Building bridges instead of burning them

Not too long ago, if you had asked me what I would do if someone in my life was overtly racist I might have told you I would cut all ties with them. I might have said that I will not tolerate racism so I will not tolerate people who are racists. What I didn’t realize for a long time was that my “hard line” approach had more to do with my wanting to prove to myself and others that I knew racism was bad than it had to do with ridding the world of racism. Guilt by association was a big fear of mine.

Over the years I have begun to understand that racism’s harms are not just about individual racist acts. Racism’s harms come in the form of policies and systems built on oppression of people of color, especially people who are Black. I want to be a part of communities that are building new systems and policies. To do that, I need to learn how to be “in community” with people with whom I don’t always agree.

Because I have been learning about how deeply my own racism runs, I no longer have an “us” and “them” attitude about racism among those of us who are white. All of us who are white, no matter our personal biases or bigotries, have more freedom than our Black and brown-bodied neighbors. We have better access to housing, education, healthcare, and safety. We are a part of the racist systems. Just because I have dug into my own personal racism and done a lot of work to break free from it doesn’t mean I’m not a part of the group of people who are white.

If a white person that I know personally says or does something overtly racist, in most cases it is my job as a human in relationship with other humans to notice out loud the harmful words or actions, breaking the patterns of silence we white people have held so dear. As I am practicing this out-loud noticing, I’m realizing one of the greatest components of dismantling white supremacy for me is a willingness to build bridges rather than burning them. Staying open to everyone involved, even when I know someone has been hurt.

As a white person trying to undo my own racism and also working for new systems and policies to replace the systems and policies built in support of white supremacy, there are some things I’ve found absolutely essential on this journey. Because I have found other white people leaning on these resources, I know it’s not “just me.” So, I want to share some (not all!) of the helpful tools I use in the work of dismantling white supremacy in and around me:

The most essential tool I have in this work is the continuous expansion of my spiritual life. As with my recovery from alcoholism, my addiction to whiteness requires the help of a power greater than myself. Fear is constantly getting in my way, trying to keep me in apathy or even despair. It’s only through a strong connection with God that I’m able to get clear about what I can and can’t do as my racial identity grows and as I learn how to be in community with others.

Therapy is also helpful, and definitely necessary at times. My therapist understands how grappling with what it means to be white in a world where white people have been and continue to be so inhuman requires coping and growing skills. The skills we practice center on staying embodied through challenging feelings. As I am recognizing how much denial of traumatic realities (denial of racism) has played a role in my life, the need to heal other traumas in my life has increased.

And, finally, communication and support from and with other white people who are growing in their own racial identities. With encouragement from a consultant I hired, I have been building a network of other white people I can call when I inevitably screw up, to process the steps I’m taking to change, or strategize or vent about the frustrations of the work.

One mentor of mine gave me advice that I carry with me like a touchstone every day. My job is to show up with my full self. Fully present, embodied, and open. That in and of itself is radical in a world run by racialized capitalism that wants us to be disconnected, exhausted, and alone.

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Image by Aleksandr Barsukov via Unsplash