Given that my day job is running an anti-racism organization whose mission is addressing the “white problem” and “shining a spotlight on the roots of racism in white culture with the intention of dealing with racism at its source, as well as with its impact on communities of color” I spend a great deal of my time thinking about how to mobilize white people to look critically at structural inequity and how we can move people to play an active part in dismantling racism.
Since 2014 and the tragic death of Michael Brown (and the subsequent uprising), more white folks than ever before have been confronted with the reality that racism never went away and that it’s just as embedded into the fabric of our lives as it ever was. And clearly with the recent presidential election, a lot of eyes have been opened to what Black and other People of Color have always known: Racism is as American as baseball and apple pie and it is still here.
As more than a few writers and other commentators on life have noted post-election, a fear of the declining value of whiteness is what brought us to Trump. Trump is the living embodiment of whiteness for millions and his dog-whistle rhetoric brought people back to a time when whiteness paid maximum dividends. Sadly for those folks, they are slowly starting to realize that Trump sold them a lemon and that whiteness will never pay the dividends it once did for the masses. Though, make no mistake, whiteness is still very much a form of currency.
In recent months, calls to action have become the norm as more folks are starting to organize around various issues and some are aiming a critical eye toward examining the structure of white supremacy and looking at how to dismantle it. It’s a daunting task, make no mistake. Because of that, there have also been calls to action making it clear that working with People of Color is part of how we need to do this work. Racism in this country is largely a white problem, but white people solving it alone won’t work. With all the voices and opinions and different directions, I am noticing a lot of confusion around how to do this work.
Let me see if I can help a little.
First off, as Average White Guy (who writes for me regularly around here) has noted, we don’t need your white guilt. Seriously, if you are about dismantling white supremacy please understand that whiteness hurts you as white folks as much as it hurts me as a Black woman and other People of Color. White supremacy has made white folks believe a lie. That their parents and grandparents worked hard and got ahead on their own merit rather than on the backs of stolen people while squatting on stolen land (and later thanks to government policies/programs and social systems that helped lift up white people but were denied to non-white people). White supremacy instills a false sense of superiority in white folks that, left unexamined, is destructive and leaves white folks with a skewed of view of the world. How can you be a whole person when your very being is built on a lie? How can a group of people be whole when they can’t confront a very troubled past?
However, we are in the midst of an interesting time when it comes to shifting the paradigm. A plethora of activists, speakers and others of all stripes are out there working for racial justice. The truth is, none of us are in possession of absolute truth other than generally subscribing to the understanding that racism is about power and privilege. That said, I occupy an unusual space in this universe. I am the executive director of what is believed to the be the longest continuously running anti-racism organization in the United States. So my work brings me in contact with a lot of folks who have been doing the work for as long as I have been earthside. My own research and writing (and my day job, too) also brings me in contact with younger activists, organizers and others doing the work. So as I grapple with how we do this work on 2017, I have spent the past few months juggling a lot of very different views on how to do racial justice work while also formulating my own thoughts on how to do the work.
First off, education is key. You can’t do anything without understanding the realities of racism in America and furthermore understanding how anti-Blackness is at the root of it all. You have to understand that racism is a structure. It is a system, but at the same times, let’s remember that most systems are made up of people. There are no magic fairies controlling the racism machine. It’s people, and if you’re white you need to realize is mostly people who look like you. Or are even related to you. They may not sit around in white sheets uttering racial slurs but the fact is that their actions nonetheless send a very clear message and often that message is not about doing anything for folks who aren’t white.
Now this is where it gets sticky and where a lot of my fellow Black and other POC activists and organizers and teachers are frustrated. Education is vital but it is not the end game. I repeat, knowledge and understanding of racism is not going to solve the problem. Look, I have struggled off and on with smoking (yep, I know, it’s a dirty and vile habit). However, the only way for me to actually quit smoking is to actually do something. That means I have to take intentional action and it is not going to be comfortable. The act of dismantling racism and thus white supremacy is also going to be uncomfortable. To be even more honest, whiteness is very much like an addiction, one into which white people are born. And as any addict knows, the moment you get complacent and stop being intentional in the “do” or action piece of things, that’s when you find yourself back to square one or in my case, occasionally holding a pack of butts and lighting one up.
The “do” is a lifelong commitment with the understanding that it is going to be messy and terribly uncomfortable. Frankly, whiteness is insidious. Expect to backslide but get up and try again and again until your old habits give up the ghost. Now the action piece exists on many levels. There is working with your fellow white folks. This is critical. I mean, you can read my blog, read the work of other POC, and make donations to numerous organizations of color but if you can’t confront your Uncle Rusty the Racist, where is your heart really at?
Which brings me to my last point for the day and one that is also vital: Who are you accountable to in this work and how are you supporting the work of People of Color? Personally, I am glad that there are predominantly white spaces such as Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) and others.
Unlike some of my fellow POC, I actually want white people to have a space to work out the kinks on their journey without harming me and other POC. Seriously, I am not Oprah or Mammy and for my own well-being, I want people to know what they don’t know and work on it without being expected to have their hand held by me while they do it. Otherwise that sets us both up for a creepy dynamic. It is not uncommon, especially in online spaces, for white people to ask POC to help them figure this race stuff out. That’s why folks like my good friend Debby Irving wrote a book entitled “Waking Up White” and why other white folks do this work. As we say in my office, white folks gotta help in this work without having to be nudged to do so by us, and they gotta collect (and correct) their people when those people get out of line. First rule, much like with being a physician, is “First do no harm.” If the road to freedom means you inadvertently harming me, that is not a good look.
This work is a process. We are all standing on a foundation that was laid out hundreds of years ago and the process of dismantling it will most likely not end while any of us alive right now are still upright and breathing. But we still must push ahead. There are no ally cookies or head pats in the trenches. It’s about survival and freedom. The freedom of People of Color to be let loose from oppression, and the freedom of white people from being addicted to all that makes that oppression possible.
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