Over the last several years, working against racism has become an increasingly important part of my personal and political life. This evolution has taken place as i’ve lived and worked in majority people-of-color environments, read books, talked (and really listened) to others, and had my eyes opened to many things that were (intentionally or not) hidden from me in my childhood and youth.
During this same time, i’ve also come to the realization that racism negatively impacts not just the lives of people of color but also the lives of white people. My life has been harmed by racism in innumerable ways: i grew up in a de facto segregated metropolitan area; had little contact with people of color until college; had a difficult time coming to terms with my own racism; and find myself still associating socially mostly with white people, despite living in a very integrated community – among many, many other ways that i am deeply harmed under white supremacy.
But my fight against racism is not because i will personally benefit from living in a less racist society; it springs from the incredible pain that racism causes people of color in the US (and globally). Whether through poor educational opportunities, being targeted unjustly by law enforcement, or dying early deaths, people of color suffer immeasurably by the system under which we are all forced to live.
I’m convinced that racism and sexism are the systems that have the largest impact on dividing us from each other, of making some lives worth more, and of – quite literally – killing some of us before others.
People of color cannot fight racism alone. Just like women cannot end sexism by themselves and trans people cannot end transphobia alone, people of color will never end racism if white folks don’t get involved.
And i feel personally compelled to take part.
How can i sit back after reading so many phenomenal and eye-opening books on race and racism? How can i do nothing when i see the substandard opportunities that people of color have in this country? How can i remain idle when Black and Brown people in the US are policed, stopped, arrested, charged, put on trial, convicted, given long sentences, and held to strict parole standards at rates far exceeding that of whites? How can i turn my back when i see pain in the faces and hear it in the voices of the people of color whom i know?
How can i throw away the knowledge that has come to me through my educational, race, and class privilege and not use it for ending individual, systemic, and cultural inequality?
I cannot do nothing.
So what do i actually do about it? Not nearly enough. I attend marches and rallies sometimes, i help organize Undoing Racism trainings in DC, i caucus with white people, and i belong to an antiracist book group in Hyattsville, MD, where i live. I try always to listen to the voices and experiences of people of color, even if doing so is uncomfortable. I try to be ever aware of my race and ethnicity – and the privileges that accompany each. I talk about race and racism whenever i can, especially to other white people.
And yet that all feels so grossly inadequate. This is no longer the struggle of the 1950s and 1960s. We face a racism today that is both completely different and eerily similar to that which Baby Boomers and their forebears confronted.
So i muddle on, trying to find how i can best be involved, even as i continue to be introspective about myself and my place in the world as a white person.
There are so many questions with which i’m struggling at this point in my antiracist journey:
- How do my actions impact the criminal injustice system and the prison industrial complex (see, for instance, this blog post)?
- How do i confront racist things that people say without alienating them? How do i think of decent replies at the time instead of, say, two hours later? And how do i give up the desire to “be liked,” a process that will facilitate me confronting someone?
- If there is an equivalent of the Montgomery Bus Boycott today, am i willing to join? How much personal discomfort am i willing to endure for this cause in which i believe so strongly?
- Is it possible for me, as a white person, to get to a point where i’m willing to die for this cause? There is currently nothing for which i would give up my life. (Not a realistic one anyway. Would i die to end cancer or war or HIV or poverty? Sure. But my death and ending those horrible things are totally unrelated.) What would it take for that to change?
- If i am a prison abolitionist (and reading Michelle Alexander’s unbelievably amazing The New Jim Crow made me such), what are the alternatives? Is restorative justice realistic for people who, without remorse, engage in violent crimes?
- How can i keep race and racism in mind when white supremacy wants to lull me into complacency?
- Is it possible to elect to live in a truly diverse, integrated community and, as a white person, not also be part of a movement of white people taking over that same community? (I wonder this especially as i see more and more whites moving into Hyattsville, drawn by its good housing prices, diverse population, access to public transportation, and local amenities.)
- How can we revive urban communities without gentrifying long-term residents out of their homes and neighborhoods?
- Under what circumstances do i call the police?
- If i’m stopped by law enforcement, do i consent to a search of my belongings or refuse on principle? If i do the latter, will an annoyed officer take out hir anger on the person of color who might come next? If i do the former, will it keep hir busy enough not to harass people of color who might be walking or driving by at the same time?
- How do i come to terms with the horrors perpetrated by my ancestors in “my” (writ large) name? (Reading Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was a turning point in me wrestling with this question.)
- How do i push myself further to root out the racism that still lives inside me? And once i find it (like when i only remember to check my car doors if i see a person of color on the sidewalk), what do i do about it? That insidious racism is so, so much harder to eradicate than the more overt kinds.
- How can i concretely use my privilege to end racism and white supremacy?
- How can i make a difference in a massive system that not only doesn’t know that i exist but, frankly, doesn’t care?
I don’t have answers to any of these questions yet. But i’m working on them and struggling with how to live as the best white person possible in a culture that wants me to be nothing of the kind – or, at least, in a culture that defines “good white person” in completely different ways.
Many years ago, i read Mab Segrest’s wonderful Memoirs of a Race Traitor. That concept, of being a “race traitor,” has stayed with me ever since. I love the idea of being a traitor not so much to being white, in & of itself, but to everything that my race is supposed to stand for: segregation, fear of the “racialized other,” solidarity with whites at all costs against people of color, a belief that “race” is synonymous with “people of color,” and a refusal to define “racism” as anything other than individual support for slavery or Jim Crow-style segregation.
Being a “traitor” is something toward which i strive on a daily basis. And i know that, as a product of white supremacy, it’s something i’ll continue to struggle with for the rest of my life. But it is a fight that is 110% worth it.