It’s well past the time that white people start doing more of the work to challenge racism in the social institutions that have so often benefitted us.
I’m not good at making New Year’s resolutions. I’m not very quick at choosing them, and I’m even shakier when it comes to sticking to them. I usually opt for something unforgivably vague like to read more or exercise more—hard-to-measure aspirations with foggy goal lines that amount to a fizzle-out by mid-March.
There’s something about New Year’s resolutions that also begs me to play the snotty coffee shop nihilist that poo-poos the notion of it all, skeptical about why anyone would need an arbitrary calendar creation to enact any kind of change in their life. If you want to do it badly enough, you should just do it, right?
But really, there’s nothing wrong with following temporal milestones if that’s what helps you be a better you. And not only do I endorse the idea of sticking to New Year’s resolutions this year, I have one for myself that I invite my fellow white people to take on with me.
Last year was a good year for some, and it was a really difficult year for many. The legacy of Bull Connor was revealed to be alive and well in police departments across the United States, leaving a trail of dead black women and men with zero accountability from any level of government. With the notion of de-escalation and resolution fully removed from the mission of law enforcement officials, it’s never been more important for the architects of this civil system—white people like me—to take each other to task to start changing this system.
We the white people are the reason racism continues to exist in our society. We have been the profiteers of racism since time immemorial. It’s now well past the time that we start doing more of the work to challenge racism in the social institutions that have so often benefitted us. The best place we can begin with that mission is within our personal communities.
The organizers and activists in black communities across the United States have been unrepentantly amazing in forcing the country’s attention to this movement, to listen to the specific needs of black people and expose the horrific racism that continues to assail them. They, especially the women, undoubtedly will continue to lead this movement through whatever 2015 holds in store.
One of the most meaningful ways we can support their leadership is by focusing our work behind the scenes in our white communities, explaining the movement to our white friends and family. We need to be the ones taking up the responsibility of responding to the objections of other white people when they insist that “all lives matter.” We need to no longer wait until we’re asked for our thoughts on why something is racist, but instead take the leap out of our comfort zones to address racism head-on when we detect it from our white friends.
You’re free to choose the avenue in which you pursue this task, but my own modest suggestion is to take the face-to-face approach. Do it with people you know, who know you, and with whom you may already have some familiarity. Perhaps more importantly, try to identify the people in your life who seem genuinely open to having a dialogue on racism, who have some unformed opinions on the issue and maybe just need someone to listen to them and give them some guidance.
Your brother-in-law who spends his free time protesting Planned Parenthood and thinks black people who receive social services from the government are lazy probably fails this litmus test. Instead, maybe focus on the co-worker you’ve overheard making rhetorical comments about police brutality, or even the friend who you’ve noticed is one of these RINOs we all hear about.
I realize that there’s a whole level of intimacy and awkwardness in doing this kind of work in person, and maybe that pushes your anxiety beyond your functional boundaries. God knows I’ve got my own social anxieties, and I really feel it balloon when potentially telling someone that their opinions are racist.
For this reason, I cannot overstate the importance of making sure you don’t make someone feel stupid for having racist opinions. I know that may sound antithetical to our purpose here, but there’s no quicker way to make someone shut down than to start out by telling them how dumb they are for having the opinions they have, regardless of how wrong you may personally think they are.
In fact, this is as good a time as ever to point out that this resolution of ours is going to take a lot of time and a lot of listening, both of which are going to require a lot of commitment from you. You’re practically going to need a psychologist’s patience when listening to implied or direct racist comments from your friends and family.
Often, creating a space that makes someone feel like they’re actually heard is what can ultimately get them to finally listen to different perspectives and even shift their own.
And if you don’t have all the answers for your companion, no one could ever fault you for knowing enough about what you don’t know. Maybe something as subtle (yet incredibly powerful) as suggesting a book may say more to your friend than you ever could.
Most importantly, let’s try to keep our goals within reach. Nobody’s expecting you to single-handedly sway the Republican National Committee to endorse an anti-racist agenda. Don’t do that to yourself. That kind of ambition, while immensely admirable, is also an all-but-guaranteed trip to Disappointment Town, which is just a few miles down the road from Utterly and Forever Hopeless-ville.
We have to begrudgingly accept that the change we want to make in our fellow white companions may be slower than we want. However, not wanting to do this work because it is slow-going is also a sure-fire way to make sure it never gets done at all.
If you can change the perspective of only one person this year, that’s a win. If all of us set out to change the perspective of one person this year, that’s the beginning of a sea change.
And maybe the white person whose mind you change won’t immediately go from being a stay-at-home observer to attending all of the public demonstrations in your town. That’d be awesome if that happens, but it’s also not a loss if the change isn’t that dramatic.
Maybe that person just votes differently in the upcoming election. Maybe they now go on and talk to other white people about their racism. Who knows what the effect will be from the time you spend helping others develop anti-racist attitudes.
This is just one year in what will be many years ahead for all of us. But hopefully by this time next year, we’ll look back and see we were able to actually challenge and eliminate racism in some people, which should make for a promising outlook in 2016 and beyond.
Drew Bowling is a soon-to-be social worker who writes about gender, race, and other intersecting issues. His writing has appeared on Role Reboot, Everyday Feminism, the Good Men Project, as well as at his oft-neglected but much-adored blog, Reading Without Men. Twitter is also a thing he does.