Moving white people from navel-gazing to anti-racism

“I will suggest that declaring whiteness, or even ‘admitting’ to one’s own racism, when the declaration is assumed to be ‘evidence’ of an anti-racist commitment, does not do what it says. In other words, putting whiteness into speech, as an object to be spoken about, however critically, is not an anti-racist action, and nor does it necessarily commit a state, institution or person to a form of action that we could describe as anti-racist. To put this more strongly, I will show how declaring one’s whiteness, even as part of a project of social critique, can reproduce white privilege in ways that are ‘unforeseen.’ – Sara Ahmed 

As we all struggle to survive another year of the Trump regime, it’s no wonder that Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, remains a bestseller. After all, Trump, his language and his policies have given rise to a level of overt racism that many white people had assumed ended with the election of our first Black president.

In the past several years there has been an almost insatiable hunger in certain white spaces to better understand racism, as evidenced by the surge of books that have been written in that time. However as this piece by Lauren Michele Jackson discusses, while white progressives are changing the way they talk about themselves, little else has changed. 

This piece comes out at a time when I have spent the past several years pondering how we move white people from talk to action in my day job at Community Change Inc. It also comes at a time when the framing around racial justice is shifting toward the language of actively becoming an anti-racist—no doubt in part due to the work of Ibram X. Kendi and his latest book, How to be an Antiracist, and further inspired by his first book, Stamped from the Beginning

I can tell you, as the executive director of one of a handful of organizations nationwide whose mission is explicitly centered around anti-racism work, that getting white people to learn about racism is the easy part. Granted, our work is not targeted toward the rabid racist, but rather the white person who knows something isn’t right and wants to do better. Obviously, the helps the learning curve a lot.

One of the other steps—to get white people to acknowledge their white privilege—isn’t even that hard, especially in the past several years, as our social media news feeds became filled with the one after another extrajudicial killing of an unarmed Black or Brown person. After all, most white folks with any critical thinking and open-mindedness on the issue of race and policing can recognize that their odds of a traffic stop resulting in their death is slim. They know their kids won’t be killed while at the playground for playing in the same way white kids do. They know that BBQ Becky isn’t coming for them and that Pool Patrol Paul won’t ever call the cops on them for doing basic social and entertainment activities in public. 

In part because it is relatively easy for many white people to achieve those two first steps, it becomes easy to navel-gaze—to acknowledge one’s own privilege and perhaps, if one is more advanced, maybe even acknowledge their own white fragility—but to do little else. Folks like DiAngelo and others of her ilk have done a great job of creating awareness and maybe even individually reallocating resources to the occasional non-white person in the interest of moving the needle on race. The problem is, that this current moment with all the workshops, books and conferences isn’t going to create the systemic change that we need. 

Racism exists in multiple dimensions, on the internal, interpersonal, institutional and cultural levels. If all we are doing is addressing racism on the internal and interpersonal levels, nothing changes for the larger society, and that’s where the work must shift. Voting for Black candidates and feeling good about that is “easy,” until racism drives them out of office or death threats become their daily reality, thus negating what little ground might have been gained. Where are the good white people at those time? The truth is that many of them don’t show up when things start to get messy. Truly, how does you simply owning and acknowledging your privilege and fragility serve to better the lives of Black and Brown people? 

A big problem is that much of today’s anti-racism work lacks a key component: organizing. 

The basis of all the civil and human rights gains over the last century have come from folks that understood that organizing is the key component. Rosa Parks didn’t just decide to sit on the bus that day; she was a skilled organizer involved in a large organizing movement. Organizing is a skill and a commitment. 

In recent years, social and traditional media have done a grave disservice of showcasing “activism” and some of the more flashy acts of anti-racism work and protests against racist actitivities. But  most of the work is not visible and the majority of frontline organizers and activists in any community are the unsung (and unseen) heroes. In most cases, it’s not the folks who have become celebrity activists who matter the most. Rather, it’s the ones we never hear about—sometimes not until they end up dead—who do most of the heavy lifting, as was the case with several on-the-ground organizers from Ferguson

In the white spaces of anti-racism work, the unsung heroes are the folks who often after decades of working in community and relationship with Black folks and other people of color, are known but not at the superstar level of many of today’s antiracism brigade. I often ask the question: To be a white person doing anti-racism work, what are you willing to give up? These unsung heroes within white anti-racism work are people who know that every day is a struggle to not fall into the sweet seduction of whiteness—things like basking in public praise or profiting heavily on race-related work at the expense of victims of racism—but instead have built trust with other white anti-racists and anti-racists of color, who serve as each other’s support systems and guides. 

To be an anti-racist is to be intentionally working to not being racist, knowing that racism lies beneath the surface all the time, and being in it, for the long haul. It’s also learning the skills necessary to organize within one’s own community. 

An absence of Black and Brown people in your area does not let you off the hook for anti-racism work, either—there is no community in the United States that is untouched by our nation’s racist foundations. Case in point: In Kennebunk, Maine, a series of racist incidents happened in recent years in the school system. The superintendent at the time did a poor job of handling the racism in her district and ended up resigning. Yet she is now a professor at the University of Southern Maine, in the same program where she earned her doctorate. So, as this letter writer for the local paper pointed out, this is how structural racism perpetuates itself. 

Educating yourself is a critical first step toward becoming an anti-racist, as is acknowledging both your own white privilege and white fragility. It is also important to support the work of Black and Brown people whenever possible. But the real work starts when you are ready to look at the systems in your own communities and start organizing and working where you are for racial justice by trying to change those systems. Examining your local systems (criminal justice, education, healthcare, etc.) and looking at what you can do.  And being ready to receive pushback but to push on anyway.

Too often, I hear from people that they just don’t know what to do or where to start beyond the education piece. Shift your mindset and how you view the work. The deeper dive of dismantling whiteness has to include decolonizing your mind. Once that process starts, your path should become much more clear. You cannot be an anti-racist while sitting comfortably in your whiteness. 

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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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Guns and white supremacy: Regulating one won’t end the other

Right quick:

If you are looking to end white supremacy, regulating guns is not the answer. Yes, obviously, guns should be highly regulated, but white supremacy is not contingent on the legality of guns. If you could go back in time and erase guns from this country’s history, Black Wall Street would still be gone. Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Heather Heyer and countless victims before, in between and since would all still have been murdered. Hate will find a way.

Guns and white supremacy are intertwined, but two different issues. Just look at Switzerland. That country has a whole lot of guns, but nowhere near the level of gun violence that we have here in America. That’s because there is a deep cultural difference between Switzerland and the USA: white supremacy. I’m not saying that Switzerland doesn’t have racism. It absolutely does, but unlike the USA, white supremacy is not the foundation, cornerstone, and lead paint under the cheap vinyl siding of Switzerland. The Swiss essentially view themselves as one people. That view combined with their general sense of patriotism means that they look at their guns as a means to protect each other from outside forces, whereas we Americans look at our guns as a means to protect ourselves from each other—or most often as a means to protect whiteness from the rest of us.

What makes this so confusing is that white supremacy is the spider’s web that links almost every other social issue. For example, white supremacy was the means by which a private citizen unprecedentedly forced a sitting president to publicly display his birth certificate. It was white supremacy that (in one way and another) then appointed that white supremacist, private citizen to the presidency. Because of that white supremacist appointment, the rights of women and trans people and gay people and literally everyone (and I mean everyone) in the country are now being dismantled if not absolutely shredded.

That white supremacist web is growing, being weaved faster than ever as the president’s words inspire killings, his policies spread oppression, and his administration deliberately disregards white supremacy in its entirety. And it’s blocking even the most common-sense gun legislation.

So, again, if you are looking to end white supremacy, regulating guns is not the answer. But if you’re looking to stop the violence in this country, ending white supremacy will go a long way.

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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