Once we whites become aware of the magnitude and extent of the systemic racism that surrounds us, it can feel overwhelming. How does one make an impact? What can be done that will matter? It is easy to feel powerless. What can one person do that will actually make a difference?
I have found it empowering to understand what it is that maintains institutional racism. Knowing the source of its power informs me of its vulnerabilities and weaknesses. Every structure is dependent on certain resources or conditions. If we can identify those that are essential to the maintenance of racial inequity, we can figure out how we can interrupt or destabilize those conditions or resources.
I find that the racial hierarchy rests on several pillars. I find three of them to be both critical, as well as vulnerable to undermining from activists. They are:
Whites, as a group, are unaware of their privilege and lack valid information about other racial groups. This includes ignorance about their culture, as well as ignorance about the barriers they face in society as they try to live a full life.
BIPOC people are excluded from resources. On a daily basis, they encounter barriers that whites do not face.
Whites are not held accountable for our behavior. When whites engage in activities that maintains the status quo, they are not confronted or held accountable for that behavior.
Racial equity activists can employ a number of approaches to undermine and weaken these three pillars, thereby undermining the status quo.
First Pillar: The unawareness of whites:
In many ways, the ultimate privilege is to remain ignorant and experience no consequences. There is a saying that when two elephants fight, millions of ants die. I doubt the elephants are aware of the ants, but you can be sure that ants go deep underground when elephants are in the vicinity.
Racial inequity relies of denial and avoidance to maintain the fiction that things are fair and there is no need for change. That denial is carefully achieved via the lack of information that is provided us in schools and in our families. The fact that we whites are so ignorant indicates how comprehensively our education filters out any information that would clue us into the racial hierarchy (what Isabel Wilkerson would call “caste”) that surrounds us.
Given our ignorance, what can we do? One simple but very fruitful activity we can do is to violate the training we have that tells us to ignore race. We can do the opposite and start observing the racial patterns that are all around us. In the firm of Elsie Y. Cross, this was called Tracking™. Tracking involves observing who, by race, is present and who is absent. This can be seen in university brochures or any magazine. What race are those who are the leaders, presidents, managers, etc.? In which roles do BIPOC people appear? In which roles are they absent? In meetings or social gatherings, observe which races are present and which are absent. A pattern where only one or two races are present is an important data point if it appears consistently over time. Notice too, how people are responded to if they speak. Are they allowed to finish without being interrupted? How do people of other races respond to them when they have spoken? Is their viewpoint acknowledged, rebutted or adopted? How much “air time” in a conversation is taken up by people of any one race?
Observing these patterns everywhere you go (house of worship, shopping, at work, in the neighborhood, in social gatherings) will give you a lot of information. Notice especially the race of those in positions of authority and those who perform menial work.
By noticing how racial power imbalances are playing out in the moment, whites who are committed to racial equity can identify actions that interrupt those patterns. By using tracking on a continuous basis, activists will broaden and deepen their own understanding of the ubiquity of exclusion and marginalization that occurs daily for people of color. They will also expand their knowledge of the many ways whites maintain the status quo by simply doing nothing.
Another way to undermine the ignorance of whites is for activists can also decrease ignorance among their fellow whites by sharing what they are tracking with other whites. While some whites may react negatively or defensively to the tracking information, they will be less able to remain in their “ignorance is bliss” state. This strategy not only reduces ignorance, but it introduces some tension among whites, thereby weakening the power to enforce the status quo. Some whites may be receptive to this new information, while others will be uncomfortable. That discomfort indicates that a privilege has been taken away – whites can no longer enjoy their status without it being named as the privilege it is. This is a definite change in the status quo.
Activists can reduce their own ignorance by proactively expanding their knowledge about the lives of people of color. There are many ways they can do this.
They can read books and articles, or watch films about the lives of BIPOC people. They can read about or watch films that document the conditions which prevent people of color from accessing resources which whites enjoy regularly. The very act of working to decrease one’s ignorance is a step out of the state of denial onto a path of action.
Activists can also expand their knowledge by developing relationships with BIPOC people. Due to the degree of housing segregation that continues across the country, many whites only encounter BIPOC people regularly in the workplace. This is an opportunity where activists can develop relationships across the color line. As they develop deeper relationships with BIPOC co-workers, activists will be exposed to new information. This new information not only includes information about the challenges BIPOC people face daily, it also contains vital information about how whites, either consciously and unwittingly, maintain their monopoly on key resources (e.g., promotions, early information about changes that will be impacting the work unit, job openings, etc.).
In a community setting, developing these cross-race alliances is essential if BIPOC people are to be elected to local government and to school committees. These cross-race alliances are also settings where whites can experience following leaders who are BIPOC, something they may not experience in any other settings in their lives. This experience is foundational to uproot the unconscious bias that we whites always know what is best.
Activists can also develop relationships and alliances with other whites, who are themselves racial equity activists and who are even more experienced in doing the work. This enables less-experienced activists to acquire knowledge without having to “re-create the wheel,” thereby speeding up their learning process.
Second Pillar: Activities that enable BIPOC people to access the kinds of resources that are normally restricted to the white group.
As racial equity activists establish relationships with BIPOC people, these relationships develop into alliances where both parties work to reduce barriers for the person of color. Whites usually know things that are kept secret from people of color. Examples include: the “real rules” for being successful in any particular organization, information about other whites who will be less opposed to the success of people of color, and job-related opportunities that are not publicized outside the white group.
Activists can use their credibility, along with their networks among other whites, to introduce individual BIPOC people to influential whites. This kind of sponsorship and door-opening breaks the status quo where whites only support, or promote, the careers of other whites. While it may not demolish all the barriers that people of color face, it does undermine the status quo by disobeying the mandate for whites to support only other whites. In a similar vein, whites can identify white managers in the organization who are either more supportive of racial equity or those who are most dangerous to their BIPOC employees and need to be avoided.
In community settings, activist whites can research the internet and find the studies that document persistent bias in mortgage rates and costs for BIPOC loan applicants – something that has not changed much in 40 years. Circulating this data will make whites uncomfortable, because it directly contradicts the assumption that things are fair where they live. This too undercuts the privilege of being able to ignore a prime driver that so limits wealth building among BIPOC Americans. It also informs whites that polite white bankers who are their neighbors participate in this powerful form of inequity and criminality.
Third Pillar: Activities that reduce the ability of whites to escape accountability for their behaviors that maintain the status quo.
By tracking and sharing tracking data, racial equity activists bring scrutiny to behaviors that marginalize or devalue people of color and their contributions or performance. They also inform the larger white community about the patterns of racial exclusion that exist in the community. While some whites will react in ways that deny or minimize the tracking data, the very fact of sharing it intrudes into the comfort zone where whites can live without being aware that they participate in maintaining a racial hierarchy. The strength of the reaction is a good index of how invested those whites are in denying the reality of racial inequity.
Racial equity activists can lessen the frequency that they marginalize or devalue people of color by seeking feedback about their personal behavior from individual BIPOC people, as well as from other white racial equity activists. This is an especially important strategy because this action departs from the status quo where constructive feedback goes only from whites to BIPOC people. It also signals that the white person is willing to enter into a relationship founded on true equity, i.e., they are willing to be held accountable for their behavior.
Racial equity activists can also provide feedback to other whites. That feedback can take the form of letting other whites know how their behavior impacts the racial equity activist (e.g., “I don’t like being in meetings where we fail to hear all the ideas that people of color may have on that topic,” “It bothers me that the only time we mention race in our department is when we talk about whether a particular person of color will fit into our team”). Behaving in this way undermines this pillar of the status quo by reducing the ability of whites to act without scrutiny. It also puts other whites on notice that they can no longer rely on their fellow whites to uniformly support the status quo.
By focusing on these three pillars of the racial caste system, racial equity activists have a limited set of targets that they can address. As they expand their repertoire of effective actions, whites are also moving deep into a stance of engagement for change. When a critical mass of whites engages in these actions, the status quo becomes increasingly weaker and less consistent. The successive action of withdrawing support from the racial hierarchy weakens it over time. The example of white racial equity activists keeps chipping away at the privilege of other whites to remain ignorant. It also calls into question both their silence and collusion with the status quo. All of these actions work to destabilize the status quo and they can be accomplished wherever we live.