Hello, fellow white people.
Due to recent events of many centuries past, I think it’s important we have a conversation.
It could be a tough one for you, as it was for me to create this, so…
First, I want to quickly provide a guide to reading and getting the most from this post.
How To Effectively Read This Post
All I ask from you is that you take the time to carefully read through this whole post with an open mind and be aware that strong emotions will likely come up at some point. Sit with them, work through them or allow them to pass and continue forward. None of this is to point blame or to bring up shame, it is meant to provide us with better awareness and hopefully, steps to move forward.
This is necessary in order for us to progress in any way, so please do not take the above lightly.
I’ll admit that my own process of working through how to be a white person brought up strong reactions, rebuttals and lots of bullshit that I had to sit with and work through by continuing to listen and educate myself. Even in the creation of this post, I was caught guilty of some of its points and suggestions, like asking people of color (POC) for help to discover resources, rather than spending my own time and effort to research and get the answers.
I am writing this not to shine a light on my experience, struggles or story, or to come across as any kind of expert but to use it along with much more information to hopefully help others who are trying to figure out the best way to be a part of the solution to racism and oppression in this world.
For you to assume something from the title or the first few paragraphs is unfair to all parties involved. Just like it is for you to unleash anger or insecurities on others.
This is a large part of the problem and I (like you) want to be part of the solution.
This is my guide for doing so and it will be a living post that I will tweak, add to, and improve upon as time goes on — I’m open to constructive feedback and further recommendations.
I hope it can help you in some way, as many others have done for me.
Getting Started: How To Be A White Person
And The Two Biggest Reactions / Objections You May Have
We’re going to discuss something that I believe we’ve never really been taught explicitly and due to an incredibly complex and deep-seeded mix of layers, I think many people — including myself — have been confused about how to be a white person. Still, there’s no excuse.
For this to be one of the only issues that we face during this time when our brothers and sisters continue to fight for equality and their lives because of systemic racism and white supremacists that have begun to show their truly disgusting faces — I’d say we are (fucking obviously) blessed.
And that’s the point!
I do not want this to come across as some great struggle on the same level as POC, or to glorify what’s being called white fragility, but I think it’s incredibly important to acknowledge and bring awareness to this process. Otherwise, we find many people who react to the voices and valid points of POC on strong emotions that become a greater, more direct part of the problem.
Please keep that in mind when reading and bear with me, as this will be tough, but worth it.
I know there’s a lot to take in right now, it’s confusing, there seem to be two very distinct ‘sides’ of which many are claiming to be a part of. But since it is so simple for us to sit back and watch this play out, leaving us unscathed in the neutrality of the middle, I believe the very least that we can do is educate ourselves and be the best allies that we can to remove any hatred, oppression, and racism from our world.
I’d like to share my own account of going through a process I think most of us will struggle with during these times as it’s a necessary evolution from our past and current situation.
Let’s start by tackling two of the most common reactions to the stories of POC and our privilege being pointed out to us for the first time, both of which I’ve dealt with and witnessed constantly.
Overcoming Reactions Of ‘White Shame’ (White Guilt)
From my perspective (and experience), one of the greatest triggers right now that’s sparking even more controversy and conflict for white people is what I’ll call: ‘white shame’ (also known as white guilt). It looks something like this guy below.
I highly recommend taking your time to read this right now, as it was one of the clearest and best explanations that I could find. Sincere Kirabo writes:
“Keep in mind that the call to “recognize your privilege” does not translate to “bear the blame.” Privilege refers to the myriad of social advantages and benefits associated with being part of an in-group. Said benefits exist whether or not one’s earned them or consciously vied for them. In fact, almost universally, privilege is something conferred without the recipient having any say in the matter. Thus, when announcing the existence of privilege, it isn’t about shaming someone or pointing an accusatory finger. It’s about deflating inequality—not imposing guilt.”
Again, I highly recommend you read the whole article on white guilt now (or at least bookmark it for later) and I suggest skipping the comments unless you want direct examples for better understanding of how it arises in these conversations.
White guilt and shame results in common reactions to statements made by people of color (POC) or allies that include us claiming things like:
“I’m not racist, I have lots of friends who are black.”
“How can you group me with white supremacists just because of the color of my skin?”
“But I’m against slavery! I never owned slaves, so why should I be responsible for this.”
“You know nothing about me or the struggles I’ve been through.”
I’ve said my fair share of variations on these in the past and having hindsight has helped my perspective on seeing others continuing to get triggered and feel ‘white shame’.
As I see it, we all know the horrors of what racism has done to POC, despite having absolutely no fucking idea what it’s actually like to face that type of discrimination, violence or oppression.
Yet, when statements are made that call out white people who sit back and stay silent or choose to not take action against racism as being complicit (being part of the problem) with things like murders by white supremacists, we get uncomfortable.
Remember that POC don’t have the choice to be comfortable with these issues.
Because this is likely the first time that we’ve been challenged on the part that we play in the systemic racism and oppression of our world. This is not to say that we are racist, violent or want to oppress other people, but rather that we are both able to be silent and not take part because we aren’t impacted by what’s going on and that we continue to benefit from this system.
We often say ridiculously ignorant things that highlight our lack of understanding of these issues (or willingness to even put in the effort to try) along with the seclusion and benefits of our privilege. Too frequently this blatantly disregards the stories, voices, and experiences of POC and the struggles they are facing — making things worse.
Just look at the comments of any tweet, blog post or article even remotely speaking about these topics and you will see what I’m talking about.
There are also unconscious tendencies we have from this same system that are racist, it’s the “harmless” comments, jokes and microaggressions that we need to be willing to acknowledge, stop and call out in others.
Laziness and silence, I believe are two of the worst aspects of what is keeping us from progressing much faster towards ending these issues and finally realizing equality for all.
Why We Definitely Aren’t Victims of Racism…
Or The False Story Of ‘Reverse Racism’
Another common reaction that can come up for us is when we are called out for racism (no matter how subtle or small) or told that our silence, lack of action or feeling that we aren’t part of the problem means we are in fact complicit (contributing to the issue), we may misinterpret this as meaning we are like the white supremacists who are openly extreme and violently racist.
It’s misinterpreted as being a racist remark towards us, white people.
These words from Eva Marie of The I Project made it crystal clear in my eyes:
“Racism is the oppression of a people systemically. In the US, POC don’t directly benefit from this system. We have no power to oppress people, especially not white people. The American system was literally built to benefit white people, specifically white men, only. You cannot call a WOC [women of color] racist when she talks about her oppressor because she has no power to oppress you. She has right to generalize because the power of white people is a key factor in her struggle. Calling a WOC racist is not only just wrong, but a method of silencing. Stop being offended when a POC says something about white people. Instead, take notes on how you can not do what is upsetting that said POC.”
This is simply a strong emotional reaction and shock to having our position within this system be vocalized and challenged, our comfort suddenly being replaced with conflict and discomfort. To have our privilege be challenged so that it can be replaced with equality is not a loss or attack on our rights as human beings (as many claim it to be).
We are not being oppressed or discriminated against as the recipients of ‘reverse racism’.
We are being called to take responsibility for our (in)actions and the consequences of them. We need to stand up, speak up and do our part to contribute to the immense amount of hard work that is required to mature as a society to provide true equality.
We have lived for far too long with massive privileges over POC that allowed us to live comfortably, avoiding conflict, struggle, and oppression that is honestly unfathomable.
It’s time we do our part. But first, it’s important to understand our privilege.
How We Benefit From Systemic Racism
To hopefully help you through this, I want to again address and include similar reactions of what I’ve experienced upon being challenged by someone making me aware of how I benefit from this system.
The common thread among these three examples (and the entire post) goes back to one simple rule, it’s not about us, and for many of us our immediate reaction or emotions can make it feel as if we’re being diminished, put into question, or ironically oppressed, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
What is Systemic Racism (or White Supremacy)?
It’s important to first acknowledge that racism is not simply “a few bad apples”, but rather systemic and deeply ingrained in our society. In a piece titled, “What is white supremacy?” renowned activist Elizabeth “Betita” Martinez notes:
“The most common mistake people make when talking about racism (white supremacy) is to think of it as a problem of personal prejudices and individual acts of discrimination. They do not see it is a system, a web of interlocking, reinforcing institutions: political, economic, social, cultural, legal, military, educational, all our institutions. As a system, racism affects every aspect of life in a country.
By not understanding that racism is systemic, we guarantee it will continue. For example, racist police behavior is often reduced to “a few bad apples” who need to be removed, instead of seeing that it can be found in police departments everywhere. It reflects and sustains the existing power relations throughout society.” (source)
Let’s take a quick look at three key examples of systemic oppression that POC face, how we often can react to these conversations or conflicts when they arise, the reality of them and a way to try to understand being oppressed in that way to build empathy.
Benefit: A higher likelihood of getting a job or promotion. This is when we get a job when someone with an ethnic sounding name gets their resume immediately thrown in the trash. You can see this reflected directly in the stats from The Pew Research Centre, Black unemployment rate is consistently twice that of whites.
Common Reaction: Feeling as though the hard work and struggles you’ve faced to get where you are get dismissed or diminished by others. Or that POC just need to work harder (or change their mindset) and they’ll find success like you.
Truth: People aren’t saying it was easy for you to get a job or that you didn’t have to struggle to achieve what you have, instead simply realize that you have a privilege that so many others don’t share that gives you an advantage over them.
Now Imagine: Your struggles and work needed to be doubled or tripled to get to where you are now simply because of your name or the color of your skin. That is the racism and discrimination POC face.
Benefit: A higher likelihood of being given the benefit of the doubt, a “free pass”, or a lighter sentence for breaking the law. This is when, whether we are innocent or not, we often do not receive as much questioning, interrogation or suspicion from law enforcement as POC.
Common Reaction: Feeling as though you need to justify your own eternal innocence to account for the lack of issues you’ve had with law enforcement, while simultaneously finding justifications for why POC receive the treatment they do.
No, it’s not because you don’t speed or run stop signs, you do Becky – everyone knows it.
Truth: The statistics that show the staggering impact of how POC are targeted and punished by the justice system is honestly appalling, which are laid out here in The Drug War is the New Jim Crow by Graham Boyd.
“With 5% of the world’s population, the United States now holds 25% of the world’s prisoners, winning it the dubious title of the world’s leading jailer… We are incarcerating African-American men at a rate approximately four times the rate of incarceration of black men in South Africa under apartheid.”
It’s not about whether they are guilty of crimes or we are innocent of the ones we may have been confronted about, the key is the obvious difference in targeting and sentencing. Our innocence is not what’s in question or discussion.
Now imagine: Having to fear for your (and your family’s) life every single time you encounter a police officer, worried that no matter how much you try to make it clear you’re not a threat, simply having to grab your ID (when being asked to) may cause confusion that you’re carrying a weapon and end with your death. Then the ensuing trial, if one even occurs, excuses the shooter of any consequences despite the glaring lack of justice. That is the racism and discrimination POC face, examples with Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray…
Do I need to go on? Because I can…
Benefit: Similar to the benefit of the justice system, of being given the benefit of the doubt or having very subtle (or not so) differences in language when reporting on white people vs. POC. This is when it’s reported that a young black teenager who’s shot while unarmed is reported to have been stealing cigarettes just before the incident (trying to paint a picture in your mind to justify the outrageous injustice). Another example is a Muslim who’s suspected to have committed a crime being pre-emptively labeled publicly as a terrorist which trickles down to the entire community being discriminated against in the same way. The Ahmed Mohamed clock incident is a great example.
Contrast both of those with a young white teen who shoots and kills multiple people in a school being labeled as mentally ill. Whether or not there’s truth in that statement (of mental illness being a factor), the two words bring very different contexts with one implying malice and the other a type of victimization or innocence of the criminal.
See the difference?
Common Reaction: Feeling as though you don’t want to comment on these types of events, not knowing all the details, and remaining in a neutral stance or not wanting to bring attention to the hypocrisy and discrimination.
This can often be due to a fear of backlash and misinterpretation.
Again, a small price to pay for our efforts in this movement compared to what POC go through.
Truth: Words are powerful and contribute to both conscious and unconscious bias’ that we carry, fueling systemic racism and stereotypes. To provide your voice to bring attention to this in both ways, against POC and for white people, is a way to help end this type of discrimination. In no way is this justifying the crimes that were committed (if any).
As an example, the protests in Ferguson were referred to as riots across media among other interesting word choices (as they were mainly populated by the black community), while the recent Unite The Right protests that occurred in Charlottesville are still being referred to as a ‘rally’ despite ending in the murder of one person and injury of many others due to what was blatantly a terrorist attack.
First page of Google search results for “unite the right charlottesville” on Aug. 15, 2017. Rally mentioned 15x, riot only 1.
Seriously? It may seem insignificant, but it’s not.
Now Imagine: You are completely outraged by the endless and senseless murders of your friends, family, and neighbors that go without consequence, so you attend a peaceful protest. After getting home late that night from an intense and draining experience with tensions rising from a highly militarized and aggressive police presence, you read false narratives created by people who weren’t there justifying the murders that continue to happen.
Please try to imagine this, what if it was your son gunned down in the street, unarmed?
Let’s be honest, there are a lot more ways that we benefit and it could be that I’m not even aware of the totality of this system, but I’m doing my best to become aware and call it out for what it truly is.
Now that we’ve worked through these, had some feels and realized some truth — it’s time to talk about our responsibility in this fight to overcome oppression and racism for POC, so that we can all be free and equal once and for all.
Our Responsibility In Helping To Overcome Racism
This point may be the hardest of all of this, as it’s the true cornerstone of this system that we’re all a part of. Please prepare yourself and remember my guidance above.
It’s not about us.
It’s not about our feelings, the struggles we’ve endured (they’re not the same), or how we’re finding it difficult to deal with this whole insanity that the world is appearing to go through right now.
Because we aren’t the ones who are truly suffering or being affected by these issues.
Despite how hard it is for us to see and experience all of the hate, violence, and oppression that’s going on, it will never really be the same as the experiences of the oppressed.
To constantly voice our struggles as if they were the same, is to diminish the reality of POC’s unique suffering and oppression that we will never understand, being the ones benefitting from this system.
We’ve held control of the microphone for so long and to simply give up part of our time is empowering the stories and voices of others, not diminishing our own. Let’s take this extra time to actually listen to POC.
That doesn’t mean our feelings or experiences are not valid.
It simply means that we are more effective when we work to help POC (see full list of recommendations below), remain open to dialogue, and read/research to better educate ourselves about the current situation, while speaking up and taking action against racism when we see it — rather than staying silent and complicit to allow it to continue.
This is hard to hear and really grasp because racism makes everything inherently about us, we are the ones who benefit whether we take part and allow it blatantly, stand against it and see it still continue, sit back and choose to stay neutral, or silently condemn it while we reap the fruits of the system without consequence (to us).
Please remember that POC and allies are not attacking our rights, invalidating our feelings, or diminishing our struggles and the hard work that we’ve put in to earn where we are right now in our unique stories. This is about helping people who are oppressed and have it 1000x more difficult due to a wide-range of terrible acts of discrimination and racism that we will never understand be able to have equal rights and opportunities as we do.
Would you not want the same if the tables were turned?
How To Actively Help End Racism And Oppression
A Simple Starting Point For You To Do Your Part
I’ve compiled this list of recommended readings and tips for getting started based on my own ongoing explorations and research, however, I strongly recommend (as many others have) that you do your own work, research, and reading. Do not rely on POC or others to educate you or do your work for you. We all need to become educated and responsible for our part in acknowledging and actively dismantling this system.
Tips On How To Be A White Ally
- Shut up and listen. Don’t speak on behalf of POC, do not dismiss the stories or struggles of POC, stop interrupting with your own shock or emotional outbursts because your feelings are hurt or you’re confused and don’t know what to do. Listen and do something.
- Call out fellow white people for racist assumptions, attitudes, comments – stop that shit in its tracks. This requires being uncomfortable and facing conflict head on. It may mean having hard conversations with friends, family members, and co-workers.
- Do the work yourself, use Google, research, read, have conversations and don’t expect POC to educate you, especially on your own privilege. Use your knowledge to then help educate and bring together other white people who are ‘neutral’ and can be moved to action.
- Use your privilege for good, to help empower and advocate for POC. But don’t let your voice or efforts become the leadership or center of attention in communities or spaces for POC.
- Protect yourself, be smart, and practice proper self-care. You need to realize that this has been going on for a long time and it’s going to take a lot to get to the eventual end. It’s important that you take care of yourself, take the time to maintain your mental health, and physical health, so your efforts are sustained and the best they can be.
Recommended (Short) Readings
- How To Be An Ally: A Guide for Woke White People, White People Who Want To Be Woke, and WOC Who Can Empathize
- How To Be A White Ally: Fighting Racism Is Your Responsibility — Start Now
- 5 Initial Ways You Can Be A Better Ally To People Of Color
- Guidelines for Being Strong White Allies (Adapted from Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Social Justice) by Paul Kivel
- 12 Ways to Be a White Ally to Black People
This is a compiled list from my research of the most mentioned and highest recommended books for better understanding and education on these subjects. I’ll be working through them (and more) myself, please do so yourself or research and create your own list.
- The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
- Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
- Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
- Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
- Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria: And Other Conversations About Race by Beverly Daniel Tatum
- White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son by Tim Wise
- Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving
- How I Shed My Skin: Unlearning the Racist Lessons of a Southern Childhood by Jim Grimsley
- Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times by Amy Sonnie, James Tracy
- White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson
* The above links are Amazon affiliate and I receive a small percentage if you purchase at no extra cost to you.
If you have suggestions or additional recommendations, please send them to me.
Until we’re all truly on the same level, with equal rights and opportunities, I believe you can refer to this as an (obviously) incomplete and work-in-progress guide on how to be a white person in the 21st century.
Sending love to each and every one of you.
Thank you for getting to this point and making an effort towards a better world for us all.
Now get to work ❤ (and drop the guilt)“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;’ who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a ‘more convenient season.’”-Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., 16 April 1963
p.s. If this resonated with you or helped you in any way, or if you have white friends, family or co-workers that need to read this, please share the post or pass it along in a private message. Have a difficult conversation, we need more of those.