In light of the events in Charlottesville on Friday, I felt strong-pressed to write this article, but I debated about it. I wondered if we needed more thoughts from white people out on the internet. I’m writing this today because I hope to reach other white people so that we can do the work together to end what our ancestors started. Racism is a structural problem built and upheld by white people. That makes it our problem to take it down.
This past weekend, we saw yet again how white supremacy continues to have a strong hold on American culture. It is a constant thread throughout our complex history, the one thing that always remains. On Friday, a group of white supremacists organized a violent rally in protest of the removal of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. But let’s be honest and call a spade a spade: these people showed up in droves because of their anti-Blackness, not because of some statue. This proves what Black people have long been telling us—we are in a state of emergency in this country. We have been in a state of emergency for over 400 years. Racism is alive and thriving.
Mainstream dictionary definitions reduce racism to individual racial prejudice and the intentional actions that result from such, like using the n-word or following a Black person around a store in assumption they will steal or wearing Black-face for Halloween. The people that commit these intentional acts are deemed “bad,” and those that don’t are “good.” If we are against racism and unaware of committing racist acts, we can’t be racist; racism and being a good person have become mutually exclusive. But this definition does little to explain how racial hierarchies are consistently reproduced.
Social scientists understand racism as a multidimensional and highly adaptive system—a system that ensures an unequal distribution of resources between racial groups. Because whites built and dominate all significant institutions (often at the expense of and on the uncompensated labor of other groups), their interests are embedded in the foundation of US society.
For example, our education system was built for educating white children. When segregation ended by law, it didn’t truly end. It was upheld by our school systems and keeping certain children at inner-city schools where resources are wildly lacking still today. The police force is another example of this, an institution created for the sole protection of white women, mainly against the fear of Black men raping them. I always think of Emmett Till when I remember this. Our criminal justice system still upholds these racist standards, which you can see in the numbers of unarmed Black people killed at the hands of the police.
While individual whites may be against racism, they still benefit from the distribution of resources controlled by their group. Yes, an individual person of color can sit at the tables of power, but the overwhelming majority of decision-makers will be white. Yes, white people can have problems and face barriers, but systemic racism won’t be one of them. Understanding this distinction—between individual prejudice and a system of unequal institutionalized racial power—is fundamental. You cannot understand how racism functions in the US today if you ignore group power dynamics.
While a lot of white liberals will say that what happened in Charlottesville is a build up of tensions between the “white supremacy” and the “alt-left,” that simply isn’t true. “There seems to be a perception from people outside of Charlottesville that what is going on here is two opposing groups coming to town and fighting some ideological battle that has gotten messy,” wrote an anonymous citizen of Charlottesville. “This IS NOT two sides egging each other on to unavoidable violence for more attention. This is one side of terrorists declaring that they can and will hold a town hostage (they’ve been saying it for over a month now, actually) and the town responding to that threat.”
Charlottesville is an example of white nationalists showing their true colors. We must believe them and not try to sugar-coat what they are doing, because it is pure violence. But also, when a Black friend, coworker, or even stranger tells you that something racist happened or was said to them, believe them. Don’t try to find the “silver lining,” because with racism, there is none. And then take action for them. Advocate for your coworker with your boss. Video the police interaction and call for community backup. Talk to the person who said/did something racist about why it was so and how they can change.
History is repeating its most terrifying and darkest places right now. They are all colliding at once with Donald Trump as the face of it all—civil war, Nazis, slavery, nuclear attacks, the KKK. They are all colliding and landing on our doorstep. I’m writing this for every white person to wake up and answer this call to action. There is not a single one of us that doesn’t have room to grow when it comes to unlearning racism. We love to say that it’s just disenfranchised, poor white people. But that’s not true. It’s college-educated, middle- and upper-class, it’s even LGBTQ white people. It is all of us and we are all responsible for ending it.
This picture is important. It gives a collegiate, upper middle class face to the racism we have dismissed as coming from poor + rural places pic.twitter.com/jGfZ4TkpqB
— momo the dog (@SighPilot) August 12, 2017
While it’s important to talk about and stop what has been happening in Charlottesville, there are so many things white people can do on a daily basis to stop white supremacy from growing.
I know that racism and this vitriolic hate can seem like an unsolvable problem. But it’s our problem to solve. If your primary contribution is to shake your head in disbelief and talk about how love will save us all, you aren’t doing enough. If you take to social media to rant about the latest racist outburst, you aren’t really taking action. If you think not voting for Trump was enough, it wasn’t.
There is no option to not be politically engaged anymore. That is a privilege we simply cannot afford if we can want to move forward and not backward. The fight is tiring, I know. And if your life isn’t on the line, it’s easy to give up. If we care about greater humanity, we can’t do that. Don’t allow your privileges to take away your foresight of these very real issues.
We need to use our imagination to conjure something bigger than ourselves. Something tangible, as in right now, to service those who are most targeted.
Here are 5 proactive actions you can take, starting today.
This can mean anything from showing up in places like Charlottesville when white supremacists are brazenly showing their violence to being at local protests. When you attend protests be mindful of your presence. Recognize that Black people and people of color are more likely to be arrested or assaulted by the police at protests—as white people we can stand in between them to act as a barrier since police are less likely to arrest or kill us.
Taking action can also mean making calls and getting to know your local and federal government officials. Call them and ask them to denounce white supremacists, call them and urge them to get white supremacist groups back on the terror watch list.
Taking action could even mean having a potluck dinner with your community to talk about what you’re all going to do better at in undoing racism in America.
This is a big one. Because of the way institutionalized racism works, it sets white people up for success and everyone else left behind to “pull up by the bootstraps.” We have an opportunity to pour some of our money back into the pockets of Black-led organizations or even Black people in your community. You can make personal reparations through Facebook groups like this. Here are several Black-led organizations in Charlottesville to donate to, as well.
White people are provided more opportunities financially than POCs and because of this, we need to redistribute our wealth. Our whiteness plays a role in the jobs we get and the salaries we make. We need to work at taking down the institutions that make those decisions, but first provide financial support to those most impacted by racist hiring practices.
Organize your communities.
Learn about and get involved with local organizing. Figure out who is leading movements in your town, city, neighborhood and join in those efforts. Whether it’s for housing rights, standing against ICE, or alternative options to calling the police—do what you can to help. Maybe that means you cook or provide physical space for meetings. If there isn’t already a local organizing meeting to join, then think about starting one.
White people stay trying to separate themselves from their own people and then ask us (POC) to take care of it…. nah fam #ThisIsYall
— Fine Wine (@sipJENandJuice) August 12, 2017
Read the words of Black writers, whether online or by purchasing books. Our education systems often only uplift the works of famous white writers and forget the labor of Black women, Black queers, and other POCs. Here is a compilation of some of my favorites.
No matter what you do—absolutely do not ask Black people to provide the labor of educating you about racism and how to end it. Do not DM a POC to ask them “What can I do?” Use Google, talk to a white friend who you feel may have some resources, or purchase some books written by Black authors.
Talk to your friends, family members, and coworkers.
The people who know you are most likely to be impacted by what you say. Call up mom and dad and talk to them about what happened in Charlottesville. Talk to them about what you are doing and what they can do better. Do you have a family member who voted for Trump? Call them and have uncomfortable conversations about this until you get somewhere with them. Did you hear a coworker make a racist comment in the lunchroom last week and noticed no one said anything about it? Call them in. Ask them to get lunch and talk to them about why what they said was fucked up and give them a book (one of the ones you just bought above) to start their education.
This is what happens when y’all don’t check your racist family, coworkers, friends, etc. #ThisIsYall
— nauti thotty (@FeelingFisky) August 12, 2017
We have to start somewhere and taking to social media just isn’t enough. It is on us to undo systemic racism. What did you do today as a white person to stand against anti-Blackness?