These are the notes I made in preparation for – and from which I worked – for a panel discussion entitled “What Can White People Do About Racism?” It’s my effort to identify some problems (always a necessary first step) and suggest at least a few possible solutions. Changing cultural attitudes is a necessary but not sufficient condition for broader social change.
As a white person —
- I have a hard time being quiet when black or Latino or Asian or Native American or African peoples talk about their lived experience of race and racism. I always want to leap to the fix — which makes me feel better, but also means I’m skimming the surface of the problem.
a solution: learn to be quiet and really listen – not listen to argue or listen to respond, but listen to learn.
- I want to direct the gaze of my analysis, focus on black or brown people rather than on the structures of white racism. I’m thus dealing with effects rather than causes.
a solution: keep the analytical gaze on the issue of white racism and see where that gets us.
- I want to make it about individual actions rather than about structures. That keeps the focus on my good intentions rather than on the systemic structures with which I am complicit.a solution: the key is taking a look at the power structures. It helps to ask:Who benefits in any given situation?
Do the people who are most affected have a substantive voice and role in decision making?
related observation: power is generally considered a zero sum game – and as long the game is played that way (with rules set up by white people with power), we white folks may have to give up some power for other people to gain it. That is the reality of the world we live in right now.
- I don’t always see how the dominant cultural narrative – which works for me as a white person – doesn’t function that same way for all. Since it works for me, I want to believe it works for all.a solution: quit proclaiming that there’s equal liberty and equal justice and equal opportunity for all. Point out the ways in which that is not true.
- I don’t want to face up to the full horror of the history of white people’s interactions with people of color – genocide, enslavement, dehumanization for the sake of power and profit. There’s nothing pretty about it. It’s hard to stare at that.Or I stare at it and it’s so awful that it stops me. I say ‘This is too awful. I want to walk away.” And then we do nothing else. We probably all land in this place sometime if we’re in the struggle for the long haul.
a solution: we really admit this awful history and we educate ourselves about both it and the ways in which it continues to be manifest today. And if we find ourselves in one of the bleak, discouraged spots, we acknowledge it but don’t get stuck there.
- Somehow when stories or issues of injustice come up, I want to talk about some parallel experience I had that I believe lends me the credibility of moral equivalence. It puts me and my experience at the center of the narrative rather than the people actually dealing with the problem of the moment.
a solution: Umm, that listening to learn thing? Go back to there.related observation: A subtle but important distinction between this behavior and that of solidarity across difference, which can be done skillfully if it’s done with care. This is about fighting that giant monolith called oppression across difference, which has so many facets.
- I want to show these people of color how cool and non-racist I am – and in doing so, I require them to tolerate my neuroses (because I’m not being an authentic human being with them). I thus avoid doing the hard work in my own community.
a solution: be authentically human – and humble – in my encounters with people of color. Really look at how I can do justice work and bear witness within the white community.related observations:
pick your battles in engaging with white folks on these issues. This is a long haul. There are times when you have to step back and try again another daybuild relationships of genuine respect, love, and mutuality with people across difference.
this is not about ceasing to love and care for the people in your life who don’t get it and never will. Nearly all of us white people have these people in our lives. We have to be able to forgive them and to be present with them in ways that honors our history with them. That’s perhaps the most controversial thing I’ll say tonight, but I really believe that’s a very ambiguous part of the struggle. All we can do is continue with our witness for love and justice and to be honest and skillful in our engagements with them. It doesn’t get us anywhere to cut them out of our lives or shut down communication.
- I make people of color explain themselves or prove themselves rather than giving them the benefit of the doubt – and then when I do advocacy, I want to make them fit with my agenda rather than getting my ego out of the way and serving in a genuinely useful support role.
a solution: accept a description of people’s reality without questioning whether it’s really their reality. Provide support (financial, volunteer, communications, and so on) as people and organizations that are led by people of color deem useful.
- I try to pull the colorblind thing. It is simply not possible to be colorblind in our society. If I claim to be, all I am seeing is shades of white.
a solution: It’s not even desirable to be colorblind. Go ahead and see the color of people’s skin and the culture in which they operate. Appreciate it. Revel in our differences. That’s what makes life rich and interesting. Life would be incredibly boring if everyone were all the same.related observation: That said, we can build on what we share. We do have things in common. We just have to realize that it’s contextual rather than universal.
- I take the easy way out by expecting people of color to take the trouble to identify our shortcomings, lovingly tolerate them, and then explain them to us.a solution: We need to do our own homework to educate ourselves. There’s a wealth of available resources in fiction and non-fiction books, blogs, social media, film magazines, and television. Take these as sources of information about experiences that are not our own rather than assuming any one source or individual speaks for the culture or subculture or group as a whole. Don’t rely on just one.
These 10 steps represent one white person’s sense of a starting place.