In case you haven’t noticed, we are in a complete state of racial unrest and crisis, and now, more than ever, is the time for white people to spring into action.
First, and most importantly, we as a society cannot continue to look to people of color to solve the massive problem that is systemic and institutional racism. Expecting people of color to solve the race problem in this country is like expecting poor people to solve the problem of wealth disparity in this country. It is not the responsibility of the oppressed to relieve themselves from oppression—it is the responsibility of the oppressor. In this particular context, we are talking about systemic and institutional racism, and those who most benefit from this system in the United States are white people. Us. You and me. You don’t have to be a blatant racist, attending KKK rallies, and screaming racial epithets in the streets to benefit from systemic racism. Every white person, regardless of intentions and actions, benefits from being born white in this country.
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s be clear about what I am referring to as systemic and institutional racism. One common misconception that many people, especially white people, have about racism is that it is about individuals and individual actions. This misconception is what prevents many white people from accepting any responsibility for the horrible conditions in which we find ourselves today. They believe that if they don’t think racist thoughts, or say racist things, or commit racist actions, then they must not be racist. That is simply untrue. Your first step toward moving away from this fallacious argument is to understand and accept that racism is systemic. In my own work, I define racism as a system of subjugation and oppression that is pervasive throughout U.S. structures and institutions, and that works to privilege some people based on perceived group membership. I do not believe that whites and people of color participate in the system of racism with the same level of influence and effect. Since whites are positioned within U.S. society in positions of higher status and authority and have unearned privileges afforded to us simply for being white, I argue that we are more heavily implicated in the dismantling of racism and white privilege.
If this is still hard for you to accept, please do some more reading and have a very honest conversation with yourself, and then come back and finish reading this blog. If you haven’t yet been able to accept the very well-documented fact that white people benefit every day from systemic and institutional racism, then you’re not going to accept and receive the rest of what is to come in this blog. You have some more work to do, and that is okay… but you need to do it soon. For the rest of us, those who fully realize and accept the fact that we benefit from our own whiteness, whether we want to or not, then let’s take a long hard look at the reality in which we find ourselves and come to a mutual agreement that it is time for action.
A quick forewarning: I’m going to say some things that may be hard to hear and that might even make you feel a little defensive or angry. I assure you that I have nothing but care, concern, and respect for my fellow white brothers and sisters; however, far too much time has been spent worrying about white people’s feelings and creating “safe spaces” for whites to enter racial dialogues and it has gotten a bit out of hand, in my opinion. Yes, doing work around racism, whiteness, and privilege is difficult and emotional, but I assure you—it pales in comparison to the difficulties people of color experience every day in this country. So, let’s allow ourselves to be uncomfortable, let’s deal with some hurt feelings, and let’s push past the defensiveness and be willing to act, to do something, because we are no longer willing to accept the hatred, bigotry, and racism that has plagued this country for far too long.
Before I get into the ten suggestions I have compiled for every white person to start taking action, let me make clear that I believe every white person—no matter how rich or poor, old or young, educated or uneducated, can and should step up and work toward dismantling systemic racism and fight for equity and social justice. However, I must also make clear that I do believe that those of us with more privilege—those whose invisible knapsacks are bursting at the seams with privilege (thank you, Peggy McIntosh, for that invaluable analogy)—bear even more of the brunt because our privilege allows us access to resources and connections that those with less privilege do not often have at their disposal. Thus, this list contains suggestions for every white person to take action against systemic racism and white privilege, but those of us with more privilege should strongly consider doing many of these things, and more.
#1. Start having difficult conversations with white people in your circles. What kinds of conversations have you had lately with your white friends, neighbors, colleagues, family members, etc.? Are you talking about the senseless killing of countless black men by police officers? Have you discussed the Black Lives Matter movement and why people need to stop trying to switch the focus to “All” Lives Matter? Do you talk with each other about how important it is for us to work together in numbers to evoke change? These are important conversations that we need to have with one another as whites… we’ve got some serious problems in our house and they need to be cleaned up—by us, not by someone else.
#2. Stop looking to people of color for information, guidance, and leadership. Remember how I just said these problems are in our house? That’s right—they are our problems, which means we are responsible for them, and that means that we need to start solving them. In order to do that, we need to take responsibility for educating ourselves, creating solutions ourselves, and leading others to action ourselves. If you are confused, unsure what to say, overwhelmed with emotions, or just don’t know what to do, try to figure it out on your own first. If that doesn’t work, look to other whites involved in the fight for their help and guidance. It is not the responsibility of people of color to explain things to us, to make us feel better, to help us solve these problems, or to lead the movements toward change. They have their own problems to worry about and their own movements to lead and it is unfair to ask them to help us, too.
#3. Speak up when you witness acts of bigotry, racism, privilege, etc. This one is going to hurt a little—but when you remain silent in the presence of discrimination and injustice, you are complacently endorsing those words and actions through your own silence. It is this complacency that allows the system to keep churning and to keep oppressing people of color. Use your privilege to speak up, call out the action, and (when possible) educate those involved on why their words and actions are not okay. I realize that this can sometimes mean putting your job, your friendships, your family relationships in jeopardy, but if we continue to remain silent, the system of racism will never stand a chance at being dismantled.
#4. Check your own privilege, language, assumptions, and biases. Yes, sometimes we all need to put ourselves in check. When you read that news article or watch that news coverage about what is going on in this country right now, what assumptions do you find yourself making about the people included in that story? What words do you use in conversations and on your social media feeds when talking about race and racism in this country? What types of articles and memes are you sharing and hitting the “like” button for on social media? Why aren’t you saying anything on social media or in conversations at work about what is going on in the country right now? Now is a great time for some self-reflection and for each of us to check ourselves.
#5. Talk to your children about race, social justice, and valuing difference. I acknowledge that I am not a parent, but I have read enough literature to feel confident in the assertion that these are important topics to talk about with your children, no matter how young they are. Obviously, the conversations will be very different depending on the age of your children; however, the conversations need to happen or they will get their information from someone else. Even worse, they may begin to wonder why you haven’t talked to them about this stuff yet. If the system is to be dismantled, we need the younger generation to buy-in now and continue this very important work when we no longer can.
#6. Start organizing meetings in your neighborhoods, your communities, your churches, and your schools. Conversations are important, but so is organization and action in numbers. We can only do so much as individuals working alone or in small groups to combat injustice, and it can start to feel lonely and overwhelming. This is why we have to remember that there is strength in numbers, and, rather than waiting for someone else to get something going—do it yourself! Organize a meeting, spread the word and ask others to help spread the word, and work together as a group to come up with solutions and actions that you can do together. It does not take much for a movement to gain momentum.
#7. Contact local government members, vote in local elections, show up to political meetings. Sometimes we get so caught up in the presidential election and arguments about the candidates that we forget that local politics and government is where the real action and change occurs. When is the last time you researched your mayoral candidates and voted in the election? Have you ever attended a city council meeting or written a letter to your city council members, mayor, state senators, or governor? There are plenty of local ways we can make our voices heard and something tells me that when large groups of white people start showing up and speaking up, politicians may listen a bit more than they have so far to large groups of people of color… just a hunch.
#8. Attend protests and rallies… but not if you aren’t willing to be arrested. This suggestion may not be popular and some may disagree with me. I definitely encourage white people to show up to Black Lives Matter protests and rallies, and to even hold their own protests and rallies. However, all too often we see people of color being targeted and arrested at these protests. Those who led the fight for civil rights (and those who continue to fight today) believed so strongly in what they were fighting for that they were willing to be arrested or tear gassed or beaten by police if it came to that. I hope that protests and rallies remain peaceful; but, when confrontation with law officers occurs, white people should be the ones at the front of the lines, holding their ground, and forcing officers to arrest them first. Let the media start writing headlines and talking on television about the countless white people arrested at the recent Black Lives Matter protest, and perhaps we might change the perceptions and shift the conversations people are having about this movement. This may not be something everyone is willing to do… I get that. That’s why there are plenty of other suggestions on this list that might be better for you.
#9. Read, read, and then read some more. It is imperative that we educate ourselves and be able to make accurate, coherent, and logical arguments when having conversations with other whites and when calling out discrimination and injustice. There is nothing worse than engaging in a battle of wits with someone who is unarmed. Read everything that you can get your hands on, including things written by academics, bloggers, journalists, and your peers. If you are only reading news from one site or only read the same handful of blogs, your information is skewed and, thus, so too will be your viewpoints and arguments.
#10. Listen, listen, and then listen some more. All too often when we engage in conversations with people of color, we seem to do way too much talking and not nearly enough listening. I know you may want to make sure people know you’re trying, or that you want to be an ally, or that you’ve been in a similar situation and can empathize, or that you can be trusted, or any other number of things, but here’s the thing—sometimes it just isn’t about you. Sometimes we really just need to shut up and listen. You would be surprised at all that you could learn and how much trust you could earn if you would just hold your tongue, and listen.
This list is by no means exhaustive and I am certainly not the first to make any of these suggestions; one can easily find lists just like this written by countless people of color. However, this is definitely a good place to start for many whites, like me, who are frustrated, angry, and sad, but are ready to turn those emotions into action and are looking for a place to start. Additionally, I welcome any and all conversations and opportunities for action with my white brothers and sisters who took the time to read this blog and need a little bit of support and encouragement. You can find me at www.whiteprivdoc.com.