In the last two weeks, public support for the Black Lives Matter movement has skyrocketed. The protests — which a majority of Americans support — were sparked by the devastating murder of George Floyd and are the cries of a country in agony.
It is disgraceful that it has taken heinous video after video to get us here, but now that so many Americans are talking and thinking more about racism, it is important that white people — myself included — make personal changes that honor and further the goals of the movement. We will have made no progress if we do not take a cold, hard look in the mirror and face our own biases.
Already feeling uncomfortable? That’s good. Discomfort is not inherently bad. It is necessary for change — but it is important that we find healthy, useful ways of channeling it. Luckily, there are many simple, actionable things we can do.
1. Watch Out for “I” Statements
As stressful as weeks of protesting may feel, these feelings are minuscule in comparison to the weight of neglect and persecution that Black Americans have shouldered for generations. White people who genuinely wish to reckon with this must accept that our personal feelings must be placed low on the list of priorities.
We ought to pause before posting about how sad we personally are that racism exists, that we are scared of riots, that we are shocked and surprised, or that we believe we will see racism eradicated in our lifetime. In my experience, it became easier to be productive when I focused more on listening than parroting what I considered to be all the right answers. It is time to take a step back and reframe our “I” statements — online and off.
We should also take the opportunity to work through knee-jerk reactions and complicated emotional realizations offline. We should not seek validation or consolation with page-long posts that push important information and Black voices further down our feeds. A private journal is a better avenue for working through messy feelings, and it doesn’t require others to comfort us or tiptoe around our fragility.
2. Taking Accountability
It’s not easy, but we need to abandon the secret desire to be seen as a “good white person.” It is important to live an anti-racist life, but that cannot be accomplished through optics alone. Be wary of using humor or self-flagellation to distance oneself from accountability. Useless apologies like “I’m sorry we white people are like this” or “It hurts my heart to hear that people treated you that way” help no one, and we shouldn’t be scrambling to get off the hook.
No one is immune from racist beliefs. They are taught in homes, neighborhoods, schools, workplaces and churches, where they might be taught by people we love and respect. Even if we miraculously missed them in our personal lives, racist messages flicker across TV screens and pop up on social media. We absorb them, even if we disagree with them. Our time is better spent rooting them out and assessing our past actions than attempting to convince others that we have inexplicably avoided their influence.
3. Value the Time and Labor of Others
During the protests, “checking in on your Black friends” began as a well-meaning act, but quickly became a nuisance for the very people it was meant to comfort. Rolling into someone’s text messages to ask them to perform emotional vulnerability for us is not an act of service. Genuine conversations, socially-distanced visits or homemade meals are a better way to go than random guilt-ridden “sorry about racism” texts.
Not every black person you meet is an expert on race. They’re just an expert on their experience, which is why doing the work is necessary to fully comprehend how nuanced black people are.
— Ms. Golding (@GoldingGirl617) June 13, 2020
This is not the time to bombard our friends with questions, ask them to give us reading lists or play devil’s advocate. Individuals are not spokespeople for the entire movement, nor are they our personal tutor or librarian. They might be our friends but they don’t owe us a seminar. Even if an eternally patient friend is willing to open up and “teach,” it is best to search out already published resources before asking loved ones to pry out deeply personal and painful experiences or create action items. It’s important to listen, but it also important that we don’t force black people to speak. We must respect their time and limited energy, especially if they are being pulled in different directions by several other similarly well-meaning friends.
4. Avoid Tokenizing or Fetishizing Others
This is an extremely stressful moment, but it is critical that we do not take ownership of it. There are egregious injustices around us, and they might feel especially personal to white people who are friends with, married to or parents of people of color.
hey. don’t do this. pic.twitter.com/xIMzUWwbOf
— Scary Bradshaw 🕷👠 (@biancaxunise) June 9, 2020
But this does not necessarily translate into understanding what racism feels like, and our relationships do not preclude us from contributing to the problem ourselves. As much as social media encourages us to believe otherwise, people are not props. Our response to police brutality and violence against protestors should not be to post photos of the little kids we have met during voluntourism missions or make fetishizing witticisms. And this should go without saying, but it is not our place to publicize our loved ones’ experiences with racism without their consent.
5. Challenge the Culture
White privilege is constantly contested. Some people believe it doesn’t exist. Others, who might believe it is real, are still devastated and outraged when they are called out for leveraging it. As taboo as discussions of white privilege may be, the real issue is how little we use it to come to the defense of others. We must put our privilege to work, scrutinizing our homes, classrooms, workplaces and churches to see if they are truly welcoming to everyone or only to us.
Our ability to build a better world is contingent on our willingness to put our own neck on the line. This means talking with angry family members, calling out racist schoolyard bullying, decrying the racist jokes we hear at work and supporting others – even when it angers our congregation. It means accountability, even for people we love.
6. Broaden Your Media Diet
It is difficult to ignore wall-to-wall news coverage of national protests, but it can’t be our only access-point to conversations about racism and police brutality. A meaningful fight against racism is a sustained, informed one — and we need to learn to care even when devastating videos are not splashed across the news. Media is a powerful educator, but it is not all created equally — please don’t watch The Help. Responsible media consumption requires a lot of thought, and even then, reading, watching and listening to the work of black creators is only a starting point. Self-education is a necessary component of sustained change — we cannot challenge the mistakes of the past if we do not even bother to learn about them.
white people think listening to solange and kendrick lamar is doing the work
— tiffany wines (@radioheadass) June 9, 2020
Six small, personal steps will not bring the transformative change we so desperately need, but it is a start. By de-centering ourselves and practicing meaningful allyship, we can ensure that we show up in the future.