Dear White people,
It’s not enough to simply know that racism exists, that we live in a racist world. In the outpourings of grief and anger about the Zimmerman verdict, I’m asking myself and other white people: how are we reflecting on and actively transforming our own personal racism? And our collective racism? This is not about hating ourselves, it’s about loving ourselves so much that we commit to transforming ourselves and our communities. Because white people: we are ALL racist. It is impossible to have grown up in a white supremacy and not have taken on racist beliefs and actions. And before you defensively cite the number of friends of colour you have, please remember that sometimes these beliefs and actions are incredibly sneaky – they are designed by white supremacy to look normal and natural. As white people, sometimes we can find them difficult to spot – yet they are glaringly obvious to those who are hurt EVERY SINGLE DAY by our racism. Towards the end of this post I’ve included a list with some concrete examples of the racism of myself and other well intentioned white people, including anti-racist activists. The list has a warning at the top so that folks of colour and Indigenous people can choose whether/when to read this.
White people, the shame is not that these racist things come up in us – growing up in a white supremacy, it is impossible for them to not. The shame is when we deny it, refuse to do the work and therefore turn our backs on our sisters, brothers and genderqueer siblings of colour. The shame is when we are inactive through fear of doing the wrong thing. The shame is when we don’t own up to the damage we cause on a daily basis. The shame is in not putting the time and resources into figuring out how the fuck to transform ourselves – and it will take time and resources, because we’re battling a massive system of white supremacy that will seek to minimise, deny, divert and violently uphold itself. And remember, whilst I can take a break from doing the work of unpacking and challenging mine and others’ racism, our friends of colour can NEVER take a break from racism.
If you’re a white person having a hard time reading this, I’d ask you to examine why are you feeling defensive? In my experience, when I’m defensive it’s usually because I’m avoiding some element of truth. It’s actually only threatening to me to admit my racism if I intend on doing nothing about it. Obviously, there is a massive variation in how racism manifests. When we completely distance ourselves from those white people whose racism manifests in ways that are more “obvious” to us as white people (like murder, assault, belittling other cultures or employment discrimination) essentially, we are letting ourselves off the hook. Yes, my racism may manifest in less intense ways, but it is still from the same origins: growing up in a white supremacist society. It has the same stink – it is the same air in the sky which sometimes blows as a small breeze and other times whips up into a hurricane. Whether or not I like it, I have been shaped by this culture. I have breathed this toxic air into my lungs and it informs my immediate thoughts, reactions, actions – including what I’ve been trained to consider as “racism”. Add to this, the massive amount of privileges I inherit as a white person – and these are not privileges I can simply choose to not take, because privilege is something given to me, not taken. There’s an article by Peggy McIntosh called “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” if you want to understand white privilege with more concrete examples. And for an awesome understanding of anti-oppression and inter-sectionality – check out’s Kim Crosby’s presentation.
It’s indicative of how incredibly low the bar is for white anti-racist allyship that I am so applauded for even the most basic anti-racist things that I do. All I need to do, is get “anti-racist” into a sentence, or remember to include an analysis of racism when I’m talking about transphobia or sexism, or volunteer in support of an event centering people of colour and I am wildly celebrated and applauded. Contrast this to how folks of colour and Indigenous people are often cast as angry and confrontational when they point out racism. The bar is so incredibly low for being a white anti-racist ally. This is no judgement on folks of colour who choose to offer kind words to me for the stance I take on racism- please know, your words of support are appreciated, but not expected. Rather, it is a call to action to white folks: there is something very wrong that I get so much praise for the simplest, most basic acknowledgement of racism.
Let’s raise the bar. Let’s listen deeply to people of colour and Indigenous people and respect their wisdom and stop appropriating it and re-packing it into $30,000 university degrees and pretending we came up with it (thanks Kim Crosby for pointing that out). Let’s learn to admit when we fuck up (because we do, everyday) and figure out how to transform ourselves and make amends to those who we hurt. Let’s lovingly yet firmly point out racism to each other and hold each other accountable for making amends to the people we hurt and changing our behaviour for future. Let’s remember that we are the ones responsible for holding each other through the process of changing, so that we’re not expecting the support of folks of colour – think about how painful that must be- first, being hurt by racism, then having to hold the hand of the person who hurt you. And for every bit of support we offer to white people to change racist behaviours, let’s offer double the support to folks of colour in dealing with living in a racist world. Whilst people of colour may not necessarily want to debrief racism with us (let’s respect their own safe spaces and not seek to insert ourselves in these spaces), there are plenty of other tangible ways we can support: photocopying zines, housework, emotional support, helping set up events, doing childcare, fundraising and being behind the scenes in support of the priorities, activities and movements led by people of colour and Indigenous people. Let’s start daily practices of BELIEVING people of colour and Indigenous people when they talk about racism, even when we don’t understand. Let’s do the work to understand. Let’s talk with other white folks and figure shit out so we don’t demand the labour of people of colour and Indigenous people in educating us, yet remember who we ultimately will be learning from and who we need to be following the leadership of – the people most affected by racism. So let’s find consensual ways to learn about racism from folks of colour, like through multi-racial organising, social media/books/films and doing support work like those things listed above. And let’s get ourselves set for the long haul – because this will be lifelong work filled with heartache, satisfaction, embarrassment, humility, joy, pain, sorrow and sweet, sweet victories.
WARNING: CONCRETE EXAMPLES OF RACISM IN WHITE ANTI-RACIST ALLIES BELOW.
A few examples of my racism and the racism that I see in white friends to whom anti-racism is very important:
– The times when I have tokenised people of colour by thinking “shit, my project is really white, I should ask some people of colour to be a part of it”, rather than building the vision and collaborating with people of colour from the beginning and/or building genuine mutually supportive relationships.
– When I have given more support, time and resources to white projects and individuals. It doesn’t matter if this was by default (like who happened to ask me) – it is my responsibility to seek out and support people of colour and Indigenous people (if and when my support is welcome). In a world where these communities are systemically barred from access to resources, it is racist to perpetuate this on a personal level in my own life.
– The times when I have assumed people of colour and Indigenous people have drinking or substance problems when I see them drinking or using in public. I am in fact an alcoholic, yet nobody thinks that of me if I’m seen drinking in public.
– When I have failed to understand the ways a police presence could impact on the participation of criminalised communities, especially Black and Indigenous communities. Any time I have invited police presence or failed to take steps to deter it, this is my ignorant racism showing up.
– When I have failed to take the time to consider how I could make sure people of colour and Indigenous people are central in the decision making of groups I’m a part of.
– When I have over-identified with the struggles of transwomen of colour as if they were my own experiences – see my article “Boy Tits in the Locker Room” for more on this
– When I have spent more time reading white people’s opinions on racism than people of colour’s and Indigenous people’s opinions and lived experiences. Yes, I believe there is a strong role for white people in challenging racism, but it shouldn’t over-ride the leadership and wisdom of those who are most impacted by racism.
– When I have minimised the feedback of people of colour e.g. this time when a friend of colour lovingly and publicly questioned how I presented the race of my green and purple puppets in a showing, I minimised and brushed off her feedback because I was 1. embarrassed and ashamed and 2. I thought I had already addressed what she was saying. I realised later that my shame had prevented me from listenting to her, and in fact I hadn’t addressed her feedback at all. This was racist.
– Those times when, before even consciously knowing what I was doing, I assumed that communities of colour would be more transphobic and homophobic towards me than white communities.
– When I have gotten acquaintances who are people of colour confused with each other. It doesn’t matter that I also frequently can’t recognise white people who I don’t know very well – this is where context matters. In the context of a racist world that makes invisible and dehumanises people of colour, my actions are racist.
I’m working on My Racism AND I love myself
As well as a bunch of emails from white people who expressed commitment to working on their racism, I’ve gotten some emails from white people “wow, you have so much self loathing”. I don’t loath and hate myself. I am appropriately critical of some of my thoughts and actions, yes, but that’s actually because I love myself and I love my friends and my communities. In fact, I love myself so much, that I want to be part of a community that is beautiful with space for everyone and I am committed to working to make sure that my own ingrained racist thoughts and behaviours don’t block that vision. I love myself so much that I want to get to have AWESOME people in my life, and that means working on my racism. I love myself so much that I want to overthrow messed up systems that hurt people I care about and an important part of doing that is owning up to my own shit, and through supporting Indigenous people and people of colour in strong leadership positions. I love myself so much that I’m not afraid to look at the parts of myself that do messed up things – this actually is a sign of my self respect and respect for others, not of self loathing. And I’m not afraid to make my process public. Well more accurately, I’m totally afraid (sometimes terrified!) but I love myself and my community so much that I still do it anyway.
And yes, there are a lot of things that you/we will have to give up. Like needing to be right. Needing to be perfect. Needing to always being seen as the “good anti-racist white person”. I get that part of why some of you feel so challenged is because anti-racism is important to you and so to be called racist challenges your idea of yourself. I’m asking you to rise to the challenge and find a way to see the racist parts of yourself as inevitable as long as we continue to live in a racist world. It’s not a personal failing. If you believe that we live within a racist world, then how could this not have shaped your thinking, even despite your best intentions? I’m challenging you to see working on your racism as an act of love. Love for your community. Love for yourself. Love for your friends.
To read Part 2: Click here
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