What is the Role of White People in Racial Justice?

This is a reprint of a piece that I co-wrote and published on Medium. Recognizing that many readers may not have seen that piece, I am sharing it here as well. Community Change Inc. (CCI) is a Boston-based antiracism organization that since 1968 has been working to promote racial justice and equity by challenging systemic racism and acting as a catalyst for antiracist learning and action. CCI makes visible and challenges the historic and ongoing role racism plays in the institutions that shape our lives. We focus particularly on involving white people in understanding and confronting systemic racism, white privilege, and white supremacy. The following statement (which was written by Executive Director Shay Stewart-Bouley and the board of directors) is a response to the current question of what the role of white people is in racial justice spaces.

These are unprecedented times (in the modern era, at least) that we are living in as we watch the Trump administration unravel much of what we for so long considered to be truth. Marginalized communities are especially feeling the impact under what increasingly feels like the Trump regime. American citizens are being asked to show proof of citizenship at restaurants in order to be served, former law enforcement agents are being detained without cause, our children are being teased and taunted, just to name a few examples. The list of injustices grows daily and the Trump administration remains silent.

For those on the front lines of educating and organizing for racial justice, after several years of nonstop and often unpunished assaults on Black bodies, these are very stressful times. We are in a dynamic period where we are watching a younger generation of organizers and activists coming together and using modern technology such as social media to create larger and stronger coalitions and to bring people who traditionally haven’t been engaged into the work. At the same time though, these technologies occasionally lack nuance. And that is why I am writing to talk about why, since 1968, CCI has believed that working with white people on the white problem is critical to dismantling white supremacy.

At Community Change our core mission is to address the “white problem” of racism by shining a spotlight on the roots of racism in white culture with the intention of dealing with racism at its source, as well as with its impact on communities of colorand by organizing spaces where white people can gather, educate, train and support each other to become active, aware and capable of working productively in multiracial antiracism efforts both in predominantly white communities and in support of People of Color-led efforts in racially mixed or predominantly global minority communities.

There is much that accountable white people can do to prepare and engage other white people. Teaching the fundamentals of Systemic Racism, White Culture and White Supremacy. Coaching and coaxing and oftentimes aggressively pushing other white people through the myriad misunderstandings and hard-wired racist biases and white culture-based assumptions of superiority — often a process that takes years and is never really over. Dismantling liberal white people’s problematic and often counterproductive tendency to adopt a patronizing savior role in relation to non-white people. Interrupting the practices of inviting people of color into leadership circles in a tokenistic attempt to appear politically correct without sharing power or consciously honoring and taking leadership from People of Color. And more.

Dismantling white supremacy requires that white people need to develop the capacity to check their own privilege and practice humility and deep listening instead of rushing into multiracial organizing spaces with expectations of having entitled access to leadership roles, presumed participation in decision-making, or taking up a lot of space at the microphone.

In the past two years Community Change has become the home for three very active education and organizing projects: White People Challenging Racism, the Boston Knapsack Anti-Racism Group and the Boston Chapter of SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice). In these projects, people of all racial identities are welcomed into spaces where the expressed priority of the work is to meet white people wherever they are on their path of becoming awake to the realities of racism and white supremacy and then organizing them and moving them along to greater effectiveness, sensitivity and active participation in local, national and international movements against racism and white supremacy in all its forms.

Prioritizing making space for this work with white people is a strong departure from decades of beginning-level antiracism education and organizing work where a great priority was put on striving for a solidly multiracial mix of folks in the room. That idea was that we really need to be in direct contact with each other to learn how to respect each other and learn how to work together. This mode of work can be very powerful, meaningful and effective with the right facilitation and commitment of the participants.

But over and over people of color participants — most often in the minority in these settings — were not only being asked to do the greater part of speaking to the effects of racism and the reality of their own oppression in our white supremacy culture and economic system, but also being asked to repeatedly witness and patiently support an endless series of white people expressing and gradually confronting the many layers of misinformation, internalized racial superiority, white cultural entitlement — note to mention ignorance of the current and historical facts of people of color enduring and fighting for respect, basic rights and liberation in the white-dominated, culturally oblivious and racially oppressive white supremacist culture of the United States.

More and more over time, People of Color leaders have specifically asked their white comrades in the antiracism movement to step up to educate and organize other white people. We know from decades of experience that there are several layers of initial training and support that educated, experienced and accountable white trainers — often in collaboration with people of color trainers — can do with other white people to check each other’s ignorance, entitlement, internalized racial superiority and promote not only an awareness of white privilege but an understanding and capacity to learn how to use that privilege in the service of dismantling white supremacy. We have always worked to design and develop these training efforts in accountable relationship to Black-led organizing history, systemic racism analysis and current People of Color-led organizing efforts.

All three of our projects (as well as all our other in-house training and educational programming) is organized and conceived and carried out in conscious and active awareness of our connection and accountability to People of Color leadership and the intergenerational, intersectional and multiracial movement we share in building locally and regionally.

In this urgent and tumultuous historical moment we are joining antiracism organizing efforts across the country in seeking to deepen, clarify and make transparent how we practice active accountability with the People of Color organizers and organizations we are actively working to support. We seek accountability in how we develop our programming and in how we focus our resources in support of collaborative campaigns and long-term community organizing efforts. We continue our history of mutual and accountable relationships and we remain dedicated to keeping these relationships robust, active, effective and healthy even as we understand that this work is almost always messy, painful, contradictory and confusing.

Given the many forces seeking to keep us divided against each other, we are proud to continue our dedication to making thriving, effective and actively accountable relationship between organizers across differences in economic background, culture, gender identity, age, ability and race. We are determined to overcome whatever current and future obstacles are thrown in the way of doing this work together. And we are always open to dialogue and collective problem-solving to make our beloved community stronger, more effective, more loving and more resilient.

We are proud of the work we do to specifically address the white problem of systemic racism by working in multiracial organizing campaigns and also by specifically stepping up to play a major role in bringing white people into spaces where they can be supported to shed their defensive clinging/adherence/attachment to racial superiority and disconnection from community and grow into humble and powerful accomplices in support of movements envisioned, designed and led by People of Color. We know this work is important. We invite you to participate in ways that you are willing and we welcome active dialogue about the ways our work can continue to be more and more effectively focused, accountable and effective in active support of the growth and success of the mass movement against racism that we are a part of.

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.