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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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.

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The crisis of anti-black racism

People in the city where I live (Portland, Maine) have been rising to the occasion as a welcoming community for approximately 300 asylum seekers mostly from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola who have arrived here in just the last few weeks. Some local folks even organized a picnic on the Fourth of July. My own spiritual community, the Quakers, have been on the ground gathering and sorting donations, and doing all kinds of hands-on volunteering. It’s amazing, and wonderful!

At the same time, across the country there has been outrage at the inhumane treatment of people crossing the southern border of the USA. There have been #ClosetheCamps protests, and the national media is finally sharing the story of the “detention facilities.” My father’s family came from Germany, so I feel especially compelled to not look away as so many Germans did before the Holocaust; the concentration camps there were established before the “extermination” or “death camps.” It may not be exactly the same, but we can’t pretend it isn’t similar.

So, believe me when I tell you I’m not here to yuck on anyone’s activism yum, so to speak. It’s true that our mostly white town here in Main has done the right thing and has been welcoming our newest neighbors. And, it’s true that activists are kicking it into high gear to get the government to change their policies, reunite families, and let the people out of the CPB prisons at the border.

But it’s also true that we white people are very, very good at avoiding even talking about anti-Black racism, let alone taking action to change our anti-Black racist systems.

It’s been my experience that speaking about anti-Black racism to my fellow white people can be so fraught with feelings of guilt and shame that we will do anything to distract from the topic. Just bringing up anti-Black racism very frequently leads people to tell me they don’t think they should feel guilty. And, um, no, I never said you should. I never mention “guilt,” but someone almost always brings up that word. To me, that’s revealing.

The reason I identify this common need to change the subject or make statements about “not feeling guilty” as feelings of guilt or shame is mostly because of my own experience learning about racism as well as the experience of other white people I know who have really dug into this crap.

First, I didn’t know how bad it was. Then, I started to know how bad it was and I felt really bad-sad-mad feelings, peppered with feelings of what I now think of as “white guilt.” I didn’t want to be a bad person, and racists are bad! The next phase, that I’m in now, was that I realized my feelings aren’t the point: anti-Black racism exists and I benefit from the white supremacist society that depends on it. So, sure, I think it’s awful and ideally I’d love to not be a part of the problem. But there’s not a lot I can do, realistically, to get myself out of the benefitting-position of the systems around me so “guilt” is a waste of energy.

In “How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective,” edited by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, #BlackLivesMatter co-creator Alicia Garza points out that “anti-Blackness is the fulcrum around which white supremacy works.”

So as these good and right protests and volunteer efforts have been happening, I’ve been glad to see it and participate in them. But I’ve also been angry and frustrated. Anti-Black racism, the fulcrum of white supremacy, has been a crisis all along. It’s a set of systems that morph to keep Black people at the bottom rather than an enormous bang-splash crisis *event.* Because it creeps along, it’s easier for us white people to avoid seeing it. Most of us white people aren’t ready or willing to dive in as real allies, accomplices, or just generally good human beings to see—to really face—the crisis that includes but is not limited to mass incarceration (slave labor) and housing/healthcare/education/wealth disparities. As Black Girl In Maine Media’s Shay Stewart-Bouley has written about extensively, simply existing in our country as a Black person puts people at risk of punishment or death.

I’m not suggesting we should stop supporting asylum seekers, or stop taking action to free the people imprisoned at the border. I am suggesting we white people need to notice how we are not doing the same for Black Americans, despite the ongoing crisis of white supremacy. We white people need to notice, learn (skip the guilt!), and do something about it.

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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