Recently, in a discussion on anti-racist action, I listened to a woman share her experiences and frustrations with white people “committing” to anti-racist work and then, after a certain period, abandoning the work to shift their attentions elsewhere. She reminded our group of an essential fact: people of color don’t have the option to ignore racial issues and focus on other things. White people do.
White supremacy gives white people the choice to ignore racial injustice and systemic oppression. I have that choice and that privilege because I’m white.
While editing my first draft of this article, I wanted to change my use of the phrase “racial issues” in the first paragraph. Upon reflection, the word seemed flippant; it’s insufficient to describe how U.S. systems and institutions are deliberately set up to oppress people of color. I decided not to edit it, but to leave it as an example of how racial injustice is so often mischaracterized. White supremacy allows us to use language to diminish.
Racism and white supremacy are not “issues” akin to gun reform, a livable minimum wage, climate change legislation, voting rights, campaign finance reform. While those are all important and worthy causes, racism and white supremacy are consistent and unrelenting forces that impact and define the experiences of people of color. It is worth noting that white supremacy directly contributed to each of those issues I listed above, among others.
“Racism and white supremacy are consistent and unrelenting forces that impact and define the experiences of people of color”
I view many modern white U.S. citizens as occupying our own individual anti-racist continuums. (Certainly, individual racist continuums also exist.) I see identifiable points where anti-racist self-awareness, education, and action begin. The arrows below illustrate that there is no end point: there is no point in our lifetimes where a white person will become completely self-aware of their privilege, entirely educated on the history and experiences of people of color, or reach a time where anti-racist action is no longer needed. At the risk of over-simplification, I present my own visualization:
I will only speak for myself, though I think that my experience represents that of many white people who consider themselves allies or assets or agents against racial injustice. (Those terms warrant their own examination, and many have written about it far more eloquently than I ever could. See “Recommended Reading” links, below.)
Self-awareness of my white privilege started when I noticed that my friends of color were treated differently than I was treated. It deepened when I learned the definition of privilege and began to notice examples in my school, my social circles, my workplace, the news, politics, and legislation. Intellectually I am aware that I always benefit from white privilege, yet the level that it is in my consciousness changes. Sometimes it actively influences my thoughts and choices. Other times it drifts to the back of my mind, such as when I’m reaching into my purse while shopping to grab a tissue, or when I’m driving above the speed limit. It usually doesn’t occur to me that I could be perceived as stealing or that I might get pulled over. And if I were to be approached by store security or pulled over by a cop, I’m not worried about anything other than the possibility of an embarrassing situation or a speeding ticket. I’m white; I’m not going to be arrested or shot in those situations. Self-awareness of my privilege slides back and forth on the continuum based on my circumstance. White supremacy affords me that safety and denies it to people of color.
As you are probably aware, the vast majority of curriculum in U.S. learning institutions is eurocentric and ignores or misrepresents the achievements, accomplishments, exploitation, and murders of people of color. Present day media perpetuates this transgression. If an individual wants to learn facts about the origin of human history, the creation of Christianity and early language, the development of philosophy, the redefining of enslavement from indentured servitude to chattel slavery, forced displacement, the establishment of black churches in America, etc., that person needs to seek out specific classes, educational forums, articles and books, and learn that which was omitted from their formal schooling.
Understanding that white supremacy was intentionally established is critical to figuring out what needs to be done to make concrete changes. I imagine that movement on the education continuum is linear for most white people; we learn more and we inch forward. It’s essential to remember that it is not up to people of color to educate white people. White people need to educate themselves and each other. When there are opportunities offered to learn from people of color, we should show up.
Action is mandatory for anyone who wishes to dismantle white supremacy. There are endless opportunities for white people to be of service to the anti-racist movement. We should provide skills, resources, time, money, labor, words, physical presence, and anything else that is asked of us. It is our responsibility to make ourselves available to leaders of color and support this work. We need to leverage our white privilege to focus attention on anti-racist initiatives and use our platforms to hand the microphone to those who have been silenced.
Action cannot come after white people are “ready” or “prepared.” There is no time to read the seminal texts, learn the necessary history, be introspective about our own racist behaviors and privileges, and THEN show up. As soon as they have an ounce of self-awareness, a white person should show up. All three continuums need to have simultaneous attention, and the priority should always be action.
People of color don’t have the luxury of time because racial injustice is life and death. I believe that the best approach for white people to participate in anti-racist work is to show up, offer assistance, and take direction. We need to refrain from inserting ourselves in positions of authority. We need to respect and defer to leaders of color. We need to ensure that our white voices do not dominate as they do in every other space. We need to remember that the most effective and appropriate place for us to stand is where the leaders of color ask us to.
I know that I’ve stated a lot of obvious facts here. Everything I’ve written has already been said. These ideas are not original, and white people can and should look for in-depth analysis of these ideas online or at the library. I am not an expert on anti-racism work, institutional racism, or unrepresented history. I am a white woman with multiple forms of privilege. I am trying to do my part to impact systemic change. I regularly make mistakes, act out of ignorance, use inaccurate language, and recognize that my self-awareness, education, and action are all insufficient.
I was raised in a culture of white supremacy, and I benefit from it. None of that means that I am a bad human being or that I can’t work to fight my own internalized racism while I also work on anti-racist actions. I’m white. I screw up. I’m sure I’ve made mistakes in this article. These are common experiences and feelings for “well-intentioned” white people, AND, these experiences and feelings are unimportant. The focus needs to be on the experiences and feelings of those people being oppressed. Time spent nursing our white egos is precious time wasted, it’s a benefit of the system we are trying to dismantle, and it’s time that could and should be spent on anti-racist action.
I owe a deep debt of gratitude to the Rochester, NY Movement for Anti-racist Ministry and Action’s Education for Action class instructors for critical lessons learned.
“How Does One Become A Good White Ally (Asset)?”
“With or Without White People, Black Lives Matter”
“Moving the Race Conversation Forward”
St. Joseph’s Neighborhood Center’s Race and Diversity Initiative Resources