Anti-racist work for white people doesn’t have a simplistic answer

April 3, 2017


I read this piece giving an important criticism to white-led anti-racism groups. I have no criticism of the piece, and I think it’s a necessary read for us as white people who want to do this kind of work. It led me to think further about this, how it has worked in my own life, and how I’ve tried to let it shape the ways I move in the world.

One of the things I think is interesting about white people trying to do racial justice work is this: we have never, in all the centuries that whiteness has been doing racist stuff and some percentage of white people have wanted to resist that, learned how to do it in a way that isn’t problematic (the linked piece examines many of these ways). Maybe it isn’t possible anyway, but we tend to assume that it is. Whether or not that’s the case, it should always give us pause when we think we’ve got the way, or even a way, to do it now.

One thing many of us assume early in a journey toward anti-racism is that we can just do whatever people of color tell us. This, itself, is problematic for at least three reasons: 1) we can’t assume they will do that work of telling us what to do, 2) this treats them as a monolith, and related 3) they often disagree with each other, as do people of any kind who want to achieve something. This is of course part of what makes them people, and we’ll never see them as people if we can’t allow that, and let it influence the way we think about our own roles in this work.

Moving past that assumption, I think we run into a lot of ambiguity. Do we try to organize other white people in non-diverse spaces (white rural communities or white suburbs or whatever) and try to move them to anti-racist stances? Do we try to live in racially and ethnically diverse spaces and try to do multi-racial organizing? Do we intentionally move ourselves into spaces where we are the minority?

I’ve read people of color who would advise us to do each of, none of, and combinations of, these things. It is also possible to do any/all of these things in very destructive ways. We are not good at being anti-racist; it’s hard to imagine we can teach other white people to do it by ourselves (for whatever it’s worth, I completely endorse Safety Pin Box to do something about this). We tend to center ourselves, get easily offended, and can often simply leave when we’re offended in diverse organizing spaces where we aren’t in charge, so it’s hard to trust us. We tend to gentrify spaces where we are minorities (even if unintentionally, but usually by specific choices we may or may not be conscious of), at best, and colonize and brutalize them at worst.

Further complicating things, these ambiguities all exist regardless of any theological, spiritual, political, communal, or otherwise modifying commitments we might have. Adding those in – are there faiths or frameworks or experiences or communities or relationships to which we’ve committed ourselves or have actually become accountable? If so, these change how we look at these options in additional ways, and also any anti-racist work we do will change those commitments (for example, if justice work doesn’t modify our theology it’s not going deep enough).

I don’t, myself, have answers to any of these things. I have ways I try to fumble through it myself, hoping to build relationships that will correct me when I’m wrong.

Some of these:

I try to make myself available to any white people that aren’t trolls who want to talk about this stuff. I try to have long-term conversations in relationships I have and networks I’m in (family, faith, work, online, etc.), and take advantage of opportunities to make progress. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I don’t tend to engage with trolls. I think there’s opportunity in non-committed people more than in openly antagonistic people. I do engage with the local SURJ chapter when I can. They do a lot of work in our context.

I look for diverse community. I live in a diverse neighborhood with mostly single family houses. It does have a local version of a Whole Foods that I can’t afford to shop at, and it has lots of white people, but it has still managed to sustain its diversity (at least so far, as far as I can tell and as far as census data can show I’m still a minority). I’ve only been there a couple of months though, and the neighborhood where I was before was still more diverse, although it was mostly apartments. Even though our culture is set up for the exact opposite, it’s not incredibly hard to find a racially and economically diverse neighborhood in Minneapolis, but it’s trickier to do it in a way that isn’t pushing out that very diversity. It’s easier to do both than it was in Atlanta, though, although both cities have their deep issues with segregation and gentrification.

In any case, I also try to engage in, and support with my time and money and energy, multiracial justice work, whenever it’s possible. I join organizations (such as Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, Isaiah, any multi-racial work that our local BLM chapter does) – many of which are led by people of color, I support them, I go to protests and meetings and try to use my voice for these. I learn over time how to see that it’s not centering white people, but if it has room for us I try to be there and do what I can.

Related to both community and justice work, I also try to intentionally build relationships with people of color who seem to like me. I find this quite difficult, but not much more difficult than intentionally building relationships with people of any kind who seem to like me. People are busy; I’m busy. Many people live isolated lives; our culture is set up for us to do this, and again it is set up for white people to do it in segregated ways. Still more, I’m introverted, still relatively new to the state and city, and am probably awkward and maybe annoying in ways I do and don’t see. But there it is. We also send our child to a school that is very diverse. She’s by far the minority, and this shapes the relationships she has in ways we like, but we also tried to ensure that there’s not (so far) a risk of white people unintentionally becoming the majority in the space through school choice.

I also try to support exclusively black- (or Native-, Latinx-, Muslim-, etc.) organizing spaces and their work when I can. I am aware of campaigns and events and organizations that ask for white people to physically stay away and support by other means, and I do. I sometimes give money when I have it, or share what voice I have when I don’t have the money, and still more I try to be aware of and modified by their platforms and agendas and goals, especially when they make me uncomfortable.

On a more individual level, I try to educate myself. I read a lot online, and a decent amount offline. I read theologians and activists and educators and various other people of color, I share them, I learn from them what else I need to read, and I shape the way I think over time by doing this. I’ve gotten far enough (compared to where I once was) that it isn’t particularly hard to find something to read or to add to my wish list; this is a regular occurrence and I generally know in what directions I’m being led to educate myself.

And all of this work, as I mentioned earlier, interacts with the commitments I have to the way of Jesus, to liberation and Celtic and Anabaptist and progressive and political and even still Pentecostal theology, to my faith communities, to nonviolence, to radical politics and anti-imperialism, my family, my work and experience as a designer, my engagement with art and music, and probably other things I don’t even see. The work for racial justice changes all of those things in my life on an ongoing basis, but the way I try to do the work also gets modified by them.

I write all this to try to articulate the complexity as I see it, but also to illustrate that although there are no easy answers to the complexity, we aren’t free to stop moving once we see the necessity of, and also the entirely problematic nature of, anti-racist work for white people. When something we do gets critiques, even on the broadest level, we can’t be surprised. There’s nothing in our history or our present that suggests we shouldn’t get these critiques. There’s nothing to suggest that they’re wrong.

We should and must learn from the critiques to do anything in this work, but we can’t seek to learn from them in simplistic, now we have the answer and it’ll all be fine, ways. Those answers don’t exist and I think no one has purported to give them to us. As in many of the best things, we move by entering into the questions.