Calling All White People, Part 46: You already know the answer

Calling All White People, Part 46

TODAY’S EPISODE: Stop asking other people (especially POC) what you should do   

[To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]

BGIM recently posed a question online—I think it was on Facebook but it really doesn’t matter—asking people what “Black Lives Matter” means to them beyond just putting up signs or sharing memes. To ask them what they are doing to actually show that Black lives really do matter and to support those lives.

Predictably, it didn’t take long for someone to ask, “What would you suggest that I do?”

BGIM noted that it seemed she shouldn’t have to offer suggestions—that people should have some sense of what Black lives mattering mean to them and what they are willing to do. And yet the ask was re-asked: But as an anti-racism expert, what do you think I should do?

Now, this may seem perfectly fine—there’s an professional in a field there, and you ask them their opinion. But it isn’t fine, because it’s actually deflection. It’s what we white people so often do: Express that we care about something, do little or nothing about it…and then when called on our horsecrap say, “Well, what can we possibly do to move the needle?”

Here’s why asking BGIM what to do was wrong, and why it’s just as wrong to ask other Black people or, depending on the situation, other people or color or other marginalized people, what you should do. (And there are better questions to ask—a better way to ask—but we’ll leave that for the end).

The reason is that most of us know what we should do. We white people are not ignorant of what to do. We may not know the best things. We may not know all the things. But we do know what we can do. And to ask someone else what we can do—or should do—is to pretend to be helpless because often what we really want to do is nothing but offer platitudes from our sofas and easy chairs.

Let me give you an example that isn’t about racism or other forms of bigotry: The environment.

Instead of a Black Lives Matter sign in your yard, you have bumper stickers on your car that say things like “Save the Whales” or “We Don’t Have a Backup Planet.” And someone asks you what protecting the environment means to you—and what you are doing beyond rocking some bumper stickers.

Can you really tell me that in that moment you couldn’t express even an awkward statement of what the environment and its preservation mean to you? Are you really telling me that you couldn’t mention anything you’ve done, however small, to protect the environment? Are you telling me you couldn’t think of other things that maybe you could (or should) do to be even more environmentally conscious?

If you can answer yes to any of those three questions, chances are you’re a damn liar and just don’t want to accept that BGIM’s pushback on the social media response to her question was entirely appropriate and that my assessment it’s deflection is largely accurate.

We all know basic environmental things we can do: Drive less, recycle more, buy gently used items instead of new ones, don’t purchase and consume so many non-biodegradable products.

Those are just the easy ones—the tip of the iceberg. People have been talking about them for years, and finding more things you could do if you were so inclined is as easy as a Google search. Or, you know, actually listening to the people talking about what to do when they talk about fighting racism. Like challenging fellow white people when they are being racist, or supporting anti-racism organizations, or supporting Black people’s work with money, etc.

Black people and Indigenous people and other people of color have been talking about racism for a long time. Telling us what we shouldn’t be doing and suggesting what we should. Black people in particular. The information is out there. If you don’t know what to do, you are ignoring them and refusing to put any work into looking up all the information they’ve already put out there. And more likely you know what to do but aren’t doing it, and you’re asking the nearest Black person (especially if they’re an expert) to tell you what to do so that you can either:

  • Make it seem like you care more, instead of just answering the question or silently going about doing what you should be doing to fight racism
  • Declare how the thing(s) they’ve suggested are beyond your ability, so that you can do nothing while telling yourself you did all you could do

We can’t all be the ones who put our bodies between police and Black people at protests. We can’t all be the ones with endlessly deep pockets to support numerous Black causes, Black artists, Black businesses. We can’t all be the ones to boldly confront—or sometimes punch out—racists in public. But some of us need to be—more of us need to be—and often we simply choose not to be. As for the rest who really can’t do those things, there are other things within your ability other than just posting a Black Lives Matter sign.

And you know it. So stop pretending you don’t.

Now, for future reference, the better kinds of questions to ask BGIM or someone else on this topic:

  • Hey, I’m doing [this thing or that other thing] but do you have any thoughts on how I can push that to the next level?
  • I’m doing [whatever] but wondering if this way of doing it is wrong and/or if the entire activity is a misuse of my time and energy—what do you think?
  • Well, I’m looking to support [XYZ kinds of activities] but I don’t want to choose unwisely. Do you have suggestions about the most reputable or effective ones to give to?

I mean, I’m sure there are other valid questions, too, but those are the biggies. Point is: Do something other than just put up a sign. And when you’re asked to do more, don’t just ask what to do like some passive observer. Don’t act like you’re powerless. Moving the needle anywhere is valuable, even if you don’t move the bigger societal needle in any noticeable way. And the more of use moving the needle in small ways as well as big ones, the quicker we’ll get past the worst of anti-Black racism and others of the ugliest forms of bigotry we have on tap in this country.

(As always, this column is my periodic attempt to mobilize white people for something other than supporting just other melanin-deficient folks and maintaining a status quo of a nation geared toward whiteness as the baseline and the norm. – Average White Guy)

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