What can I do? I am only one person. What can I do to end racism, especially systemic racism?
Good question that no one has asked me since I posted Editorial: Whiny White Supremacists and Their Need for a Country, Culture, Celebration of THEM! But, I’ve got an answer, anywho, but this time without so much snarky, sarcasticky, profaney goodness because sometimes that shit just mucks up your message.
Because I am autistic and trained in mental health and widely read in psychology and its applications to every day life, I rely a lot on introspection and personal experience, especially in how we raise our consciousnesses concerning racism and changing our behaviors. So, expect the rest of this to be personal — about me and asking it of you as well. Feel free to respond in the comments or to email me. I’m happy to work through what ever comes up for you. I will not be trolled, though.
You are not alone. There are several places to go look for ideas. Let me list some links:
- Jane Elliot of the famous Blue Eyes-Brown Eyes study has a lot of terrific work on confronting white people in their privilege. She’s pretty amazing to watch in action.
- Tim Wise the well known author, speaker, and anti-racist. I found his FAQ to be particularly helpful.
- The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond is a group devoted to undoing racism.
- Salon has an interesting article in which they solicit advice from eleven people on what white people can do, 11 Things White People can do to be Real Anti-Racist Allies.
Cultivate introspection and self-awareness around the issues of race. Be a good observer of yourself and your inner reactions, especially those that you attempt to suppress. One of my first experiences was realizing how uncomfortable I could be around black people, especially when I was in a black neighborhood. Some of it was “justified.” I remember the boy shouting at me, Bring the bicycle over here white boy. The boy who spit on me as I rode up behind a trolley. The man-child who hauled out a flip knife and was flipping it open and closed as a friend and I cleared up after a rally in a park asking about what a couple of white people were doing in a black neighborhood after dark. There was a degree of threat some more real than others in each of those situations.
But, I also recognized the discomfort I felt in my early mental health career when I had to work with black people, especially young black people, especially young black men. I began to question myself because I knew it was wrong. It was a struggle to confront the fear that I felt just from being in the presence of a young black man and the more “ghetto” or “hip hop” or “rap” he looked, the worse it was.
Anyway, the more I worked at it, the more I realized that the problem was mine. But, the key here was the stimulus material. I had to be around black people to feel the fear and discomfort before I could start to resolve it. Maybe you do, too. I don’t know.
Realize how damaging and corrosive discrimination is to those on the receiving end of it. The first time I watched the PBS Frontline episode, A Class Divided, and saw the pain and hurt on those children’s faces, I knew that anyone who had experienced what those children had would be feeling that but worse. People of color experience discrimination everyday. Here’s a short excerpt from the show. See if you have the same reaction.
Here’s an example of her work with groups of white people on identifying racism.
As a white person, you have to ask yourself, what came up while watching those clips. And, if you’re being honest, you might identify some defensiveness or denial or not-me-ism or some such. We all have internalized racist attitudes and ideas because we came up in and live in a racist society. We can’t get rid of systemic racism without first ending those racist attitudes in ourselves, and we can’t do that if we don’t have an emotionally meaningful encounter with them. Luckily, it can be done privately and by yourself. I think, many white people fear the embarrassment and condemnation from owning up to their issues around race.
You will also start to become aware of how you’ve benefited from being white in your personal life. Every time a police officer murders an unarmed black person, there’s always a spat of jokes on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media about how a white person was stopped by police and wasn’t shot. That’s a prime example of white privilege. You got a mortgage and you weren’t redlined, white privilege. You walked through a parking lot and no one shouted nigger at you, white privilege. You see the way this works. It’s like white privilege occupies the negative space in our lives. It isn’t that we get a leg up, it is that we are not oppressed.
One of the most curious aspects of white privilege is our assumption that we should be able to appropriate anyone and everyone’s culture, and maybe in a perfect world we would. But, our world is stained by the racism that benefits us whites and oppresses non-whites. We, as a group, should forego cultural appropriation out of respect for the oppressed. We already have everything, we don’t need to be wearing dashikis or kimonos… and can we end the embarrassment of country rap? Can we all agree right now to just walk away and pretend like it never happened?
We sure as shit do not need to be using the term nigger. We should just put that motherfucker down and leave it alone. It ain’t for us and you just look ridiculous, just ask Bill Maher.
Be prepared to react in an effective and positive way when you’re in public. If you witness someone being harassed because of their skin color, ethnicity, gender, or religion, talk to them. Ignore the harasser. Talk to the person being harassed. Be positive. A reader wrote in the comments some time ago about an experience she had in a Walmart or other similar store when a man started harassing a Muslim woman wearing a hijab. All she did was start talking to the woman. She began by complementing her hijab. It was brave, non-confrontational, and effective.
Talk to other white people about racism, prejudice, implicit bias, and white privilege. One of my early formative experiences was in writing to the New York Times Ethicist reacting to a question about putting on a blackface performance for a nonagenarian’s birthday party. The reason you don’t do those things is explained by prejudiced norm theory — people inclined to bigotry are more likely to act in bigoted ways and feel understood and accepted.
Remember that minority influence tells us that a member of the in-group advocating a minority opinion is much more powerful in changing the views of the majority than a member of the minority saying the same things. Your gentle understanding in your discussion with a peer will go a much longer way to promoting change than silence, lecturing, mass emails, or just about anything else.
Notice what isn’t here: talking to people of color about what they want. They want the racism to end. Great you’ve recognized the systemic racism and oppression of minority groups that is inherent in the system; don’t expect a medal or certificate of achievement. I have had some very rewarding discussions with people of color on social media, though. I think the medium helps because it allows for some distance and some discretion of when you respond. Also, things are not likely to go twisting out of control and if they do, you can always be unfriended.
It truly is incumbent upon white people to end racism. We started it, and only we can end it.