The past week has been a whirlwind as I found myself juggling back-to-back speaking engagements in Seattle and then speaking again in Maine. Over the past several years, I have done numerous speaking engagements with my friend and collaborator, author Debby Irving, as well as solo engagements. However, these most recent engagements have had a profound impact on me as I ponder the state of anti-racism work, both as a writer/speaker and as the head of an anti-racism organization.
Too often, we conflate anti-racism, racial equity and racial justice work as being one and the same. In reality, while they are very much related, I don’t believe them to be the same. One can engage in racial equity, implicit bias or racial justice work while still dancing around the core issue of dismantling white supremacy. In fact, as we discussed at a recent board-staff retreat at my organization, equity is rapidly becoming the newest buzzword, much like “diversity” in the early 1990s. Increasingly when I hear people using it, I ask them to explain what they mean. People theoretically want equity, but without the larger framework, they are not committed to the type of systemic change that will require white people to actually give up something. And the fact is that active reallocation of resources is essential to equity.
On the other hand, to be actively anti-racist requires a level of constant intentionality; it’s the personal and the systemic. It encompasses equity, implicit bias and racial justice and for most people, specifically white people, it is the hardest to achieve. It’s a lot easier to discuss our biases and how they affect our decision-making than it is to look at the whole framework of our society and look at how one can be complicit in upholding white supremacy. Anti-racism work demands more of us—it involves that we bring our whole selves to the work. And it also indicts good white people.
As I learned in my recent talks with Debby, even a white person with a solid grounding in anti-racism work can still have an unintentional and thoughtless moment and cause harm to a Black person or other person of color. Because despite our knowledge and our intentions, to be human—regardless of race—is to make mistakes. Nasty, almost potentially friendship-ending mistakes.
That’s exactly what happened as we kicked off our first date in Washington, at the Seattle Equity Summit. When a glass of spilled water nearly ended my friendship with Debby and nearly derailed the summit. After several days of sitting with the events of that engagement, I don’t think a full recap is necessary in this space. But I can share that Debby spilled a cup of water, and she didn’t clean it up because she was caught up in listening to a speaker and then we had to get ready to go on stage for our own presentation. The spilled water soaked a woman’s belongings—a Black woman’s belongings. The Black woman had to clean up Debby’s spilled water and she waited until the question-and-answer portion of our presentation to rightfully call Debby out. As her presentation partner, it was horrifying and upsetting. It was also when the work we do became real as the audience members of color took Debby to task for her privileged and racist behavior. And in the end, I too from the stage—sitting next to her—shared my feelings about her behavior.
It was not comfortable. We were flown 2,000 miles to showcase how cross-racial communications look and to model our work. In the end, two Black women had to clean up after Debby and yet the whole experience has been a powerful learning moment as I realize just how much deeper we all have to go in the work.
To break the cultural norms of whiteness that dictate a certain way of being (nice), and to instead to have a cross-racial conversation with an audience where real emotions and pain were shared, is part of anti-racism work. In choosing to call out Debby’s behavior from the audience, the woman whose things were ruined was powerful and brave. It was also because the calling out was not simply a call-out, but turned the venue into a space where Black people and other POC stood firm in their truths.
That spilled water was about more than water; it was every moment when a Black person was dismissed or unseen by a white person. It’s standing in the line and having a white person insert themselves right in front of you, as if you weren’t even there. It’s the collective hurt of 400 years of being erased by white supremacy.
Dismantling white supremacy will not be a tidy to-do list. In fact, for white people, it is going to require a reckoning as they learn to grieve for their own lost humanity. It is no longer enough to feel bad for non-white people; it’s about turning the lens inward to ask: what was taken from me? It’s realizing that we all carry trauma over what was done to us and owning it. Four hundred years of white subjugation lives in the souls of Black people—50-something years of “freedom” doesn’t even begin to touch the ancestral trauma that is part of being Black in America.
All white allies and accomplices will have missteps and slide back into unchecked whiteness and harm Black people or other POC. Despite your intentions, you are not free until we fully dismantle white supremacy. You can read the books, attend the workshops, support Black folks/POC and f*ck it up beautifully. The question is, are you committed enough to face the pain you create and keep trying to do better? For me, the question is can I continue to extend grace to my white comrades knowing that our collective liberation requires that I stay present in this struggle. For Debby, it was sitting in that moment and facing what she had done without running off the stage or crying. Given that white women’s tears can so often be weaponized, it was powerful to witness, even with my anger.
At my last engagement, in Maine, a young Black woman told me that she thought that my work simply absolved white people and that it even coddled them. I have been sitting with her words, looking for truth and asking for wisdom. While that is not my intention, I also see where it is possible to think that. But sitting here with 46 years of lived experience as a Black woman, I know that walking around with anger is toxic. Anger can be freeing as it propels us to the arena of actively fighting for liberation. But living with anger, day in and day out, takes a toll on the body. It also starts to chop away at our own humanity and for me, at this stage in my life, I use my anger sparingly because the most radical act that I can engage in as a Black woman is to live with joy. To rewrite the narrative and live fully in my body. The joy I seek allows me to lessen anger’s grip and extend compassion towards those I see trapped in a silo where they don’t even know what they don’t know.
I have said many times that racism steals from the well of human potential. It isn’t just denied access and opportunity, it’s in how the pain of racism lives in our souls. I am convinced that the racial death rate disparity is absolutely rooted in the cumulative impact of racism on the body over the decades, as well as the ancestral wounds.
In recent years, we have tried moving the needle on race but we are only touching the surface. This work requires that we bring our full selves, knowing that it will be raggedy. It will hurt—and yet what is the alternative? To let white supremacy continue its reign of terror? Or to bring our many hands to the table and collectively chip away at this beast?
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