White supremacy stays strong thanks to white liberals

Last week I had an exchange on Twitter that gave me a tiny glimpse into the disrespect and dismissal Black people face at every turn in our anti-Black country. It was infuriating and offensive. The white woman with strong ties to the establishment Democrats was rude and close-minded. Without calling her out directly, I’m going to review how she upheld white supremacy in ways I’ve done in the past. More importantly, I’m going to share with you what I try do differently now.

First, when another white person is acting in line with white supremacy, it angers me. I use that anger as a cue to look at myself. I wanted to tell her to “eff” off, but that’s a luxury I don’t afford myself anymore. I don’t shut the door on white liberals who are still stuck in the denial I was in; the denial I can continue to be in if I’m not mindful about my own racism.

Second, I’m new to confronting or interrupting racism. I don’t always see it when it’s there. When I do see it, I’m never quite sure what the right response is. And, if I see it and I do know how to respond, I decide if I’m in it on a committed level or in passing. Either is okay, but I think about it. I don’t want to get bogged down in white culture’s insistence on perfectionism, but I also don’t want to thoughtlessly cause more harm.

When this woman tweeted using the phrase “women and African Americans” it rubbed me the wrong way. I’ve come to hear that phrasing as erasing Black women. Honestly, I don’t know where I’ve heard it over the years, but I know in my gut that I’ve heard Black women say that phrasing like that is harmful. In my own opinion I think it’s ugly. I think there’s an underlying assumption in our white supremacist culture that Black women don’t count fully as women. Any time we aren’t explicit that we mean “all women” when we say “women” it’s adding to the “white as default” use of the term and that’s harmful.

The woman responded not with openness but with defensiveness. In her defensive response, I recognized my old behaviors. I remember being so afraid of being racist that if someone told me I was doing something racist, I might have found fault in their opinion. Protecting my self-identity as not-racist was more important than anything.

She defended her use of the phrase, saying “All experts in the field use this terminology,” and “we all know that views of subgroups within particular groups can vary.” Yes, of course, “women and African Americans” is used commonly, but that doesn’t mean it’s right. As Audre Lorde said, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

Summarizing the exchange: I told her that I’d heard Black women say the phrasing “women and [racial/ethnic group]” was harmful to them. I’ve come to hear it that way myself. It grates on me to hear it phrased that way. It seems to me a simple adjustment of the phrase would be easy, “women of all races and African Americans of all genders.” See how easy that is? But instead of being interested about what Black women have said, she defended her [mis]use of the phrase and expected evidence or proof from some authoritative source.

That’s the next aspect of white supremacy in this woman’s response: Only institutionally recognized sources will be considered valid. I, too, used to put academic or expert citations on a pedestal. General statements based on feelings, intuition, or word-of-mouth are typically dismissed by white supremacy. Instead of evoking curiosity, my tweet was met with disrespect. I’m not a blue check account with thousands of followers and I have no advanced degrees or obvious popular forms of expertise. It reminded me of when I was dealing with DHS (getting food stamps/SNAP benefits and MaineCare) and was treated with more disrespect than I’d ever experienced before. My knowledge alone didn’t count to this woman; imagine how a solitary Black woman speaking up would be treated? White culture, supporting white supremacy, has a limited view of whose voices are valid.

The exchange went on and there were more displays of white supremacy, but this post here is already getting too long. To dismantle white supremacy, we need to change how we value human experiences and voices. We need to live in love, justice, open-mindedness, and curiosity. We need to listen and break patterns if we want our systems to change.

P.S. I told the woman it wasn’t my job to prove anything to her. I was wrong about that. Part of my “job” as a white person in recovery from whiteness is to share useful information with other white people. So, to the woman on Twitter I present just a couple sources she might consider “valid” enough to pique her curiosity. I am confident if she explores the issue with an open mind, she will find it generally confirmed beyond these two links that the phrasing she defended is harmful: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3477987/ and https://upcolorado.com/about-us/blog/item/2843-the-problem-with-the-phrases-women-and-minorities-and-women-and-people-of-color.


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Actions I take (as a white woman) to help dismantle white supremacy

[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, liberation.]

“What actions do we take to help dismantle white supremacy?” I asked my nearly-10-year-old to help me brainstorm for this post. Of course, I already know a lot of the things I do on a daily basis, but I’d say 90 percent of the racial justice work I do is mostly internal or bit by bit with other individual white people. I know that internal and individual work is an essential part of the process of recreating our systems, but I want to share in this post actual actions I take as a white woman in this work.

I suggested to my daughter that our listening (and re-listening) to and discussing the “Seeing White” podcast series by Scene On Radio was an action we are taking. She disagreed because, she said, “That’s not action, that’s just education and learning.” She has a point. I want to get beyond the stuff I’ve talked about before in this space; I’ve already talked about self-education, reading and learning from people of color, and (as the kids say today) “diving deeper“ into my own inner world’s messy complicity in white supremacy to shed the garbage and be in the world differently.

One more thing I want to address before I share some of the actions I take is how uncomfortable it makes me to tell you about it. The magnitude of racial injustice in the United States is so vast, whatever I do will not be “enough” if I look at it through a white supremacist lens. Meaning, the perfectionism and the discomfort I feel is a part of what keeps be from sharing. I also don’t want to seem like a “show off.” I return to this document describing “white supremacy culture” very frequently when I’m feeling blocked. I see how white supremacy is keeping me quiet, I assess the context (have I been invited to share?), and I move through the fears.

What actions do I take to help dismantle white supremacy? Some of what I do is:

  • set aside several (usually five to 10) hours each month to do pro-bono grant winning or other consulting services for people of color who are engaged in systemic change work;
  • risk being seen as the “Debbie Downer” just about everywhere I go. For example, when I catch us white people falling into some of our patterns—such as believing we’re the “good ones” so it’s okay to politely coerce people of color to join our activities before we’re ready or safe for them—I find the courage to say something and help our white people groups take steps back and look at ourselves;
  • share resources with my daughters’ teachers and offer to help. I am so grateful that both of my daughters’ schools are doing great work in racial justice, but part of dismantling white supremacy is not being alone in the work, so sharing resources and offering help is a part of that;
  • attend events and participate in workshops geared toward helping us white people do better, such as Racial Justice and the Beloved Community (New England Yearly Meeting [Quakers]), or Tell Me the Truth: Exploring the Heart of Cross-Racial Conversations with our own Shay Stewart-Bouley and Debby Irving (author of Waking Up White);
  • hold a bi-monthly “whiteness class” with my daughters where we explore what it means to be white. If whiteness means oppression and greed and self-centeredness—and history shows that it does—how can we be white and good? (It’s possible, but it doesn’t happen without effort). We listen to podcasts or watch movies and discuss, we set our own “homework” assignments and check in with each other about what we’re working on, and, most of all, we practice talking about racism and whiteness. We also notice how easy it is to let our good intentions slide because racial justice work can seem like it’s not “life or death.” We keep making the time for it.

There. I’ve done it. I’ve shared with you some of the actions I take on a very regular basis to help dismantle white supremacy. I hope these examples can be helpful for you white readers. I’d also recommend looking at this list or this program/workbook for other ideas that might work in your own life.


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After the turning point, Part 1

Losing a friend because I was steeped in white supremacy (and didn’t even see it) was the beginning of my turning point in racial justice work; she showed me that my “writing for white people” in a newspaper, however good my intentions were, had the impact of harming people of color. Without realizing it, I erased them entirely from my consideration, as if they didn’t matter. It was this new perspective, that I was much more racist than I realized, that was transformative.

So, what did I do next?

Before I answer that question, I need to be clear: I do not think I have somehow passed into “the good ones” group in terms of racial justice. I want it understood that I’m talking about my own personal journey. I also do my best to share in community with others who recognize the value of inner racial justice work for us white people. The fear of seeming like a “know-it-all” has kept me quiet in many ways. So, I’m going to share with you what I did after that pivotal moment with the caveat that I think what I’m doing is the bare minimum of what it means to be a decent human being. I’ll write here about the time immediately following our conversation, and I’ll write later about the more recent past, present, and future actions.

One reason I spoke with my former friend is because I was expanding my spiritual life. In my spiritual practice, built in great part on a twelve-step program of recovery from substance use disorders, I examine my past and identify where I have harmed other people. I approach those people, asking if they would be willing to talk with me about my making amends. The conversation I referred to in my last post was related to the growth of my spiritual life. At that time, I was doing my best to flow in life, rather than trying to force change; doing those things I knew were under my control, and accepting those things (most things) that weren’t.

Something happened in that conversation. It felt like blinders had been ripped away from my eyes. For decades, I had been involved in some way or another in social justice work, including anti-racism work. In that conversation it hit me that I lived inside whiteness (see “Key Features of Whiteness here: http://www.aclrc.com/whiteness). I began some very uncomfortable self-searching. I’m not exaggerating when I say I wasn’t sure who I was. If I could be this wrong about myself, where else was I also unaware or wrong?

I’ve mentioned Rev. angel Kyodo williams here before, and I will be forever grateful to the synchronicity that introduced me to her work at just this time. Because of her words I could take what I had learned from spiritual leaders like Thích Nhất Hạnh and practice examining my whiteness with those tools. I was able to hold concepts I felt were deeply in conflict—that I believed with all my heart in racial justice, and that I was also moving in the world causing harm to people of color—in my awareness at the same time. I connected spiritually in a way that freed me from the fear that had been blocking me.

For all of the research I had done about the life experiences of Black and brown bodied people, for all of my understandings of how systems in our country were set up to keep them down, it was terrifying to see that I wasn’t really comfortable with what might be required of me. If I really want to dismantle white supremacy, what might I have to do? How might I have to change? What might I have to give up?

In the last three years, I have incorporated my inner learnings and some answers to these questions into an ongoing spiritual practice that involves actions in the private and public spheres. I find the more I practice, the more effective I am. However, one of the biggest lessons in this is that I must shed the idea of getting “good” and “not racist” anytime soon. I can’t. It’s been a lifetime and generations of living in whiteness. I can’t unlearn it quickly. In my next post, I will write about the day-to-day and longer term actions I take to unlearn whiteness and work toward racial justice.


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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