|Die In for Racial Justice at Trinity College in Hartford, via Bishop John Selders...|
So let’s say that recent, well-publicized events of Police brutality and overreach in relation to African Americans has awakened a desire in you, as a White American, to do something about racism—to try and make a difference.
First of all, let me congratulate you. You are on a journey that can and very likely will be one of the most rewarding of your life—the journey to learn about race politics and people whose physical appearance and heritage are different from your own. I personally made the decision to do something about racism while I was in college. At the time I was a liberal feminist and peace activist. I grew up in a working class household with parents who held liberal attitudes toward race. My brother and I both had Black friends growing up. In the case of my brother it was his best friend in college, and I still remember the time our two families dined together at Dominic’s, a popular Toledo restaurant, during which I became aware that some of the other patrons were staring at us--or at least, trying hard not to stare. It never occurred to me that this was at all unusual—it was the 1980s. Events such as this led me to the conclusion that I was at best naïve, and at worst ignorant, about race in America, and I needed to learn more and do more. And so I embarked on a journey of discovery and activism—reading, taking classes, talking to people, engaging in political organizing and protests. I didn’t have a roadmap for my journey, which is still very much ongoing and will be for the rest of my life, and I don’t think I have a roadmap to offer others. However, I do think I have a few pointers that might help people on the same journey.
1. Listen. Observe. Listen some more. Observe some more. Read. Think. Stay humble. It is not the job of African American people to educate you. They have busy lives and agendas of their own. You need to educate yourself. It’s okay to ask questions—especially if you are taking a class and they are the teacher—but do your homework first.
2. Empathy and compassion are your greatest tools in this endeavor. People with a different experience of life may see the world very differently from you. Believe them. Remember what they tell you. Start to try and see the world from different lenses besides your own. This is the essence of education.
3. There are other kinds of racism besides White racism against Black people but this type of racism is especially powerful in America because slavery it a primal wound of the founding of our nation, went on for hundreds of years and ended only after a war that was protracted and bloody and killed more Americans than any other war. Please understand that this is a big, complicated issue. Some people will try to dissuade you and say it has nothing to do with you because you are White. It is an issue that touches everyone in America, even if your ancestors were in some other part of the world at the time, because it has had so much influence in our culture.
4. There is no such thing as reverse racism. It is one thing to be prejudiced. Everyone has prejudices, which just mean you think that something is better. I am prejudiced in favor of dark chocolate. It just seems better to me than other kinds of chocolate. Racism is prejudice plus power. Even if people of the same race associate in homogenous groups or even exclude you it because you are not part of that race-based group it does not make it racist, unless they are part of the powerful race and you are part of a less powerful race.
5. Don’t expect anyone to trust you right away. Trust is built over time. Mistrust across racial lines is not uncommon and is totally understandable. Put energy into building relationships. Don’t give up quickly or easily.
6. Take the chip off your shoulder. If you spend time in the Black community, you may hear people talking about racism or White people and painting with what seems to you like a broad brush. Don’t take it personally. You don’t need to speak up and them that this isn’t true about ALL White people. Be patient and listen and try to see it from their point of view. Let your actions speak louder than words.
7. The Black church is widely regarded as the primary engine of leadership development among the African American community.Respect this and do your best to learn about it—and experience it. This is changing somewhat as the larger society becomes more secularized and religiously diverse, but the Black church has historically been the number one place in the Black community where leadership skills have been recognized and honed. (Historically Black colleges and Universities, many founded by religious groups, are another such important institution.) If you are one of those liberal White people who are always going on loudly about how oppressive organized religion is, you are putting off a lot of African American people with your ignorance. Yeah, the Black church is not perfect, but if you are making assumptions about how Christians in America think, act and believe without knowing how historically Black churches think, act and believe, you need to get off your soapbox, put down your megaphone and educate yourself.
8. You need to experience being the racial minority in some life situations to understand race politics in America. The most eye-opening experiences in regards to race in America for me came about when I was the only white person in the midst of an African American community. My mom, bless her well-meaning heart, honestly believed that African American neighborhoods are more dangerous than other neighborhoods—or at least, more dangerous for a lone white person. I have learned from copious first-hand experience that this just is not true. I am sure that the reverse is true, however—that Black people are more likely to face harassment and fear if they are alone in a White neighborhood. My best experiences have happened in historically black churches and colleges. People are not just polite, they are friendly and welcoming. It made me start to feel embarrassed for my own race. Which brings me to…
9. White guilt is a wasteful exercise in self-flagellation. Wallowing in corporate self-pity is a ridiculous waste of time that is inherently only available to those who have privilege. Get off your posterior, stop staring at your own navel and do something useful to reduce racism. Black people don’t want your guilt or pity, they want CHANGE.
10. You need to learn to look beyond skin color when sizing people up. This is a big thing for White folks—even liberals see a Black man and get afraid. You have to unlearn this fear reaction. It is actually making you less safe. Deciding someone is not a threat because they are small and white may be instinctive for White people who grew up in overwhelmingly White neighborhoods, but it has no basis in scientific fact. Also, deciding that someone is not as smart and interesting because of their race and writing them off is equally foolish. Striking up a conversation with a Black person might change your life for the better. I don’t want to imagine my life without my African American friends and mentors. It would have been immeasurably diminished in quality.
11. Affirmative Action isn’t hurting you—or anyone. Life is not fair. Studies of who gets admitted to a particular college or hired for a particular job reveal that the most advantageous factor is a personal connection. Leveling the playing field a little bit to make sure a University or an employer has a more diverse mix of people enriches everyone involved. Maybe you really had your heart set on going to the University of Michigan or whatever. The sun will still come up if you don’t get in to your first choice college. In fact, not being accepted is the most common result for applicants of highly competitive schools. Welcome to the human experience. Grow from the experience and take comfort in the fact that if you are not part of a historically marginalized group you will get many more awesome chances in life to better yourself, while it could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the person who took the slot that you thought should have been yours. Honestly who to admit to a college or hire for a job always involves taking a calculated risk, in that it is hard to predict who will rise to a challenge and who will sink into a pattern of mediocre performance. Get over yourself and move on.
12. Learn when and how to talk about—and not talk about—race. Famed Director Spike Lee came to the offices of my former employer for a meeting. “Who is Spike Lee?” a (White) coworker asked, and I explained that he is a famous film Director. “Denise, I’m really proud of you,” another (African American) co-worker said. “You didn’t say he was a Black film Director.”It’s pretty simple—in a context in which you wouldn’t specify that a person is White, then don’t specify if they are any other race.
13. You need to speak up about your distaste for racism, even if you know you won’t convince a person that they are saying or doing something racist. I understand you won’t convince everyone, or maybe even anyone, to care about racism, but you do need to make it clear where you stand and what sort of behavior you expect. Periodically you may need to remind people that you are still against racism. This doesn’t mean you should engage in pointless arguments. State your position and make it clear that you will not budge from it. Everyone may not like it but they will learn to respect it, and you will learn who shares your values and be enabled to make decisions accordingly.
14. You will lose respect for some people and gain respect for others.You are having an awakening. If you’re doing it right, it will bring rewards, but also many challenges and disappointments
15. African American people are people. You will like some more than others. Some will be mentors and friends. Some may become lovers and family to you over time. Others will disappoint you or worse. You cannot judge an entire race on the basis of your interactions with any one individual or with a subset of the entire group. I kind of can’t believe that I need to say this but my own experience tells me that I do.
16. You will need to be a follower in your relationships with African American leaders when it comes to racial politics. This holds true even if you are more knowledgeable about Black History and culture than many African Americans. Be humble, and understand that no matter how much you learn, you will always be a student.
17. Your journey of grappling with racism will last a lifetime, and will continue to yield many significant moments and insights. A (white, male) colleague once remarked “well, now I guess we know all there is to know about diversity” at the end of a staff retreat on the topic. Another male in leadership of an institute of learning I attended once said, “We are a recovering racist institution.” I got the feeling that he didn't think we needed to put so much energy into the recovering part. And of course there is the oft-stated opinion that since we have a Black President Americans should move on to other topics besides racism. These are attempts at weaseling out of the profound, ongoing commitment that ending racism requires. They must be resisted. They most important part of the journey may very well be ahead of you, no matter how long you have already traveled. For example, a couple of years ago I was doing a genealogy chart and came across an ancestor who stipulated in his will that his children would inherit his slaves, but that they slaves would be released when they reached a certain age. It actually took me a few hours to realize that those slaves were probably his own children. It wasn't that uncommon under slavery for parents to own their children, or siblings to own their siblings. How messed up is that? How does that legacy affect us today? What is my ongoing responsibility to help us move beyond it as a society? I'm only just starting to have some ideas about all these things.
18. American culture is, to a great extent, African American culture. Commit to put energy into learning about this for the rest of your life. You will be amazed at how this makes your life richer and better. In areas such as music, art, religion, comedy and literature, the truly great, pioneering, distinctly innovative and influential American voices are disproportionately African American. You need to educate yourself about this history and ongoing phenomenon. If you are a pop musician and you want to be great, you need to spend some time learning about African American jazz artists. If you are a preacher and aspire to greatness, you need to learn about (and from) Black preachers. If you are a writer and aspire to greatness, your education is incomplete without a thorough study of African American writers. Once you scratch this surface you will probably become interested in studying the contribution of other minority groups—Asian Americans, Native Americans, Jewish Americans etc. America is less a melting pot than an awesome tossed salad of greatness and genius. This could lead to an interest in the culture of other countries, and before you know it, you could become a citizen of the world. Congratulations. And keep going. There is always more to learn and try.
19. Being against racism and race-based discrimination isn’t just the right way to be, it is the smart way to be. The slogan for the United Negro College Fund really sums it up: A mind is a terrible thing to waste. I don’t want the mind that could cure cancer or negotiate world peace or become the perfect mate for one of my children to be locked up in prison for years on a minor charge or gunned down in the street over a stupid misunderstanding.