Unlike my naive belief growing up that use of racial slurs by White people was a litmus test for racism, I’m realizing embarrassingly late in life that racism goes far deeper than using the n-word or showing blatant racist disdain for Black people. Our entire country, every system, every sector, is built on a structure that puts Black people at the bottom and White people on the top. For 400 years America has been built by the hands and operated on the backs of Black people for the benefit of White people. When you look at who has power, wealth, education, healthcare, protection, and respect in America, the racism is obvious. When you watch how many White people stand when asked, “If you, as a White person, would be happy to receive the same treatment that our Black citizens do in this society, please stand,” it is clear White people know racism exists.
Until I was introduced to the idea of White privilege, I did not understand the unearned advantage I received by being born into a skin color that allows me to walk, drive, look a police officer in the eye, laugh, and even commit crimes without fearing for my life. I believed I earned my status and good fortune through smarts and hard work. I did not realize how far ahead I began before I even formed my first word. Before even that: before my mom and I survived my birth.
I don’t have any real obstacles to a good, safe life; I don’t have to represent my race in every success or failure I make; I don’t have to expend energy every minute of every day on guard. My parents didn’t have to give me a talk as early as age five to tell me to always keep my hands visible around law enforcement, to never question police, to make no sudden moves, and that even if I do everything right and pose no threat and am committing no crime, I could still be killed.
The need to be always on guard was an unmeasured expenditure of energy, the slow siphoning of the essence.Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
As a White person who was born into a world where I don’t have to fear for my life, I expend no energy on that thought. I did not have to be tough growing up or as an adult. I do not have to watch my every move. I have enormous freedom.
Any “toughness” I garnered came reluctantly. I think I was always, somehow, aware of the price. I think I somehow knew that that third of my brain should have been concerned with more beautiful things.Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
Because I reject the n-word and the White supremacy inherent in it, and because I reject White supremacy, and because I don’t want to be racist, I thought I wasn’t racist. I was wrong. I have benefitted from racism throughout my life, and doesn’t that make me complicit in it?
Being “not racist”, even if it were true, is not enough. Being “not racist” is passive. If I truly reject racism, if I truly believe Black lives matter, I cannot blithely believe myself to be not racist and call my work done. Dismantling racism in America will require an active pushing back against racism.
For me, becoming anti-racist begins, as my colleague Michelle put it, with unlearning my bullshit. Over the past few weeks of listening, reading, and researching, I’ve only begun to realize how very much I have to unlearn.
There are hundreds of resources and lists online for White folks who want to be allies. I’ve combed through many, and I wanted to wait a few weeks to publish here so that I could share what is sticking for me. For any readers who would like to unlearn racism and to work towards being anti-racist rather than simply being not racist, I wanted to share what I’m doing in case it’s helpful.
- Listen. Seek out and listen to Black voices and stories without making it about me (ie, put my discomfort or defensiveness aside).
- Confront my own racism. It’s easy to bury bias or pretend we don’t have it; it’s not easy to face the racism we carry. Listening and reading are revealing internal biases that I’m now facing. A few of my friends and I created a safe space where we work together to openly confront our biases, despite the ugliness and shame that work brings.
- Learn. Each day I participate in the Justice In June program which lays out resources you can consume in 10, 20, or 45 minutes per day depending on how much time you can dedicate. Pro-tip: you don’t have to do it in June.
- Buy from Black-owned businesses. Thanks to the Black Solidarity Resource Directory from Melanin.Tech, I’ve switched my book-buying to a Virginia-based Black-owned bookstore, Books and Crannies, that offers online ordering.
- Donate. The resource directory linked above has a ton of options to choose from. I donated to several organizations fighting for racial justice via ActBlue.
- Read. This one is not new for me, but I’m being more intentional now about my reading. Here’s my Goodreads list of Black authors. My preference for learning about human experiences in the world is through novels, so the list includes a lot of fiction along with some non-fiction.
- Amplify Black voices. For 400 years we have ignored, dismissed, argued with, and pushed down Black voices. I am still grateful for a Tweet from Luvvie Ajayi I saw shortly after George Floyd’s death that said, “If you don’t know what to say, you can always share the words of someone who does.”
- Do not stop just because the news cycle has.
What I’ve written here has already been written a million times by Black folks who live racism rather than having the luxury of just learning about it. Here are some of the materials that continue to reverberate within me, and that contributed to this particular retelling.
- How Can We Win, video from Kimberly jones
- Who Gets to be Afraid in America? from Ibram X Kendi in The Atlantic
- Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true from Nikole Hannah-Jones, New York Times Magazine 1619 Project
- The 1619 Project from The New York Times
- The Fight to Redefine Racism by Kelefa Sanneh in The New Yorker
- Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
- Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- Becoming by Michelle Obama
- White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh
- Justice In June program from Bryanna Wallace & Autumn Gupta
- Support the Fight Against Inequality: Resources and Ways to Act from Destiny Kanno on the WordPress.com blog
- Racial Justice, A List of Resources for White People Who Are Not on Twitter 24 Hours a Day from Michelle Weber
- Recognizing Race in Language: Why We Capitalize “Black” and “White” by Ann Thúy Nguyễn and Maya Pendleton from the Center for the Study of Social Policy