I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.
James Baldwin, in Notes of a Native Son
If You’re White…
…then this post is specifically for you. You and I have work to do to address systemic racism in the United States of America. Ready yourself to learn, to be uncomfortable, and to act based on what you have learned and what is making you uncomfortable.
Black Lives Matter
Nineteen days ago, on May 25, 2020, George Floyd was murdered by officers of the Minneapolis Police Department responding to a call alleging Floyd had paid for goods with a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill. In other words, a man lost his life due to the unrestrained application of lethal force by police over a possibly fake $20.
Since then, amazing numbers of people around the U.S. and the world have risked both infection from COVID-19 and harm from police response by protesting. You may be seeing less of the protests on the media, if at all, but folks are still in the streets making their voices heard. More importantly, they’re speaking up for George Floyd. And Breonna Taylor. And Ahmaud Arbery. And Eric Garner. And Trayvon Martin. All people who cannot speak for themselves now.
You may hear “Black Lives Matter” (BLM) and react, “ALL lives matter!” To an extent, you would be valid, because life matters, full stop. We should respect all lives. With this framing, hopefully it becomes clear that the phrase “black lives matter” is an attempt to focus attention on the reality that we aren’t respecting all lives equally. Responding that all lives matter de-emphasizes the message of BLM and this is harmful because it does not recognize what is happening to black lives every day.
When Michael J. Fox advocates for Parkinson’s, there is no outcry from Alzheimer’s or Huntington’s supporters that all degenerative neurological diseases matter. That much is understood. And it’s also understood that Michael J. Fox is doing what he can to bring awareness to a major part of his life that needs attention, a part that, for him and many others, is a matter of life and death. “Black Lives Matter” also draws attention to the life and death of black Americans.
Let’s assume that you read the above and you fully agree. You’ve even said so on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Maybe you’ve donated to a group that supports BLM or a bail fund. These are a good start but they’re just a start. Because, you see, friend, we’ve got a lot of work to do dismantling systemic racism. And when I say “work”, I well and truly mean the kind of effort that requires a daily commitment. That commitment may make it feel tedious, especially if we don’t see immediate results, but we have to keep it up because if you’re black in America, you never get a break.
If it seems daunting, consider this: if you practice meditation or prayer, regularly exercise or do yoga, or are studying a new language, you already recognize that in order to get closer to a fuller understanding, you need to consistently invest your time and energy. It is the same to do the work to understand critical topics like systemic racism, privilege, and intersectionality.
In the context of this post words need to be followed with action. It may be unclear, however, what actions to take. To help, I’m sharing my plan. I’ve broken it down into things I can do right now, in the near term, and the future. Finally, I highlight some behaviors that may need addressing throughout this work.
This is by no means a perfect or exhaustive plan. It is a set of actions I’ve compiled to help me gauge my progress. Throughout this work I aim to learn more about:
- The lived experiences of others.
- What privilege means.
- How that privilege can be used (directly or indirectly; consciously or unconsciously) to support systemic racism.
- How that privilege may be harnessed to support those at a disadvantage.
Things To Do Now
- Donate to funds supporting those doing the work including BLM and bail funds.
- Consider making regular (i.e. monthly donations) for continued support.
- Seek out alternative perspectives. Locate and follow accounts on social media (and elsewhere) of people that are different than me. This means folks that may not be white, heterosexual, or cisgender. It means folks that may not be physically able as I am, such as due to blindness, deafness, or any number of mobility issues. And there is a range of folks that may not be considered neuro-typical.
- Listen to those perspectives start listening. Truly hear their experiences and choose to believe them. Imagine myself in their shoes.
- Prepare myself to feel shame and guilt, even if I’ve done nothing overt. By our inaction, we permit systematic issues to persist.
Things To Start Doing (Because They’ll Take Time)
- Read up on the subject of racism, privilege, systemic oppression, the history of race in America, and more. Source as many people as possible, but specifically from PoC. The Internet has made so much useful content so accessible. Use it. Where applicable, support writers and content creators by paying for their books, for example.
- Get involved in my community, starting with my neighbors.
Things To Do in the Future
- Hold my representatives, senators, and other officials to account.
- Vote for PoC and women. Add a broader range of people and with them their experiences and perspectives. They will help us realize the change that is so necessary to growing through this.
- Vote out reactionary, jingoistic, puerile, and ignorant politicians.
- Hire PoC and promote them into more roles. If there is a bar you are concerned about, know that they’ve likely performed well above that for some time because they are under more scrutiny than most. Also, that bar is largely arbitrary.
- Cede power to PoC. When we vote, hire, and promote PoC we are helping distribute power that is typically concentrated amongst a select few.
Behaviors To Work On
- I may not be telling racist jokes or hurling racist slurs. I may not be the person following a black woman in a store or calling the cops on a black man bird-watching. Though I may not be conscious of my actions (or my inaction), there is a chance I am creating harm or perpetuating it. Be deliberate about my choices. This is why it’s referred to as “doing the work”: it takes effort.
- I will likely feel guilt (by association; because I did find that joke funny once). That is for me to reflect on. I may feel anger at being called or perceived as racist. That is an opportunity to stop, consider the circumstances, and seek to understand.
- Centering myself in the conversation about race. I am going to have feelings. Recognize that what I am beginning to feel is a small example of the effects of oppression and systemic racism that PoC navigate on a daily basis. Do not make the subject of racism about how I am feeling. Do not engage in performative acts like renouncing my white privilege. These things distract from what really matters. And, on a practical note, saying a few words one time does not wipe away centuries of inertia that secured your privileged place in society.
It’s simple: pick a step, a direction, and get started. And don’t stop. Because black lives matter and they deserve to live as we do.