To the White Folks Asking “What Can I Do?”
As we have seen recently and throughout hundreds of years of human history, white supremacy and racism cause unspeakable harm and injury to our BIPOC siblings. White supremacy is both institutional and embedded into the framework of systems AND personal and engrained in our individual ways of thinking and moving in the world. It is manifest from the policies and practices held at the macro levels of structures all the way to aggressions and prejudice at the micro levels between individuals. Breaking down this oppressive system is the moral imperative of everyone who believes in equality and fights for justice.
The problems and harm done by white supremacy exist because whiteness inserted unequal beliefs and practices into place and has buttressed them for centuries; therefore it is the duty of white people to be fully invested its eradication.
White supremacy is entrenched at macro levels of large systems (governments, communities, churches, schools, groups, families, etc.) and built-in to the micro levels of individual response, accountability and action. This means the work we contribute to dismantle it can be done at any and all of the points of impact where it exists.
Because we were all born into white supremacist systems (government, schools, churches, families, etc.) and through no intentional fault of our own or our parents, none of us can escape that white supremacy was baked into our social consciousness from birth and beyond.
As a result, we are all inescapably racist. Being racist is not an insult or a character trait, but a description of behaviors and thought patterns that are founded in white supremacy. While prejudice exists in all people, racism will be defined in this post as the combination of prejudice + power, and therefore will reject the notion that minority ethnicities are racist, or “reverse racist.” Disenfranchised persons lack the institutional power to enact racism.
At the personal level, white supremacy is built into our individual psyches from birth, all the way from the overt white supremacist terrorists like the KKK, to the average, kind hearted and well-intentioned white person who believes we are all children of God and created equal.
In larger systems like church, schools, and governments, the policies and laws to blame for dehumanizing, disenfranchising and denying basic human rights to BIPOC are countless and varied.
Church doctrine teaches the principle of individual agency; that no original sin of Adam and Eve passed onto their children. As Jesus said, “Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.”
In the context of engrained white supremacy and systemic injustice, there are communal and individual overt transgressions as well as sins of omission. Dismantling white supremacy requires repentance and restitution for both.
Implicit in this understanding is the need to reject the good/bad binary when trying to slice and separate racists from not-racists from anti-racists. “Good” people and anti-racist people are still racist. Goodness or badness as a person does not mutually exclude racism as a behavior. Racism is a behavior, not a character trait. We all have it, and unless we intentionally stop the spread and work to reverse it effects, we are complicit in its perpetuation. One reason why we may not feel compelled to the work or why we may not feel complicit in the harm is that we cannot see the ways we cause it or cannot see how we have power to change it. Such obliviousness to the racial dynamics and harm done to BIPOC by the consequences of white supremacy is evidence of our privilege.
Becoming aware of racism, to being more or less racist, to being more or less anti-racist is a spectrum along which we can all travel (or not) each day. The process of dismantling white supremacy at micro and macro levels is a daily repentance, a daily process and self examination, a daily commitment to do less harm today than we did yesterday, a daily chance to listen, learn, change, and act.
Like Medusa or the Hydra, white supremacy has many heads of harm and more continue to sprout up each day. As such, not all disenfranchised groups experience the same oppressions in the same way. In the US we see examples of anti-Black bias in the school-to-prison pipeline, anti-Indigenous colonization, anti-Latino actions toward those seeking asylum, just to name a few different symptoms of the same poison.
So what are our roles in destroying this seven-headed beast in apocalyptic fashion? i.e. “What can I DO?”
May I suggest a cycle that can be repeated at any point of impact or level of influence?
With intentional empathy and without fragility: Listen. Learn. Change. Act.
Entering conversations with intentional empathy means having the desire to change, to listen and feel, and to be willing to be shown new ways of thinking and working.
Entering conversations without fragility means leaving defensiveness about our actions or complicity at the door. It’s the type of humility that leads to being teachable. It’s in recognizing our own personal errors without overreacting. It’s in addressing our feelings without projecting guilt, or expecting to be made comfortable. It’s in not demanding labor or support from the oppressed persons to assuage our feelings of guilt or shame. It’s exemplified in apologizing when we misstep.
We should try to approach these conversations and interactions with racial literacy and racial stamina. This includes building our understanding of the vocabulary, history, and context, and in being engaged in the good work without giving up.
Listen. Start by listening, including reading or watching. What is your most comfortable way to consume media? Start there. Add social justice influences to your daily IG scroll, read their books or audiobooks, follow them on FB, subscribe to their podcast, add films to your Netflix watch list, and more. Some great suggestions shared here.
Learn. Each day, look for a way to be impacted by what you read or hear. Look for an “a-ha!” moment. Take that learning moment deep into yourself as an examination.
Change. Absorb what you listen and learn, bring it into yourself and invite a change of mind and heart to impact you. Allow that impact to change your thoughts and behavior. Let those changes make you a better person in an instant.
Act. Let what you have heard, read, and learned inform your behavior. Make better choices tomorrow that will help you do less harm than you did today.
Repeat the process at micro and macro levels from today until forever.
Listen-Learn-Change-Act can be small, micro interactions at personal levels, or macro interventions in large structures, or anything in between. Over time these “a-ha!” growing moments will offer change, and these small-to-large transformations can be deeply impactful, no matter the scale. Transforming each day to do less harm can bring peace and healing to those injured by our previous words, actions, or by the systems we enabled.
Here are 4 possible scenarios of what a Listen-Learn-Change-Act cycle could look like on a daily basis, on a few different scales or points of impact.
- After scrolling on IG to @theconsciouskid and reading about how most picture books don’t feature racial diversity in their main characters, I learn how my white children are growing up without seeing BIPOC represented in stories. I click over to the list of picture books with Black characters. I go to the library and pick out some books from the list. I read them to my children and we talk about literary representation.
- I’m a music teacher who loves teaching American folk Songs to my students. I come across an article describing the racist roots and white supremacy embedded in the lyrics of “I’ve been working on the railroad.” Even though I like this song for its catchy tune, I commit to removing it from my curriculum. I no longer teach the song or perpetuate it to my students, and I tell them why.
- I see a news story about some racial slurs that were spray painted on local school property. I show up and help to repaint. I contact the school board about incorporating anti-racism curriculum at the school and I attend the school site council meetings to advocate for curriculum additions until changes are made.
- I never learned about Juneteenth in history classes as a student. I don’t understand the difference between “Black Lives Matter” and “All lives matter.” I heard the phrase “white fragility” but I don’t know what it means. What happens if we defund the police? What is “trauma porn” and why shouldn’t I share images of lynchings? With all these questions, I set to work on Google to find videos, books, and influencers speaking about the issues. I read and research lots of places to make sure I’m hearing different voices that are fully intersectional. I avoid voices that repackage white supremacy to rationalize injustice. I build my racial literacy one term at a time.
If you, like me, have only recently arrived to the activist scene compared to the long arc of justice that has been bending for decades since before we were born, here are a few standing requests that have been in place since before we got here.
- Avoid optical or performative allyship; invest instead in deep relational change. Optical allyship puts the focus of the work on the ally, not in affecting actual change in this issue. Dr. LaShawn Williams said, “IF I NEVER SEE YOU (AS A NONBLACK PERSON) POST “BLACK LIVES MATTER” TO RAISE AWARENESS BECAUSE YOURE DOING THE DEEP WORK ON YOUR SELF AND YOUR FRIENDS TO STOP BEING RECKLESSLY HARMFUL YET WELL INTENTIONED, I would be happy.”
- Avoid white centering or leading with white feelings. “I’m so angry…I feel so bad…I’m just so upset…” While it may be true that we are feeling angry, sad and upset, this is not the time be centering our own responses because it displaces culpability and personal accountability. This shifts the focus away from the issue itself for the sake of addressing our feelings about it. Channel those feelings into learning, changing and acting.
- Amplify “own voices” that speak about racial oppression from its center rather than our own white voices of allyship from the periphery of the issue. Do the work they’ve asked, but don’t speak on their behalf.
- Expect to see white supremacy everywhere we look. Avoid articulating “outrage, surprise, horror, aghast” responses when we encounter another head from the Hydra beast. Responding with shock to the pain caused by white supremacy telegraphs to the injured person that we don’t understand the depths that white supremacy has plumbed, and that we see their lived reality as unbelievable, fantastical or too-fictional to be real. The obliviousness of being shocked is painful to those who wish we had been more attentive all along.
- Develop our racial literacy by studying terminology and history. Use Google, and DON’T slide into the DM’s of BIPOC to pepper them with questions about what we can do, or where we should go to learn xyz, or to process our feelings of white guilt.
- Avoid apologizing for whiteness as a whole, or for white people in general, but do apologize with specific, personal accountability. No culture is a monolith, and no one person can absolve an entire group with a single apology. By shifting the blame to the whole racial group, we displace the personal accountability we should otherwise own and speak from.
- Support BIPOC scholars, educators, writers, artists, musicians and influencers who are fully intersectional in their approach. Do not expect their labor for free – buy their books, albums and courses, subscribe to their patreon and podcasts.
In our own discussions or social media postings, we can avoid sharing content which is “recklessly harmful yet well intentioned” by running it through a filter:
Am I using an intersectional lens?
What or who is the center of this narrative?
Am I perpetuating harm?
Whose comfort and safety is prioritized and whose is threatened?
What is my intention with posting, and will my framing achieve that intention?
Blessings to us all in this marathon work – may we be buoyed up with stamina to stay the course of justice that its ends may be achieved ever sooner because of our action and not delayed by our inaction or errors.