This Is The Work

The first time I marched with Black Lives Matter, some friends were concerned. It was after Alton Sterling and Philando Castille were murdered by police in 2016. And literally the day after Dallas. Safety concerns were real. But safety concerns for black people have been real in this country since its inception.

I could not understand, at my core, why every person I knew wasn’t out marching in the street. I wanted to shake people. This fight was urgent, dire. But most people I knew, my friends, were–in my estimation–continuing on as if nothing had happened.

I felt like I was screaming into a void.

Imagine, if I (a white girl from the suburbs), felt that kind of angst… well, just imagine what black folks have felt the whole time they’ve been trying to get us to pay attention. It must be maddening.

When I see white folks on Facebook demanding that anyone who isn’t ready to go out and march for black lives right now should unfriend them, I get the impulse. I do.

But it’s wrong.

If I’d written off every person who wouldn’t march with me during the summer of 2016, I’d have been pretty lonely these past 4 years.

Know what so many of those folks are doing now?

Yup. Marching for black lives.

It’s amazing to see that kind of cultural shift. And it’s one I wouldn’t get to see if I’d galloped away on my moral high horse.

When white folks are instructed to collect our cousins, it means calling out racism and demanding real accountability. But it also means having hard conversations with folks who don’t agree with us. Not just writing them off.

Racism is a white people problem. Which means its our job to educate other white folks. So, when your childhood friend says things like, “rioting doesn’t solve anything,” it’s your job to push back. Not to just shake your head sadly and remove her from your Christmas card list.

It’s true that sharing the most vulnerable parts of your antiracism journey with folks who aren’t on the same page is only going to bring you more pain–and possibly give you what feels like a good excuse to give up.

But educating people isn’t the same thing. Educating other white folks is the work. It’s work black people have been doing for years–without ceasing. We can’t just shrug and walk away from folks who don’t get it after a week.

Writing people off misses the point entirely. And it lets me off the hook by suggesting that I have arrived in my antiracist journey. But, in this country, is that really even possible?

I feel 100% sure every black person I know has had to practice extreme patience with me in some capacity. I’ve been educated for free by not only the black people in my life, but those I follow on social media who share their insight & experience daily. No matter how exhausting the effort.

The least I can do is pay that forward.

Don’t give up on the white folks you know who aren’t there yet. You do you. Keep sharing what you learn. Keep having hard conversations. And when it all seems exhausting, remember this is the work.

Confidential to New(ish) AntiRacists: Get a Life Raft

I don’t know everything.

Hell, I don’t know most things.

But here’s one thing I’m sure of: if you are a white person getting down to the hard, soul-searching work of becoming anti-racist, you’re going to need a life raft. Because there’s a tidal wave of rage, grief, regret, and full-blown horror headed your way.

Prepare yourself.

You’re about to discover that everything you’ve been taught is a lie. Racism is in the air we white folks have been breathing since the day we were born. It takes a lot of undoing. And, for some of us, the realization that the adults we trusted as children have programmed us to be unquestioning consumers of the message that people of color are inferior, deserve less, are in some way flawed, chose to be denied equity (and on and on and on) will be devastating.

The generation before us bought the lie and served it up to you. That is true. But we’ve all worked together to keep white supremacy alive and well. And being an somewhat-unwitting participant doesn’t absolve you of culpability.

You will recognize this, and it will rock you.

You may be called a race traitor. People will look at you sadly and accuse you of feeling having “white guilt” (and you may, if you just shuffle around with your head down saying “fuck fruit” and not doing anything. Don’t do that. It’s self-indulgent). They’ll ask you if you think you’re black (that one is particularly confounding to me). People will be assholes.

You’re about to engage in a completely new way of being. It is the right way. But it takes some serious psychic and spiritual equilibrium to ride this tidal wave.

That’s why you need a life raft.

Let me stop here. When you look around you, full of despair and itching for absolution, your instinct will be to run towards black folks and use them as your life raft.

Do NOT do this.

We’ve been taught (by our culture and sometimes by plain words) that black people exist in service to white feelings. They do not. Do not process your feelings with them, in front of them, near them.

Black people are busy. And they are done with our mess.

So where will your life raft come from? That’s up to you.

Maybe you go find you a good therapist to process the indoctrination of white supremacy and the dismantling of systemic racism with. If you’re choosing a new therapist, sniff out how they feel about antiracist work before you sign on. The last thing you need as you begin some of the deepest psychic work of your life is someone co-signing your bullshit as it arises. And it will arise.

Ferret out your white friends who are also engaged in antiracism work. If you don’t have some, make new friends. Talk to them. Share. Process. Avoid at all costs your white friends who are, in fact, racist. Anyone who thinks the status quo in America isn’t that bad will only frustrate you, bring you to tears, make you drown.

Go for a run. Take up yoga. Paint. Write poems. Dance. Sing. Meditate. Pray. Lay in a hammock. Stare at the clouds. Do what renews your soul.

You are a person. A whole, beautiful person. With a helluva lot of work to do.

Take care of yourself. You are no good to anyone if you get overwhelmed, throw up your hands, and decide nothing will ever change. You aren’t helping anyone if despair drives you deep into yourself. You can’t engage in a struggle if you’ve got both hands tied behind your back.

One of the least kind things that we, as allies, can do is process the ugliness of our own ancestry in front of black and brown folks. Choosing a life raft is a kindness–to you and to the people of color around you, who know all too well the havoc, chaos, and destruction that white supremacy wreaks.

Go find you a raft.

Then get back to work.

Now, What Happened Again?

Sometime around 6th grade or so, I got ahold of The Diary of Anne Frank. And suddenly, my world was awash in both the goodness and insight of a 13 year old European Jewish girl from forty years ago and the abject horror that human nature can unleash.

Both. At the very same time.

I, a WASPy eleven year-old living in the Florida suburbs, was completely enchanted by Anne’s urbaneness (she was a German girl living in Amsterdam–I couldn’t fathom that I’d ever visit either place) and her energetic and observant nature. I desperately wanted to be her friend. Or to be like her. Eleven is a hard, confusing age and reading Anne’s diary let me feel close to someone–another kid–that I admired and looked up to.

And then they killed her.

I was bereft.

Of course I knew what would happen when I picked up the book. I knew, intellectually, about the Holocaust. We’d covered the facts and figures–the loss of life, the utter devastation, the depravity of human nature–which are simply staggering. But numbers don’t speak to me like they speak to some people.

I didn’t understand what happened until I picked up The Diary of Anne Frank. And once you know–on a deep, soul level–the beauty and horror that occupy this life side by side, you can’t unknow.

I was obsessed.

I read and read and read. Every time I went to the library, I grabbed a book about the Holocaust. My mother tittered about my obsession. But I had so many questions. How could this have happened? I felt such loss. I loved Anne. And that love for her pushed me to examine the very hardest truths about life.

Stories change everything.

Anne Frank has been the gateway for reaching and teaching children about hope, strength of character, the destruction wrought by hatred, and the horror of war since the late 1940s. She made me better because she made me curious.

Stories make my daughter, Jane, curious, too. Some stories I wish I didn’t have to tell her, though. Like the story of what happened to George Floyd.

She listened quietly. I think she thought I was making it up at first. Because who puts their knee on someone’s neck and leaves it there as they scream “I can’t breathe!”? In Jane’s consciousness as a 9 year old, that doesn’t seem possible. It seems so absurd. Why would he do that?! she asked. I’ve never seen that look on her face before. That disbelief.

Because George Floyd was black.

That’s the answer I gave my 9 year old for why George Floyd died. Because that’s the truth.

We live in Southeast Atlanta. Jane is constantly surrounded by black excellence, black joy, black friends, black teachers and leaders all the time. That is a gift we gave her by moving here. She hears and sees the stories of black kids all the time–living, dreaming, laughing, just being. So when we talk with her about racism, she has an emotional understanding that I couldn’t have fathomed at her age–because she has something to connect with.

She can extrapolate. She knows her friends’ stories. And she knows the story of George Floyd. And that look of utter disbelief I got from her–it was about knowing how quickly that could become the story of someone she knows, someone she loves. It was the horror of knowing that, in this country, we allow people to die with someone’s knee on their neck for nothing more that being black.

She asks about George Floyd’s story. And Ahmaud Arbery’s. And Breonna Taylor’s. Over and over again.

So I tell her. Again.

She’s trying to make sense of something utterly senseless. She’s a bit obsessed. She’s been confronted with the horror of the war against blackness in this country.

And now that she knows their stories, she can never unknow them. Because stories change everything.

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

We All Have To Start Somewhere

Hey, white folks! I’ve got an idea: let’s stop shouting “Racist!” at each other just to end a conversation. Let’s honor where each person is in the long, hard, soulful world of becoming anti-racist, meet them where they are, and help them along.

Because it sure isn’t black folks’ job to do that. That’s all on white people.

I was at a meeting full of white folks who were ostensibly there to chip away at white supremacy and address institutional racism. An elderly, white, Southern woman shared something she and a friend were doing … I honestly can’t even remember what it was right now. What I do remember is the response from the young, white discussion facilitator. He interrupted her, voice raised: “That’s not enough! We have to move beyond that. We have to do more!” And he summarily dismissed her–right there. In front of well over 200 people.

Well, shit.

That’s not going to work.

There is so much work that needs to be done. It is constantly going to feel like we aren’t doing enough. That’s because we have not done enough. But this isn’t a sprint. Stop for a minute to think how long this struggle has gone on. Racism is pervasive and insidious. It is not going away overnight. But we also can’t be running (potential) allies off because we fancy ourselves so much more “woke” than them that we dismiss them completely.

I fully believe I will spend the rest of my life unspooling my own racism. There is no room for complacency. It’s unnerving to discover something so ugly lying so deeply inside yourself. It’s easier to turn away than address it. Bringing it out into the light so that you can examine and release it takes unwavering courage.

White people need to encourage each other in this work, not shout each other down constantly. Because you cannot, you should not–DO NOT–expect black people to praise, encourage, or emotionally support you in your work to dismantle white supremacy & systemic racism. Do not expect your black friends to offer you a cookie for cluing in to the abject horror that is the racial landscape in this country. This is not their work. They should not have to praise you for finally seeing what they’ve been telling you is happening all along.

When I write about being silent or simply listening, I’m speaking specifically about how I think white folks need to conduct themselves in racial justice settings or discussions where black folks are present. Plainly put: do not tell black people about their own experience, do not talk over them, do not justify. And do not attempt to assume a leadership role. They understand this struggle better than any white person every will, so just listen. And follow instructions. It sounds so simple. But I can guarantee that the internalized centering of whiteness will make it difficult. Do it anyway.

For the love of god, call out racism where you see it. There’s certainly no shortage of it. But make sure you’re not centering yourself, as a white person, in the discussion. Our egos make the desire to be more knowledgeable, more righteous, more “woke” seductive.

If you are white, assume a complete lack of wokeness on your part. It’ll keep you from behaving like an asshat among other white people who are trying their level best. Offer suggestion, lead by example, challenge people to do more–but that can only happen when we don’t dismiss people who are new to this anti-racist journey.

Look, I’m so far from perfect at this. A white person yelling “Racist!” at me can silence me from 100 paces.It happened a few years ago in a discussion about our local schools. It was an absolutely crucial discussion, one that could have had a resolution that was rooted in actual equity, more integration, and a better educational outcome for all the kids. But folks started hurling “Racist!” at me, and I tucked tail and ran. I regret it. I backed down from what I really believed was right. I shut down.

Which is why, among white folks, there needs to be an understanding: if you see someone doing that grueling work of addressing their own racism, encourage them. No, they aren’t doing enough. Neither are you. But we all have to start somewhere.

Photo by Ryan Wallace on Unsplash

The Miraculous Power of Shutting Up

I did a very smart thing about 6 years or so ago: I started listening

Not very revolutionary, right?

Except, holy shit at the things you can learn if you just stop talking long enough.

Here’s the thing: encountering feminism in college gave me the mistaken impression I had license to talk all the damn time. I was tired of my desires and ideas being marginalized–I’d grown up in a super-conservative space in which women were fully expected to take a backseat to their husbands and all that bullshit. And, maybe, I didn’t do a very thorough examination of feminism (I can assure you there’s a lot more to it than just claiming center stage. Actually, center stage isn’t really so much even a thing…). I just heard what I wanted/needed to hear in that moment (the message to claim my voice) and ran with it.

In some ways, that served me. In other, long-term ways, my voice ultimately got all kinds of in the way of my ability to hear other people’s experience.

The first time I caught a whiff of intersectional feminism (a phrase coined by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, which examines overlapping systems of oppression, like being a person of color AND a woman) was when I took a head-over-heels-smitten deep dive into Alice Walker’s work in college. But, truth be told, when you aren’t ready for ideas, they just kind of slide off your psyche. And I totally wasn’t ready. The good news is that those ideas don’t just slide off into the abyss. They stick around, marinading in your brain until you are, in fact, struck down by the sheer magnitude of the truth of them one day, seemingly out of the blue.

For me, a woman with roots in Georgia and Alabama among people who were served by the social status quo of racism, I was afraid to take a serious look at my own internalized racism. Easier to just proclaim racism as “bad,”assure myself I’d never done anything (overtly) racist and carry on. I wasn’t hurting anyone, so I was a good person.

Right?

I think about that self (a little smug, but definitely full of fear and 100% lacking in understanding about the complexities and pervasiveness of institutionalized racism), and I want to shake her. Hard.

But that was my journey. And anything else just isn’t the truth. 

When unarmed black men started dying at alarming rates (or, more accurately, when cell phone video made it harder to deny that unarmed black men were dying at alarming rates), I started paying attention. And, once you see–really see–with your heart what is happening, when you witness the ravages in racism as real lives lost, real suffering, real and sometimes deadly inequity, you cannot unsee it. 

And it brings grief. So much grief. 

You can get overwhelmed by the grief. But let’s call that what it is: a cop-out. Because, y’all, there is so much work to be done. 

It’s instructive here to just grab a glimpse of what it looks like to people of color, who’ve been doing the grueling work of liberation and the uber-frustrating, often futile work of just getting white people to listen, when white folks jump into a shame/self-loathing cycle (which is mainly just a way to avoid actually doing anything). This excerpt is from a piece that appeared in The Root aptly entitled “Four Emails White People Send to Black People When Black People Talk or Write about Racism:”

I’m so fucking tired of White people and being a White person. We are so fucking awful. I hate myself. I hate my white skin and my even whiter than my white skin teeth . . . .Sometimes I look in the mirror in the morning and I just want to peel my skin off like an orange, taking each layer of whiteness off and tossing it in the trash with the rest of the fucking garbage. Actually, since oranges are covered in white pith after you peel them, that analogy doesn’t quite work. I guess bananas and apples and pears don’t either. Shit, have you ever realized how disgustingly white most fruit is when you peel the outer layers off? Goddamn there’s no end to this shit. Fuck racism, fuck white people, fuck whiteness, and fuck fruit.

Damon Young, Very Smart Brothas

While it’s true that sometimes if feel like there is no end to this shit, getting all fuck fruit on the systemic racism and white supremacy in the United States isn’t gonna work. Why? Because it completely lacks action. It centers whiteness and how “bad” we feel.

Feeling bad never changed anything. In fact, it’s a pretty clear path to self-pity and self-loathing.

Not helpful.

But one simple suggestion from Glennon Doyle a few years ago pulled me out of that fuck fruit cycle. She suggested that folks follow at least one person on social media that was different from them in some way. That’s it. Totally doable.

Rather arbitrarily I picked Ijeoma Oluo and Ally Henny. Seriously good choices that I deserve no credit for.

Here’s what these two women of color have offered this white girl: the ability to see the world from a different lived experience, deeper insights into the subtle ways of racism, and access to knowledge that I now don’t have to ask the black folks in my life for.

Because literally one of the last things your black co-worker, black neighbor, black friend wants to do is answer your questions about racism.

Totally not kidding on that.

If you have questions, if you’re having trouble envisioning how our culture looks stripped of the privilege of whiteness or if you want to know what you (as a white person) can do to make things better, ask the interwebs. Use Google. I hear its a pretty good search engine. Follow folks on IG or Facebook.

But remember that, to learn anything, you have to be willing to listen. Not justify. Not speculate. Not excuse. Not enable. Just listen.

It will break your heart. That much is true. But then you’ll know. And then you can move into action. Because make no mistake: racism a white folks’ problem. And now, NOW, is the time to fix it.