From Antiracist to Action

I have been grappling with how to respond to the current, racist events we have all witnessed recently, because these are not new circumstances. They are new occurrences but the injustices we are all so up in arms about have been around for a very, very long time. I felt an official letter from Relā was not enough. As a leadership development organization, a letter seemed to fall short. I began to ask, ‘What is our responsibility?’, ‘How can we focus on development, learning and growth?’ That is when I decided I needed to write this post.

This post is for any white person who may still be “playing it safe” in the neutral zone on matters of racism. You love people, all people; you hate no one and you want us all to “just get along”. Maybe your inner thoughts reflect a stance that says we should just leave the past behind and move on. Or maybe you get a little defensive when a black person states a truth about ‘white people’ and your first reaction is, ‘but not all white people’. Perhaps you have been moved emotionally in recent days to post memes with quotes in support of our black community; you’ve been worried, saddened, discouraged but don’t know what to do to make a difference…so you post a MLK meme and calm your guilt for a few more days with, “I did what I could”.

I too used to think and believe those same things and would like to share with you how I began to move out of that neutral zone because what I have come to learn is there really is no neutral. Transparently, neutrality for me was really rooted in three things: fear of conflict, fear of disapproval from the white community and uncertainty that I understood enough to even speak out. The shift for me came when I realized the first two were out of my control and the third…well, I can do something about what I know and understand.

I learned how we (white people) say we are against racism but actually support its underpinnings through our ignorance and inaction. In fact, white supremacy greatly relies on “nice, white people” to keep it alive. This is true whether you recognize it or not. I believe you will come to see this too if you engage in learning about antiracism, which is the focus of this post.

I want to be clear: I am not an authority on antiracism. I can only share my experience in learning. My voice is not more important than the black voices who have been fighting in this space for decades. They do not need my help but maybe some white people do. Everything I share here, I have learned from mostly black thought leaders in the antiracist space. These are not my original revelations; they are my learnings.

Where to Begin?
I’ll tell you where I began, and I take zero credit for it. Almost a year ago, the staff and board of Relā sat in a room out on Buckeye Lake for our annual Board Retreat. At this retreat we evaluate and tweak our strategic plan. A part of that discussion centered on diversity, equity and inclusion at our organization. One of our board members chimed in with something that made a fundamental shift in our individual lives. This board member pointed out that if our organization and programs are to reflect our desired DEI vision, we need to start with ourselves. We need to look at our own hearts and lives to see where we do not personally embody those ideals. In order to help us break through our old ways and help us challenge our personal status quo, she asked us each to take a look at our social feeds and see how many folks on our feeds looked like us and how many looked different. The challenge before us was to follow influencers, connections, artists, creators and others who looked different. Follow, listen and learn. That’s it.

I took this seriously. In fact, on a break that very day I began looking at my social and professional feeds and sure enough, my feeds were 90% white. So, I started searching for connections, creators and influencers who were people of color (POC). I even committed that on each platform my next 20 connections, follows, etc would only be of POC. Over the next few weeks, those social platforms began suggesting other connections who also did not look like me. Through this process I discovered thought leaders in the antiracism space. What follows in this blog post are the things I’ve learned so far that have helped me begin to remove racist ideas and attitudes from my life. There is racism and antiracism and I know what side of that equation I want to be on: antiracism. But if I commit to antiracism, I cannot make a simple mental ascension to that ideal. I must start by looking at myself and dismantle the beliefs that kept me from seeing the truth.

Some of these things may be hard to read for some of you. You may disagree. That’s ok. I’m not writing this for approval. I’m writing this out of a sense of personal responsibility, responsibility as the Executive Director of this organization but most importantly, I’m writing this out of deep love for our black community members who have been fighting these injustices for so long . Our work is to help leaders transform and for an organization such as this to remain silent would be to become complicit. To that end, I’ve provided links to resources to learn more. Please take time to read them all over the next week or so. Educate yourself and listen.

It’s Not About You
Like so many, my heart is heavy and aching for what is happening in our country. Actually, I’m feeling a lament, a deep sadness that seems to have nowhere to go. But if the focus of my interaction with the current state of our union is how I feel, my anger and disapproval, then I have missed the point. This is not about us white people and our feelings. “For some white people their primary concern is how they feel about the issue of race and racism not the injustices of a racist system.” (The Anatomy of Guilt, Racial Equity Tools) This is a very important distinction.

Do you see the difference here? Scroll your social feeds. Notice how many white people are focusing their comments and posts on how they feel and what they think rather than on the actual issues of race and racism. This is self-absorption that keeps us from the harder work of drawing attention to the actual cause.

Racist and Antiracist
Part of what held me back was this belief that only racists needed to change and I was not a racist. How do I know this? Well, I don’t hate POC. But here’s the problem: racism isn’t just hating another race consciously. This is only one way racism plays out but the hate in and of itself is not racism. Scott Woods says, “Racism is a complex system of social and political levers and pulleys set up generations ago to continue working on the behalf of whites at other people’s expense whether whites know/like it or not.” You can read Scott’s full blog post HERE.

Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to be an Antiracist, defines racist and antiracist as follows:

Racist: One who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea.
Antiracist: One who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea.

I didn’t believe I supported racist policies, but did I? Have I benefitted from them and operated within them? I realized this is where racism may still live in me and so I sought to learn about racist ideas and policies in their many forms and then work to discover what the antiracist counter would be.

Pyramid of White Supremacy
I tend to believe the best about people until they prove otherwise so with that perspective, I’m going to assume that like me, you may not be aware that many of the ideas displayed in this pyramid are actually racist. They are a part of the structure of racism. Do I think that readers here are for genocide, violence and discrimination? No. But when we participate in any part of this pyramid, we are a part of making those upper “bricks” possible.

Take a look at the pyramid. Where are you now? Where were you 10 or 15 years ago? Do any of these attitudes and ideas still live in you today? Do you tolerate them in others? If your reaction to any of the statements in the pyramid is one of offense and/or disbelief that the statement is in fact racist, I encourage you to read the book White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. Or if you don’t think you’re going to read the book, at least watch this video where she talks about this work.

If you see yourself anywhere in this pyramid, commit to eradicate it from your life. Here are examples of old beliefs I held that can be found on this pyramid and how I suggest we challenge those beliefs to no longer hold onto a racist idea.

Veiled Racism: Where I saw this in my own life included using white-centric examples when I was a teacher (in a creative writing lesson, I referred to “flowing hair in the breeze” which isn’t a typical black experience with hair) and claiming I was color blind (“I don’t see color.”) as some sort of altruistic statement. Saying you don’t see color is a denial of what is in front of you. The intent may be to somehow put us all on the same level or same playing field, but it is in fact…not that. When I first heard a black person talk about this on Twitter it made so much sense to me, but I didn’t realize it previously as veiled racism.

Minimization: Instead of responding to #blacklivesmatter with ‘But don’t all lives matter?’ try just asking yourself why as a white person you feel diminished when black lives are elevated. The BLM movement is not saying black lives are the only lives that matter. It’s racist rhetoric that creates that negative message. Let that go.

Indifference: This is truly the ‘on the fence’ behavior where I found myself a year ago. I avoided confrontations about race, remained apolitical, never challenged racial jokes and tended to prioritize intention over impact. What does that mean? It’s giving white people the benefit of the doubt with saying ‘Well he didn’t mean it like that.’ It doesn’t matter what your intention is. If you are expressing a racist idea or attitude, even if you didn’t “mean to”, it needs to be called out because regardless of your intent, it has a negative impact! Your innocent intent does not rid you of the accountability of impact. And, once you learn your behavior has a negative impact, change it. If not, to me that moves your continued behavior from indifference to discrimination at the least.

From Awareness to Action
The pathway to action may not seem clear to you still. I’ve already provided a few reading resources to help you begin your journey of dismantling the racist ideas you may still hold, even if you wouldn’t have labeled them racist up until now. Below are more resources to learn but then also, ways to take action. But first, some watch-outs:

  • As you learn, you may feel guilt. Resist the urge to focus your attention on your guilt. Instead, stop and remember how easy it is for white guilt to become toxic and only create an indulgent response focused on self, versus a response that creates action towards dismantling racism.
  • As you listen, just be quiet and continue to listen. And any time you hear something that bothers you, go inward. Don’t respond. Ask yourself how this new piece of information could be true.
  • Speak up when you experience indifference, minimization and veiled racism in your family and friends.
  • Stop asking your black friends to educate you. In many ways, this is a re-traumatization of their experience. Instead, educate yourself. Find other allies who too are growing in antiracism and talk things out. Research. Google is your friend.
  • IMPORTANT: You don’t have to be a perfect antiracist to be antiracist. Being antiracist is a commitment to “fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself. And it’s the only way forward.” Ijeoma Oluo

Resources: Antiracist Thought Leaders/Influencers/Organizations

Ways to Take Action

  • Make Calls
    • Governor Mike DeWine: (614) 644-4357; Twitter: @GovMikeDeWine
    • Mayor Andrew Ginther: (614) 645-7671; Twitter: @MayorGinther
    • Police Chief Quinlan: (614) 645-4640; Twitter: @ChiefQuinlan
    • Find your Ohio state representatives here – use map function to find your district then find your representative. Contact info is there.
    • Find your Ohio senators here
  • Sign Petitions
    • Watch local social feeds for updated petition opportunities (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and even LinkedIn)
    • The Google doc linked above also lists petition opportunities
  • Protest
  • Donate
  • Support black-owned businesses: https://www.finimpact.com/blacklivesmatter-support-black-owned-small-businesses/

Regardless of what action you take, I strongly encourage you to first learn from others and allow that new information to uncover any hidden racist ideas or policies you support either consciously or unconsciously. From that place, start taking meaningful action. Just start somewhere and remember: you do not have to do this perfect and when you mess up, you can simply apologize.

May we all take the current unrest and not let it fade into the rear-view mirror like yesterday’s news and gossip. This is a daily work. A daily choice. As you learn and grow, my hope is each of you figure out what meaningful action looks like in your family, workplaces and community. Each of us has a role to play. What will yours be?

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