Anti-racism work is not charity work

If 2020 was the year of the great racial awakening, then 2022 was the year of the great racial unraveling and a return to the racial status quo. It was the year where even Democrats stoked the flames that calls for defunding the police were leading to increased crime rates (that’s not how it works, by the way) and Joe Biden’s 2023 budget called for an increase in funding for policing.

Many of the companies that in 2020 promised a greater commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives have quietly shelved those plans. Many of those who leapt at the seeming excess of DEI positions back in 2020 have come to the painful realization that they are powerless to create real change. That’s because in most cases, the DEI officer is really no more powerful than middle management and is often respected less than the average corporate middle manager. 

Employees of color are still wearing their masks to survive and hold onto their jobs in these uncertain economic times, while still suffering the indignities of existing in the state of duality that comes with being a person of color. 

I just mentioned masks, and I meant the metaphorical ones, but while we’re on that subject, Americans eager for a return to the pre-COVID normal—even so-called white anti-racists—fail to grasp that COVID mitigation efforts are a racial and economic justice issue. Those who are disproportionately affected by COVID are those earning the least and people of color. Access to resources greatly impacts how one weathers a bout of COVID, particularly access to enough paid time off to recover or care for sick loved ones or the ability to work from home. 

In short, while racism is very much a structural and systemic issue, what many fail to comprehend and embrace is that structures and systems are made of individual people. If those individual people fail to adapt to an anti-racism mindset, nothing ever changes. 

I am confident in saying that while a few white folks in charge may have experienced a racial awakening, the majority have not. 

While the bubble of anti-racism social media might make you believe we’ve made great progress, that’s not the case. In fact, social media anti-racism work has increasingly become a performative tool that is a distraction—in my humble opinion. In some ways, it is no different than the proliferation of anti-racism books that came before. It is a starting place on the journey; it is not the totality of the work. It is the initial awareness that should light the flame of change but it is not the actual change. 

Rarely does one move to an anti-racism mindset that permeates every area of their lives and affects their actions in isolation. Anti-racism work is relational and without intentional anti-racist relationships that require accountability, what exactly are we doing? 

Honestly, I think for many white people, there are times when their anti-racism work is nothing more than higher end charity work. It’s why in 2022, many of us in anti-racism spaces have seen a drop off in critical support just as we are on the brink of being able to begin creating real and sustained change. Whiteness is impatient and if change doesn’t come on the schedule of whiteness, it is deemed ineffective and support is pulled. Which completely disregards the relational building piece that is vital to creating change. 

Earlier today, I received a notification that a patron was discontinuing their monthly support. Most certainly, that is not unusual given the larger economic climate. What was unusual was that the person, in choosing to complete the exit survey (actually this is useful for me), stated that they were ending their patronage because they felt that they had “supported” my work long enough and it was time to give it to someone else. 

Honestly, that is their prerogative and while I hate to lose a patron, I found it more revealing of a certain mindset of whiteness. A mindset that says, “I am done, it is time to move on.” It is a mindset that is seen often in certain segments of the non-profit sector, especially for those of us in social justice spaces—who often are more heavily reliant on individual donors rather than corporations and foundations.

It is a mindset that keeps progressive efforts stagnant because growth is reliant on the kindness and whims of strangers and the moment. It is a mindset that speaks of equity and accessibility but rarely has the patience to see it through to fruition. It is the same mindset that determines if POC are worthy enough of support. By the way, this is not an attack on an individual, just the observations of someone with over 25 years of primarily grassroots non-profit experience along with over a decade-plus of anti-racism work experience. 

The only way to break that mindset of whiteness is to go deeper and create relationships with folks who are in the struggle with you. People who will hold you accountable. Whether it’s online, Zoom or local in person groups, you cannot do this work and be committed and stay in isolation. Otherwise, whiteness will continue to jam you up. 

My charge to you in 2023 is to build an anti-racist community, if you don’t already have one. Start with one person if you have to. Build from there. If you do have a community, go deeper and expand it. Yes, you will have to expend energy and resources but ultimately, we are all part of this system that we want to change. In other words, we are the change. Are you ready to accept that charge? 

I hope so. I would like to see the younger generations inherit real progress and not just surface treatment, empty promises, and showmanship around racial progress.

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Image by James Eades via Unsplash