I need to talk about white supremacy for a minute. You don’t have to read it. But if you care for me as I care for you, I hope you will try. Especially if you’re white.
Listen, we all think we’re good people, and we try to be good people, but we’re imperfect, and we know it. We all fall short in our understanding and in our actions. And if we’re being honest, it happens kindof a lot. Let’s start by owning our role in this. I’ll go first: I fall short in my understanding of what it means to be an ally quite often, and I have failed to act like an ally. This includes times when I have stayed silent while someone made hateful comments, but it also extends to times when I thought I was helping but may have been hurting. For example, more than once, I called the police when I heard what sounded like domestic violence happening in my neighbor’s apartment. I didn’t understand at the time that calling the cops may have escalated an already dangerous situation, that the victim might not be believed or treated fairly by the police due to their race, and that there were other options available which might have made a better difference for the human beings involved. There was a lot I didn’t know, and I still have much to learn. Now is the time to learn and put that learning into action.
A year or two ago, my coworker suggested that we could go to a workshop about allyship in our industry. The workshop provided us with some simple tools for creating a safe and inclusive work environment. The skills seemed very easily applicable and effective, and I felt a little more confident having them in my pocket. I was almost eager to have a chance to use them, but not too many chances came up. This is a really good thing because it means the people I spend my time with don’t engage in overtly bigoted behavior. And yet, I know that racism, white supremacy to be more specific, is … well, it is. Making sure everyone in our office has basic good manners doesn’t solve the problem of police brutality against black people, let alone the myriad other issues that have been heightened and aggravated in the turmoil of this pandemic.
I have dodged writing about the problem of white supremacy because I’m not very experienced at talking about it, and it’s an area of discomfort for me. Like many white people, I get stuck talking about my own feelings of guilt over how bad things are and how helpless I feel, and that’s no fun to write and generally not helpful to anyone. But the truth is if we white people don’t start talking about what is going on and acting like it matters, then we are the problem. I don’t want to be the problem, do you? So we need to get serious about justice for people of color.
I am not a particularly skilled activist. I’ve only gone to a few protests myself, but I try to put my values into play wherever I can in life. Lately I’m into getting people to vote because having a good turnout this November is essential. At work, it’s literally my full time job just to live up to my own values. As a small business owner, one of the things within my power is to cultivate the values of community, inclusivity, cooperation, respect, and empowerment in our work environment. I put a lot of energy into holding that space for our employees, and I do think that’s a form of activism. But it still doesn’t solve the problem of police brutality against black people, and it doesn’t give me permission to look away from that issue.
It’s not that I personally have to solve the problem. I am not the hero of this story, but in order to make peace with myself, I need to know that I’m doing my fair share. Our society is a broken down bus on the side of the road with shattered axles and leaking something toxic. I am not a mechanic, nor do I have a tow truck, but if I can help push us to safety or bring water to the person rebuilding the engine, sign me up.
So, what’s the equivalent of bringing water to the mechanic? It’s not thoughts and prayers. It’s donating money to bail funds. It’s having those challenging conversations and listening when people talk about subjects that are uncomfortable for us. It might be going to a protest. It can be making a phone call or writing a letter. It’s voting. It’s connecting with our neighbors and building up diverse communities. It is educating myself and my peers. It’s having conversations, being present, and not looking the other way.
I think the most important commitment I personally can make right now is that I will never again claim helplessness in the face of white supremacy or racial injustice. For every time I have said, “I just don’t know what to do! I feel so helpless!” there has been a resource out there that I probably should have Googled.
I don’t want to beat us all up for not taking action sooner because now is not the time for browbeating. Now is the time to put our personal baggage aside and read the damn articles. The news headlines you can’t look at? Read them. The article on racism in your industry? Read it. The anti-racist resources your friends are posting on social media? Yes, please.
And when we read these things, we need to actually take in the information. Don’t skim it for problems so you can say “that won’t work” and refuse to consider the larger point. Don’t wring your hands the whole time and take it as an attack. Don’t self-justify in the back of your mind as though you were arguing with your spouse and just waiting for a chance to defend yourself. Just be present. Take in the information. Feel your response to it. Be with that discomfort.
As a white person, realizing that I live in a white supremacist society sucks. I bet it feels even worse for people of color. The way to solve the problem is not to say, “Sorry, I don’t want to feel that so I’m not going to think about it.” We are the ones whose inaction allows innocent black people to be murdered by cops. Our sense of helplessness is the reason they know they can get away with it. I want to stop being helpless.
I realize there is a lot to be done, and I’m not the type of person who wants to watch the world burn, but the idea that we can politely ask for change and wait for it to happen is foolish. There has to be a plan — I bet someone has a plan! And there have to be people supporting the plan — we are people! And those people need to have skills — we have a really wide variety of skills! Someone has to organize us — organizers exist! And all you have to do is whatever you’re capable of.
If you’re capable of reading to the end of this letter (and you are), then I believe you can start by reading one more thing. Just open any link on this page and start reading. You don’t have to solve every problem today or even this week, but if we don’t take steps, if we keep saying “I don’t know what to do,” if we keep being silent, then we are the problem. Let’s stop being the problem, ok? The first step is to educate yourself. There are people out there telling us what steps we can take, what programs we can implement, and even how to do it sustainably and equitably. Let’s give up the privilege of looking away. We now have the privilege of being able to make change. Let’s use it.
I believe in you. We can do this.