No doubt what I am about to say is going to rub someone the wrong way, but in this moment, we need truth. Not another day of bowing to white fragility or leaning in to faux civility, which too often places the burden on BIPOC folks to stay silent.
Since the murders of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown, we have seen a steady increase in white folks waking up to the horrors of just how little Black life matters in the United States. Millions of white people have started to see that racism is not a thing of the past but a very real reality for millions of Black people and other people of color.
The killing of George Floyd in the midst of the pandemic served as a moment of reckoning on race, no doubt aided by having an openly racist president in the White House.
Given the proliferation of anti-racism books in recent years from writers of all hues and the rise of diversity, equity, and inclusion as a guiding principle, one might almost think we were on the precipice of real racial change in this country. But the truth as I see it, is that we aren’t. Sure, Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo have almost become household names, and last year, anti-racism books took over the bestsellers lists, and still dominate the lists. But all these books aren’t creating change.
Reading isn’t change, BLM signs in the yard aren’t change, throwing coins in the cash apps of people of color isn’t change. These are all important and you should absolutely keep doing them (are you a patron of this space?) but change is action, it’s relational. And well, that’s where for most white people they fall short.
For most Black folks, this moment has been tiring, as we watch all this busy work happening, knowing that the vast majority of white people are living very compartmentalized lives on race. Sure, we see you on Facebook and Twitter and such, but we also see that for many white people, there is no true examination of the impact of whiteness on you—with the intent to dismantle it and create a new operating framework for living as a white-bodied person. Instead, many use white fragility as the excuse but never look to move beyond the diagnosis to treatment. So what changes?
In some ways, the recent “wokeness” on race has been more stressful for BIPOC folks than if there were no attempts to change. There is something more comforting in knowing that someone is an unrepentant racist, rather than dealing with someone who thinks themselves racially enlightened but actually is just the walking embodiment of a white savior and who—in their attempts to show solidarity—actually show their true colors by doing nothing substantive (or worse, by perpetuating racism in a more subtle way).
Which begs the question that often comes up in spaces where white folks are not: Can white folks change? Can we get a critical mass of white folx to deconstruct their own whiteness and work with others to do the same thing? Can white people search themselves fearlessly on a regular basis, and gain enough self-awareness to do better, without the prodding or direct support of BIPOC folx? Can white folx gain enough self-awareness to understand that their anti-racism work cannot solely be about the betterment of BIPOC folx—can they see beyond their “privilege” to see that they too, are also trapped by whiteness and they must change that as well?
Honestly, I have spent the past seven years as the executive director of one of the nation’s oldest anti-racism organizations, and even I have to say, that is a tall order. Not impossible, but also not as common as even I in my somewhat jaded mindset would like it to be. Since even in dedicated anti-racism spaces, racism is often still at play. It’s just playing a high-stakes game and it takes skill to see. It is subtle in these spaces, but it is still there.
Which is why recently, when an old buddy reached out, I took notice of how this woman has changed. See, many years ago, in the early 2000s, when I was still new to Maine, we became fast buddies. For years, we were tight. Sure, she was a white woman, but she had lived a full life before relocating to Maine and had experiences in racially diverse spaces. But in the end, the racism came seeping out. She made a comment that revealed how her heart truly saw Black people at that time, and I swiftly ended our friendship.
For years we didn’t speak. It was awkward, because we existed in overlapping professional spaces, but what she said pierced my soul, and I couldn’t trust her to be a safe person for me to know.
Fate intervened a few years ago, and we reconnected, but I still held her at a safe distance—though over tea a few years ago, I was struck by the immediate changes. Life had humbled her, the privileged white girl bravado that had always clung to her had been replaced by something more somber and sorrow-filled. Where she had always been quick to “help” she stood back now, and stood down, aware that by simply existing as a white woman, the world would always privilege her, and the only way to create equity was for her to stand down. To not take up too much space.
Over the past year, I have had a chance to get to re-know her from a distance, and I have observed that she now lives in community with other women of color, where she will use her voice when necessary to get the white power systems to take women of color seriously—but only if she not centered in anyway. This woman now understands how privilege and power are at the heart of racism and how that must shift.
I know that in the years between our falling out, when she could have written me off as another angry Black woman—which is so often what happens when cross-racial friendships end—she examined herself. She went deep into her white self and spent years searching and stepping back, examining her whiteness became a spiritual process. And yet, she will be the first to tell you she is still a work in progress.
So much so, that when I said I wanted to write about her, she expressed concern that white folks would misread the situation, because she now understands how whiteness processes the world, and settles on good white people moments. Without a willingness to go deeper.
Yet, if someone had told me over a decade ago when our friendship ended that this woman would let that painful moment become the catalyst for her own learning, I would not have believed it possible. But that’s exactly what happened. Or at least from my view, it’s what happened.
To answer the question, I do think it’s possible for white folx to do better and move beyond the superficial in terms of race, and it is also a process. It will not happen in a year or two. In the case of my old buddy, this journey has taken at least a decade and is still ongoing. So when white folx get involved in anti-racism work, they need to understand that is a journey of a lifetime, not a moment.
This is a spiritual and philosophical rewiring of a system that you benefit from, and it starts internally and moves outward. Without soul, heart, and mind committed to the work, nothing changes. But if you can make that commitment and then use your privilege to work with your people and in service to BIPOC folks, yes, white folx can do better.
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