White folks, we can’t sit in our sadness.
This past week was many things, but the only thing that was new was me moving to a new apartment. Otherwise, it was yet another week where violence was a theme, particularly White supremacist, cis-patriarchal violence & terror. From the terrorism in Charleston(which took Cynthia, Susie, Ethel, Rev. DePayne, Rev. Clementa, Tywanza, Rev. Daniel, Rev. Sharonda, & Myra) to the murder of Mercedes Williamson (the 9th trans woman murdered this year in the U.S.), I was overcome with many thoughts and feelings on Thursday and Friday while trying to move. Social media, in particular, was a huge help in staying informed and engaged while on the move. And I as I sit here processing via writing about these intertwined violent acts, I think about how reactions and inactions have remained the same, particularly from me and my fellow White folks.
I, like others, use White supremacy and racism alongside one another intentionally. Many believe that White supremacy and racism are just individual, interpersonal beliefs and acts. Many believe that White supremacy and racism are just reserved to those that center that ideology with every intention (the Ku Klux Klan comes to mind for most). But White supremacy and racism are so much more than that. Elizabeth “Betita” Martinez offered this:
The most common mistake people make when taking about racism (White Supremacy) is to think of it as a problem of personal prejudices and individual acts of discrimination. They do not see that it is a system, a web of interlocking, reinforcing institutions: political, economic, social, cultural, legal, military, educational, all of our institutions. As a system, racism affects every aspect of life in a country. By not understanding that racism is systemic, we guarantee it will continue. For example, racist police behavior is often reduced to “a few bad apples” who need to be removed, instead of seeing that it can be found in police departments everywhere. It reflects and sustains the existing power relations throughout society. This mistake has real consequences: by refusing to see police brutality as part of a system, and that the system must be changed, we guarantee such brutality will continue.
Then put the words of Robin DiAngelo alongside those of Martinez’s:
The two most effective beliefs that prevent us (whites) from seeing racism as a system are: (1) that racists are bad people and (2) that racism is conscious dislike; if we are well-intended and do not consciously dislike people of color, we cannot be racist. This is why it is so common for white people to cite their friends and family members as evidence of their lack of racism. However, when you understand racism as a system of structured relations into which we are all socialized, you understand that intentions are irrelevant. And when you understand how socialization works, you understand that much of racial bias is unconscious. Negative messages about people of color circulate all around us. While having friends of color is better than not having them, it doesn’t change the overall system or prevent racism from surfacing in our relationships. The societal default is white superiority and we are fed a steady diet of it 24/7. To not actively seek to interrupt racism is to internalize and accept it.
It is important to frame this because many have and will continue to excuse the violence this week as being reserved to a few people rather than also being part of a greater system. Yes, the terrorist was a White man who had the intention of starting a race war individually. But he and his philosophy were produced by a system we must interrogate, deconstruct, and reconstruct. As Rev. Dr. William Barber stated, as shared by Melissa Harris-Perry this morning:
The perpetrator has been caught but the killer is still at large.
Arguments about mental illness, not getting enough love growing up, and attacks on Christianity immediately popped up. Yet, most mainstream media washed race right out of equation, even though HE FREAKING SAID HIS REASONS WERE BASED IN RACISM & WHITE SUPREMACY. And reactions from many on my feed, and in text messages, were “this is unthinkable.” Bullshit. As Charles Pierce pointed out,
What happened in a church in Charleston, South Carolina on Wednesday night is a lot of things, but one thing it’s not is “unthinkable.” Somebody thought long and hard about it. Somebody thought to load the weapon. Somebody thought to pick the church. Somebody thought to sit, quietly, through some of Wednesday night bible study. Somebody thought to stand up and open fire, killing nine people, including the pastor. Somebody reportedly thought to leave one woman alive so she could tell his story to the world. Somebody thought enough to flee. What happened in that church was a lot of things, but unthinkable is not one of them.
Many on my SoMe feeds and TLs had responses that were similar to Jon Stewart, something along the lines of “I honestly have nothing, other than just sadness.” For my fellow White folks though, WE CAN’T JUST SIT IN OUR SADNESS. We have to get up and commit to conversation and action. As I was reminded earlier this week when being called in on my own complacency in White supremacy, I/we as White folks have to do better. Period. How? Here are some points. As Drew Franklin & Robert Stephens discussed, there is no magic list that is going to end racism or white supremacy. But more on that in point 3.
1) Disrupt and decenter White supremacy and racism by not making it about you. Last July, a good friend recommended (via blog) an article I should read – Audrey Thompson’s (2003), Tiffany, Friend to People of Color. In the article, Thompson discussed we, as White folks, needing to be seen as “good Whites,” and how “it can be devastating to realize that people of color…can make judgments about you and just assume that you are racist without giving you the change to prove otherwise.” I also think of Mamta Motwani Accapadi’s (2007) article, When White Women Cry: How White Women’s Tears Oppress Women of Color. Accapadi made the point that when White people (focusing on student affairs professionals) display guilt or feelings of being attacked, it becomes about attending to their/our feelings rather than about the issue that was brought up or the system to address. I often think of both of these articles when getting called in on my racism and white supremacy. Rather than being sad or jumping to make it about me, I sit in it, take the feedback, and (potentially )process with other White folks rather than continuing to delve into it with the person(s) I’ve impacted. Instead of acting out of my sense of guilt, I need to act out of my sense of responsibility. For those of us who strive to be good people, this can be hard, but it is necessary. The alleviation of my White guilt continues to center whiteness in antiracism, rather than the wide array of violence people of Color are constantly subjected to. I’m still not perfect at this by any means but it is one strategy I use. It also helps me avoid complacency and feelings that I know exactly what it means to be anti-racist. As Thompson stated,
…when we start to congratulating ourselves on how far along we are [as anti-racists], it is easy to stop thinking of ourselves on a journey and start thinking of ourselves as having arrived.
Disrupting White supremacy is also disrupting colorblindness as it relates to race. Even in some of my most loved inner circles this past week, folks were making excuses that terrorist as it relates to his mental status and loving environment and saying NOTHING about race. Or saying ish like we live “in the most progressive nation in the world.” Seriously? Just miss me with that. We must hold each other and media accountable. As someone shared with me in a training last year, “it’s not all about race but race is always a factor.”
Next to the inner personal work, I think about de-centering whiteness in social media as well. While it was a great tool for me to stay engaged during my move, it can also be exhaustive, particularly as an outrage machine. At the top of the week, there was so much discussion about Rachel Dolezal – and there is still a shit ton of coverage happening about her today. As others have pointed out, this is because of her whiteness. Meanwhile, have you heard about Dominican Republic these past few weeks? Where is the in-depth, constant reporting about the background of Mother Emanuel, Islan Nettles, and other places and people that have been constantly the subject of violence by whiteness? How can we start flooding social media with more images of the victims of the massacre rather than of its perpetrator? How are we talking about histories, philosophies, and pedagogies that do not center whiteness? How are we rewarding people of Color for talking about whiteness and anti-racism the same way we do to White folks (while also minimizing that reward for White folks)? Guante offers some recommendations on how to decenter White peoples feelings.
2) Talk to and stay engaged with other White folks around anti-racism. Janet Helms (1992) work around racial identity development comes up for me here. We, as White folks are in different places and ways of thinking about our racial identity (spanning from “I don’t have a race” to “White people are the best” to “I am committed to anti-racism”). Just like we need to engage different learners in terms of their learning style, meeting them between “where they are” and “where we are,” we need to do that same work around White supremacy and anti-racism, committing the time and energy to work with our fellow White folks. People of Color should not and can not be the only ones talking about race and educating other White folks. We live in an age with multiple forms of media to help people learn – videos, books, Skype, blogs, etc. That’s the beauty of the Google age – people can look this stuff up.
But often the processing is harder to do alone (at least for me it is). That’s where engaging with other White folks comes in. Jamie Utt offers some great suggestions on investing in other White people to end racism. Seriously, read it!
As Guante and others have suggested, I think I/we (especially as an intercultural educator) can sometimes really downplay the power of caucus groups (where folks who share identities can come together to discuss aspects of privilege, oppression, and domination amongst themselves) rather than always having a cross-cultural dialogue. As I learned with my time as a facilitator from the National Coalition Building Institute, caucus groups have great potential to let us do the self-work and the us-work. These groups should be structured with varied perspectives and with no end goal of racial enlightenment in mind. Rather, they should be founded on constant work and examination, on how we process incidents, and how do we challenge one another. I think these types of caucus groups combined with programs like Intergroup Dialogue have real power to sustain dialogue rather than reactionary sound bytes on the backs and bodies of Black and Brown people. It is really easy, too. Just put out a call on your social media. Ask if there is interest for other White folks to come together to discuss race, racism, and White supremacy. I always encourage shared facilitation and agenda setting. At the very least, I am saying in this post, I am glad to engage you as a fellow White person in discussions around these topics. [SN: I would also recommend Robin DiAngelo’s two guidelines for engaging fellow White folks at the end of the article and actively avoid the eleven mentioned in the middle.]
And so importantly, continue to engage other White folks on social media! I think back to November when so many of my fellow White folks were de-friending folks over their racism in reaction to Ferguson. I think about the President of the University of Oklahoma who expelled members of SAE for the racist video that emerged. I’m here to tell you these are NOT solving the problems of racism; this is sending the message “I don’t want to deal with your racism here so take it somewhere else.” I’m not saying do not practice self-care and ALWAYS engage in these conversations. What I am trying to convey is that this work is not easy and that’s the point – our Whiteness has shielded us from tough conversations about race for a while so it’s going to be tough at first and moving forward. But the conversation and ensuing action (because we must be committed to sustainability of both) are too important to pass on the racism to someone else, that someone else often being a person or persons of Color.
3) The system will push back in a violent way. No conversation or awareness will save you from that. This point of course disrupts and troubles the two points above. I referenced it above but Drew Franklin & Robert Stephens’s piece about ending racism really troubled me and I needed to sit in it for a bit before I absorbed all that they were saying. Pushing back against your privilege isn’t just unpacking your knapsack – it is opening yourself up to violence in a very physical way. As they point out:
Roof didn’t have a problem with talking about race…Conversation and awareness are not the answers. What we have here is a crisis of power, a lack of real political organization.
What then struck me the most was this:
At the point of physical confrontation, there’s nothing abstract about it. All people, especially so-called allies, need to understand that when you really struggle against power systems, you expose yourself to deadly harm. Your enemies–the pigs, flanked by the Cliven Bundy’s and the Dylan Roofs of the world–have guns. And they have demonstrated their willingness to use them. With that in mind, I think it borders on recklessness to tell white people there are a few simple things they can do to change the situation. If you follow that advice, you’ll either be completely ineffectual, or you’ll get fucked up. Either way, you’ve failed. Struggling for abolition requires that you first accept the inevitability of violent reaction, and then prepare yourself for it. As things stand, very few of us are in any position to deal with that reality.
As I write this, I sit in privilege debating if I am ready to deal with that reality in terms of my race (though I face that reality in other identities, particularly queer and trans identities). I am unsettled and need to push past that to do better. To catch and bring the “killer” that William Barber was speaking of. And as Malik Nashad Sharpe stated so powerfully:
A baby is born every eight seconds in the US. Every passing moment of inexcusable fragility, every single instance where White supremacy is maintained, and every minute that your silence speaks so loudly, another Dylan Roof is born again, and again, and again.