White supremacy wants us to be alone

[Just as a reminder that I’m a white person writing mostly to white people about working through and dismantling our racism toward people of color, particularly Black people, see my first BGIM post here for some background – Heather Denkmire]

“White supremacy wants to keep us apart,” said my white friend when I told her I was grateful to find another white person to talk to about racism on a deep and systems/structural level.

What is white supremacy? This is how I define it, based on reading about it a lot: White supremacy is patriarchy combined with unchecked capitalism that requires cheap or free labor, using the social construct of race.

When my friend said “white supremacy wants to keep us apart,” she was reminding me that if we white people begin the process of shedding our denial—somehow most of us didn’t realize things were so bad for people of color in our country until Ferguson happened and/or Trump arrived—and do our own individual work on our personal biases, we will begin to see that racism isn’t about personal discomforts, it’s about a system of oppression designed to keep some down and out so others can stay on top. And, for me, once I saw that the institutions of our country depend on my denial—my passive participation in the system—I couldn’t unring the bell.

The bell rang (I am a part of a racist system and I want to change the system) but I still continued on as our white supremacist structures want me to. I did what I could as an individual. By myself. I learned a lot, and I talked to a lot of people, but I was doing it as a personal journey, not as a part of a larger movement.

I’m committed to sharing the need for the personal journey for white people with white people. I do think facing our own ugliness as I described in my last piece here is a part of that process. But I’m even more convinced that we need to do even the individual work together.

The Society of Friends (“the Quakers”) has an imperfect but sometimes awe-inspiring history of social justice work, but one of the biggest things that’s come out of my involvement with them that is near and dear to my heart is the idea that while we as individual white people definitely have problems when it comes to racism, prejudice, implicit bias, white privilege, etc., most of that comes from our being a part of this wider system that’s set up on purpose so we will be that way. So, once we recognize we are a part of a system that wants us to keep people of color as “others,” no matter what we wish were true, the lies begin revealing themselves at every turn. We are not actually alone in our imperfections or in our desire to actively participate in meaningful change.

But what is meaningful change? What comes to mind first for most white people is what we can do as individuals. And that is important. Meaningful change means keeping anti-racism work at the forefront in all areas of your life. Be willing to be the “difficult” person who is “always bringing up racism” in your children’s classrooms, your workplace, your volunteer work, your spiritual communities. Keep your eyes open and say something if you notice that everyone involved in any activity seems to be white. Read and learn and practice knowing about implicit biases and catch yourself, your friends, your family, when they happen.

Join together with other white people who are doing individual work on racism so you have spaces to process the complicated emotions we feel as we learn about ourselves and our complicity in white supremacy. (Please note: if you are in a group of people that includes people of color, never talk about your feelings about racism unless the goal of the gathering is explicitly stated as a place and time to process your white feelings. We have a lot of feelings and they are valid and important, but we should never blindside people of color, asking them to do the emotional work of supporting us as we process them.)

And then, while you are doing this individual work, bring your knowledge of white supremacy to all of your activist work. All social and environmental justice is anti-racism work if it is done well. There’s public policy and systems level changes you may already care deeply about; do anti-racism work in those circles. Some issues that come to mind into which you could pour your anti-racism awareness: universal healthcare, a livable minimum wage, paid family leave, legally required flex time, renewable energy, clean water, free education, housing for homeless people, buyback programs for guns, legalizing drugs, legalizing sex work, supporting unions, electing district attorneys who want to end mass incarceration.

Ending white supremacy means changing our greed-driving patriarchal capitalist economy to a system based on caring. TheLeap.org has an excellent manifesto outlining possibilities; it is based in Canada, but it’s a great example of offering solutions that can be turned into actions.

Other ideas for systemic change we white people could support that might seem pie in the sky but that, with good work, could become reality: baby bonds; guaranteed (government) employment; reparations for slavery; guaranteed minimum income.

The point is that we white people need to talk to each other about racism. We need to work together to shed some of the garbage that bogs us down personally, as individuals. And, most essential, we need to move as quickly as possible to working together in collective actions with other white people and people of color on the causes that will ultimately change our systems.


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Living in a bubble: The privilege to disconnect

I recently came across an article in The New York Times about a white man, Erik Hagerman, who lives on a farm in Southeastern, Ohio. He decided that, after Nov. 8, 2016, he would “avoid learning anything that happened to America.” Hagerman—“The Man who Knew too Little”—has staved off of social media, refuses to discuss or look at politics, and has asked his friends and family to not engage him on the topic: he calls this The Blockade. He’s even gone so far as to alert the coffee shop he frequents of his blockade. The article is an utterly interesting and engrossing read into the life of a privileged white man.

This works for Hagerman for a few reasons—two of the biggest ones being that he lives on a farm in rural Ohio and is very well-off financially (he was a “corporate executive at Nike”). The Times also reports that he has a financial advisor who takes care of his investments—when the financier sends Hagerman updates, he never even looks at them. In the Times article, Hagerman says, “I’m emotionally healthier than I’ve ever felt. Why do we bother tracking faraway political developments and distant campaign speeches? What good comes of it? Why do we read all these tweets anyway?”

Even as I sit here to attempt to find the words to process Hagerman’s situation, I am at a loss. I am struck by his ignorance. So, Hagerman: You’d been following the news for decades and when a racist, sexist, xenophobic man white man was elected president, you felt that the only thing you could do was to ignore it? Would you be able to do this if you were Muslim? Or what about a recipient of DACA? A Black man? The answer, of course, is no. POC, womxn, LGBTQ+, and differently-abled peeps can’t ignore the reality of life under Trump; it is very much life or death for so many. Cruel policies around immigration could—and have—meant deportation for some. The rescinding of protective laws for transgender people are setting back years of work, protest, and policy reform. Hagerman is only able to ignore this because he is a rich, white man.

I’m reminded of a time, right after Trump won the election, when I was discussing the state of national affairs with a white man. I was saddened that the country had elected this horrid person and the dude I was talking with simply said, “This won’t change anything. I’m not sure why everyone is upset by this.” Sure, nothing might change for him or Hagerman. But for millions of others, lives have been and will be upended.

What about Jorge Garcia, a 39-year-old father, husband, and landscaper from Michigan who was brought to the United States when he was 9 years old, had paid his taxes for years, and has been fighting for citizenship ever since? Things didn’t go unchanged for him. Instead, Garcia was led from Detroit back to Mexico, having been recently deported on Jan. 15—on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Garcia couldn’t just live peacefully and ignorantly and forget everything Trump has been saying and doing to Mexican-Americans. Opting out of the national conversation is just not an option for many people.

Hagerman knows nothing of Heather Hyer, even though his sister Bonnie works and lives in Charlottesville, Va. She says, “He has the privilege of constructing a world in which very little of what he doesn’t have to deal with gets through. …We all would like to construct our dream worlds. Erik is just more able to do it than others.”

I am here writing this to both understand what Hagerman is doing as well as how he is able to do it. Let’s start with the basics. Hagerman is:

  • a cis, white man
  • financially secure
  • owns his own land
  • has demanded that friends, family, and the people in surrounding towns work with him to obey his wishes

Rich white man syndrome strikes once again: his whiteness and wealth allow him to be so controlling and insulated from the world. All of the above factors allow Hagerman to access the benefits of his privilege. The article goes on to speak of a friend of his, an immigrant who just recently became an American citizen. Hagerman has shut her down about speaking about anything surrounding the administration and immigration. Just like the current administration in silencing those around us, this man is doing exactly the same.

OK, OK everyone. I might be digging into this dude a little hard. There is also the aspect of mental health that I haven’t brought up. He could be doing this because he wants to take part in “self-care,” healing his mind so he can help others. I mean once you get to the end of the article, Hagerman talks about a haven he’s making that he calls The Lake. It’s a piece of old coal mining land he owns, and he plans to use it as a rehab facility for others to use as a media escape. This could be an admirable way to use his resources and time to fight the political climate, but excusing yourself from injustice just isn’t an option. Recharging yourself and your mental health and needing to show yourself some love so you can clearly take on the daily battles in your life is utterly important. However removing yourself from the conversation completely is unwarranted. When even one of us—as part of this human race—is hurting, we all are. We need to come together to fight for each other and ourselves.

What this really all boils down to is privilege. Everyone should be able to access that pinnacle of privilege that Erik Hagerman has accessed as a white man: Respect.


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The underbelly of activism…what we don’t talk about

An activist is someone who works for social or political change. It’s a label that we are quick to bestow upon those who are passionate for change and we applaud those who live the activist lifestyle. We admire their courage, their bravery, their moxie and yet too many times aside from verbal accolades, we rarely think about the lonely existence of the activist or the emotional, physical, and even economic toll of activism on those who work for change.

Thus—while I am in awe of the Parkland shooting survivors and all the young people who have activated against gun violence in this country—I am also deeply worried too.

As the young people from Parkland have already discovered, there are people in this world who are vile—people who have no compunctions about mocking survivors of violence, insulting them, and even issuing death threats. Here in Maine, Leslie Gibbon, a now-former Republican candidate for the Maine House, went online and verbally attacked Emma Gonzalez, a courageous and outspoken survivor of the Parkland shooting. The one upside is that Gibbon had until that point been running in an uncontested race and decided to abandon the race after his comment created a media firestorm—and he suddenly found himself in a contested race as someone else was so offended by his comments as to be moved to run against him.

This past weekend’s March For Our Lives was a beautiful youth-led event across the nation. It was uplifting and inspiring to see our youth exhibiting the type of moral conviction and courage that is increasingly lacking within our adult population. One young lady in particular caught my attention: a dynamic and passionate Black 11-year-old by the name of Naomi Wadler who spoke in our nation’s capital on the specific gun violence that disproportionately affects Black women and girls and who also reminded us all to #SayHerName. Her words brought tears to my eyes and then a quiet rage that an 11-year-old Black girl must lose her childhood so early because of society’s failure to protect our youth and for society’s refusal to see the humanity of Black women and girls.

Given the current climate and the cowardice that runs rampant, I found myself wondering, who is protecting this child and are her parents ready for the attention that no doubt will be paid to this precious and precocious child?

My own daughter will be 13 soon and given my own work, I have intentionally worked to protect her innocence and joy in the world. Our world steals the joy away from our young far too early and it is stolen away from children of color even sooner. We rarely discuss my work in our home. She is aware of it, but it is not a central talking point. My daughter is always broadly aware of what’s happening in the world—but the details? I rarely have those conversations because once she fully starts to grasp how society sees her, something will be lost that can never be returned. Having an adult child and looking back on how I had to steal his childhood away in order to keep him safe as a Black male, I am not anxious to have to take that action though, at almost 13, the window of unbridled childlike joy and amazement is quickly closing.

In recent years, as social media has become woven into the fabric of our daily lives, we are able to look into the lives of those on the front lines and see the high moments and the tense moments. But rarely do we see the real and lonely moments. Rarely do we see those who live on the front lines scraping to make ends meet; the post traumatic stress that is often part of being on the frontlines in the streets. The death threats that become so normal that you easily forget that death threats are not everyone’s norm.

Several of my recent speaking engagements have required private security to ensure my safety. Something shifts in you when a walk to the bathroom requires hired professionals to keep you safe.

This piece really gives one pause about what it means to be an activist. Untimely death, stress, fractured community, and the list goes on. Too often as activists we give so much of ourselves that there is little left over and there is a gulf between the reality of living as an activist and what we often envision. Despite our commitment to change and our continual drive, what’s left for ourselves can be dysfunctional and downright unpleasant.

Hence why the elevation of young people and particularly Black and brown girls and young women who must be wise beyond their years does not sit well with me. Historically when we look at the movements in this country, it is the women who are often forgotten and left to pick up the pieces. We love to venerate our dead changemakers but then revise history so that we leave out the struggles they faced when alive. Social change should not demand our physical bodies and souls.

If you were heartened this past weekend at the sight of young people leading the charge, perhaps you need to ask yourself how you can support these activists. How can you ensure not just their physical safety but their emotional and mental well being too? That requires intentionality and action. While not everyone is not meant to be on the front lines, we have a responsibility to provide whatever resources we can to the larger movement beyond empty words. Back up your words with actions.

I have been involved in movement work for over 25 years now in one form or another, so my words come from a place of lived experience. I am someone who is intimately aware of the high price of social change, I live it every day. Even now, I am still affected when hateful words are directed at me as a result of my work. If you are involved in movement work, how can you ensure your own well being while working for larger change?

We are living in a moment that requires the courage and conviction of the many if we are to push back against the few who wish to hold us all hostage for their own selfish purposes. We can longer wait on someone else; we must become the change that we wish to see. These kids are brave so let’s show them that we too are brave. Let their youthful vigor and poise propel us to the next level.


If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

Comments will close on this post in 60-90 days; earlier if there are spam attacks or other nonsense.

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