2020 has brought many life-changing events and here we sit with another one. George Floyd dying at the hands of police has sent us into a civil rights moment that I’ve never seen in my lifetime. I have hope that attitudes are changing among white people that may lead to the dismantling of structural racism. #BlackLivesMatter is mainstream and white people are speaking out in numbers I haven’t seen, but there’s still work to be done.
The intent of my post is to talk about the role I’ve found for myself and give ideas for other white people to continue the work we must do to eliminate systematic racism.
Structural racism has been important to me for a long time. My core values are kindness, building community, and realizing potential in everyone. Watching clearly talented people be discounted because of their differences is offensive to me and it’s something I’ve worked to fix for much of my adult life.
I didn’t always feel this way. Despite growing up and attending public schools in a very diverse area, my parents were overtly racist (and homophobic and patriarchical). That’s notwithstanding the white supremacist society we all grew up in. It was hard to grow up without racist views. My racism included expecting that Black people were less smart than me, that Latinx people took jobs from my dad, and that affirmative action was cheating white people. I most definitely asked why there wasn’t a White Student Union at the University of Maryland.
A few life changing moments helped me to shift my thinking.
The first was a class I took from John Splaine about the history of education. He was a fabulous teacher who encouraged psychological safety in his classes. People were comfortable speaking out, which made the weekly discussions insightful and more honest than most college classes. He also brought in all sorts of people to talk to us. Education reporters, veteran teachers, and people from the business community visited our class. It was a successful man from the business community who grew up poor that sticks in my mind the most. He declared to us that he was not racist. The class, a diverse group by race and age, pounced on that statement. “How can anyone not be racist in this country?” was their argument. “It’s impossible so anyone who declares they aren’t racist isn’t to be trusted.”
That moment stuck with me. I fully agreed that we are all racist and that it was part of growing up in the US. That moment taught me to never believe that I’m not racist and has stayed with me for over 20 years. It also made me aware of my upbringing and to help me to start to do work to change my beliefs.
Another way I’ve learned to believe racism is built into the community is by comparing the sexism I’ve experienced both in regular society and as the only woman in my career and hobbies. Now, racism and sexism are very different, but they do relate in how they limit the opportunities both groups get. Because I value realizing potential so highly, it was perfectly obvious to me after 5 years in the technology industry that we weren’t giving enough people a chance and thus were losing out on the potential of those of us who were underestimated.
I reasoned that if I was being underestimated, that others were as well. Because of that, I worked hard to discover and undo my implicit biases so I wouldn’t do to others what had been done to me. This is still ongoing as I discover and address my biases, but it was important to me to not set others back as I had been.
I lived in Prince George’s County, Maryland for 8 years. It’s known as the most affluent Black majority county in the country. White people are generally in the minority, and my hobbies helped me make friends with people who didn’t look like me. As a distance runner, you end up spending hours with people who run as fast as you do, and we knew each other very well after a fall running 2 hours every Sunday. You don’t always pick who you end up running with, so I got to know so many different people. From that time, I learned that everyone is doing their best, trying to care for those they love, and trying to get better at what they love to do.
That brings us to today, I’ve been calling out racism, sexism, homophobia, and ageism in my jobs for many years but less so in my personal life. That’s now not possible, I cannot let my white friends and colleagues make racist comments anymore. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It’s not, so I’ve been working hard to find what I should be doing.
I am empathetic, very empathetic, so seeking out other voices isn’t hard for me. What’s hard for me is to feel like my voice matters. I find it hard to keep talking, about anything, much less a hard topic like this. I can be stubborn about my ideals, so standing up for them isn’t hard, but it’s hard for me to sustain.
After thinking a lot about it, the balance I am attempting is this:
- Amplifying Black voices, not just on the topic of racism. Also seeking to use my privilege as a white woman to give opportunities where they might otherwise not get them.
- Listening to Black people. Seeking to understand their perspective.
- Speaking out against racism when I see it. Even if it’s someone I love, even when it’s so subtle I can’t be sure it’s actually racist.
- Working with other white people. Finding the people who want to listen, who want to do the work to work against the racism our society is built on.
- “Reinventing reality,” or repeating the words I want to see other white people saying. Normalizing that Black lives more than matter, that they are needed and loved. I perform this mostly on Facebook, where my friends are mostly older and white.
- Being available to help other white people by encouraging them to ask me questions instead of having them bother Black people.
Start here. Or Google for your own resources.
Save the Tears: White Woman’s Guide