Since the recent murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd (following countless murders of people of color over centuries after the colonization of the Indigenous-occupied land now known as the United States of America), I have heard my white peers asking questions about ending racism, learning about how to be a better ally, posting on social media, and choosing the “right way” to react. A convergence of conditions has created new possibilities for raising awareness of racism in white people from which we hopefully will never turn back. We have a real opportunity for change.
Let us remember, however, this chance has come and gone before in our history. People have been fighting for centuries to correct the wrongs on which this country was founded. People of color have had to fight to survive the conditions of systemic racism and white supremacy. Unfortunately, white supremacy has concurrently been defending, ignoring, obfuscating, and continuing those wrongs. Thus far in the history of the United States, the majority of white people have not joined the fight against these racist atrocities produced by white supremacy and have seen white supremacy as something that is a “people of color problem” and maybe an optional special interest area for some select liberal white folks, authors, or researchers. We are just beginning to experience a wider awareness of how white people have been conditioned to maintain and grow white supremacy. Because of social media, cell phone recordings, and a generation raised with internet access, the revolution is now visible. Can we help make it turn out differently this time? What will it take?
As white people, most of us are privileged in our ability to solve our problems. We have the mobility, the respect, and the lack of danger in our daily lives that makes us think that as long as we gather the right information and take correct actions, we can fix problems like racism. We can make social medial posts, show up to protests, read books, listen to podcasts, donate money, and vote. More importantly, we can follow the leadership of people of color, allow ourselves to be organized by the leaders who have been in this fight for decades, and we can keep showing up. Still, this is only half of the work.
Being an ally is not enough. Actions based in doing are useful but can also become a place where we hide from making a deeper, more personal investment in anti-racism. To catalyze the growing awareness of racism among white people into an experience of lasting change, we need the energy of being. How can we be anti-racist as white people? What do we mean when we say we are anti-racist? Being anti-racist goes beyond allyship to stand and be against white supremacy in all of its forms, and to work actively to dismantle systems of oppression from which we benefit. Anti-racism involves owning white racism and white supremacy as problems started and perpetuated by white people – problems that hurt all of us in insidious, dehumanizing ways.
Like all identities, white anti-racism takes time and effort to form into a functioning part of self. It is an emotional and intellectual awareness. Anti-racism must be intentionally formed and nurtured in white people, or the default status quo of collective white sleep will reign. It is important to remember that just as systems, institutional policies, and behaviors in the outer world must be examined and dismantled to deconstruct white supremacy; ideas, beliefs, automatic unconscious responses, thoughts, feelings, and conditioning related to race must be examined and dismantled in each individual’s inner world.
I offer this blog entry as a prompt for conversations, journal entries, and deep contemplation in which white people could engage in order to begin or continue developing some sense of white anti-racist identity. Take some time to be with the following questions and ideas, see where resistance shows up, take note of your reactions – especially the ones you don’t want to admit. Take time to know your own narrative related to race, your conditioning, mistakes, moments of learning, next steps. Consider the following:
Think about how you were socialized about race—this should include experiences, incidents, and influences that shaped how you perceived your racial identity. Thinking of your childhood and teen years:
Who were you around while you were growing up?
Looking back, what do you remember hearing people say about race or racism? About people who were different from you racially?
What do you remember seeing regarding race?
What thoughts, feelings, and beliefs formed in you about race based on what you saw, heard, and experienced growing up?
When did you realize you were white?
When you think of your life so far as an adult:
o What experiences, people, environments, and other things influenced the development of your current understanding of your racial identity?
o What behaviors related to race – your own race and regarding racial difference - do you see in yourself as you reflect on your life so far?
o What is your understanding of how your racial identity interacts with systems of oppression and privilege?
o In what spaces, if any, are you aware of your privileged or oppressed racial status? What experiences show you the US racial hierarchy and where you are positioned by society?
o In what situations have you enacted white silence? Why?
o When have you reacted to situations from a place of white fragility?
Ask yourself, what will it take for me, as a white person, to take this problem on, not for others as an ally, but for myself as a human being who realizes what racism does to me, to other white folks, to all humans? Can I see how it steals our humanity, segregates us, closes us off from connection, deludes us, weakens us, causes us to be wimpy and defensive, costs us closeness, robs us of humility, shrinks our circles, makes us afraid, justifies abuse and murder and theft and domination, etc.
What will it take for me to face the fact that I have been lied to about people of color and about whiteness, and taught wrong history by people I trusted (parents, teachers, community leaders)?
What will it take for me to hold the reality that I have been taught to believe I am better than other human beings because I am white, and that I have to work diligently to catch that conditioning in myself because it is always there?
What will it take for me to talk to other white people when they would rather not talk about race and racism?
What are some of your thoughts and questions about being anti-racist as a white person?
Moving forward into the developmental process of building a white anti-racist identity means accepting that new questions will arise continuously, and our humility, openness, and honesty with ourselves and others will help us engage those questions productively rather than defensively. While I do not doubt that intentions are pure, sometimes sudden performative activism may not be rooted in a thorough understanding of how we got here and how we can move forward in a new direction. These most recent murders have seemed to open up more white people’s minds to the idea that racism actually does exist, has existed, and is treacherous and costs lives. This is long overdue and welcomed. It is important to remember that to build fully functional white anti-racist identities take time and effort. It will take hearts wide open and eyes wide open and minds wide open – to feel, to see, to understand our situation in its wholeness and be a part of evolution out of brutality and dominator-thinking, in ourselves, our families, our communities, our country, and the world.