If you are a witness to injustice, will you intervene?

Preparing to write this piece, I started with the suggestion that I address current events, such as the wrongful arrest of two men in a Starbucks for the crime of sitting in a Starbucks. Of course, identifying an event for discussion where people of color are treated like garbage in public doesn’t require digging. Here’s an example, here’s another example, and here’s another one. So many of us want to end this violence; so many want to make a difference. What can we do?

That people of color have been treated as second-class citizens, as criminals, and as less than human has been true since Europeans took over the land where the United States exists today. People of color know the truth; they live it every day. White people facing the truth comes in waves. We all know something about the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s. We know about Rosa Parks refusing to move to the back of the bus (not all of us know about Claudette Colvin, now only 78 years old, who took action before Rosa Parks). But even in this age of phones recording video and social media sharing the stories, many people consider each of the stories of violence against people of color as isolated incidents. They aren’t. They are a part of a system of oppression many call “whiteness.”

So, the first step for many of us in changing our system of racism is to recognize it is a system. It isn’t just some bad apples. It isn’t isolated incidents with incident-specific explanations. The mistreatment of people of color—and all people who don’t fit whiteness’ defined default—is, as they say, not a “bug” in the design. It’s a feature. It is part of what makes our systems work. It helps to recognize each of these incidents as parts of a larger system when we consider what we might do to work for change.

We want to believe if we saw Rosa Parks (or Claudette Colvin) being told to move to the back of the bus we would’ve stood up and told the racists to leave her alone. But, moving from being a bystander to someone who intervenes when you are a witness to injustice requires preparation. It requires education and practice.

Understanding and correcting our own implicit biases honestly and deeply is an essential step in being of service if you are a witness to injustice. If at any level of your being you think “they must’ve done something wrong if they are being treated badly” because of how someone presents themselves, you will be less likely to get involved. How do you understand and rid yourself of implicit bias? There are many, many resources available online (some to connect you to offline resources). Here are a few: 4 Things We Can Do to Minimize Implicit Bias; Four Tools for Interrupting Implicit Bias; or, How to Fight Your Own Implicit Biases.

Learn about the “bystander effect.” Know that being in a larger group of people will make it less comfortable to get involved if you are a witness. There are tools online and in your community to learn how to overcome this and other obstacles. Googling “bystander intervention” is a good start. Hollaback! offers webinars and their website has excellent, practical resources.

Talking to my friends from marginalized backgrounds confirms what I’ve learned online: one of the most important steps to actively and visibly take a stand against harassment or mistreatment of others in public settings is to make contact with the person who is the target. Follow their lead. Do they want your involvement? Perhaps your involvement might make things worse for them. But making contact, human to human, can make a difference.

Find opportunities to practice intervening. Again, Google and other search engines are our friends. Local nonprofit organizations certainly offer trainings that can help. It’s been my experience that until we risk saying something stupid and actually say something, we will remain silent—and ineffectual. We can’t let our fear of making mistakes prevent us from trying to affect change in ourselves or the wider world. We will make mistakes. But if you see someone being treated badly, don’t be the person who tries to ignore it. If you do not let the person being mistreated know you are on their side, you will be on the side of the perpetrator.

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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.

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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Looking at Black people like you would any other people

[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]

There’s shyness. There’s social anxiety that trips us up when we encounter people. And then there’s racism, subtle but powerful, that makes us unable to simply look at a Black person without seeming creepy, dismissive or utterly awkward.

I’ve talked to a lot of white peers about this tendency we have. How we’ll be going along being normal and a Black person enters the sphere of our awareness and suddenly we feel awkward and kind of weirdly giddy, like, “oh oh oh here’s an opportunity to be a good white person!” A lot of that probably comes from a sincere desire to be good—but often it’s also overcompensation for our race-based presumptions—but even with good intent, all it does is make the interaction awkward and uncomfortable for everyone involved.

I’ve known I do this for decades. I’ve known that part of it was because I simply didn’t have a lot of experience being around Black people. On the other hand, I don’t have a lot of experience being around people who speak French, people with freckles, or people with spiked fluorescent hair, and none of those situations turn me into a gibbering fool. What was going on?

I looked at my past. Almost every area of my life has been almost entirely made up of white people. My high school had some Black students, but as far as I know, they were all “bussed in” from Hartford and, therefore (I thought), seemed so foreign. I began looking back at that. Why didn’t I know any of those students well?

I remember walking through the hallways and being aware there was a big group of Black students, maybe some of them were in a circle? There was a lot of loudness and laughter. There was maybe sometimes even dancing? Is that possible? (Yes, it’s possible.) My memory of it was so vague because, as I’ve discovered, my whole life was fed by the need to try to not notice race. I needed to not see that someone was Black because…why? Why did I need to not see it?

I needed to not see Black people because I was afraid. I was afraid I’d find out that I thought “they all look alike” and, ultimately I found out I was afraid I’d find out I thought they were less than human. That’s the truth.

As it turns out I did think that Black people weren’t the same as white people. I thought Black people were different in ways that made them less sophisticated, less intelligent, and less worthy of respect. There was a loudness and a physical expressiveness, in the periphery of my life that I didn’t understand and was too scared to look into.

So, I mostly looked away when Black people were near me. I knew I’d feel uncomfortable, though I didn’t know why, so I avoided that discomfort.

It was much later in life that I would start to feel bad enough about these thoughts to not simply ignore them or try to stuff them down and instead to ask hard questions of myself, as I think almost all white people need to do. Did I really think they were (all!) not as intelligent as white people? Did I think Black people were less than human? Did I really believe their actions and the things they liked were so different from my own?

There are many studies showing that implicit bias http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-40124781 affects people when it comes to racism. It’s been my experience that the implicit bias comes from an underlying belief that Black people aren’t as human as white people. This leads us to spend loads and loads of cognitive energy avoiding discomfort, avoiding situations where we might have to notice these disgusting beliefs.

But it’s possible to shed those beliefs and even not just look Black people or other people of color in the eye like anyone else—and to speak coherently around them without babbling—but also to move past the inability to talk about racism itself. I’ve made noticeable progress on that, many other white people have done the same, and almost all of us need to do more (and most still need to begin the process).

One of things I did to start normalizing blackness (rather than thinking only whiteness was the baseline norm) was to start looking at Black people. Not staring at them or anything like that but actually seeing them as individual humans. When I first started doing it, I felt many uncomfortable feelings, especially because I’d never done it before. Most recently, starting a couple years ago, I searched the tag #BlackOutDay tag on Twitter (More about Blackout Day here) and then other hashtags like #blackexcellence and #blackmensmiling and more. I didn’t have to feel awkward or nervous, because all of the photos were people who wanted to share their faces and their blackness. I felt a little uncomfortable at times, wondering if I was “using” them almost like they were an exhibit in a museum, but that was only at the start, in part because doing that was only meant as a start to stop seeing blackness as exotic or alien. To see Black people in all their humanity and difference.

The end result for me over the years—and I hope for you as well if you are having difficulty just looking at Black people like you would a white person, much less interacting with them on some level, if only to say “good morning”—is that I am so much better at being around Black people without feeling a need to do something that will prove I’m a “good white person.” Walking through the grocery store, I’m able to do the quick-face-scan I’d do with anyone—most of us avert our eyes, of course, with most strangers, but with Black people there was a sort of ‘double aversion” that I’ve mostly shed now.  that’s gone away for me, for the most part. I can’t say that I’m totally free of the awkward meeting of eyes and tight-lipped smile followed by looking away quickly, but it’s less a problem now.

More a connection of two humans, however fleeting, and less a thought about being two separate beings with nothing in common and relegated to segregated worlds.

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.

Photo by Yamon Figurs on Unsplash