In a time when blatant, unrepentant racism is “coming out of the closet,” legitimized by the past year or two of You-Know-What’s rhetoric, and people of color have to deal with a heavy load of everyday racist BS like this and this…we have a lot of work to do, white crew. And while part of that is calling out racist words and actions, and attempting to touch the hearts and minds of those who aren’t yet allies, another important part is talking amongst ourselves as white people actively working against racism. Talking about how we can do better and how to combat our own inherent racism.
Here is a great article about how to be a good ally and avoid making it all about you. It doesn’t just apply to combating racism, either, as it struck an intensely relevant chord for me. This really helped me conceptualize it.
Just last night, a close white cis male Christian friend of my really wanted to complain about how much things suck right now because of the recent election. And of course I get it…but…It was too hard for me to hear. I couldn’t take it anymore. I’ve spent the last few days so angry and scared and on edge, not because I’m shocked it happened, but because I’m so grieved that we all let it happen. I’ve been hoping against hope that things will work out better than we fear. But I’ve also been scared for myself and for people in every group that now faces hate that has been legitimized. And for my white cis male Christian friend to want to tell ME about how bad it was, to make me witness HIS pain–it angered me. And then I felt bad for being angry, because of course he just wanted to show solidarity. But then I read this article, and it explained so well how I was feeling. And because I do have white privilege, I have to carry that lesson over into my anti-racism work as well.
It reminds me of what I call the “circle of complaints” idea: Someone who is less affected by a problem should try their hardest NOT to complain about it to someone more affected by that problem. Let me clarify by saying that, in contrast to the individual, in-person conversation I just referenced, I find comfort in seeing my white cis male Christian friends posting all over Facebook about what positive steps we need to take now, and how to be there for each other, and how disheartening this all is. That’s very different, for me, because it is less personal. It is less about them and me, about our relationship, and about our individual experiences, and more about a collective message to all that the hate is unacceptable. I find that completely acceptable–but also have to point out that I’m not actually obligated to. And all of this is something that HAS to affect me as a white person. I have to let this realization and recognition in. I have to see the other side of the coin. I have to recognize that I could be contributing to the problem by complaining about racism to the faces of my black friends in an attempt to assuage my own guilt.
Let me also say that sometimes it’s hard to tell who may or may not be affected by a problem. It will not help anyone to get into a “who’s affected more?” contest. So I will try to give people the benefit of the doubt and hope that they give me that same benefit. I know that, if you just looked at me, the only marginalized group you would see is “female,” yet I have more than one other identity that is also currently under fire. I do NOT believe that I have it worse than anyone whose marginalized identity is easily visible. I’m still scared, but I hope I have not and will not try to connect with the visibly marginalized through my own fear, but instead, through my solidarity and through letting them know that it’s not about me, that I’ve got their back and am working and will work to keep them safe and free.
So what am I trying to say? I’m hoping it’s crystal-clear that I’m saying this is not about marginalization contests–it’s about connecting through support and not further traumatizing our friends who are already traumatized enough by making them listen to our disappointments. About taking care to examine how our words are affecting others, and learning what actions to take that will help and not harm.
Because I must admit that I do have a little bit of a chip on my shoulder that, for example, I am disabled but people often dismiss my disabilities because they’re invisible. So I’m also trying to keep myself aware of my own prejudices, my own stumbling blocks, my own resentments and difficulties and all the ways in which I need to remember to give myself and everyone else as much compassion as possible in a difficult world.
A friend told me recently that it’s worthless to try to combat certain Americans’ racist ideas, that it’s better to just make it as expensive and shameful as possible to exhibit racism. I’ve heard relatives of this idea before. One thing people say is that the racist ideas will die off in time if we let them, with the generation who held them.
I do not believe this. (Except the part where racism should have serious consequences.) The lessons of history show us differently. Look at what happened in the South after Northerners withdrew their oversight of post-Civil-War Reconstruction. Black people who had finally received the right to vote, to make decisions for themselves, to become doctors and bankers and farmers and teachers, suddenly found themselves moved decades backward with the introduction of Jim Crow laws, suddenly policed and controlled in minute detail, the lowest of the low castes, unable to escape white supremacy’s ugly reared head. These new laws and ways were not introduced by the old slave-owning generation. Things can reverse quickly, progress can be undone; let us not forget this, lest we must relive it.
I also do not believe we can just wait and silence racism, because it is our job as people with white privilege to call it out, to try to engage with and dismantle the lingering pervasive racism black people face every day. If we don’t do it, guess what? It will yet again fall entirely to the marginalized. This is unjust. We must use this privilege for good, because our voices are the ones that can make a difference. I cannot say this enough: white people, the work has to be ours. We must take up the mantle of anti-racism work if we ever hope to dismantle racism.
I don’t claim to have all the answers. I try very hard to be open to ways I may be wrong, things I could do better, and the simple fact that everyone must follow their own path. Not everyone is capable of doing what I can do; likewise, I am limited in ways that others are not. In times like these, what I’m hoping is simply that all white people will choose to educate ourselves more about these issues by listening to black voices. That men will choose to listen to women. That Christians will choose to listen to people who don’t believe exactly what they do. And so on and so forth–that we all show love and compassion and a healthy respect for how our words affect others.
Peace be with you. And love. And hope.