Earlier this month I attended an amazing conference hosted by NonWhiteWorks – Storytelling Strategies for Dismantling Racism.
I tell you this not because I am secretly hoping for a merit badge, because as a white person, it’s obvious that my racial and white privilege analysis is a big messy work in process. (And anyways, people of color don’t give white-ally merit badges for actions which are easy and risk little). I’m telling you because I encourage you to check out NonWhiteWorks and attend one of their upcoming events if you can.
I am not afraid of being told that there are boogers on my face. What I fear most is being comfortable, wallowing in my privilege and ignorance, missing the connections, the unity, and the love which are ever-present when we take down the walls that separate us. What it boils down to is this – do you want to be comfortable inside an invisible cage, oblivious to the systematic oppression that you silently consent to? Or do you want everyone to be free, including yourself? Racism harms everyone, including white people, though the harm to people of color has always been disproportionately far greater.
No, I’m not talking about so called “reverse racism”. Yes, prejudice is universal, but racism speaks to the historical domination of people of color by whites. Racism is about a system of power (and abuse) that confers extra privilege in direct proportion to the lightness of one’s skin pigmentation. So there is no such thing as “reverse racism”, it only operates in one direction, though some white people stuck in their thinking, attempt to argue otherwise.
What I’m talking about is what our world will look like when – hopefully someday – we build a truly just and equitable society based on love, mutual respect, and deep ethical integrity, a world without exploitative capitalism, gross wealth inequality, resource wars borne of American exceptionalism (i.e. nationalism) and ego…and so on . To get there we’ve got a long ways to go. Returning to the problem of healing racism, we white people need to overcome our white fragility and learn to be okay with emotional discomfort and the reality of privilege. We didn’t ask for the unearned advantages of white skin when we were born into a centuries old system. But it is undeniable that even with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, those advantages are still very real in 2018. Feeling guilty about the being a white person in a racist world is useless. It feeds our unconscious feelings of low self-esteem, and traps us in a self-absorbed cycle of inaction. Are you willing to face yourself in the mirror and consider what you could do to end this system of racial oppression?
We need to be willing to question the views, attitudes, and behaviors that we inherited from previous generations of white-male dominant culture, to speak out and stand on the front lines of the struggle for racial justice, even when it’s inconvenient and begins the process of paying back the unearned perks of our race privilege.
Sometimes the many problems of the world seem so overwhelming. What can I do as one white person to help end racism? Actually, quite a bit. All social change, in the end, depends upon the cumulative effects of many individual people taking action. The first step is always education. After that comes action. Join a group that is committed to fighting racism. Or just find an opportunity to heal racism, and act. Here’s one small example:
A couple of years ago, I learned about the “orange square campaign” which began on college campuses as a way to leverage large college and university endowments to divest from fossil fuels. It utilized small orange felt squares as a symbol, declaring “orange is the new green”. When I wear my orange square, often I get a question – “what does the orange square mean?” I tell people that traditional environmental groups (e.g. like 350 Seattle) are now acknowledging that environmental and social justice issues are intertwined. In order to build a broader intersectional movement that lifts everyone up, we need to acknowledge the issue of racism, both within the environmental movement and the broader society.
So a simple orange square becomes an opening for conversation and stimulating dialogue about the many different ways that global warming, and environmental degradation, adversely affect people of color. Or how white male dominated power structures are unconsciously replicated within social movements, alienating people of color, especially women of color, perpetuating a breeding ground of unconscious complicity in a white dominated spaces.
There are all kinds of walls in this world – walls built by race, nationalism, gender, economics, ideology, age, ability, immigration status, etc. Some of these are actual walls, built of concrete, brick and steel. Usually though, “wall” is just a metaphor for institutional power structure. These institutions are often invisible to those who live comfortably behind them.
We (and again, I’m speaking as a white person to other white people), live behind comfortable illusions – that since the election of President Obama, America has been magically transformed into a post-racial world, where meritocracy ensures that anyone can rise to the top, where justice and policing, employment, health care, banking, and even acupuncture clinics and yoga conferences are color blind. But the disparity, ugliness, and death in the streets and jails keeps recurring. What an effort to keep up the facade!
Have you ever heard about the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots? Tulsa’s black community had achieved an extraordinary level of affluence relative to the time. But when a young black man was arrested for an alleged rape of a white girl, later dismissed before ever going to trial, it lit the powder keg of white resentment, and this unusual black economic success was torched wholesale, with government helicopters dropping incendiary bombs, killing hundreds and leaving ten thousand blacks homeless. How can anyone talk of meritocracy today? The stream of white wealth is passed down through generations, unhindered. Black people have always suffered wealth destruction and appropriation – slavery being the most egregious example of all.
How do we change this world? Do we wait for the government to fix it? Or do we take responsibility, one by one, for being the change we want? You know the answer, don’t you? It won’t be easy, but did you ever expect liberation to be handed to you on a silver platter?
A Few Resources: