Dear White People, Let’s Talk About Combating Racism

Republished at The Huffington Post

Dear White People,

I’ve debated for a while whether or not to even write what I’ve learned so far on racism, out of fear of taking up space in the racial justice movement when that space could’ve been better occupied by a person of color who actually lives the experience and is way better versed than someone like me. I don’t want to just be another white ally putting herself in the spotlight.

But the fact of the matter is I am a white person, I am a writer and educator, I have a small audience, and my white privilege was the major catalyst that has gotten me to this place. So that’s where I’m writing from – that place of privilege that has afforded me opportunities that other people don’t have, like being a contributor for Huffington Post, The Good Men Project, Spoke/Red Tricycle, and Scary Mommy, to name a few. Make no mistake, people of color have been fighting to be heard for a long time. The experiences leading up to my getting published were because of white privilege, but my success in getting published happened overnight because I had a somewhat controversial topic that happened to land on the right person’s desk at exactly the right moment. A combination of privilege and luck got me published. There’s nothing I did to earn that.

I also have to say that the opportunity for me to step up as a white, cis, straight ally would not exist without people of color and other marginalized groups educating me on how I can support them in the first place.

When I first tasted discrimination (through the lens of a being a mom raising a child on the LGBTQ+ spectrum), I realized how thoroughly awful it was and I began speaking out against injustice in general, from my place of white, straight, cisgender, Christian privilege. I happen to write for a predominantly white audience, so because this is about racism, I implore you to stay with me on this one.

I’m a white woman. By default that makes me a part of the problem. Wherever I am, I have the unearned, born privilege of almost always feeling racially comfortable. I also know that by growing up white, I have a very limited understanding of the complexities of racism.

I can tell you, however, that one of my earliest memories from public school was with a black girl in first grade. I was in the girls’ bathroom washing my hands. A black girl from another first grade class came running in, stopped in the corner, crying and shaking, covering her face with her hands and saying, “I wish I was white.” Over and over again. I had never seen or heard anything like that. I was stunned. I said and did nothing. Instead, I quickly took a paper towel, dried my hands, and exited the bathroom, thus leaving an uncomfortable situation unflinchingly behind me.

That was thirty-six years ago, but I still remember it with palpability. I wish I could go back in time and change my reaction, though I know it probably wouldn’t have helped her in that moment. But I could’ve at least acted like a decent human being. I could’ve asked her what was wrong. I could have at least listened. I could have maybe learned something. But I didn’t. In my white privilege, I had the option to look away, to turn a blind eye and return to the comfort of my happy little bubble where things like that didn’t happen. Now, thirty-six years later, I regret that decision. But now I know, and I have an opportunity to shift my behavior and grow.

People of color are exhausted because the problem of racism is our burden to fix, not theirs, but we either keep denying that it exists, or putting the impetus to change back on them. I don’t have all the answers, but I’m putting it out there that I am trying to make a ripple in the white community. I’m trying to push back against racism in its many forms – whether subtle or overt. I’m willing to say the words. I know that even saying these words here – as a white person woefully misunderstanding of the POC experience – may be a misstep, and I certainly know it’s not enough, but rather than stay paralyzed and do nothing, here’s where I’m starting, and I hope you will join me:

I will check my privilege at the door every time. I will stop and think and recognize implicit bias. If a person of color needs to talk, I pledge to just shut up and listen when they speak, without questioning, or otherwise forcing them to validate things for me. But I won’t ask them in the first place, because they don’t owe me an explanation. Likewise, I will not ask them, “what can I do to help?” because, again, they don’t owe me any answers about their racial experience, nor do they need to follow demands or, yet again, “serve” us white people. I know it is my job to figure it out. I will make myself sit with, and feel the discomfort of internalized superiority and racial privilege, for however long it takes.

I’m still working on the “get educated” part, and that may be a life-long process, but I promise to keep seeking more education and then sharing that knowledge with others. I will probably fall short, but I will try to read at least a few articles a week discussing privilege, race, and solidarity. I will seek out pieces written by people of color, who are reflecting on their experiences. I hope other white people will join the ranks and do the work, too. I hope that other white people will process what they learn along with me. I will try to stay humble as I recognize that my “lightbulb moments” have already been people of color’s entire life narrative, and I won’t pull them into the conversation and make them hear me realize it for the first time. I will also help to amplify the voices of POC who write these pieces, by sharing them on my blog, or on social media.

I will call out microagressions when I see or hear them. Like, if I hear someone saying, “he’s so articulate” (about a black man), or “so… what are you?” (to a bi-racial person), or “you speak good English” (to a Latinx), I will do my best not to stumble over my words and to call out what’s really going on.

In 2015, Anni Liu wrote a great piece on microagressions, which points out:

“It’s important for us to remember that just because a perpetrator of racism is clueless (or in denial) about the impact of their words doesn’t mean that their actions were any less violent or that the impact of that violence is changed. When it comes down to it, intention is irrelevant. If we only focus on intention, we continue to center and prioritize the perpetrator. And let’s face it: The perpetrator is always a more privileged person who is used to getting their opinions and feelings validated.”

If you don’t really understand microagression, here’s a good place to start: Examples of Racial Microaggressions

I will keep practicing when to speak up and when to shut up. I know that generally, when POC are speaking I need to shut up, and when I’m among fellow white people, I generally need to speak up. Because my blog audience is predominantly white, I’m starting here. Though I’ll make mistakes, I will continue pushing forward.

I will also acknowledge that racism and being a good person are mutually exclusive in our society. Just because you’re a “good person” in no way means that you are not racist. I will do my best to avoid falling prey to thinking “I’m one of the good ones because I’m growing,” because that’s where it gets precarious, and that’s where complacency also begins growing. If I find myself back in that place of the uncomfortable white first-grader in the bathroom, and I mess it up or run away, I will work on apologizing and learning from it, just as I had to learn to do when I began volunteering at the LGBT Center and one of my first mistakes was assuming someone’s gender. Rather than becoming paralyzed with argumentative thoughts over what I “should” or “should not” say or do, I will instead act because in this current political climate, time is of the essence.

Aside from this piece I may not write any more on this exact subject matter, because I’m not trying to center these issues on or around myself. I’m not looking to collect any reward or pat myself on the back. I mostly just want to encourage other white people to speak out – or, at the very least, admit that maybe they do have some implicit racism going on, and that they maybe should address that. Also, I think too many people say and do nothing, because they don’t want to do it wrong. I’m willing to engage on this topic, fall flat on my butt, and then learn from my mistakes. Isn’t that how we learn – by trying?

I recently had the privilege of hearing Steven L. Nelson, J.D., Ph.D., University of Memphis, speak about the concept of intersectionalities, which is a sociological theory about how an individual can face multiple threats of discrimination when their identities overlap a number of minority classes, such as race, gender, age, ethnicity, health and other characteristics. He posed the question: “Can you see me? I mean all of me? Can you see black me? Can you see black, gay me? Can you see black, gay, disabled me? Can you see black, gay, disabled, bi-polar me? Can you see all of me?” I wish Dr. Nelson could have the privilege of having his voice heard loud and clear everywhere. (I’ve looked for any of his speeches on YouTube but couldn’t find one). If you ever get the chance to hear him, please hear him.

We also have to understand that while we may feel troubled diving head-first into the deep waters of racism, POCs’ struggles aren’t about us white folks. Neither should we look to each other – or God forbid, them – to stroke our ego and dry our tears. If we make these conversations centered around our grief, our guilt, then we are stating that our feelings are more important than their pain. And that really goes for any marginalized group.

I’m often asked why I’m a public advocate. Many people assume it’s for selfish reasons, or having something to do with putting another feather in my cap – which couldn’t be further from the truth. I speak publicly about marginalized groups because I want to help create a world where marginalized people don’t have to have those horrible experiences anymore. That, and also, because being an advocate is not a one-shot deal. It’s an ongoing, lifetime commitment. It’s also not a silent job.

Do you want to be an ally for people of color, or any marginalized group?

Here’s a helpful video featuring actress, comedian, and video blogger, Franchesca Ramsey (Twitter: @chescaleigh), on how to be an ally:

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