People in the city where I live (Portland, Maine) have been rising to the occasion as a welcoming community for approximately 300 asylum seekers mostly from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola who have arrived here in just the last few weeks. Some local folks even organized a picnic on the Fourth of July. My own spiritual community, the Quakers, have been on the ground gathering and sorting donations, and doing all kinds of hands-on volunteering. It’s amazing, and wonderful!
At the same time, across the country there has been outrage at the inhumane treatment of people crossing the southern border of the USA. There have been #ClosetheCamps protests, and the national media is finally sharing the story of the “detention facilities.” My father’s family came from Germany, so I feel especially compelled to not look away as so many Germans did before the Holocaust; the concentration camps there were established before the “extermination” or “death camps.” It may not be exactly the same, but we can’t pretend it isn’t similar.
So, believe me when I tell you I’m not here to yuck on anyone’s activism yum, so to speak. It’s true that our mostly white town here in Main has done the right thing and has been welcoming our newest neighbors. And, it’s true that activists are kicking it into high gear to get the government to change their policies, reunite families, and let the people out of the CPB prisons at the border.
But it’s also true that we white people are very, very good at avoiding even talking about anti-Black racism, let alone taking action to change our anti-Black racist systems.
It’s been my experience that speaking about anti-Black racism to my fellow white people can be so fraught with feelings of guilt and shame that we will do anything to distract from the topic. Just bringing up anti-Black racism very frequently leads people to tell me they don’t think they should feel guilty. And, um, no, I never said you should. I never mention “guilt,” but someone almost always brings up that word. To me, that’s revealing.
The reason I identify this common need to change the subject or make statements about “not feeling guilty” as feelings of guilt or shame is mostly because of my own experience learning about racism as well as the experience of other white people I know who have really dug into this crap.
First, I didn’t know how bad it was. Then, I started to know how bad it was and I felt really bad-sad-mad feelings, peppered with feelings of what I now think of as “white guilt.” I didn’t want to be a bad person, and racists are bad! The next phase, that I’m in now, was that I realized my feelings aren’t the point: anti-Black racism exists and I benefit from the white supremacist society that depends on it. So, sure, I think it’s awful and ideally I’d love to not be a part of the problem. But there’s not a lot I can do, realistically, to get myself out of the benefitting-position of the systems around me so “guilt” is a waste of energy.
In “How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective,” edited by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, #BlackLivesMatter co-creator Alicia Garza points out that “anti-Blackness is the fulcrum around which white supremacy works.”
So as these good and right protests and volunteer efforts have been happening, I’ve been glad to see it and participate in them. But I’ve also been angry and frustrated. Anti-Black racism, the fulcrum of white supremacy, has been a crisis all along. It’s a set of systems that morph to keep Black people at the bottom rather than an enormous bang-splash crisis *event.* Because it creeps along, it’s easier for us white people to avoid seeing it. Most of us white people aren’t ready or willing to dive in as real allies, accomplices, or just generally good human beings to see—to really face—the crisis that includes but is not limited to mass incarceration (slave labor) and housing/healthcare/education/wealth disparities. As Black Girl In Maine Media’s Shay Stewart-Bouley has written about extensively, simply existing in our country as a Black person puts people at risk of punishment or death.
I’m not suggesting we should stop supporting asylum seekers, or stop taking action to free the people imprisoned at the border. I am suggesting we white people need to notice how we are not doing the same for Black Americans, despite the ongoing crisis of white supremacy. We white people need to notice, learn (skip the guilt!), and do something about it.
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.
Comments will close on this post in 60-90 days; earlier if there are spam attacks or other nonsense.
Photo by Tess Nebula from Unsplash