Anti-racism work, after existing primarily in the shadows of academia, activist circles and on the internet, has finally gone mainstream. The perfect storm of George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent protests, the losing battle with the coronavirus and the global economic meltdown has finally made people look outside of themselves. In theory, this should be a good thing but my own observations as the executive director of a scrappy little anti-racism organization—as well as the creator of this site—tells me that we need to exercise caution.
As I write this, books such as Ibram Kendi’s How to be an Anti-Racist and Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, along with many other anti-racism books, are enjoying mainstream success. They’re being snatched up and read faster than I can go through a box of dark chocolate truffles.
It feels like every white person who has not succumbed to the cult of Trumpism and embracing their inner white supremacist is now loudly acknowledging their white privilege and their white fragility. Hell, the same NFL that blackballed Colin Kaepernick for taking a knee in response to the extrajudicial killings of Black men now wants to sing the National Black Anthem before games.
No longer will Aunt Jemima grace the bottle of our favorite bottle of pancake syrup and even Uncle Ben is being retired. Suddenly murals telling us that Black Lives Matter are popping up all over the country. And even corporate America is getting in on the act, making it clear that they stand for equity and inclusion, along with Black Lives Matter. Even the most tentative of white people wants us to know that Black people’s lives matter, and every Black person is assumed to be a movement leader, even if they have no analysis on race.
On the surface, it looks like the needle on race is moving—after how many years? Yet in reality this is what performative change looks like.
The recent global protests in the middle of a global pandemic are what happens when you and your ancestors have been oppressed for hundreds of years and can’t take anymore. The response from most white people is what happens when you want to placate those people and you feel mildly bad.
In the United States, racism is internal, interpersonal, institutional and cultural. Thus far, the current response to our racist reality isn’t dismantling any of these and is only making a dent in the first two. At the end of the day, power and privilege will still reside with white people and a very few select Black folks and other people of color—mostly the ones who exchange their souls for access to power and privilege.
The NFL can sing the National Black Anthem all it wants, but aren’t these teams still owned by white folks? You can retire Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben and you can create a new millennium version of the diversity work of the 1990s, but who sits on the boards of these companies? How many non-white folks are heading up Fortune 500 companies or sitting on their boards? Let’s not even discuss the state of the criminal justice system, that would be its own piece, though if we can get behind defunding the police, it would be a noble start.
No, most of the work that is being touted, is a half-ass Band-Aid solution to change. What exactly are white people giving up and how will these changes create material change for Black folks or other people of color? If your school boards are still majority white, along with your school leadership, how exactly will reading How to be an Anti-Racist create change for students of color? Even if you do hire a few more teachers of color, will they be safe and supported in their schools, or will they stuff down daily indignities in order to stay employed?
Reading books on Black folks and other POC is a vital piece of anti-racist learning, but as I have written before: How does that move white people to dismantle white supremacy culture, if they still aren’t clear on the role of whiteness in their own lives aside from their privilege and fragility? Or are we just creating a better-read version of white saviors?
Even the movement’s insistence on following the lead of Black folks and other POC in this moment has become almost rote as it can elevate people to leadership who are often living with deep internalized racial trauma to positions that they aren’t always prepared for. This often creates deep intra-racial strife in communities as local people find themselves dealing with the harm created by newly elevated leaders—some of whom are unqualified or self-interested or disingenuous. Yet, we don’t want to detract from the larger movement, so no one says anything. It’s also why there are well-known grifters in racial justice spaces, but they continue to thrive, often due to well-intentioned but clueless white people who are new to anti-racism work.
While I realize my tone is not upbeat, these are not upbeat times. Black folks and Latinx people are being disproportionately affected by both the coronavirus and the economic downturn. The lack of generational wealth-building that is the norm for many white families means that Black and Latinx people have an even harder time navigating in this economic crisis, which will no doubt impact their future. Even here in Maine, the racial disparity between Black folks and white folks is the highest in the country—Black Mainers are contracting COVID-19 at a rate more than 20 times that of white Mainers. While the world may be a live-action shit show for all, it’s an even shittier show if you aren’t white.
Right now, with America on fire and a racist masquerading as our leader, we need more than book clubs and other token efforts that change little or nothing—no matter how well-intentioned or how good they feel in the moment. We need relational building, political education and resource mobilization. We need material resources and not just a call to Black capitalism, which will still leave many behind. Now more than ever, we need reparations. We need healing for Black folks and access to therapy, so that we can have Black leadership that is healthy and supported. We need Black leadership beyond movement spaces; we need Black leaders who are free to stand fully in their truth and who don’t have to bend to whiteness as the price of their acceptance. We need white people to address their own ancestral trauma that keeps them addicted to whiteness.
Let’s not forget that the mission is to dismantle these systems, not slap bandages on them, and that requires white people who are ready to become well-read, healthy race traitors.
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