For the record, this post is in direct in response to the many people who’ve asked this either through a personal message or as part of a larger conversation regarding the heightened national attention towards police treatment of People of Color in the past few months. Many who ask this question truly believe that they are asking it sincerely and really do want to help, so it can be frustrating for them when responses range from silence to sincerity to sarcasm. This happens for many legitimate reasons, but my purpose here isn’t to address why that is—rather, I want to respond directly to the question of “what can I do?”
Now, many people who have asked me this question identify as white (or pass/are raced as white), are still trying to understand racism beyond interpersonal mistreatment of others based on biological or phenotypical markers, or were unaware of the extent of the ties between state/police violence towards poor people/people of color, among other reasons. The loose and non-exclusive categories I just named made up a large portion of the types of folks from whom I, personally, got this question, almost all of whom live in the U.S., so my thoughts are tailored accordingly.
So for those asking this question, who are interested in doing something to help people but feel new, out of place, uninformed, or otherwise just aren’t sure where to start, it may be useful to think about the following as possible resolutions for this new year:
- Can you resolve to be prepared to be wrong? Any ideas that life is fair, just, and equal in opportunity and/or outcome will soon be turned on its head, and comprehending and accepting a new reality is not always a fun process, especially if it’s never happened to you before. New information is frequently met with defensiveness, anger, distrust, and dismissal, directed at the one providing the information or towards the groups/communities that stand to gain the most from the spread of, and belief in, these different perspectives. If you aren’t prepared for this, you may end up deflecting important information.
- Can you resolve to read like you’ve never read before? Action without direction is pointless, and it’s impossible to figure out what direction to go in without some kind of map. Since this is rarely formally taught (at least, before college, to which many don’t have access), even a foundational understanding of these issues is uncommon, and just like any other subject area, a certain amount of academic-type work is necessary. Challenge yourself to take the initiative to find and read what you can, and do your best to discuss it with others—after all, some of the best learning you can do is with others. Keep in mind that this can signal to some of the people/groups you want to support that you are serious in this undertaking, and is great preparation for the more politically or socially involved work you may want to do later.
- Can you resolve to seek out and listen to the experiences of people from historically marginalized groups? Not everything that you need to know can be gleaned from stuff people wrote. It’s also important to connect faces and personal, lived experience with the systemic problems we face. Not only is it less abstract this way, but it helps to develop empathy, which is necessary to understanding and solving any social injustice. This shouldn’t be limited just to people you already know, though that’s a good way to start. If possible, reach out to coworkers or clients, volunteer, or work with and support different non-profit organizations. The more experiences you hear, the better.
- Can you resolve to absorb, and not just hear, what people of color are trying to tell you? Frequently, folks from historically marginalized groups resent being asked to “teach” or “educate” others, in large part because not only is it already painful (and in many cases, somewhat traumatic) to drag their personal experiences all out into the open to try to get others to see what is so factually and demonstrably obvious to them, but it is doubly insulting and frustrating because rather than accept what they are saying, the conversation turns into the other person criticizing their beliefs, individualizing and blaming them for the challenges they face, and ultimately dismissing them and their experiences. Instead, try to give them the benefit of the doubt. It doesn’t mean that everything someone says is always 100% right or true, but rather than look for everything you can think of that’s wrong with it, search for reasons why they might be correct, and move on from there.
- Can you resolve to share what you learn with others? While personal breakthroughs and improvements and whatnot are super great and important (and frequently undervalued), a bit of perspective highlights the fact that even by taking just that one small step towards being a decent human being, you are in the minority of people who want—or can create—a more socially just world. Staying silent about what you learn helps no one. Work to develop enough confidence to talk to others about who you’re reading, what you’re reading, why you’re reading it, and encourage others who you recognize don’t yet see the full picture to do the same. This can inspire others to learn to read the map and get involved at the political and social levels. In doing so, be conscious of your presence in discussing your involvement in justice work and avoid bragging or centering yourself in the conversation. Remember, it’s about who’s being negatively affected, why, and what things can be done to fix it, rather than what you are doing.
- Can you resolve to interrupt situations and conversations where unknown biases and negative beliefs are going unchallenged? Many people aren’t aware that even small, off-hand remarks, beliefs they have, or ways of doing things business-as-usual help to support an overall unjust, unequal, inequitable system. Whether it comes up in a hiring meeting at the workplace, a conversation during a family event, or over drinks with teammates or friends, while it may be awkward, remember that no snowflake ever feels responsible for the avalanche. It’s possible that the hiring committee doesn’t realize that they are overly dismissive of candidates of color; maybe your parents aren’t aware that telling women to “cover themselves up” supports victim blaming; and perhaps your friends don’t realize just how lucky they were to have that family connection that helped them land their job. Even pointing out the small things can create positive change.
- Can you resolve to develop (and share!) strategies to positively engage with those who haven’t had the opportunity to learn about, or who don’t fully see, these social justice issues? We often talk about the burden of “educating” or “enlightening” others being placed on marginalized communities. In fact, this burden needs to be placed moreso on those who belong to the dominant, empowered groups. More importantly, members of those groups can better connect with others in similar social positions, since they have the added advantage of being more likely to be listened to and know from their own experience how to successfully cater to their audience. In other words, this means steeling yours Might be helpful to be even more explicit here: “For white people, this means taking up the burden of educating and responding productively to those who haven’t had the chance to learn about systemic racial injustice.”
- Can you resolve to be persistent in maintaining relationships that have become strained because of your (new) understanding? As alluded to above, these types of conversations can be tough, and people with such opposing views frequently have trouble getting along. However, the end goal isn’t to send people running away with their fingers in their ears, it’s to spread understanding and compassion such that more people can be mobilized to advocate and fight for justice. A friend of mine put it best: “For example, rather than deleting friends on social media who make racist posts or comments, engage them directly and in a way that they might empathize with—for them, knowing that some of their friends will respond thoughtfully to their casual, and perhaps unbeknownst-to-them racist behavior can inspire them not only to not behave that way in the future, but also to start to reflect critically on why they were behaving that way in the first place.”
- Can you resolve to be stand your ground, even if it means losing close relationships? The counter to #8, some people just aren’t interested in learning they benefit from the suffering of others. This is especially true when different privileges and advantages are mixed together, seen most lucidly with poor whites where hearing the word “privilege” highlights the economic disadvantages they face but doesn’t show their contextual advantages because of their (perceived) racial identity. Regardless of who it is, though, some people will fight tooth and nail and it might not be worth it to try things further. This may create an irreparable chasm in a relationship, or may sever it altogether. An undesirable end, but one that many are not prepared for. If maintaining a relationship affects your ability to follow #6, you may need to rethink that relationship. Great!
- Can you resolve to be angry? Your anger shows the depths of your understanding of the frustration, rage, pain, sadness, and fear that is frequently felt at a very deep level by people every single day just in response to who, what, when, where, why, and how they wake up in the morning. I’m not implying you should be in a volatile, destructive state of rage all the time, as that can be counterproductive. Anger should not be only expressed—it should be a driving force for change, something that keeps you on your toes and pushes you forward to learn more, to read more, to listen more, to interrupt and speak out more, to strategize, to persist, to lobby, to protest, and to stand your ground when the going gets tough. It should motivate you to find a place where you think you would be most helpful—whether as a teacher, a researcher, a protestor, a counselor, a mentor, a volunteer, a coordinator, or a professional of some kind. Because the thing is, once you no longer feel angry or frustrated with what’s happening, once you start to turn away from the suffering of others, once any sense of apathy takes over, once you are able to be silent, it is often a sign that you have accepted the state of things as business as usual, and you have become one more snowflake in the avalanche.
One thing that didn’t make this particular list is standing in solidarity with oppressed groups. However, not only does this kind of go without saying, but can mean VASTLY different things for different people—for example, not everyone can take off work to be at every protest or every meeting or fight every battle, and no one expects that. The intent of the above resolutions was to help in being a more effective and efficient ally who is stands in solidarity with others
I hope these ideas, in addition to all the other lists of actions you can find below, inspires you to reflect on ways you can aid in achieving a more equitable society in 2015. Feel free to leave any questions, comments, concerns, or suggestions, and I sincerely hope that this next year is better than the last.
Thanks for reading, and Happy New Year!
I take no credit for any of the following works and/or lists of resources, but I think they might be useful. Some information is repetitive, some of it is conflicting, and some of it contains content with which I don’t particularly agree—however, I think they are all perspectives worth considering.
A great catch-all site and an overall easy read is the Racism School Tumblr: http://racismschool.tumblr.com/
Arizona Banned Books List: http://azethnicstudies.com/banned-books
13 Must Reads for the Black Feminist in Training: http://www.buzzfeed.com/ashleyford/13-must-reads-for-the-black-feminist#.piBv2zVaq
32 Essays on Racism and White Privilege: http://www.gradientlair.com/post/44074434301/32-essays-on-racism-and-white-privilege
Popular Race and Ethnicity Books: http://www.goodreads.com/shelf/show/race-and-ethnicity
Books White People Need to Read: http://www.goodreads.com/list/show/12546.Books_White_People_Need_To_Read
15 Books That Will Make America’s Race Conversation an Actual Conversation: http://www.buzzfeed.com/antwaunsargent/15-books-that-will-make-americas-race-conversatio-cxli
How to Be an Ally
18 New Year’s Resolutions to Fight Racism: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jaime-grant-phd/white-silence-is-violence_b_6382612.html
How to Be an Anti-Racist Ally: http://loveisntenough.com/2009/12/30/how-to-be-an-anti-racist-ally/
5 Ways to use White Privilege: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jordan-houston/5-ways-to-use-white-privi_b_5991622.html
How to Be an Ally if You Are a Person with Privilege: http://www.scn.org/friends/ally.html
10 Things Allies Need to Know: http://everydayfeminism.com/2013/11/things-allies-need-to-know/
5 Tips for Being an Ally: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/12/05/franchesca-ramsey-video-ally_n_6275680.html
White Ally Guidelines: http://deepgreenresistance.org/en/what-we-do/deep-green-resistance-white-ally-guidelines
Fellow White People: https://www.facebook.com/danny.ferry.583/posts/10100483629259898
12 Things White People Can Do Now Because Ferguson: http://qz.com/250701/12-things-white-people-can-do-now-because-ferguson/
Some Tips for White People Who Have Opinions on Ferguson: http://feministing.com/2014/12/10/some-tips-for-white-people-who-have-opinions-on-ferguson/
White People’s Roles and Responsibilities: http://ethiopienne.com/post/105124905438/white-peoples-roles-and-responsibilities-when
How White People Can Be Allies: http://www.theroot.com/articles/culture/2014/08/ferguson_how_white_people_can_be_allies.html
29 Harmful Things White People Do And What We Can Do Instead: http://bmoreantiracist.org/white-people/29-stupid-things-white-people-do-and-what-we-can-do-instead/
Your Discomfort is Progress: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/dec/07/white-people-ferguson-race-conversation
It’s Ok to Talk About Ferguson: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/nov/28/white-people-ferguson-facebook-race
10 Simple Ways White People Can Step Up to Fight Everyday Racism: http://everydayfeminism.com/2014/09/non-racist-white-person/
When White People See Themselves With Black Skin: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/12/15/virtual-body-swapping-racism_n_6328654.html?cps=gravity
Most White People in America Are Completely Oblivious: http://www.alternet.org/most-white-people-america-are-completely-oblivious
Whites are Biased and They Don’t Even Know It: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2014/12/08/across-america-whites-are-biased-and-they-dont-even-know-it/
7 Racially Coded Phrases: http://everydayfeminism.com/2014/11/racially-coded-phrases-black-people/
Understanding the Racial Bias You Didn’t Know You Had: http://www.vox.com/2014/12/26/7443979/racism-implicit-racial-bias
On Ferguson Protests: http://www.blackgirldangerous.org/2014/11/ferguson-destruction-violence-really-isnt/
Is Ferguson Like Mockingjay?: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kl70IdKqyMQ
I Don’t Know What to Do With Good White People: http://jezebel.com/i-dont-know-what-to-do-with-good-white-people-1671201391
To My White Male Facebook Friends: http://www.salon.com/2014/12/09/to_my_white_male_facebook_friends/
Dear White People: https://www.facebook.com/GentlemanGustaf/posts/669764293145318