young children on the edge of a stream (on occupied Wabanaki land) by an old farm home (purchased family wealth passed down for generations, built on white supremacy’s slavery and segregation) breathing in the fresh and clean mountain air? Being an antiracist surely doesn’t have to mean throwing away everything in my life, does it? These kinds of questions are complicated and require a lot of thoughtful consideration, and sometimes lead to changes in my behavior.

Even just writing this out has my mind going in so many directions. Is this self-serving navel-gazing? Does it seem like I think I’m special because I have thoughts and feelings about white supremacy? (The answer to that is no.) Is it centering on whiteness in a way that’s inappropriate for this blog? I mean it to be an example of what I experience as a white person addressing my racism and becoming an antiracist. I know that relative to the daily violence racism forces on people of color, it is a walk in the park. But I feel strongly that if we white people don’t “process” what’s going on inside of us as we try to figure out how to be white without supporting white supremacy, we’ll keep slipping back into the relative comfort of ignorance.


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How do we really break the patterns?

[An evergreen reminder: I am a white woman writing about racism so I might share with other white people what I learn—mostly what I learn from people of color—so we can all work toward societal transformation and liberation.]

In the car this morning, my 10-year-old and I started listening to NPR’s podcast, “Code Switch: Race and Identity, Remixed.” We’re eagerly awaiting the next installment of the “1619 Project” podcast and Rebecca Nagle’s “This Land” and have already listened to Seeing White two or three times. We’ve been on a search for a podcast we can get into. We started from the beginning of Code Switch and agree we’re really happy we found it.

Part of my racial justice work is a daily consideration of how to be white in a way that doesn’t depend on the oppression of others. That is, how can I break free from “whiteness?” The first episode of Code Switch mentioned that issue—white people figuring out what it means to be white.

In her recent post on this blog, “Moving white people from navel-gazing to anti-racism,” Shay Stewart-Bouley writes, “You cannot be an anti-racist while sitting comfortably in your whiteness.” That feels very true to me. I have to be sure that my racial justice work isn’t about finding ways to make myself feel more comfortable, even if some of it does. So, while doing what I can to break free from whiteness is a daily practice that involves making myself feel better—more whole, fully human, not weighed down by the mental pretzels caused by denial—my racial justice work can’t simply be about learning new ways of looking at myself or even new ways of looking at the world around me.

Shay’s piece begins with a quote from a substantial article by Sara Ahmed that speaks to one of my greatest concerns about racial justice work as a white person. Simply stating the fact that I’m white, that I benefit from white supremacy, etc. etc. and learning a lot is not anti-racist activism.

Historically, waves of white people have been involved good anti-racism work. There were white abolitionists in slavery times, there were white activists in the 60s, and there are effective white anti-racism activists now. In my social circles, there is a cultural swing for a lot of white people to “dig deeper.” A lot of us white people are learning about racism, white supremacy, and our own part in these systems. Some of us are practicing talking about it and are using new language to describe what we’re learning.

The waves of anti-racism activism on the part of white people across the history of the United States have been good; they were and are necessary and important. But we white people have historically, with very few exceptions, been eager to get back into comfortable. We want things to be better, to be okay, to be easy again.

So, this time, when #BlackLivesMatter and Trump’s election has forced so many of us white people to start (again) “waking up” to the realities of racism, how can we not repeat history? How can we resist white supremacy’s slippery and tricky ways of morphing into new techniques for avoiding harsh realities?

For example, most white liberals I know are pretty well-versed in the idea of “white privilege.” But, as Shay and many others have pointed out, recognizing that fact—even understanding it deeply and emotionally and practically—isn’t the same as changing white supremacy.

We white people need to figure out how to prevent ourselves from slipping back into the more familiar state of denial. For me, uncovering my own internalized racism and consistently and regularly addressing my tendency to ignore my biases (understandably but irrationally, I want to be bias-free!) has been helpful. I’ve also written before about concrete actions I take, and I’m sure I will write in the future about other actions we white people can take, especially in terms of organizing. We need to avoid the slippery slope back into ignorance where we can believe everything is better.

See, that’s how white supremacy works. Like other addictions I know well, it slips in and does what it can to seem harmless. It morphs and changes so much that what we think is fighting it is actually just supporting it. “I know about xyz” or “I’ve done difficult work in workshops” or “I’ve marched/protested” or “I’ve read and talked and written a lot” so now I can rest. White supremacy wants us to believe we’re “one of the good ones” instead of bringing action and organizing into our everyday lives. Let’s make sure we are on the path of justice and love (“love and justice are not two”).


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Photo by Laurentiu Iordache on Unsplash

We white liberals need to face our internalized racism

As a white liberal/progressive, my racism is complicated. Everything in my background has always been about being not-racist. I’ve asked former high school classmates if they remember ever hearing the N-word or overtly racist things, and as far as anyone can remember, we didn’t. I certainly never heard such things in my family. Our cultural norms were built on the certainty that racism was bad, racists were bad, and we were not going to be racist.

In hindsight, I suspect I probably did come across overtly racist talk in social settings but I imagine I would’ve felt so uncomfortable that I would’ve wanted to ignore it. My racism was passive and has required intense denial. Mostly, though, I think it’s likely that hearing overtly racist talk among my white peers from my childhood into my adult years was very rare.

Part of that was probably that in my circles (especially my family), we spent time actively trying to assist in social justice work. My father’s church in the 1980s was in Hartford, Conn., in a mostly Black and Latinx neighborhood with devastating poverty and one of the highest infant mortality rates in the country. He was involved in community organizing, helping to found the Asylum Hill Organizing Project. As a child and as a teen, I participated in community organizing events. We marched and we boycotted. I’m not mentioning this to say we deserve a pat on the back. What I’m saying is that being not-racist was absolutely essential to my identity. Being racist was not who we were, in my mind. That was the other people. The bad white people.

So many white people I know now have similar backgrounds. So many of us spent a lot of energy focusing on how bad being racist is rather than on the impact racism has. In fact, to be “not racist” in our liberal/progressive way, I believe we have had to pretend things weren’t actually as bad as they were or are. As soon as we start seeing that the racism we live with—I’m talking about the systemic and institutionalized racism, not personal bigotry—benefitted us tremendously, it gets really complicated. We needed to look away, or we’d have to see that we aren’t who we thought we were.

Some of the harms we white liberal/progressives cause are so deep because we want to be not racist. It’s ironic, maybe, that because in our hearts we so honestly and desperately want equality and even authentic equity for all people, that we avoid our own part in racism. I can’t be sure that my own experience would be similar for you, my fellow white liberals/progressives, but my gut tells me it might be. I want to tell you there is freedom on the other side of facing what might exist in you as it has existed in me.

I have not shed my own personal racism entirely, and I absolutely still benefit from whiteness and from the many institutions in our society that assume the worst of Black and brown-bodied people. As I practice facing and cleaning away my racism—the personal bigotry I thought I didn’t have when I was focused on being “not racist”—I’ve found the truth of sincerely wanting equality and equity for all people remains.

It takes effort, but I regularly clear out racist garbage. For example, to this day when I hear “arrest rates are higher for Black and brown people” I have flashes of the thought “they must commit more crime” despite knowing that’s a lie. I have to check myself frequently to see if I’m filtering things to make them seem less racist. I use meditation/mindfulness and other spiritual tools to face my internalized racism that I had been denying and, though it regularly tries to sneak back in, I usually catch it and get it out of me. Now, my desire for racial justice is stronger and clearer and includes more actions and is, therefore, more effective. It’s better this way. It’s better for everyone. I’m still a part of the problem, but I’m also actively working to be a part of the solutions.


If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

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