“The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference.”
–Elie Wiesel, writer, professor, political activist, Holocaust survivor
I often tell people, “If you want to influence people to do something for you, you have to start by having a clear ask.” Well, I want white people to stand up, en masse, and end racism. I know it’s a bit of audacious of me, but hell, being called audacious is the least of my concerns right now.
I, as a black woman, have been working my tail off for years to end racism and every other form of oppression. I won’t stop doing my work, but let’s keep it real. I can’t end racism.
I need white people, people with white privilege, to exercise that privilege—in the service of ending racism. Now is the time to stand up, take a deep breath, anchor to your values, push through the fear, and find the courage to dismantle the system of racism that benefits you and greatly oppresses the rest of us.
So, what is race?
Race is well-known to be a socially manufactured construct. It’s kind of like the Lost City of Atlantis or Big Foot, not even scientifically viable yet alive and well in the minds of many.
Scientists have been telling us for years that race as a genetic signifier is a fallacy. Sure, there are physical trait differences across humans, called phenotype, but those are only skin deep, literally. There is actually more diversity within a racial classification than across.
So why has race played such an important role in our society if it doesn’t even really exist? Good question.
Race wasn’t even a concept until relatively recently. Humans have, throughout history, sorted ourselves and enslaved each other. Coincidentally Africans, with black skin, were brought to the U.S. as slaves and incorporated, at the inception of the nation (which, ironically, was being built upon the notions of freedom and equality) into the economic infrastructure. The economic engine was being fueled by slaves who happened to have black skin. The two concepts became intertwined and a causal relationship was formed, and engrained, into the mental models that continue to be pervasive today.
Racism is, painfully, part of the very fabric of our country.
Every time we pull at the fabric we also pull at a strand that is meaningful to our cultural identity, which is why we—I—need your help. The temptation to sit and wait out the storm isn’t an option for people of color. We have been talking about racism—the daily and long-term impact of it on our lives and our children’s lives; our livelihoods; our sense of well-being—for years. It’s been difficult to get white people to share our sense of urgency.
The seemingly subtle acts that we witnessed daily didn’t count as racist, or “racist enough”, except to us. So we watch the Voter ID debates in North Carolina and Texas, filled with marginalizing under-and overtones; listen to our neighbors and social media friends chant “English only” and “If you don’t like it you can leave”; watch the successful election of local and national political leaders with racist voting records; and listen to our now President attack a federal judge based on his Mexican heritage. Filled with horror, we watched 9 high-profile killings of unarmed African Americans by police, and in the time since one after another of the officers being acquitted.
Have all of these been too subtle? Or not your problem? My friends, and I mean this with love, not doing anything is white privilege at its finest. To have the option of acting, the option to change the television channel, the option to speak out forcefully cannot be taken for granted.
Not for people of color, though. We have known that we are the proverbial frogs in the pot. All the while we have been trying to express our concerns, we’ve been told to stop playing the race card instead of taking responsibility for our actions. Stop being overly sensitive, we are, after all, “a post-racial society”. “Stop making things worse by calling attention to the disproportionate number of police killings of unarmed or disarmed black folks.” “Black Lives Matter is offensive.”
Or they tried to offer explanations—beyond the widespread existence of racist individuals and racism in systems—for the achievement gap in the K-12 school system, the fact that even with Affirmative Action black and Hispanics are more underrepresented at top colleges than 35 years ago, and wildly disproportionate numbers of black and brown people arrested and imprisonment compared to their white counterparts. To us, it’s been death by a thousand cuts.
So what do we do now, now that the hoods are out again? Now that Neo-Nazis and the KKK are out in full view? Do you finally get what we’ve been saying? Will you help us now; help us end this nightmare of racism that is threatening YOUR well-being, too?
After all, oppression jumps around. If it’s coming for me today, it could come for you tomorrow. This is all our fight.
Talking about race and racism isn’t easy.
I know this is new to some of you. In my work, I have tried getting people to open up and talk about race. I’ve heard:
“You’re changing the expectations of us. For all these years, we’ve been told not to talk about race, to treat everyone the same. Now you’re asking us to acknowledge race, and not just that, you also want us to talk about it. That’s very difficult. We’ve been scared to discuss this for 20 years. We don’t even know where to begin at this point.”
“We don’t openly talk about it. We dance around it. Even cultural differences, we talk around the issues rather than addressing. Opportunities to talk about cultural differences is not something I feel is comfortable for many of my colleagues, including me.”
Although there were very few negative comments when the subject of race is discussed in open forums, there is always an awkward pause with little, if any, verbal commentary.
On the other hand, people seek me out daily to share their personal and anecdotal experiences related to racial slights, micro-aggressions, or what they experienced as outright hostility.
Here’s the point– race and racism are incredibly difficult topics. They are messy, complicated, and any discussion about them will likely be filled with contradictions, perceptions that are not easily shared nor understood, and disagreements. We need to deal with race and racism head on anyway. And back to my ask, I need white people to be out in front on this issue.
I am not suggesting that all, even most, white people are racist. I know that the white supremacists are outnumbered by good folks. But silencing white supremacists won’t end racism, either. The subtle, institutionally pervasive undermining of equitable access to privileges taken for granted by white people will continue when the blatantly bigoted groups are marginalized.
I am not mad at white people. My mother’s white. Some of the people who have loved me the dearest and most generously invested in my development and well-being are white. I am not pointing a figure specifically at white people because I’m angry. I’m not angry at white people. I just need you, specifically, because this battle I’m fighting isn’t going to be won by me alone. This is not an accusation. It’s a genuine ask.
I ask you to begin by creating space to practice having substantive discussions about race and a whole host of other issues that allow people from various experiences, backgrounds and perspectives to truly be heard.
So what action can you take?
Actions to Take at Home
1. On a personal level, invite other white people to your home for dinner. Intentionally include people who have different life experiences, attitudes about race, and even political views. Let them know that your intention is to begin a discussion about race in the U.S. with other white people. Explore questions like:
- How do you define race? From where does that definition come?
- It is a scientific fact that there is no genetic basis for racial distinctions among humans, so why does racism continue to exist?
- Who benefits from racism? What needs to happen to shift the paradigm about race and bring an end to it?
- How do the stories we tell about race permeate U.S. culture? How do we change those stories while holding firm to the pieces of U.S. culture of which we are proud?
2. Invite friends from racial or ethnic backgrounds different from your own to your home for dinner. Let them know that you want to talk about race and current events among close friends and in an informal environment. For this type of group, questions that may be added to those listed above might be:
- What do you want white people to know?
- What can white people do to help end racism?
Actions to Take at Work
3. In your organization, tap into the Employee Resource Groups. Typically, you do not have to be a member of the group that is being focused on to join the group or attend programs. So white people, attend a session sponsored by the Black or Latino Heritage group. Introduce yourself. Express your interest in learning.
4. Work with the Diversity Committee or Staff Development Office to host a brown bag lunch discussion about race. Ask that a facilitator be provided. Invite interested colleagues to join a discussion. Suggest and share in advance the kinds of questions that will be discussed. Ask people to come ready to share their perspectives. Take notes on ideas for racism-ending behaviors that can be shared more broadly in and across the organization. Make commitments on actions. Hold yourself accountable for those actions, and support your colleagues and friends in pursuit of their commitments.
Small Steps Forward
Most of you reading this post are likely committed but quiet. You want to be an ally and an advocate but aren’t sure how to get started. For you:
5. Make an active choice to be an anti-racist. Let’s say that racism sits along a continuum, with openly bigoted people on one end, and actively anti-racist people on the other. Where are you? If you are quiet, if you are not an active anti-racist, you are complicit. You’re not a bad person but you are reaping the benefits of an oppressive system. Make choice about where you want to be on this continuum.
6. Speak up. Every day people pull me aside to whisper things like “I know Black Lives Matter doesn’t mean anti-White. I get it.” or “I am so thankful that you say what you say. I’ve been thinking it for years.” Stop whispering in my ear and expecting me to be the messenger. This topic is too big. We have to do this heavy lifting together. And, oh, by the way, you have more privilege than do I on the topic of race. That means you have more responsibility.
7. Shake off the guilt. I am NOT wagging my finger at anyone. That’s not who I am or what I’m about, nor do I think it is strategic to alienate the very people I need to be in my corner. Being white doesn’t make you guilty of anything, but drowning in guilty makes you almost useless as an ally. You wallowing in guilt means that you are going to expect me to be there to help you through your emotional crisis. I can’t. We have bigger fish to fry. Shake it off. Stand up straight. Pull your shoulders back, and stand side by side with me.
8. Stop comparing your oppression with mine. There’s often a perceived need to convince people of color that you get it. So you might say, “I’m gay so I understand what you feel.” or, “I’m a woman and this is the same battle we’ve been fighting for years.” No, it’s not. Yes, we are all working to end oppression in every form, but being a member of a target group in one area doesn’t not mean that you have first-person experience about what it feels like to be a person of color in the U.S.—and that’s just fine. I don’t have first-person experience of what it’s like to be an amputee, or have fought on the front lines during a war, or non-binary in my gender expression. I can still be an ally. As a black woman, I just need you to care, and more importantly, not try to match or trump my oppression by drawing attention to your own.
9. Model the way. You will make mistakes. You will sometimes say the wrong word in someone else’s opinion. I do, too, every day. Remember that you have the opportunity to model for other people what it looks like to be brave, to be kind, to listen, to give people the benefit of the doubt, to be vulnerable. If someone says “I can’t believe you said that” or “I am from California not Korea” you say, “Ok, thank you for clarifying. I appreciate your willingness to share, my friend.”
10. Invest in your own learning. This is a learning journey that will take the rest of your life. Make a commitment to your own self-reflection and active learning about concepts, skills and practices that will continue to enhance your competence and confidence interacting across racial lines and in the service of ending racism.
Photo credit: Ray Giles