During the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, VA, I felt compelled to share my disgust, but I kept coming up empty handed on how to voice a sentiment so basic that I’ve never really needed to put it into words. “I don’t support white supremacy” seemed like something I would never need to clarify. Not being ok with Nazis didn’t seem like a point I’d ever need to make. Yet it was.
As I’ve reflected on it, the main thing I want to write about is how important, yet confounding, it is to challenge racism. I try to stay in my lane when it comes to speaking on behalf of communities of color, and I see a lot of white people (myself included) struggling to be anti-racist without making assumptions and speaking when we should be listening. But I think that actively challenging white supremacists is an area where white people need to speak up. We have to commit to doing something about this dangerous segment of our race if we can rightfully call ourselves anti-racist. And to anyone thinking this is just a fringe issue, I would ask you to consider how many votes that landed Donald Trump in the Oval Office were made with the same racist and bigoted undertones that are now becoming part of our mainstream political dialogue (again).
I also want to issue a disclaimer: it’s hard to write about this topic without getting upset. I try to approach things that anger me with a full heart for those with whom I disagree, but I don’t always succeed. I was lucky enough to hear Thich Nhat Hanh respond gracefully to an angry environmentalist who was venting his frustrations over Magnolia Grove Monastery serving fruit from Chiquita and having non-recycled toilet paper in the bathrooms. The most memorable part of this guy’s rant was when he said, “We’re basically wiping our bums with fresh trees…” Well. It takes a lot of conviction to levy such a complaint to one of the most revered human beings on the planet. And illustrating why he is so beloved, Thich Nhat Hanh said that he too had spent many years of his life being enraged by injustice in the world, but when he was compelled by anger, all he sowed around him was suffering. He observed that you can’t cultivate love in yourself or in the world when you are consumed with rage. That really hit me hard and made me reconsider all the years I’ve spent hurling anger and silently brooding over people, places, and things that I felt were unjust.
So, my goal here is to write about challenging white supremacy without focusing on how angry it makes me that Nazis roam the earth. But it does make me angry, and I think there is value in starting by acknowledging that. I heard the VICE interviews with Chris Cantwell and sat in horror as I watched him talk about his views on race relations, gun rights, and the political climate in America. Chris and his cronies downright terrify me, and my purpose is not to bring more attention to such individuals or their beliefs but to talk about steps I feel like I could take to challenge them.
Figuring out how to confront racism is something we talked a lot about in my grad school program, and there were a few books that helped shape my opinions. American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare by Jason DeParle was foundational in helping me confront my own ignorance of racist policies in the US. It describes how our welfare policy evolved and was then dismantled in the mid 90s and also tells the story of three women of color living in the midst of this political turmoil and how various policies affected their lives. This book displays in heartbreaking detail how, for so many people in America, no break is big enough to escape the impact of inter-generational poverty and discrimination. To understand the impact of racism, we can’t look forward without looking back. Centuries of slavery, discrimination, and racism don’t just evaporate, and overestimating the progress we’ve made is dangerous (i.e. – the 2016 election).
Another heavy hitter for me was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Now that HBO and Oprah have made a movie about it, it probably goes without saying how important this story is, but for anyone who hasn’t heard of it, this book discusses how the medical and scientific communities have abused people of color in the name of “progress.” Cells from Henrietta’s body were taken and experimented on without her knowledge or consent, and this book calls into question how doctors, scientists, and corporations allowed it to happen and still haven’t made amends or reparations to her family. I don’t know that I fully accepted how privileged it is to feel safe around doctors and health care systems until I sat and reflected on stories like Henrietta Lacks, Tuskegee, and countless others.
I am also still in the midst of reading Race, Class, & Gender by Margaret Anderson and Patricia Hill Collins. It’s an anthology with essays on a variety of topics connected to the main idea of how components of our identity shape our experiences and perception. One especially powerful essay in this book discusses the need for active anti-racism, meaning coming to an understanding of how identity privilege has benefited you and challenging institutions that have created such bias in your community. I made a list of all the ways I could think of that being white has given me unearned advantages in life, and in the midst of all the police shootings and the surge of the Black Lives Matter movement, one of my biggest take-aways was the privilege of always assuming that law enforcement was there to protect me.
I’ve also been thinking about more micro ways to challenge racism in day to day life. Things that seem trivial could actually have an impact, like speaking up next time I hear a racist joke instead of just brushing it off. Or stopping myself when I feel the urge to prove myself anti-racist, which traditionally results in me running my mouth self-righteously, speaking on behalf of people I don’t know, and alienating people I want to befriend.
As uncomfortable as it makes me, another important area I’ve found in challenging racism is recognizing and confronting my own bias. There are times I’ve acted or spoken in a way that makes me cringe in retrospect because of how clumsy I was regarding this very sensitive topic. It’s hard to even write about racism without being scared of coming off as ignorant, uninformed, or part of the problem. But acknowledging my ignorance and inherent bias is the foundation of challenging my own discriminatory assumptions and creating space to learn and use my energy in a way that actually aids solutions.
It’s hard for me to swallow a belief system as ignorant and hateful as white supremacy, but clearly this is a re-emerging movement around the world, and I think that part of confronting it is getting uncomfortable enough to admit that racism is a much bigger part of our world than any of us would like. For so many white millennials like me, it was easy to grow up in a bubble thinking we’d made incredible progress in this country and everything was getting better, but as an adult, I look around and realize that the ugly scourge of racism has always been there. It’s no secret to people of color who have faced discrimination, sometimes overt and sometimes concealed, for their whole lives. I think it’s important for white people to show a sense of responsibility for confronting the evil of white supremacy and refusing to stay ignorant about how communities of color are suffering as we speak. I don’t have as many ideas for action and solutions as I wish I did, but by taking simple steps in my own life and always seeking to learn and speak up to challenge things that are wrong, I hope to foster healing and anti-racism everywhere I can.