Okay, White People. What Are We Gonna Do Here?

December 3, 2014 § Leave a comment

Okay.  Here’s what’s tricky: I’m pretty sure that I’m one of the last people who has any authority to speak on issues of race and/or racism in our country.  I am not a person of color.  I am not a scholar on this issue.  I am not an activist in this realm.  Historically, for these reasons, I’ve kept my (literal and figurative) mouth shut and if you’re mad at me already, please just don’t read any further.

I’m trying to figure out how to do better.  What can I do EVERY DAY to stop racism in our country?  That’s what I want to figure out.  That’s the question I keep coming back to.  I think a lot of nice, liberal, white folks like myself think that if we’re not perpetrating racist acts, then what else can we do?  First, I wonder how accurate we are in our assessment of our non-participation in racism and then, I think passively not contributing to the problem might not be enough anymore since the problem isn’t resolving itself.  I think we need an action plan – things we can and will do to stop racism every day.

So, here’s my first draft of an action plan for myself:

1. “M.O.M.S.” or “TAKE SOME RESPONSIBILITY”

My dad used to say this thing: “MOMS: Mind Open, Mouth Shut,” and then he’d continue, “Mouth Open, Mind Shut” and kind of smile and nod like “see what I did there?”  And in High School, my best friend (who is a black woman) talked about how, after a while, the assumption that the burden is on black people to educate whites about black history and racism and all the in-between issues in the black community gets really tedious and tiresome and feels, frankly, unfair.

Yeah, white people, it isn’t our “fault” that we were born white, but who cares?! Don’t we all have a responsibility to contribute towards a healthy and just society?

A friend recently shared this article with me written by a Vassar professor about his experiences of racism in and around the Vassar campus.  The article is well written and an excellent and upsetting read.  It stung all the more because I went to Vassar.  I remember how bad it was racially; I’m really sad to hear how that has continued.

I’d like to see us all reading more articles like this (not that I want more reasons for these articles – no way!).  I’d like to see us taking more responsibility for understanding experiences outside of ours.  I’d like us to practice not assuming that we know. We don’t know.  We’ll never really know, because we’re white.  But we could do a lot better at trying to understand.  (Here’s an excellent Story Corps piece in a related vein. It is powerful and worthwhile.)

2. SPEAK UP . . . TO OTHER WHITE PEOPLE

A friend just posted on Facebook that he overheard three different sets of tourists refer to peaceful protests about the Eric Garner case as “riots.”  I wonder if the time hasn’t come for us all to be braver and speak up when we hear things like that.  It’s so hard! What if those people yell at you? What if they’re crazy? What difference can our speaking up make anyway?  Well . . .

A. I think we need to do some thinking about what we might say in these situations so that we can say it in the way that’s most likely to be heard.  (My vote: calmly, and in a way that conveys bewilderment at their crazy statement as opposed to any kind of anger, attack or criticism – not that we don’t feel those things, just that conveying them in that moment, I think, is unhelpful.)  I appreciated this post about how to speak and argue about Ferguson, less for its content and more for the example it sets.  What if we all left the house armed with the ability to persuasively speak against a variety of racist events we might see every day?  And then spoke up accordingly?

B. Very recently, the issue sweeping the (social) media was harassment of women, specifically cat-calling on the street.  One of the strategies that was widely encouraged was that guys who don’t agree with this behavior speak up to the men perpetrating it.  I think the same strategy could make a difference here.  (Almost) No one wants to be called a racist – explicitly or implicitly – and while speaking up in the moment might not be satisfying to us, we don’t know how it might affect that person’s behavior in the future.  Let’s just question it instead of letting it slide.

I know this feels scary (and I’m not advocating crazy-risk-taking) but, if you read the news, I think being black probably involves lots of moments day-to-day that feel scary, so maybe we could step it up in the bravery department, white folks.

3. SPEAK UP – PART TWO

As I said at the top, I’m waaaaaayyyyy down on the list of people you want to read or listen to about racism.  The problem is, white people don’t like to talk about racism; we’re all afraid, if we speak up, we’ll BE racist or SEEM racist.  But then the onus is put back on the black community to talk about the issue and the whole issue itself gets siloed . . . which lets white people keep avoiding it.  No good.

We have to do our homework – so that we’re trying our hardest NOT to be idiots when we talk about race (and we have to take our lumps when we blow it, and learn from that, like I might after I post this blog) – but then I think we have to start talking about it.  We have to own our part of this issue (hint: it’s a BIG part, like, pretty much the whole thing) so that we can change.  WE NEED TO CHANGE.  WE need to DO BETTER.

SO, I AM INVITING YOU TO SPEAK UP TO ME (and not just if you’re white). Am I on the right track?  Am I way off?  Do you have different or better ideas?  What’s your action plan against racism?  Leave a comment.  We’re not going to solve this here on my blog but I want to do better and if you’re reading this and you feel the same, maybe we can help each other with that.

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