It took the murder of George Floyd to wake me up.
I’ve been called a “bleeding heart liberal” throughout my life. I debated for gun control in elementary school, I make donations to help animals, I canvass for Democrats, I march for women, LGBTQ rights, the environment and, of course, I have always decried racial injustice. I thought I was progressive, caring and therefore decidedly not racist. But according to Dr. Robin DiAngelo in the book White Fragility, “White progressives cause the most daily damage to people of color.” She says progressives who claim to be “color blind” or think we already “get it” or are part of the “choir” don’t put our energy into education, self-awareness and the work of anti-racist practice.
We first have to understand what “racism” means, because many of us have a narrow understanding of the term. The word “racism” is being redefined by Merriam Webster to accurately reflect its perniciousness. Racism isn’t a simple thing to point to, like a hateful person who aggressively targets people of color; No, racism is an elaborate system. Individual people can be prejudiced, and prejudice can go both ways between people of color and White people, but “racism” is bigger than individual people and it only flows in one direction. “Reverse racism” does not exist in America. DiAngelo writes “When a racial group’s collective prejudice is backed by power of legal authority and institutional control, it is transformed into racism, a far-reaching system that functions independently from the intentions or self-images of individual actors.”
Those individual actors are you and me, and whatever our self-images and intentions are, if we’re White, we benefit from the racist status quo. As DiAngelo puts it: “White people in North America live in a society that is deeply separate and unequal by race, and white people are the beneficiaries of that separation and inequality. As a result, we are insulated from racial stress, at the same time we come to feel entitled to and deserving of our advantage.”
She’s talking about all White people. Dr. DiAngelo says that in her decades of work with organizations around racial issues, White people predictably resent being generalized as a group. As White people, we may be uncomfortable being seen racially because we’re not used to it; we’ve had the luxury of our White privilege. We think we’re just “people” and the rest are “other races” of people. We can be comfortable in a racist society because, if we were born White in America, we inherited the privileged skin color. The system benefits us, and we don’t know any different.
Clearly White people have painful tragedies and crippling challenges in our lives too, but our skin color is not the source of those challenges. Answer Peggy McIntosh’s 50 questions to assess your own White privilege.
It took the murder of George Floyd to make systemic racism my problem. I don’t want things to go back to business as usual, the way they were before May 25, 2020. I’ve been working on this blog about racism, frequently stopped by the the idea that no one needs to hear from an un-credentialed White woman who is only beginning to understand systemic racism. I’m sure my message is flawed and incomplete, but “silence is complicity” and I must say something. It’s Juneteenth weekend; I’m going to finish and share this.
Maybe you are like me: A White person finally shaken out of your bubble by the image of George Floyd on the ground, pleading for breath, suffocated, silenced, windpipe crushed by the knee of a white cop. Maybe you are grieving, mortified and speechless. You want to say something about racism, and you know anything you say is going to be wrong.
As White people, nothing we say about racism is ever going to be enough. We won’t get patted on the back for speaking up, but we must start recognizing and naming racism, and we must take actions to dismantle it.
I had heard of the many Black victims of police brutality, but I had never said their names out loud or written about them. I had never seen the devastating video of Philando Castile being shot just minutes after being pulled over for a broken tail light. I had heard of Sandra Bland but hadn’t seen her Sandy Speaks videos, where she gave encouragement to both Black and White people around Black Lives Matter. And I hadn’t seen the videos of Sandy being pulled over for failing to use her turn signal, then yanked from her car, battered and taken to jail, where she died three days later.
Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many other Black sons, daughters, friends, husbands, sisters, fathers, brothers, wives and mothers have been killed in grievous violence as the result of systemic racism. And this I say is not to condemn myself and others like me as bad people, but just to acknowledge reality: Even though I lamented and wrung my hands over these terrible murders, I went on with my life unchanged.
It took the murder of George Floyd to make systemic racism urgent and visceral for me. I want to learn everything I can about racism and do everything I can to break it down. I want my business and my job to include racial justice, every day.
The learning curve is steep. I’m reading, listening to Black voices, and taking actions in my community. A few Mondays ago, some friends and I started a chat we called “White allies.” That Thursday, I read an Instagram post by anti-racism educator Monique Melton (@moemotivate) that said in bold “Black Lives Don’t Need White Allies.” She explained “The label ‘allies’ implies that this work for you is optional, aspirational, intellectual, for personal development; when it is actually ur responsibility & for Black liberation.” DiAngelo agrees, “Racism is a White problem. It was constructed and created by White people and the ultimate responsibility lies with White people. For too long we’ve looked at it as if it were someone else’s problem, as if it was created in a vacuum.”
We changed the name of our group that Friday, and on Saturday we deleted the group entirely because it started to derail and not be constructive. New groups are forming. This is messy and awkward but please roll up your sleeves and get imperfectly involved. Even though it may be unconscious, DeAngelo says our unwillingness to talk about racism is a behavior of solidarity, the unspoken pact to keep the comfortable racist system in place. We have to stop protecting each other from seeing our participation in racism. We have to speak.
It drives me crazy when I hear people using “the looting” or a Black murder victim’s drug use or arrest record as justification for denying systemic racism. Please deepen, broaden and lengthen your view. Dr. King said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” There is a 400-year history of White people enslaving, murdering and oppressing Black people in America. Setting aside the abundant evidence that white agitators initiated much of the violence and looting after George Floyd’s death, do you want to understand why some Black people were willing to walk through broken glass to take things out of stores? Listen to Kimberly Jones in “How Can We Win?” to grasp the context, the economic sabotage that has been inflicted on Black Americans for 400 years. Until I watched it, I had never in my life heard of Greenwood and the Tulsa Race Massacre. The most powerful thing I’ve heard about looting is this speech from Tamika Mallory.
We need to be educated about the Black experience in this country. We need to listen and learn about the bind our racist institutions have built around Black people. DiAngelo uses an analogy to describe White people’s blindness to this bind. She says if you’re looking at a bird in a cage very closely, with your eye between the slats, it looks like the bird is free. But the further back you step, the more you see an entire structure of wires that keep the bird caged. When we deliberately take a larger view, we can see that mass incarceration resulting from drug laws skewed against Black people and intentional disparities in education, politics, housing, health-care, employment, the criminal justice system, media representation and other disadvantages work together to limit and oppress Black people in this country. Watch the film “13th” to learn about this in detail.
The ugly truth is that America functions on top of vast, murderous injustices that have never been claimed and repaired. The genocide of Indigenous people and slavery of Black people underlie the founding of our nation and wealth as a country. Not only have we not owned up to these crimes against humanity, but we have built upon them with racist institutions and solidarity that prevents us from atoning for them. On the subject of these original sins, Ta-Nehisi Coates said, “But race is the child of racism, not the father.” What he means by this, DiAngelo explains, is that first these peoples were exploited for their resources. Then the “ideology of unequal races to justify this exploitation followed.” Let that sink in. The greed and disregard for life in our history is staggering.
If you are White and you doubt that you benefit from racism, I ask you to read White Fragility or Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad, How to Be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi or Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
If you are unsettled about race relations in America, I ask you to stop blaming others and come to grips with your own complicity in the racist system in which we live. Start with any of these books or the resources below.
I’m sorry it took the murder of George Floyd for me to see my part in racism. The horrifying and painful video of his killing shook the whole world. How many Black men, women and children have been brutally murdered when there was no camera to capture it? How many more Black people will be killed before we, White people, take responsibility for the systemic racism from which this atrocious violence springs, and end it?
We can’t be passive witnesses to the violence anymore. Angela Davis said, “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist. We must be ANTI-racist.” Owning up to White privilege and systemic racism is humbling, but as Monique Melton advises, this isn’t about our feelings; it’s about ending racialized terror for Black people.
Between the time I started writing this and the time I finished it, Rayshard Brooks, a young Black father and husband, was gunned down and killed in Atlanta by police.
Are you white privileged like me? It’s time for us to wake up and do something. Enough is enough. Black Lives Matter.
Watch 13th and other Black Lives Matter titles on Netflix
Systemic Racism Explained video by Act.tv
Dear White People: here are 10 Actions You Can Take to Promote Racial Justice in The Workplace
Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man video by Emmanuel Acho
75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice
11 Anti-Racists Accounts That Are Worth Following
Anti-Racism courses by Monique Melton
Tamika Mallory’s speech in Minneapolis
8CantWait.org A Campaign to Bring Immediate Change to Police Departments
Black Lives Matters partners to support financially
Anti-Racism Resources for Parents and Families From Nickelodeon
Thank you, Maureen, for writing this. I relate to much of what you wrote. I’m doing my best to see where i can now make a difference as a White woman.
Maureen! My kind, courageous and brilliant friend! I am so grateful for your words and your willingness to use them to illuminate the work that needs to be done. You have a gift with synthesizing and composing the written word and I am honored to be on the receiving end of your creative expression. I’m so glad you stayed the course, finished this post and shared it with those who are willing to read and listen… Looking forward to more and feeling inspired to share my own overdue “decolonizing my mind & body” post.
Thank you, Caitlin! I’m glad you found it valuable. 💜
Oh!! I really like that phrase, “decolonizing my mind and body”. Awesome! I”m going to use that. Thank you!