I have a confession. I am tired. After years of writing about racism in both Maine and America, combined with several years of running an anti-racism organization, I am tired. There is also the pesky fact that racism affects me personally as a Black woman. As a white colleague, author Debby Irving, once pointed out: It’s rare that I get a break from my work.
This work is the work but it is also my life. Which means that I spend a great deal of time pondering how we can move the needle on race in this country and beyond in a positive direction. It means that even when I am “off work,” racism has a habit of rearing its head at the most inopportune time, whether that is when trying to enjoy a meal, take a walk, check out a dating site or just exist. In a country built on white supremacy and the dehumanization of Black people, there is always a situation or person nipping at my existence to remind me that I am a Black woman in a world where whiteness as the ultimate thing is now gasping for air but not fully on life support.
While the narrative is shifting and greater numbers of white people are starting to delve into examining white privilege and tackling what it means in the larger picture, what’s become clear to me is that we need more work. In the past several years as we have seen the mainstream media pay greater attention to Black death at the hands of law enforcement, we have seen organizations like Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) and others spring up in an attempt to educate and activate white folks to fight against racism.
In theory, these organizations are very much needed, but at the human level it gets messy because despite “good” intentions and desires, we are dealing with real humans and, well, as I am fond of saying: Humans are messy. As we all grapple with the reality of a Trump administration and the turning back of the clock on issues related to immigrants and civil rights, now more than ever, white people do need to activate and organize. But the challenge as I see it from my perch is how to do it in a way that is responsible and accountable and doesn’t cause harm.
Despite greater numbers of white folks understanding what is going on, in too many instances whiteness perpetuates itself and causes harm. In too many instances, People of Color are erased and what really happens is a circle jerk of white folks who get to claim the moral high ground compared to, say, a white nationalist. Which in the larger picture isn’t saying much. Being better than a metaphorical Uncle Rusty the Racist or real-world Richard Spencer is not how we are going to dismantle white supremacy and create a racially just and equitable world.
We have multiple uncomfortable realities happening simultaneously, and the very real reality is that many white people who are starting to get it are doing it on the backs on people of color. People of color are too often asked to provide free labor to be a part of white people’s learning which, despite the learning that occurs, creates the very real continued inequities that seem inherent in racial justice spaces. There is also the request by people of color to have white people be accountable to POC [people of color] in their organizing spaces, but no one quite being sure of what that means. Does that mean to follow the orders of POC in the work? Does it mean working in concert? Everyone has a vision of what the work looks like but at this moment, that vision is not shared, in part because despite the language and goals we do share there is too much about the work that is not shared. However, if we are to affect real change, we need a shared language along with a shared vision and mission. We also need to understand that today’s racial justice work stands on the shoulders of those who have been working already and to create inclusive and intergenerational spaces that ultimately will serve us all.
One of the barriers that prevents racial justice work from being as effective as we would like it to be is that too much of our existence is siloed. How can we create a unified mission and vision when rarely do we have true trust amongst ourselves nor are we truly part of the same community? We can’t; instead, we pay lip service and dilute our own work with the type of busy work that keeps us running from protest to meeting where we work in reaction to the moment rather than creating a proactive vision.
As I struggle with doing the work in a climate that is filled with tension, what’s clear is that so much of the progress we think we have been making is performative and not nearly as progressive as would like to believe. And at this moment in time, we need more than the performative. Otherwise, we burn out rather than burning down the walls of white supremacy. Our collective survival in this moment will involve acknowledgement of our collective humanity and in a nation built on divisions, that is easier said than done. Change requires not only a head shift but a heart shift, and that is a harder place to reach.
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