Many whites believe that we have no responsibility to change the way race is lived in the U.S. They believe that racial inequity doesn't exist anymore or that, if it does, its genesis is from within racial groups other than ours. But there are a growing number of us who see a system of oppression and racial bias, both conscious and unconscious, at work in the U.S.
If we decide to act to change it (and part of being a member of the dominant racial group means we can decide whether or not we want to deal with racial injustice) we very often try to work with nonwhites to "help" them in their struggle for equality. It makes sense on its surface: we come to the realization that we need to address racial injustice, we find the people who are being targeted by it, and we stand with them.
While our intentions may be good, our actions in these situations often have negative impacts without our realizing it. Living as whites within a system that gives us unfair advantages, we often continue to act out those advantages with people of color, even as we seek to address inequity. We expect to lead when we should follow. We expect to teach when we need to learn.
We equate our newfound awareness with the lifetime of struggle that people of color have experienced. We are socialized in a society that communicates unfair racial stereotypes to us. When we begin to work towards racial justice we often unwittingly work toward helping people of color be "more like whites" rather than to build a society that is inclusive, where nonwhites can be full partners as well as fully themselves.
What, then, are we to do?
Get to know ourselves. In the book Overcoming Our Racism, author Dr. Derald Wing Sue discusses the need to accept that we have been socialized to engage in racial stereotyping and to learn to manage that tendency. I use the word "manage" here purposefully because most of us will never be completely free of bias, just like we are never completely free of any other socialization from childhood.
Convincing ourselves that we don't hold stereotypes only drives them further from our awareness and makes it more likely that we'll act on them without knowing it. None of us wants to be biased but unfortunately we are. We can learn to be aware when we're thinking in stereotypes, and then to not act on them. Ultimately, if we truly believe that whites have unearned advantages then we should focus on ourselves and our fellow whites. Our goal should be to change the system, not the people negatively impacted by it. Our task is to connect with our fellow whites to invite them into a new way of thinking and behaving. Awareness building needs to happen within us, both as individuals and as a collective. My racial justice works starts with me.
Get to know whiteness. Whiteness didn't always exist. It has a genesis, a history, an evolution, and a purpose. Once we understand these things we are better able to discern how whites and whiteness act to affect the distribution of wealth and power in the U.S. Here are a few sources that may be a good place to start:
A Peoples History of the United States, by Howard Zinn
White Man's Burden, and the much more detailed White Over Black, by Winthrop D. Jordan
The History of White People, by Nell Irvin Painter's
Blue Eyed, a film by Jane Elliot
The Color of Fear, a film by David Lee
There are others, of course.
Connect with others. We can find like-minded whites and share our processes among ourselves. This isn't easy. When we step outside of white society's traditional racial narrative, we often come into conflict with others who still hold to it. In many cases we are motivated by an unconscious desire to distance ourselves from whites who hold opinions that we once did. We often judge or attack them rather than identify and invite them into sharing a new worldview.
In a better world we whites would understand and accept the anger of people of color in racial matters but unfortunately, many white people shut down around it. People of color often spend lifetimes managing their anger so that whites can hear them when they talk about racial injustice. If we as whites seek to help, the least we can do contain our anger in the service of not alienating other whites. Tolerance and compassion are not only the goal, but they are a means to an end. Remember that for most of us it is not so very long since we overtly held the same beliefs we now find so objectionable, and it may not be long until we next engage in bias and privilege.
It's also very emotionally complex when we whites come together to do racial work. We bring guilt to the work, hindering our ability to be authentic and creating toxic interpersonal spaces, making it all the more unsafe to be open about our own struggles with bias in the very place we should be able to find support and understanding. We police our fellow white activists for perceived signs of bias or acting out of privilege. We often say that we can never escape our bias and privilege while deep down acting as if we have done so more thoroughly than others. We need to manage that aspect of ourselves if we are to be effective with our fellow whites and create liberated spaces. Of course, none of this can happen in a whiteness vacuum. We need to find communities and organizations of color that can teach us and guide us, and whom we can support.
This post is by no means meant to be comprehensive. Becoming an effective racial change agent is not easy, simple, nor quick, but it is worth it. Though we whites benefit from the system of oppression, we ultimately lose more in humanity than we gain in socio-economic advantage. Imagine what could happen if you could change the way one person acts and thinks about race. Now imagine that person is you.
This post is a reworking of a post that originally appeared on Middling to Fair.