Reflecting on (my) whiteness
I'm writing this directly for my friends and peers who feel overwhelmed by the effects of racism and are feeling confused or hopeless and also are lacking an accessible approach to how they can best tackle racism.
A lot of people I speak to know some stuff about racism and how it works other than what school taught us but so much fewer people I know really reflect on their own race as white people or the construction of it. The only authority I have in talking about race are my personal experiences of being white, so that's where I'm starting.
In the majority of reflecting on my whiteness and its role in racism I am ashamed that I've missed a key part and that is to share, discuss, normalise sharing & discussion and to see what the other (white) people in my life think about it.
So I write this as the beginning of something. Not something huge but as a small act on the way to a colossal task to try and end racism.
I will get this wrong and I'm OK with that.
I hope you find time to read this and more importantly, after you've read it you will get in contact with me or someone else close to you and start talking about some of these things. I hope that you will share it with the (specifically white) people in your life who you are close with.
If you would like to talk more my email address is email@example.com. Send me an email if you would rather write, or with a phone number and we can talk on the phone.
A call to other white people (including myself)
Over the last week or so I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and writing about racism and my role within it.
The murder of George Floyd, Tony McDade, Breona Taylor, Armaud Arbery and the countless other black people (in the US and elsewhere) who have been murdered by white people (whether by racist police officers unwarrantedly murdering black people, with full knowledge and assurance they will get away with it, or the silent passivity of a public figure and influencer who’s actions (or more importantly their lack of them) continue to uphold and enshrine a white supremacist ideology which leads black folks to be consumed by a constant struggle and which ultimately leads to their deaths) are some of the worst atrocities we face.
But they shouldn’t surprise us.
The injustices of racism whether it’s police brutality or the recent disgusting treatment of POC by the media when it has come to the delayed and impassive (and lack of) reporting the disproportionate amount of deaths among BAME people due to coronavirus is centuries old. It’s ingrained into everything.
The violent injustice and horror in America is terrifying and blatant, but so often the racism I see (and am often blind to) in the UK is insipid, sneaky, full of denial, just as brutal and it is all pervasive.
It is built into the bricks of every building, each syllable of our language and into the kind smiling faces of our mothers. This painful dissonance of being both racist and kind (or comforting/familiar) is one reason why so many of us white people can’t (or refuse to) see it for what it is.
That our siblings are being subjugated, violated and murdered daily while we stand by and ignore their plights.
I want to speak directly to the white people reading this. In particular the “middle class, educated, liberal, artsy” crowd who see themselves as progressive and make up the majority of my wider social group.
From today, we need to dedicate ourselves to the undoing of racism in everything we do.
This doesn’t mean we have to be on the streets protesting every day until we die (but please remember that that is an option) or spending every free hour reading antiracist theory but we need to be actively reflecting on our whiteness, how it shapes our world view and how it influences our biases and prejudices, how it allows the most evil acts to be committed in our names and how we can work to dismantle and undo our racist mindsets (and yes they are 100% racist) and actively work towards equality.
Racism is not our fault but it is our responsibility (as white people) to dismantle it. Stop blaming politicians, law markers/enforcers or extremists. We are all culpable.
With that said, here are some of the things that have stayed with me on my journey interrogating my own whiteness and the role it plays to uphold racism. I share this in the hope you will read and reflect on some of these and consider your own path in dismantling racism .
Most of this won’t be new to those of you who are already engaged but I think it’s important to remind ourselves of it. And for anyone who hasn’t thought about these issues in depth, I hope these can be the start of something for you.
Some of these thoughts are personal reflections, but none of them are new and the vast majority have been directly taken from the exceptional work done by so many pro black, anti-racist thinkers and activists I’ve encountered along the way. There are too many to mention and some I forget their authorship but I hope that by sharing their wisdom I can honour them and continue their legacies whilst also acknowledging the racism and colonialism at play in a white person collecting and sharing their invaluable, hard-fought and vital work.
I would like to especially thank Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, bell hooks, Renni Eddo-Lodge, James Baldwin, Indya Moore, Munroe Bergdorf, Jane Elliot, Valerie Mason-John, Kai Chang Tom, Erika Hart, Naomi Shoba, Maya Angelou, Toni Lewis, Toni Morrison, Pauline Mayers, Selina Thompson, Adam Benmakhlouf, Robin Diangelo, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Project X, Mele Broomes, Franchesca Ramsey, Solange, Beyoncé, Yon Afro, Briana Pegado, Thulani Rachia, Resisting Whiteness, Sisters Uncut, White Accomplices, Malcolm X, Claudia Rankine, Roxanne Gay, Oprah Winfrey, Yves Mathieu, Vienna Rye, Bob the Drag queen, Peppermint, The Vixen, Pxssy Palace, Bernardine Evaristo and the countless other friends, peers, academics, strangers, activists, family members who have shared their insights and experiences, sparked discussions, ignited passion & action, written books, articles, made podcasts, tweeted, posted, commented, made art, performances, YouTube videos, comedy shows, podcasts, films, tv shows and music. And thank you to all the people who’s names we’ll never know; who lives and words and histories were stolen from them, buried and silenced.
Reflecting on (my) whiteness, it’s role in upholding racism
and what steps I/we can take towards dismantling it.
Never forget that allyship isn’t defined by the ally. It is a verb. Not a noun. And is always based on whether your actions at any given moment are in the interest of the people or person you are trying to help.
By all means share relevant anti racist content or thoughts with others but beware of hollow 'virtue signalling' and think about how you can move from being an Actor to Ally to Accomplice
You can have the nicest intentions in the world but it doesn’t matter. It’s about the impact of your actions. Always take a moment to reflect before acting but remember you will get it wrong along the way.
When a person of colour tells you their experience of racism, listen.
But do not conflate or cite their personal experience to be true for all POC or to be used for self serving anecdotes.
Stop whitewashing the UK and Scotland’s history of racial injustice. And not just the cities - all of Scotland.
The job of tackling racism is down to white people. We created it, we need to dismantle it.
Your life will be better if there was an end to racism. You may well lose privileges (or be scared of losing them) and when that happens it may feel painful or oppressive but remember it is vital for reparations and equality.
As a white person, there is so much more to be gained in tackling racism than there is to lose. We are not free until we are all free. Your own freedom and equality is directly linked to that of you black and brown siblings.
When talking to other white people about racism be wary of how often conversations will diverge into other systems of oppression (classism, homophobia etc). This derails conversations about racism into territory that some white people find more comfortable to deal with whilst also feeding a narrative that you're doing good. When you see this happening, bring it back to the question in hand; racism & white supremacy.
Break the (white) taboo of talking about racism and make it something accessible and everyday.
Do not tell people to say things more calmly. People have a right to be angry and upset. 'Tone policing' acts as a way to silence people sharing their thoughts.
Allow for anger. Allow for sadness. Allow for pain.
Allow for the scepticism and scrutiny from people of colour when you try to engage or do your bit. They should be sceptical and they should be scrutinising you. Don't take it personally. Don't flail your arms up in the air and say "I'm sorry" without really understanding what you're apologising for. Don't skip over the discomfort or give up because you find it difficult.
Sit in the pain and injustices of racism.
Often as white people when we see injustice we feel so angry or sad or deeply uncomfortable that there’s a desire to jump to a solution or an end goal to absolve ourselves of guilt or to find a quick fix.
There are so many active things you can do. But recognise the moments when you slip into avoidance or denial or skip over the pain and discomfort (and true horror) of racism.
Sit in it. Interrogate it. Look at your feelings, your biases, your privileges, your prejudices, your guilt, your culpability, the ways your mind has been colonised and is a product of a white supremacist society and as such is taught to uphold the white supremacist stays quo.
Accept that you are racist & that your thoughts and actions are often racist and actively contribute to racism.
Reflect on your language, behaviour and the consequences of your actions .
And this means actively, not just wallowing or daydreaming in your head. Get a pen and paper and write stuff down. Reflect on it, unpick it, challenge it. Talk to other white people about it. Talk to me about it - Please! I am in exhaustible - this is all I want to talk about it!
The more you do, the more natural and embodied it will become.
Do not allow yourself to become desensitised to racialised violence. Don't pretend that you're not.
Recognise that racism is one form of oppression of which there are many. Make sure to be intersectional in your approach by also challenging ableism, classism, shadism, misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, ageism, culturalism, capitalism, exploitation and injustice.
The police are one of the biggest parts of the problem.
Do not think of what you’re doing as heroic and do not engage in anti racist actions hoping for or expecting praise from people of colour. You are not a saviour.
Do not seek affirmation or solace in POC and respect non-consent to engage in discussion.
They owe you nothing.
Forgive yourself for when you’ve done wrong, make immediate mends to correct it and commit to doing better in the future.
Use your capital- think about where your money goes. If something is cheap there’s usually a hidden cost. Use your social capital too! Engage with other white people about it.
Donate your time and money and services to anti racist organisations, share relevant posts/articles with friends and family and public forums, actively engage in anti racist organisations and discussions, publicly challenge racist acts (especially the microaggressions / covert acts / invisibilisation) but be careful around centring your white experience.
Challenging racism will mean challenging people you love and people who are vital to your wellbeing. You will make people feel uncomfortable. Don’t confuse discomfort with being bad. This is where change happens. Being a killjoy is inevitable. Accept it.
Express your gratitude to the POC thinkers and activists who are really doing the work! Invest in them. Buy their books. Spread their knowledge. Donate to their causes. Like and share their posts. Leave them positive reviews.
Be careful when aligning your queer (or other marginalised) experience with that of a person of colour. All our struggles are intertwined but to mash them up together undermines and silences the specifics of how racism works.
Do not use POC as educators or expendable emotional labour. And avoid using the POC in your life as touchstones for ‘wokeness’. This in itself is deeply racist. It strips people of their individuality, it reinforces stereotypes, biases and binaries and creates a gulf of intimacy between you. Remember again impact and intention.
Sitting with racial injustice can bring up feelings of sadness, horror, anger, white fragility, guilt, shame and complacency.
Recognise, Allow, Investigate & Nurture these feelings but try and do these things without centring or prioritising whiteness or giving yourself a free pass because “you’re just the victim of a white supremacist society”.
Use compassion alongside accountability. It’s not your fault but it is your responsibility.
Notice the moments when the work is making you overly anxious or depressed and take breaks. Social justice is a relay race and won’t be solved overnight.
And avoid equating (your) white suffering with reparations. It may be a byproduct but it is not the goal.
Be aware though that the root of that anxiety/depression could be because of inaction and/or apathy. Try getting active and involved as a coping strategy, even if it’s just through reading or writing or talking and not just mindlessly consuming etc.
Tackling racism is a life long task. It will ebb and flow and right now it's a flood. Keep it flooding.
Acknowledging that things are getting better does not bring about more change. It is patronising, it pacifies activism, breeds complacency and smugness.
Try to practice gratitude that as someone who doesn’t face racial oppression you are better served to fight for others.
Educate yourself. Keep educating yourself!
You don’t just do a two week course and become woke. Racism is cunning in its evolution and will always find new ways to uphold white supremacy. Keep engaged.
Don't expect others to be doing the work. You need to be doing it with them.
Listen to varying opinions and reflect on them. Don’t just consume and assume them as ‘right or good’.
Anti-racist thinkers and activists may also display transphobia, ableism, misogyny, classism, and many other biases. Beware the danger of one narrative.
If reading is too much or texts can be too academic remember there are lots of good YouTube videos and podcasts.
Get involved in reading groups. If there aren’t any, start one.
If you're not sure where to start and feel like a book might be too much, here is a link to an anthology of short essays and articles I compiled last year on whiteness and racism.
Scroll through the titles until you see one that interests you (or more likely makes you feel uncomfortable) or just pick one at random, call a friend (or me!) and read it together. Talk about it afterwards.
Turn theory into practice.
This is really important and it doesn’t happen overnight. It happens by articulating, understanding and dismantling your conditioning, envisioning new approaches, embodying it and living it. And putting in the work.
Remember though that practice doesn't make perfect, practice makes permanence. Try not to regurgitate the same points. Allow yourself to be non-defensive and really reflect on what you're engaging with.
When you get it wrong (and you will) accept it, make amends, move on, listen to feedback and try again.
Racism is not up for debate.
Do not play devil’s advocate. Challenge those that do.
When you see an example of a situation where racism doesn’t seem to be at play (like a POC of excelling in their field) do not use that exception as a standard.
When you choose silence you choose the side of the oppressor. Speak up! And not just to your bubble.
But remember to sit down and listen when POC are sharing their experiences of racism and how you can help.
Remember that as a white person talking about racism you are both challenging racism whilst also centring your white voice and experience. This is a both/and that you must live with.
Recognise these notes are just a snowflake on top of an iceberg. There is always more. Go deeper.
Actively question me and these notes.
Hold each other accountable. And be grateful when someone calls you out, it means they care about you, believe you are capable of change, you have good intentions and you are worth it.
This will be some of the most challenging and uncomfortable work of your life, but it will also be the most life affirming, joyous, emancipatory thing you can do.