[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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