When I first began to seriously investigate racism, and the role we whites play in perpetuating it, I felt hesitant and awkward. I realized that this issue was huge, and my understanding of it was fairly limited. Racial injustice really angered me, but I was not sure how to engage it. I regularly observed my colleagues of color, and even the more seasoned white colleagues, recognize patterns that I failed to see initially. This led me to feel even more hesitant. How can I take effective action to dismantle racism when I fail to notice aspects of it that are playing out in the moment?
My colleagues in our diversity firm understood the importance of having a white man openly address the issue of institutional racism. They patiently waited for me to develop the skills and the confidence to carry my weight. They allowed me to do my best, and learn at my own speed. Over time, I realized that there were certain situations that I did understand well enough to add something useful to the discussion. I also noticed that other whites listened to me differently than they did to my colleagues of color. I could even say the same things they said, but the reaction when I said it was very different. At worst, other whites remained silent. They never tried to rebut what I said the way they did with my colleagues of color.
Once I saw this dynamic, I realized how important it was for me to speak up. While my understanding of the scope of racism was more limited than my colleagues of color, my voice was needed. I could also see that the act of speaking up as a white person had an effect on the other whites. If nothing else, it broke the unity of white silence on racism. This in itself was something new for some of the white participants in the sessions. No longer could they dismiss what BIPOC people said, as simply their attempt to “play the race card.” When whites speak up, we cannot as easily be dismissed as just pursuing our self-interest. Acknowledging racism does not appear in our immediate self-interest because it involved acknowledging a system of privilege in which we participated.
I say all this in the hope that other whites will embrace this critical role. Institutional racism can only exist if a critical mass of whites continues to support the policies, practices and norms that support it. This is why whites have such an important role. Once a critical mass of white decide that we will not support, either directly or indirectly, the racial status quo, it has to change. The good news is that there is a wide array of things we can do to destabilize and undermine institutional racism.
I urge people to start with small steps and acquire experience and skill in taking small steps. What are small steps? The first is to simply observe racial dynamics as they play out in your daily life. When you go shopping or enter an educational institution, what do you notice in terms of which races are present and which are absent? As you do this, notice whether individual races are present in numbers that match their percentage of the municipal population. (You easily find the statistics on racial demographics in your community by consulting the internet.)
As you look around, which roles do the different races occupy? Is there a pattern in terms of which races fill which roles? Which races are represented among the local authorities in your community? These include:
the police chief
the bank managers and bank presidents
the presidents of the Lions Club and Chamber of Commerce
the owners of the real estate firms
the owners of local businesses
the corporate officers of any corporations in the area
the state and federal elected officials
Observing the racial patterns is important because it breaks a cardinal rule that sustains institutional racism. That rule ensures that there is no discussion about the patterns of exclusion that still exist in terms of employment, access to education, mortgage loans, protection from illegal search and seizure, housing and quality food outlets. A careful inspection of these racial patterns establishes a baseline against which progress can be measured. Without these verifiable statistics, discussions of racism easily become exchanges of beliefs and not explorations of the current realities.
The second small step may feel riskier. It involves sharing what you notice. You do not have to convince other whites that your observations are accurate. You simply need to share: (1) your observations and (2) your reactions to what you notice (e.g., surprise, concern, discomfort, etc.) By sharing your observations, you deprive fellow whites of the silence of ignoring racial realities. You have broken the silence, and called attention to a reality that surrounds you. By sharing your reactions, you are letting your fellow whites know where you stand. In effect, you are notifying them that you do not approve or support the status quo if any disparities are present.
This step impacts other whites. I suggest you begin this with whites who you think are “fair minded.” The ways they react to your observations and reactions will tell you a lot. If they react with concern and indicate that they want to rectify any disparities, you will then have identified potential allies. If they react with defensiveness or disapproval, you will have some calibration of the level of resistance to racial equity among your neighbors. I have learned so much about the ways whites deny these realities by raising the topic of race with “liberal “ whites. I have found it very helpful to map the ways that whites avoid and deny the reality of racism in their community. It has helped me know who are possible allies and who are those that I will not waste time talking about racism. There are other ways to influence their behavior, but that comes later after you have identified any allies.
The third initial step is to expand your knowledge about institutional racism. This involves learning some history. Whether you watch videos on-line or join book clubs, it is important to expand your knowledge. We have been carefully conditioned to be ignorant about the history just in the 20th century that established the patterns of racial disparity that still exist today. These disparities exist in
Access to housing
access to medical care
exposure to disproportionate search and seizure
presentations in the media (both news and entertainment).
Those structures were established by local, state and federal lawmakers and the results still restrict access to resources and opportunity for BIPOC people. We need to be knowledgeable about these facts so that we can help other whites move beyond the ignorance that is so widespread.
None of these steps requires vast knowledge in order to initiate them. Moreover, your knowledge increases with each step, and that, in turn, enables you to perceive even more of the racial dynamics that are occurring around you. This process builds your confidence as you realize that you have information that so many other whites lack. This is so important because our main role is to build networks of whites who will no longer support the racial status quo (i.e., institutional racism). We are able to build such networks because we are white. Our presence with other whites is not met with caution or discomfort. Our looks, ways of speaking and backgrounds are very similar to other whites. In a sense we are like the queen on a chessboard – we can travel easily in any direction. This access to other whites enables us to engage whites in discussions where they feel less discomfort than if we were of color.
Of course, doing all of this assumes that racial justice is something that really matters to us.
This issue becomes most personal as we develop deep relationships with BIPOC people. Then, we see how racism impacts on a daily basis the lives of people whom we care about. It is no longer an abstract issue or value. It impacts us because we see the pain it causes our friends and loved ones. It is this pain that propels us to do as much as we can to dismantle institutional racism.
The best way that I know of to develop relationships with BIPOC folks is through participating in organizations run by BIPOC people. You can research on-line racial justice organizations in your geographic area. Even if there are no formal organizations, there are likely to be informal groups of parents of color who have children in white-run school systems. Usually there are some whites who are aligned with these BIPOC parents. Such whites may have adopted children of color, or they may be whites who have established relationships with BIPOC folks.
These groups can always use another person who will do the work of the work. I strongly urge any white person to prioritize listening and following rather than pushing your ideas. People in these groups have vastly more experience dealing with institutional racism than you do. One of the ways we establish credibility in such groups is by doing the basic work of showing up and carrying out the tasks that are asked of everyone. We develop credibility by how we act over time. Inevitably, there will be times when these groups need whites to speak up in public to counter some policy or action which is injurious to BIPOC people. Do not worry if you feel nervous the first time you speak up. That is just part of the process. It does not completely disappear, but over time your resolve gets stronger as you see how injurious the system is to people whom you now know and care about deeply.
Like most things that are important, this takes time. I urge whites to persevere. BIPOC know that real history shows that there have always been some whites who stood with them, even in the worst of times. They know there are such whites. Our behavior over time will indicate if we are one of them. In the meantime, keep taking small actions and build your confidence through them. We always have access to whites because we live among them. This means we can always be practicing ways to engage them on matters of racial justice. The more we do this, the more our repertoire grows, and the more confidence we develop.