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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Calling All White People, Part 35: Why exactly are you sharing that video or picture?

Calling All White People, Part 35

(A periodic attempt to mobilize white people for something other than supporting just other melanin-deficient folks and maintaining a status quo of a nation geared toward whiteness as the baseline and the norm)

By An Average White Guy

TODAY’S EPISODE: We need to examine why we share pictures of dead or abused Black and brown people  

[To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]

I rarely watch the videos that make the rounds of the internet, in which a Black or brown person is verbally assaulted, physically assaulted, threatened with weapons or outright shot to death. There are times I cannot avoid the images because there is no warning. There are times I merely glance at a few seconds willingly because I feel I need some context to understand the written story about the incident. There are times I might watch the video with the sound off.

But mostly, I don’t watch them at all.

And this isn’t a situation of me burying my head in the sand. Back in the days of the Trayvon Martin killing and the senseless murder of Tamir Rice I would watch the videos because I felt it was a duty to do so. To force myself to see just how bad people could be, especially law enforcement officers dealing with Black people who posed no threat but were treated like the vilest of evildoers. I watched the Tamir Rice video just to understand how aggressive the police were, how unwarranted their response was and just how impossibly little time they gave Tamir to even respond to them (a literal second or two) before they opened fire. I’ve seen videos of Black kids being pinned to the ground violently when they weren’t resisting and had done nothing wrong but have the police called on them for existing. And more.

There was a time going back to that watershed moment of Trayvon’s death when many white people like me had to see the brutality to understand it fully. To really realize that the police were even less fair and equitable to Black and brown people compared to white people than we had ever imagined. To understand how senseless an act of violence could be and how obviously wrong it could be—and yet still see police and average citizens alike (but especially police) found not guilty by juries.

But how much do you need to see? And how much do you need to share? And why?

Very recently, a photo appeared in news stories and got spread around the internet of a Latinx father and his very young daughter face down in the Rio Grande, drowned. And it was a stark image. And one that many of us were confronted with on absolutely no warning and not having gone looking for it.

And part of me gets it—both the taking of the photo and the sharing of it. Photographers often capture images because they are stark or even shocking. Because they seem to encapsulate a multitude of issues and concerns in one single scene that cannot be conveyed the same way in words. I’m not going to fault the photographers nor even cast dispersions on the media outlets who run these photos from AP and other sources (as long as they are providing some warnings). We’d probably be raking them over the coals if we found out they were refusing to show the horrors of Trump’s treatment of immigrants at the southern border (or police brutality or whatever).

But the part of me that gets it also gets something else: White people have been sharing and spreading images of horrors for ages now, even before the internet. Postcards of lynchings being one of the more infamous examples. Moreover, taking it to the current time, we’ve been sharing horrific images of Black people being killed or nearly killed by police for quite a number of years now and not only has nothing changed, but it’s gotten worse in many ways. Now we have more police with body cameras and we see even more images but we still almost never bring those police to justice when they do wrong. Now it almost seems like many law enforcement people are happy to have so many images out there, as if to say, “See? We can still get away with it. You’re screwed now and forever.”

Whether it’s a Black child being shot to death for playing in a park or a dead immigrant father and child in a river who represent victims of very obvious American government abuse (we have concentrations camps for children, people…what more do you need to know?), what are we doing when we spread the images far and wide?

I fear that we don’t do much at all.

We desensitize ourselves in many cases. We sometimes demoralize folks by showing how little changes and will perhaps never change. We embolden the people who like to see such images and praise the violence.

I’m not saying we should ban the images. There needs to be a record of abuse and there needs to be a way for people who don’t understand the scope of abuse and racist policies to see it up close and personal, as it were.

But the thing is, with our internet-connected world, we can find these images on our own. That’s the power of Google. I don’t think we need them shoved in our faces anymore. I don’t think we need Twitter or Facebook posts that blast a video or photo right at us without giving a chance to look away. No warnings in many cases: Just the raw horror dumped in our laps.

And the thing is, I’m not saying this to protect white people. I’m not saying “Please stop making us white people see this.” Because the thing is I don’t see nearly as many white people in my circles complaining about this as I do people of color, particularly Black and brown people. They live these horrors daily in many cases, because they know they have targets on their backs societally speaking in the United States and many, many other parts of the white world.

I’ve seen more white people rush to the defense of “We have to see these images to move people and to understand the horror” than Black people. I’ve seen more Black people say “Please stop showing me this” than I have white people.

That said, I will admit that I’ve seen Black and brown people insist that we have to see the horrors. It’s not like Black people or other people of color are monolithic groups with a single opinion.

So what is the answer?

Well, I’d say (as I did before) that the answer isn’t to delete all these images or to never record them to begin with. And the answer isn’t to never share them.

But I would say ask yourself why you are sharing them. Is it because it makes you feel like you are doing something (when you probably should be doing something more direct)? Is it because it’s become a form of torture porn? Is it because you want to change the minds of wishy-washy moderates who don’t want to rock the boat (you probably won’t) or Trump supporters (with those people, they probably smile when seeing those images) who you think can be turned?

Bottom line: We need to stop being so aggressive with forcing people to see these images. Try some trigger warning or content warning messages if you must share. Try providing links (with warnings) instead of automatically embedding a video or photo in your post.

What we need to do is look less (being bystanders and hand-wringers) and do more (by tearing down white supremacy and white nationalism). Images have motivated people and have turned the tide of public opinion in the past, but we aren’t in the same world as, say, the 1960s/1970s and the Vietnam War, when there were only a relative handful of media outlets and no internet. We are in a time of a fascism-fueled White House committing overt acts of evil and lying daily without shame—so much that every new sin is forgotten the next day by a new sin and so on and so on and so on…

The fact is, most of us who don’t want the world to be this way and to treat Black and brown people as less than human already know the score. It’s just that many/most of us are afraid to confront the problem directly or put ourselves on the line. There’s nothing subversive, bold or game-changing about sharing images of what increasingly amounts to trauma porn. The images have a place and a role, but they aren’t the answer to social change.

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The goal is in sight, but the content needs reader support…your support

Dear Readers,

The first five months of 2019 have personally been quite a journey and a testament to the power of how our voices can make a difference. When I created this site back in 2008, I never could have imagined that this space would be a part of taking my work and voice beyond Maine and Northern New England.

Not only has it done that, but it has served as an incubator for new and emerging writers of color in the region as several of our earlier contributors have moved onto other opportunities including one who has a book in the works. Yay, Samara!

I am constantly looking to bring on new contributors with a racial analysis and story that I believe can benefit the larger readership. Which is why, despite our focus on working with writers of color, we have two white contributors: Average White Guy and Heather Denkmire. Two white people who are personally committed to doing better as white people, understanding that they will never be woke enough, because they are white and will forever be works in progress when it comes to their own liberation from whiteness and white supremacy.

As awareness of how white supremacy is embedded into the fabric of this nation continues to grow, our readership grows. Sadly, what has not grown is the revenue to fully sustain this site, along with the podcast which is now on permanent hiatus until we are fully funded. It costs money and time to work with a podcast producer as well as the scheduling of guests, something that with my work schedule (which involves 8-12 days per month of travel) was becoming a logistical nightmare. We currently have contributing writers, an editor, and myself, along with the related costs to run this site and pay for my time which includes covering our subscription costs as well as time spent daily posting resources and articles on social media.

The thing is, as I wrote in February of this year: How exactly does one make money from blogging or really any type of digital writing? In reality, the average writer is making very little as consumers have come to expect a steady stream of content to be available at no cost to them. I say this not just as a blogger but as one who was partnered for 20 years to a journalist. An ole-school J-school grad, who has watched his own fortunes dry up. The days of writing for a buck or two per word have gone the way of the landline telephone.

In today’s world, asking readers to support the work that they value has become the norm. Sites like Patreon are no longer an anomaly but a reality if you are a content creator, otherwise there is simply no way else to have the work covered.

I announced in February that I was moving much of the content that we provide on this site to Patreon but after hearing the feedback from many of you, I decided to shelve that idea for the time being. I grew up poor/working class, I recognize that many people may truly not have a spare $5 or $10 a month but truly wants to be able to access the information. However, to keep the site accessible to not have to put much of my content behind a “paywall” requires that those who can afford to become a patron do so. It’s a form of class solidarity and it’s important.

Right now, we are 134 patrons away from being fully funded. To put that in perspective, I need 134 people to commit to a minimum monthly gift of $5 either via Patreon or Paypal. In February, we were 200 patrons away, so we are making progress. Thank you.

That said, every month, we have fluctuations as people cancel pledges or pledges don’t go through. This month, we had a higher than usual number of pledges that didn’t go through. Which means even if you can’t commit to a monthly pledge, a one-time gift is also helpful as they allow us to make up the difference on a month like this.

Look, my day job is running a small non-profit, I know that you are bombarded with almost daily requests for support. Yet if this space has added value to your life, I am asking you to let us know by making a one-time gift or monthly pledge. Theoretically, no amount is too small, though to be honest, because of money taken off the top before I ever see your pledges or donations or tips, anything under a buck really is too little, as I will only literally get loose change in the end. But in the end, what I am saying is that modest support—especially by enough people—is just as welcome as large donations or pledges. And perhaps more so if enough people step up with modest pledges and tips.

As always, thank you for your support and keep fighting! Fight as if your lives depend on it. Because, for many of us, they really do.

In solidarity,

Shay aka Black Girl in Maine

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.

Comments will close on this post in 60-90 days; earlier if there are spam attacks or other nonsense.