It continues to be a hell of a week (this week has been, what, four months long now?). I can’t go to protests and I spend way too much time on social media, so one of the many things I’ve been watching, along with white folks showing up and protesting alongside black folks, is white folks learning about systemic racism and police brutality in real time. It got me thinking about how I started learning about these issues over a decade ago. Not just about events in my life or people I’ve known who influenced me, but what is it about me, that predisposes me to care about this stuff? I’m not unique in my experiences. When did this state of affairs creep into your consciousness? And why do some of us (white people) let it change our consciousness, and some of us dig in and refuse?
I know there’s a lot of white people out there who just realized the depth and breadth of racism and injustice in America (welcome!), and there’s a ton of blog posts out there pointing people towards books and TED talks and resources. You should check in with all that. This isn’t that, this is about the perspective that I try to keep, things I remind myself of before I act. These are the things that I do inside my head, every day, when I can’t go to protests or smash the police state.
Disclaimer #1: I am in no way saying that I am a great ally, or even a good ally. I’m trying to be, but I’m not the one who gets to decide if I succeed. I think I’ve got some stuff down. I know there’s a lot of stuff I still need to work at.
Disclaimer #2: While obviously PoC are welcome to read this and weigh in, this is definitely a post by a white person for white people and is likely to contain some white feeeeeeeelings (and/or acknowledgement of same). If you don’t have the time or energy for that, that is totally legit.
1. LISTEN and TRUST. This is the one thing I’m willing to claim that I do well, since it’s a running theme in my entire life, not just when I’m trying to be an ally. When people tell me how their lives are, or what they want, I just…believe them. Which should not be a radical act, but in the context of racism in America, not believing Black people is the #1 fundamental thing that White people must do in order to maintain this system. Outside of anti-racism practice, this trustingness probably means I get taken advantage of by panhandlers with sob stories (shrug), and I miss a lot of undercurrents in office politics, and the “honeymoon phase” of relationships is secretly hell because I believe all the soppy things that men tell to me during that time and have trouble readjusting later. But it also means that when an older black lady from my church says she’s been subjected to racism her whole life, I believe her. I don’t have any reason not to. When another older black lady tells me that racism is why she retired as an associate law professor, not a full professor, I believe her. Why would I not? What does that get me, or them?
Flipside: Learning to trust Black people when they describe their lives and experiences, trusting that they are right about those experiences, means learning to distrust institutions like the police, the media, and politicians who are trying to get elected to things. This is basically a project all on its own, and one that (specifically in the context of distrusting the media) I still struggle with. I have spent the last three weeks repeatedly falling for police/media propaganda (I definitely shared pictures of the cops kneeling for the protesters, for instance), then catching myself and backing up and readjusting my mental viewfinder.
You have to listen to people, if you’re going to learn anything. You have to believe that they are the experts on their own lives. You have to believe that they have no reason to lie to you. If they say something that doesn’t jive with your own understanding or personal experience, chalk that up to a difference of experience, not misdirection or misperception.
Which leads me to
2. HUSH. Just hush. Just listen. Don’t argue. Arguing with white people is exhausting. Every black person with any kind of public persona has to do it all the time. The one black person who works in the same department as you probably just wants to get work done, not talk about racism and white privilege to all of her co-workers that she never exchanged a social word with until two weeks ago.
You can practice hushing and still get your questions answered! On social media, look in the comments. Chances are you’ll see some other white person with the same question as you. See if someone answered that person. Don’t be asking people to answer the same question over and over.
If you don’t see an answer to your question, hang tight. People often address the same topic over and over. It’s a side effect of the fact that we like to talk about the things that we feel very strongly about, and most of us have a limited number of things we feel strongly about. We talk about what’s going on in our lives, a lot. What a lot of black people have going on in their lives is racism. Some of them choose to talk about it publicly, and those that do, will talk about it regularly. If someone says something you don’t understand or disagree with, I promise you lose nothing by letting it slide by. Lurking is good for you, and good for the person whose feed you’re reading. Remind yourself of all the things that person said that you found powerful and true, remind yourself of all the stuff they’ve already taught you (for free!) and just let it go. The subject will come around again. And the person will make their point differently, or they’ll talk about another aspect of it that they didn’t mention before, or they’ll link to an article. And you’ll have learned more in the time between. Your ears will hear better. It’ll be different. Keep listening. Keep learning. Figuring out racism and how it functions is a process.
And hey, eventually you’ll hear something that you don’t agree with completely, even if you understand exactly what the person speaking is trying to convey. That’s fine. But you don’t have to open your mouth to say it in somebody’s mentions (go back to the paragraph above, and remember that somebody else has probably already said it). Just let it go. It’s fine.
Remember that Google is a thing! Try googling your question, or asking a handy reference librarian. Many, many times, the question you are wondering about has already been asked and answered elsewhere. A lot of the topics that are currently under discussion–racism in policing, lopsided city budgets, the broken criminal justice system–have literally decades of academic discussion and research out there, because these are problems that we have declined to solve for decades. Which, in terms of treating our fellow citizens with actual justice and compassion, is very very bad. But for you, person with questions who just wants to know more, it means that there is so much information and analysis out there, waiting for you to find it.
3. READ. KEEP READING. There’s a million reading lists out there for people who want to learn about racism and white privilege in America. I’ll refrain from making another one here. But this isn’t about homework. This isn’t about how you can read The New Jim Crow or watch 13th and call it good. And maybe you don’t like reading! That’s fine. (Try listening to something on audiobook?) But if you’re an American, I bet you take in a lot of art and media, one way or the other. You gotta diversify that shit. Like reading fantasy? Find black fantasy authors. Like movies? Find movies by black directors, writers. Watch movies from Africa (I hear Nigeria is fostering a growing African movie industry). Podcasts? Music? History books? Television? Comics? Is your local art gallery organizing a showing of local black artists? Can you tell them that that’s something you would like to see?
And don’t make it all about racism, either. I mean, maybe at first. You gotta learn about racism and how it functions and how our society got the way it is. That is a project that’ll keep you busy for a while. But don’t get yourself into a place where the only stories you know about black people are ones of discrimination or oppression. Part of de-colonizing your mind is hearing more stories, different stories, new stories. Give yourself a break and watch a Tyler Perry movie. There’s a black dude out there who makes videos where he raps with his cat. Watch the Nicholas Brothers dance. Learn about the pre-MJ history of the Moonwalk. Or the history of go-go in DC. Maybe Jordan Peele has a list somewhere of his favorite movies by black directors? Who are some badass black visual artists working these days? I don’t know. You do you, and you like what you like. You’re most likely to be successful if you diversify a type of art you already like, instead of trying to foster a whole new interest just because it’s done by black people.
I did this/am doing this (my book collection was White As Shit until about five years ago), and I don’t regret it. Not even for “And now I’m a better person! And I know more about black people!” reasons, but because you don’t always realize how many of your stories are the same until you start taking in different stories, by people from different backgrounds. And then you start to realize you’ve been cheated, all this time. There is so much stuff that the white folks who run music companies, movie studios, and book publishers have been keeping from you because they didn’t know how to market it. There is so much fucking creativity and beautiful art out there, but if you don’t specifically go looking for black folks (and other marginalized voices), they’re not likely to end up in your bookcase by accident, because marketing is also racist.
Also, reading fiction has been shown to increase empathy. Go find stories! They’re good for you!
4. Perspective. There is a weird tension in trying to be anti-racist. Being a racist is the worst thing in the world, right? We (white people) have all been trained from babyhood to reject it. We’re not racists. We perceive the mere accusation as violence. If you want to shut down a conversation with a well-meaning but ignorant white person, call them a racist, or use the word white supremacy. We deflect those accusations reflexively. Being called a racist is the worst.
We gotta get over that. Every white person is racist. If you grew up in America, especially if you grew up in a segregated neighborhood (and most of us did!) and you’re white, you’re racist. You can’t help it. It’s not your fault. It’s because the country is racist. The air is racist. It’s a miasma. You can’t keep it off you. By the time symptoms developed, it was already too late. It sucks, but you’ve got to get over it. You’ve got to admit it. That’s the only way we move forward. As a friend of mine said the other day, “Once I realized and admitted I was racist, it was freeing. I had nowhere to go but up. Every step was progress.”
It might be a little like admitting you’re an addict? (Or this might be the worst metaphor ever.) Addicts do some heinous shit sometimes, they do damage, and they may not realize they’re doing it (or not realize the impact), because they’re addicts and they’re using. Call them an addict, and they’re offended, they’re mad, they storm out, they don’t want to know you. But when they reach their own moment of clarity, when they can call themselves an addict, when they can look around with clear eyes and see the part they’ve played in their life turning into whatever it’s turned into? That’s when they can start to move forward.
So, you’re a racist, and that’s okay.
Except it’s not okay! Don’t forget! Being a racist is still the worst thing! Our system of racial oppression is still terrible and it’s eating people alive! We have to undo it. In order to undo it, we have to acknowledge it’s there. To acknowledge that it’s there, we have to admit our part in it, and its effect on us.
Racism is the fucking worst thing but admitting that doesn’t make you the worst person but also it’s the worst thing and we have to dismantle it right now. It’s the worst, but it’s not, but it is. Clear?
5. When you fuck up. Because you’re going to fuck up! You’ve been breathing in racism your entire life and you just started to change your perspective like, five minutes ago. You don’t even know what you don’t know yet. So you’re going to fuck up, and it’s going to hurt even worse than it did when somebody called you a racist before you realized you were a racist, because now your whole thing is understanding how much harm black people experience every day but you’ve contributed to that harm and that sucks that we can’t seem to stop hurting black people, even when we’re on their side. So: You’ve fucked up, you’ve said something hurtful that you didn’t realize was hurtful, but a black person has told you it’s hurtful (and you believe them, because you’re still following #1 on the list). What do you do?
- You say you’re sorry.
- You thank them for telling you what you did wrong.
- You shut the fuck up.
You’re going to want to say more. White people, we’re used to having our emotions and grievances listened to. If we’re white women of a certain demographic, we’re used to processing those emotions. We’re used to being validated, one way or another. We’re so used to it, we reach out for it and demand it from others without even realizing we’re doing it. Listen to me: It is not a black person’s job to help you process your emotions or listen to you explain where you were coming from or what you were trying to say. Stop. Stop that. This is such a common spiral that white people fall into when we’re being corrected that it’s got a name now: White tears. It takes over conversations and suddenly now we’re talking about how sad Karen is because Tara told her she was racist, and not about the harm and the hurt that Tara is feeling.
Find a fellow white person to process your shit with. (Preferably one who also knows how racism works who won’t tell you that Tara was just being mean and validate all your white feelings.) Needing to process is fine! Needing to feel your feelings is fine. Needing to let some stuff out before you circle back around to working on not being racist is fine. Do not feel your feelings at black people. I promise you, experiencing racism is worse than being called racist. Take a deep breath, leave the conversation for a minute if you have to, come back when you can be a person participating in a conversation instead of dominating it.
And remember: Hard as it is to hear, being told you’ve said or done something shitty is also an opportunity. On some level, that person wouldn’t have told you about the harm you’d done if they didn’t think you were capable of learning to do better.
(Tangent: Back in 2012 [I think it was 2012 because I remember Mitt Romney was in the picture], Dreamers and immigration activists kept shouting at President Obama and interrupting events, trying to push him into doing something about the Dream Act. I think at one event he actually departed from his planned speech and responded to them a little bit. They were notably not shouting at Mitt Romney [who was running for President at the time], or John Boehner [who was Speaker of the House] or Eric Cantor, or [as far as I remember] any of the Democratic Senate leadership. A journalist actually asked one of the activists, Why are you yelling at Obama, who is on your side, but not at any of the Republicans who are blocking the legislation, or at Mitt Romney, who is super high profile and would get you attention if you engaged in civil disobedience at one of his campaign stops?
Their answer: They thought Obama was the mostly likely person to actually get something done for them. They knew that yelling at Republicans was a waste of breath. They weren’t out for attention, they were out for actual change. So they yelled at the guy that they thought might actually change something.
I’m sure that Obama did not like being yelled at [though as far as I remember he handled it with grace]. But I hope he knew why they were yelling at him, specifically, and maybe felt a little bit…honored? Flattered? Slightly less annoyed than before?]
So. Remember. Black people are asking you to change. They are trusting that you can. Don’t tell them you’ll do better. Shut the hell up and do better.
This ended up being a lot of words to describe some things that are really pretty simple. They aren’t always easy. But they’re simple, once you get down to them. Believe Black people. Listen to them. Seek out their stories. Change and grow as a person. Destroy white supremacy. You can do it.