Actions I take (as a white woman) to help dismantle white supremacy

[An evergreen reminder: I am a white woman writing about racism so I might share with other white people what I learn—mostly what I learn from people of color—so we can all work toward societal transformation, liberation.]

“What actions do we take to help dismantle white supremacy?” I asked my nearly-10-year-old to help me brainstorm for this post. Of course, I already know a lot of the things I do on a daily basis, but I’d say 90 percent of the racial justice work I do is mostly internal or bit by bit with other individual white people. I know that internal and individual work is an essential part of the process of recreating our systems, but I want to share in this post actual actions I take as a white woman in this work.

I suggested to my daughter that our listening (and re-listening) to and discussing the “Seeing White” podcast series by Scene On Radio was an action we are taking. She disagreed because, she said, “That’s not action, that’s just education and learning.” She has a point. I want to get beyond the stuff I’ve talked about before in this space; I’ve already talked about self-education, reading and learning from people of color, and (as the kids say today) “diving deeper“ into my own inner world’s messy complicity in white supremacy to shed the garbage and be in the world differently.

One more thing I want to address before I share some of the actions I take is how uncomfortable it makes me to tell you about it. The magnitude of racial injustice in the United States is so vast, whatever I do will not be “enough” if I look at it through a white supremacist lens. Meaning, the perfectionism and the discomfort I feel is a part of what keeps be from sharing. I also don’t want to seem like a “show off.” I return to this document describing “white supremacy culture” very frequently when I’m feeling blocked. I see how white supremacy is keeping me quiet, I assess the context (have I been invited to share?), and I move through the fears.

What actions do I take to help dismantle white supremacy? Some of what I do is:

  • set aside several (usually five to 10) hours each month to do pro-bono grant winning or other consulting services for people of color who are engaged in systemic change work;
  • risk being seen as the “Debbie Downer” just about everywhere I go. For example, when I catch us white people falling into some of our patterns—such as believing we’re the “good ones” so it’s okay to politely coerce people of color to join our activities before we’re ready or safe for them—I find the courage to say something and help our white people groups take steps back and look at ourselves;
  • share resources with my daughters’ teachers and offer to help. I am so grateful that both of my daughters’ schools are doing great work in racial justice, but part of dismantling white supremacy is not being alone in the work, so sharing resources and offering help is a part of that;
  • attend events and participate in workshops geared toward helping us white people do better, such as Racial Justice and the Beloved Community (New England Yearly Meeting [Quakers]), or Tell Me the Truth: Exploring the Heart of Cross-Racial Conversations with our own Shay Stewart-Bouley and Debby Irving (author of Waking Up White);
  • hold a bi-monthly “whiteness class” with my daughters where we explore what it means to be white. If whiteness means oppression and greed and self-centeredness—and history shows that it does—how can we be white and good? (It’s possible, but it doesn’t happen without effort). We listen to podcasts or watch movies and discuss, we set our own “homework” assignments and check in with each other about what we’re working on, and, most of all, we practice talking about racism and whiteness. We also notice how easy it is to let our good intentions slide because racial justice work can seem like it’s not “life or death.” We keep making the time for it.

There. I’ve done it. I’ve shared with you some of the actions I take on a very regular basis to help dismantle white supremacy. I hope these examples can be helpful for you white readers. I’d also recommend looking at this list or this program/workbook for other ideas that might work in your own life.


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After the turning point, Part 1

Losing a friend because I was steeped in white supremacy (and didn’t even see it) was the beginning of my turning point in racial justice work; she showed me that my “writing for white people” in a newspaper, however good my intentions were, had the impact of harming people of color. Without realizing it, I erased them entirely from my consideration, as if they didn’t matter. It was this new perspective, that I was much more racist than I realized, that was transformative.

So, what did I do next?

Before I answer that question, I need to be clear: I do not think I have somehow passed into “the good ones” group in terms of racial justice. I want it understood that I’m talking about my own personal journey. I also do my best to share in community with others who recognize the value of inner racial justice work for us white people. The fear of seeming like a “know-it-all” has kept me quiet in many ways. So, I’m going to share with you what I did after that pivotal moment with the caveat that I think what I’m doing is the bare minimum of what it means to be a decent human being. I’ll write here about the time immediately following our conversation, and I’ll write later about the more recent past, present, and future actions.

One reason I spoke with my former friend is because I was expanding my spiritual life. In my spiritual practice, built in great part on a twelve-step program of recovery from substance use disorders, I examine my past and identify where I have harmed other people. I approach those people, asking if they would be willing to talk with me about my making amends. The conversation I referred to in my last post was related to the growth of my spiritual life. At that time, I was doing my best to flow in life, rather than trying to force change; doing those things I knew were under my control, and accepting those things (most things) that weren’t.

Something happened in that conversation. It felt like blinders had been ripped away from my eyes. For decades, I had been involved in some way or another in social justice work, including anti-racism work. In that conversation it hit me that I lived inside whiteness (see “Key Features of Whiteness here: http://www.aclrc.com/whiteness). I began some very uncomfortable self-searching. I’m not exaggerating when I say I wasn’t sure who I was. If I could be this wrong about myself, where else was I also unaware or wrong?

I’ve mentioned Rev. angel Kyodo williams here before, and I will be forever grateful to the synchronicity that introduced me to her work at just this time. Because of her words I could take what I had learned from spiritual leaders like Thích Nhất Hạnh and practice examining my whiteness with those tools. I was able to hold concepts I felt were deeply in conflict—that I believed with all my heart in racial justice, and that I was also moving in the world causing harm to people of color—in my awareness at the same time. I connected spiritually in a way that freed me from the fear that had been blocking me.

For all of the research I had done about the life experiences of Black and brown bodied people, for all of my understandings of how systems in our country were set up to keep them down, it was terrifying to see that I wasn’t really comfortable with what might be required of me. If I really want to dismantle white supremacy, what might I have to do? How might I have to change? What might I have to give up?

In the last three years, I have incorporated my inner learnings and some answers to these questions into an ongoing spiritual practice that involves actions in the private and public spheres. I find the more I practice, the more effective I am. However, one of the biggest lessons in this is that I must shed the idea of getting “good” and “not racist” anytime soon. I can’t. It’s been a lifetime and generations of living in whiteness. I can’t unlearn it quickly. In my next post, I will write about the day-to-day and longer term actions I take to unlearn whiteness and work toward racial justice.


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My racism turning point

It required a lot of emotional pain for me to begin understand how, as Rev. angel Kyodo williams says, “love and justice are not two. without inner change, there can be no outer change; without collective change, no change matters.”

For a few decades, I haven’t been entirely clueless about racism. From the 1990s to the 2010s, I began to understand that I couldn’t help but be racist because of our country’s historical foundation of patriarchal unchecked capitalism built on a system of discrimination based on a social construction of race, e.g. white supremacy. I think I was a little proud of the fact that I’d figured out that that I wasn’t a bad person; that as a white person I couldn’t help being racist. I liked my willingness to be bold, to say things we “weren’t supposed to say,” as white people. Of course, admitting my racism as a white person in a white supremacist society didn’t really carry many risks. Some white people closed their emotional/social doors, but for the most part, people thought I was “brave” for speaking out. There were more benefits than costs for me and I went along like that for many years.

In my whole 49-year-old life, I’ve had two close friends who are people of color. I don’t write about this much because intimate cross-racial friendships are not simple, and I feel deeply protective of these bonds. However, sharing about my process of trying to face my addiction to white supremacy is part of what I do in this space, so, with the permission of the person involved, I’m going to tell you just a bit.

About 10 years ago, my racism—my whiteness, the way I moved in the world—cost me one of the best friendships I’d ever had. As I said, I had been speaking out about racism for years and, as far as I knew, that boldness was mostly doing more good than harm. I had been writing an opinion column in the Bangor Daily News since 2012. In July of 2013, when I decided to use Trayvon Martin’s murder to point out to white people like me that we need to face our own racism, my column was harsh.

In the column, I start out by revealing some overtly racist thoughts I had worked to admit to myself I’d had in passing in my lifetime. I had recently recognized that trying to quiet racist thoughts (that I didn’t even know I was having!) was blocking me from being relaxed or normal around Black people; an idea I’ve shared in this space. I was referencing what Shankar Vedantam’s calls the “‘hidden brain’…shorthand for a host of brain functions, emotional responses, and cognitive processes that happen outside our conscious awareness but have a decisive effect on how we behave.” I knew the first lines of my column would be shocking, and I used those words intentionally. I wanted to draw in readers in the same way people “rubberneck” as they pass a car wreck on the highway. This was a mistake.

Before the column was published, I thought about letting my one friend who was Black (I hadn’t yet met my other friend who is a person of color) know about it. It was going to be startling, I knew. But, I reasoned with myself, with the exception of the first extreme couple lines, she and I had discussed and mostly agreed about the rest of the content. It wouldn’t be too big of a deal, I thought.

It was a big deal.

I broke our friendship. I hurt my friend deeply. It was one of the most painful losses I’ve ever endured, and there was nothing I could do about the hurt I had caused. I thought I understood why she was so upset. I thought it was because what I said was disgusting and racist and that she’d been blindsided that I could have such ugly thoughts. And, to be sure, that was part of it. But I didn’t come close to a full understanding of the harm I had done until that ex-friend was gracious enough to talk with me about it a few years later.

What I missed after making that terrible mistake in 2013 was how much my view of the world centered on whiteness. I reasoned that most of the readers of the paper as white—“Maine is a white state” was a phrase I still said in those days—dismissing the possibility that any readers would be Black or brown. The truth is, beyond a twinge wondering if my friend might be “startled,” I never seriously considered what impact my words might have on Black readers. I thought of myself as writing “to white people.” But I only thought about how white people might respond to my column; how Black or brown people might feel didn’t cross my radar in any significant way. What a selfish and self-centered asshole I was.

The loss of this friendship, and her generosity in taking the time to share with me just how I had harmed her, helped me start moving forward again in my path toward liberation. Over decades, I had tried to be a better white person and tried to work toward racial justice, but I hadn’t recognized the spiritual sickness my addiction to white supremacy was causing in my heart. The cognitive load required to stay in denial about racism, both systemic and personal, kept me from being fully human. I hurt someone I loved, and quite possibly I hurt other people, too. I was doing harm where I wanted to help because I was so deeply in the world of whiteness, I couldn’t see any other way.

Every single day, I address my addiction to white supremacy just as faithfully as I address my substance use disorders. The spiritual solutions I use for my alcoholism help in my addiction to white supremacy and both paths of recovery require regular actions to stay spiritually fit. I know that complacency will lead to relapse which will lead to pain for myself and people I love. My recovery depends on my connection with powers greater than myself, including connections with other people. Recovery is a path of progress, not perfection, and I hope my experience might benefit others.


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.

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