Anti-racism work is messy: Observations from the road

The past week has been a whirlwind as I found myself juggling back-to-back speaking engagements in Seattle and then speaking again in Maine. Over the past several years, I have done numerous speaking engagements with my friend and collaborator, author Debby Irving, as well as solo engagements. However, these most recent engagements have had a profound impact on me as I ponder the state of anti-racism work, both as a writer/speaker and as the head of an anti-racism organization.

Too often, we conflate anti-racism, racial equity and racial justice work as being one and the same. In reality, while they are very much related, I don’t believe them to be the same. One can engage in racial equity, implicit bias or racial justice work while still dancing around the core issue of dismantling white supremacy. In fact, as we discussed at a recent board-staff retreat at my organization, equity is rapidly becoming the newest buzzword, much like “diversity” in the early 1990s. Increasingly when I hear people using it, I ask them to explain what they mean. People theoretically want equity, but without the larger framework, they are not committed to the type of systemic change that will require white people to actually give up something. And the fact is that active reallocation of resources is essential to equity.

On the other hand, to be actively anti-racist requires a level of constant intentionality; it’s the personal and the systemic. It encompasses equity, implicit bias and racial justice and for most people, specifically white people, it is the hardest to achieve. It’s a lot easier to discuss our biases and how they affect our decision-making than it is to look at the whole framework of our society and look at how one can be complicit in upholding white supremacy. Anti-racism work demands more of us—it involves that we bring our whole selves to the work. And it also indicts good white people.

As I learned in my recent talks with Debby, even a white person with a solid grounding in anti-racism work can still have an unintentional and thoughtless moment and cause harm to a Black person or other person of color. Because despite our knowledge and our intentions, to be human—regardless of race—is to make mistakes. Nasty, almost potentially friendship-ending mistakes.

That’s exactly what happened as we kicked off our first date in Washington, at the Seattle Equity Summit. When a glass of spilled water nearly ended my friendship with Debby and nearly derailed the summit. After several days of sitting with the events of that engagement, I don’t think a full recap is necessary in this space. But I can share that Debby spilled a cup of water, and she didn’t clean it up because she was caught up in listening to a speaker and then we had to get ready to go on stage for our own presentation. The spilled water soaked a woman’s belongings—a Black woman’s belongings. The Black woman had to clean up Debby’s spilled water and she waited until the question-and-answer portion of our presentation to rightfully call Debby out. As her presentation partner, it was horrifying and upsetting. It was also when the work we do became real as the audience members of color took Debby to task for her privileged and racist behavior. And in the end, I too from the stage—sitting next to her—shared my feelings about her behavior.

It was not comfortable. We were flown 2,000 miles to showcase how cross-racial communications look and to model our work. In the end, two Black women had to clean up after Debby and yet the whole experience has been a powerful learning moment as I realize just how much deeper we all have to go in the work.

To break the cultural norms of whiteness that dictate a certain way of being (nice), and to instead to have a cross-racial conversation with an audience where real emotions and pain were shared, is part of anti-racism work. In choosing to call out Debby’s behavior from the audience, the woman whose things were ruined was powerful and brave. It was also because the calling out was not simply a call-out, but turned the venue into a space where Black people and other POC stood firm in their truths.

That spilled water was about more than water; it was every moment when a Black person was dismissed or unseen by a white person. It’s standing in the line and having a white person insert themselves right in front of you, as if you weren’t even there. It’s the collective hurt of 400 years of being erased by white supremacy.

Dismantling white supremacy will not be a tidy to-do list. In fact, for white people, it is going to require a reckoning as they learn to grieve for their own lost humanity. It is no longer enough to feel bad for non-white people; it’s about turning the lens inward to ask: what was taken from me? It’s realizing that we all carry trauma over what was done to us and owning it. Four hundred years of white subjugation lives in the souls of Black people—50-something years of “freedom” doesn’t even begin to touch the ancestral trauma that is part of being Black in America.

All white allies and accomplices will have missteps and slide back into unchecked whiteness and harm Black people or other POC. Despite your intentions, you are not free until we fully dismantle white supremacy. You can read the books, attend the workshops, support Black folks/POC and f*ck it up beautifully. The question is, are you committed enough to face the pain you create and keep trying to do better? For me, the question is can I continue to extend grace to my white comrades knowing that our collective liberation requires that I stay present in this struggle. For Debby, it was sitting in that moment and facing what she had done without running off the stage or crying. Given that white women’s tears can so often be weaponized, it was powerful to witness, even with my anger.

At my last engagement, in Maine, a young Black woman told me that she thought that my work simply absolved white people and that it even coddled them. I have been sitting with her words, looking for truth and asking for wisdom. While that is not my intention, I also see where it is possible to think that. But sitting here with 46 years of lived experience as a Black woman, I know that walking around with anger is toxic. Anger can be freeing as it propels us to the arena of actively fighting for liberation. But living with anger, day in and day out, takes a toll on the body. It also starts to chop away at our own humanity and for me, at this stage in my life, I use my anger sparingly because the most radical act that I can engage in as a Black woman is to live with joy. To rewrite the narrative and live fully in my body. The joy I seek allows me to lessen anger’s grip and extend compassion towards those I see trapped in a silo where they don’t even know what they don’t know.

I have said many times that racism steals from the well of human potential. It isn’t just denied access and opportunity, it’s in how the pain of racism lives in our souls. I am convinced that the racial death rate disparity is absolutely rooted in the cumulative impact of racism on the body over the decades, as well as the ancestral wounds.

In recent years, we have tried moving the needle on race but we are only touching the surface. This work requires that we bring our full selves, knowing that it will be raggedy. It will hurt—and yet what is the alternative? To let white supremacy continue its reign of terror? Or to bring our many hands to the table and collectively chip away at this beast?


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9 thoughts on “Anti-racism work is messy: Observations from the road”

  1. Would you please explain why you consider Debbie’s act as racist? To my mind, it was simply selfish and unthoughtful, unless you think she would not have done the same if the wet belongings were those of a white woman?

    • I was going to ask the same question. One idea that comes to my mind is the history of black people being forced into roles of domestic servitude where they have to clean up the messes of white people, and that Debby’s carelessness brought back painful memories of that history.

      But if that’s what the issue is, then this post seems to be implying that white people as a whole, or at least those who are in Debby’s position as a white anti-racist educator, actually have the responsibility to be more “on guard” around black people than they would be around white people. To not just treat black people with the same care with which they’d treat other white people, but to actually go out of their way to treat them better and more carefully than they treat other white people. Because I agree, white people act carelessly and thoughtlessly around white people all the time, men act carelessly and thoughtlessly around other men, etc. Sometimes hurtful acts are definitely about race (or gender) and sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes they are intentional and sometimes they aren’t.

      On the other hand, sometimes women and black people may be justified in interpreting something as sexist and or racist even when it truly isn’t intended that way.

    • I am sharing my thoughts as a white woman not to in any way preempt those of a black woman but to hopefully spare her some emotional effort. Anne, it doesn’t matter if she would have done the same to a white woman. Intentions do not matter. Actions matter. And the actions were that black women were again left to clean up the literal detritus of a white woman. I know full well I am just as full of hubris as the next (white) person, so I claim no superiority. I know I WILL make mistakes. The important thing is to own them and work to make it right.

  2. Shay, you are so gracious in the turning of your cheek. Now the water event (who failed to train her in manners ?), and then the matter of the selectively bestowed “honorarium”. Stupid !

  3. Thank you for this story and insights, Shay. I have many thoughts, as a white woman with two great-great-grandfathers in the slave trade and another who owned 100 slaves in Cuba, about my personal responsibility to make reparations. I have no answers. When my mother died, I donated a sizable portion of my inheritance to black causes as my own personal reparations– but how possibly does one pay back for the enormity of the situation we are in now, filled with the poison? My donation was in a way a little ridiculous in its smallness compared to the sinfulness.

  4. Hi Shay,
    Thank you for coming to speak at USM and for bringing to light important issues including the fact that USM has a consistent issue with racism (aka calling it out). You state, “And the fact is that active reallocation of resources is essential to equity”. I was wondering if you could elaborate on what you think are the most crucial resources that need allocating and if you have any idea about how these efforts could be started.

  5. I’m pretty sure a little contemplation and research will answer questions about resource allocation and about the cleaning up of the water without asking Shay to do that work.

  6. Shay – thank you. What a powerful piece.

    In response to a couple of the comments here, and with full recognition that I’m likely going to mess some things up, I’m going to share some thoughts. We, as white women, often remain silent because we are so scared of messing up, and when we do that, we uphold white supremacy. We are able to hide because of our privilege. Our inaction, our not-showing-up, is a form of racism and is able to exist because of white supremacy.

    With that, I say thank you to Alex and Anne for asking questions. If we don’t ask, we can’t learn more and we can’t do better.

    But it shouldn’t be on black, indigenous, and people of color to teach us. We white people need to show up and do the work, too.

    Anne and Alex, Debby’s behaviors were racist because they uphold white supremacy in the most effective way white supremacy is upheld – unconsciously, and by white women. They simultaneously harmed and erased a woman of color in the audience. Even in her role as a paid white anti-racist activist, it happened. Even as a white woman who works on this stuff every single day, it happened. I wonder how the situation would have been altered, if Debby had recognized her actions immediately and cleaned it up herself, and replaced to the best of her ability the audience member’s ruined belongings, and immediately owned additional impact she had on the woman. I wonder if it could have served as a disruption of the far too often erasure of white women’s impact on women of color. When that didn’t happen, I wonder how much might have shifted if white women had stepped up and engaged in all of the things I mention here, including being the ones to call Debby to task, put in the clean up labor and financial+ impact, instead of that labor falling again on women of color. The white women who remained silent did their part of uphold white supremacy. Their inaction, too, was racist. The ignorance of our (white women’s) subtle and not so subtle, conscious and unconscious impact on women of color is a critical component of white supremacy, and is racist. Debby’s actions, and lack thereof, serve as an example of that. The silence and inaction of the other white women in the room are examples of that, too.

    Maybe Debby had done similar things to white women in the past, but it doesn’t matter. We need to see color and see patterns and recognize the cumulative impact. The impact isn’t the same on white women, so the situations are inherently different. One is racist, supported by white supremacy, with cumulative, lasting impact related to a lifetime, and generations, of racism and white supremacy. The other might have an impact on an individual white woman, but the rest of the stuff just isn’t there. The situations are not the same. In fact, the experiences are able to be so very different because white supremacy and racism allow and embolden them to be so.

    That said, had I been there, I very likely would have been a silent white woman in the room. I’m tremendously embarrassed to name this, but if I don’t admit it then I am demonstrating a complete lack of self-awareness, and I can’t work to be better. I likely would have been frozen, not sure what to do, until later and upon reflection. I am just as likely as Debby to commit this level of egregious, unconscious action, adding to countless microaggressions experienced by an individual, compounded by the generational trauma that I, and people who look like me, have committed against people with black and brown skin. And when I mess up, it matters what I do in the moments following, and what I do with the ripples that my actions, and the actions of people who look like me, will continue to have long beyond any individual incident.

    Even though I am not Debby, I am a white woman who is reading Shay’s blog post, and I have an opportunity to make some choices to either sit on my hands or to engage in the hard work of dismantling white supremacy. I can write this response and just leave it here, or I can do more. Writing a comment to a blog post is not enough. I often hear from other white women, white moms in particular, that this or that racist incident is horrible, but what can I do and how does it even relate to me? It relates to all of us as a white collective who choose not to actively act against white supremacy and racism. So – in so far as it might be helpful to have examples of what to do in moments like this, where we read a piece of Shay’s brilliance and say, hmmm… I should do something… I’ll share what I’m about to do. Fellow white women, you can do these things, too. As a white woman I believe that a combination of self-reflection and action are critical part of this practice.

    1. I’m going to read this particular blog post to my 10-year-old daughter tonight, and talk to her about this stuff. We regularly talk about racism, appropriation, and white privilege, but I’ll expand the conversation by talking about the historical and current impact of white women’s (and white girls’) tears, and how critical it is for us to expect to mess up, and to be open to being called to task, and to taking that calling as a gift of self awareness, and actually doing the work of doing better. If you don’t have kids, you can share Shay’s blog with a (white) friend, family member, or colleague at work. If you don’t know what to say about white women’s tears, see Shay’s post entitled “Weapons of lass destruction: The tears of a white woman (April 17, 2018). Brilliant. Not that she needs any kudos from me.
    2. I’m going to continue my practice of race conscious story time with my 3 year old, in an effort to help her gain the language of race and identity, so that she knows it is okay to name race, to name skin color, and to name the problematic patterns that are associated with them in our community, our country, and our world. All of this is possible to do in age appropriate ways starting at birth! As white moms we too often think that by not mentioning race we will by default be raising racism-free kids. Nothing could be farther from the truth. We live in a white supremacist culture, so unless we are actively raising them with increased awareness and tools, we are allowing them to be informed and influenced by the white supremacist air they are breathing. For more on this kind of practice, see Raising Race Conscious Children. They are amazing.
    3. I’m going to follow up with 4 white moms who have reached out to me wanting to learn more about raising race conscious and social justice minded kids, and I’m going to set up a more formal practice with them so that we can continue, together, to break the generational passing-down of conscious and unconscious racist behaviors. Why have I been holding off on contacting them? Because white privilege, white supremacy, and racism allow me to go about my day without putting in extra work. Enough. I’m on it. Today.
    4. I’m going to take some time to journal and self-reflect, farther than I have done here, on how I can do better. I often hear from other whites that I think too hard and too much about racism and white supremacy, but I know, for sure, that I don’t. It is all too easy for me to put it on the back burner, knowing that I’ll be just fine if I decide that today I need a break, today I choose not to care. The thing is that all of it matters TO ME as an individual and as part of the white collective. My humanity is just as much at stake in all of this. I lose a little bit of myself every time I stay silent and unaware, or every time I inadvertently cause harm. I need to examine that every single change I get.
    5. I’m going to be open to any and all critique, because I know, without a doubt, that I will learn from it. If you’re not sure what to do when you get feedback that starts you feeling defensive, look up “9 phrases allies can say when called out instead of getting defensive,” by Sam Dylan Finch of Everyday Feminism and Let’s Queer Things Up. Good stuff.
    6. I’m going to donate to BGIM, because, damn. I learn every. single. time. And the education that Shay is providing needs to be COMPENSATED.

  7. Shay and Comment-leavers: Thank you for this forum. I’ve had a number of conversations about the USM evening with other attendees. The most deflating response came from a white woman who was looking to blame someone for the “awkward” ending… and of course it wasn’t Debby. I genuinely admire Debby for the enormously powerful work she has done in bringing awareness of whiteness to masses of middle&upper-middle class white folks who previously paid no heed to black voices or edgier white voices. It’s tragic that white folk, even after exposure to her book, circle the wagons to protect our own given that the question of “blame” is utterly irrelevant (and utterly white in the circumstances).

    I have a couple of wonders about the end of the evening. Clearly you both (Shay and Debby) were exhausted–it is hugely taxing, vulnerable and exhausting work that you undertake in these dialogues. Our gratitude to you is great. Yet given the potency and, I daresay, validity of the young speaker’s voice, I wonder why you decided to end without delving into the highly charged moment? The obvious answer is that the time of the gathering was up–and it could be that the terms of hall usage required a prompt ending.

    My second wonder is whether you ever turn to an audience for “back up”? It may not have felt like it, but I believe there was a substantial amount of capacity on the part of some attendees of all racial identities to engage the young woman, validate her rage, appreciate her bravery, note that her stunning disregard for “civility” is exactly what the evening called for, and allow for some reevaluation of the “plantation” metaphor (about which, like the spilled water, she was right). I was on the verge of getting up myself to suggest we pursue the conversation, but at that moment thing ended. (Had I been on stage, of course, I certainly wouldn’t have had the presence of mind to do that.)

    After the event, a white friend and I went over to the students of color clustered around the young speaker. Justifiably, they didn’t respond to our presence (only when we left did we signal support of her words). The vehemence of their talk was not unusual for anyone who has spent time around students of color. The matters they spoke of had to do with observations about the depth of Debby’s white fragility (something all of us white folk should be called out on much more often), and disappointment that in a room full of anti-racist whites, it fell to a person of color to point out the inappropriateness of the plantation metaphor.

    This all has to do with the place of anger. White culture responds in such ugly ways to expressions of emotion, especially anger, coming from, especially, black people. In my experience as an always-learning white ally/accomplice/collaborator, I’ve found it really helpful to be able to hear anger from people of color [directed mostly at white institutional practices as manifest in institutional players] to test my abilities at unhooking from the idea that it is personal, to listen respectfully, absorb and validate what the person is saying. And then to go back with renewed determination to challenge white supremacy in the ways I do. Any thoughts out there on the helpfulness of understanding people-of-color anger as a way to move things forward?

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