When you take the time to learn about African American history as a white person, it can be empowering. How? Well, you realise how we got to where we are, to this tipping point in history. You realise the part that we’ve all played in the subjugation of Black people. You realise that their subjugation is so ingrained in our way of life that, unless you are subject to it, it’s actually difficult to see it. This realisation can give you the power to effect change. Yes, you, the white person who actually gives a shit, can make a difference.
And it starts with acknowledging your white privilege, acknowledging that we live in a society in which white people are born with (and continually given) advantage. And that black people are born with (and continually dealt) disadvantage. Being able to admit that is a great first step. Racism is a system, and the hostility that exists between white and Black people isn’t just a symptom of that. It’s a design feature. The default “race” being white is also a deliberate component (check out Peggy McIntosh’s essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” to see exactly how).
A lot of people misunderstand the meaning of the term “white privilege”, imagining that because they’ve had to endure hardship (despite being white) that it doesn’t exist, that it’s some kind of a liberal construct. But white privilege isn’t the same as regular ol’ privilege. It’s not the same as class privilege, or economic privilege or academic, political or social privilege. To be blunt, it is the privilege of being insulated from racial stress. That’s all it is – but that is huge. It’s a very powerful thing to possess, whether you’re aware that you possess it or not. If you are white, regardless of your situation in life (even if you are the poorest white person on earth) you have white privilege. You cannot renounce it. You cannot give it away. You cannot ever lose it. You are born with it, and you will die with it.
I challenge anyone to watch the full video of Derek Chauvin crushing the life from George Floyd’s body and tell me there isn’t a race problem in America. The policeman, knowing he is being filmed, casually looks into the camera, pressing his knee onto George’s neck. And he does it so indifferently, with one hand in his pocket. The way you would deflate an air mattress, just waiting for all the air to be squeezed out. He continued to push his knee down, three long minutes after his fellow cops had ascertained that there was no longer a pulse, in a show of…. what? Superiority? Dominance? It is terrifying that people exist in this world that can hold such little regard for human life (even more terrifying that they’re given a badge and a gun). It is devastating that Black lives are deemed so insignificant that they can be murdered on film by people who barely bat an eyelid while doing it. The reason “Black lives matter” is a thing and “all lives matter” is bullshit is that it’s the Black lives that are routinely and casually being taken by cops in this way. As Barack Obama recently said, “Black lives matter – no more, but no less”.
When I decided to actively get involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, after George Floyd was murdered, I had no idea where to turn for information on how I could help. I didn’t know the best way to become an ally. But I knew that I wanted to be one. My only resources were social media, predominantly Instagram and Twitter. I wanted guidance. I wanted to be told exactly what to do to help. But guess what, it doesn’t work that way.
We cannot expect marginalised people to educate us about the injustices of racism. How fucking entitled is that? We need to do our own research. We need to find out ourselves how we got to this place. And then we need to figure out ourselves what we can do to to get out of it. We need to put in the leg work. And I’m so sorry, but the work will be difficult. It’s going to be hard. It’s going to be challenging, even for the most progressive amongst us. Because we need to somehow wrap our heads around something that we usually don’t ever have to think about, something as taken for granted as breathing. As Dr. Camara Jones says, “It’s difficult for us to recognise any system of inequity that is privileging us”. Because that is our version of normal. But it’s time to wake up to the fact that our version of normal is messed up.
So, the responsibility to fight racism absolutely does NOT lie with Black people. It is the perpetrators, the enablers and people like you and me, people who have inherent advantage in the system, that need to do the work. And if you are white, that means you. Racism might directly affect Black people, but it’s something that infects us all. You are infected. I am infected. Racism is our problem to solve, and we need a cure, now. For the sake of humanity.
America’s obsession with individualism has fostered a culture in which people are able to rationalise extracting themselves from the collective. “No, I’m not a racist, and therefore I am not part of this problem”. But when everyone believes that, the problem becomes impossible to address, let alone fix. As white people, as part of that larger collective, we need to look inward, even if we don’t think we are racist (hell, even if we aren’t racist). We need to look inside and acknowledge that the very fabric of the society we are a part of is structured in a racist way. And then we have to change that. And that may mean changing ourselves. And that’s OK. Because the status quo is fucked. Society is broken. We can’t change racists one at a time. We need to change the system that teaches and allows and encourages people to be racist, whether they realise they’re doing it or not. And it will take time, but it’s worth the effort, and we have to start now. Black history is white history too. We are all part of it. We are living it, right now. How will future generations come to look at us and the role that we played in this historic moment?
Our silence, our inaction and our passivity is not benign. Being open-minded and progressive does not absolve you or me from the embedded racism of the world in which we all live. Non-racism is no longer enough (it never was enough, but OK, we can’t change the past). All of us now actively have to be anti-racist. As OluTimehin Adegbeye writes in The Correspondent, “To be anti-racist is to actively promote black safety, black prosperity, black health, black innocence, black freedom, black wellbeing and black life”. Does that seem like something you can do? I hope so. But if not, perhaps you need to ask yourself, why not?
Anti-racism doesn’t mean repudiating Blackness. It doesn’t mean that we are all the same. Because we’re not. We must acknowledge the differences, celebrating Blackness as something unique and wonderful and of equal value to whiteness. Saying you don’t see colour doesn’t mean you’re anti-racist. It simply sends the message that you choose to not see, or acknowledge, the sustained and violent degradation that’s been passed down to Black people through generations of imposed suffering and adversity. Let’s not whitewash and filter out the colour of someone’s skin as inconsequential.
Black people have never recovered from being enslaved. Humanity never recovered. To this day, the spectre of slavery casts a putrid shadow over the shiny façade of the United States of America. Black people have had to claw their way up every single step and still, they are always collectively below the ladder than whites who have had to expend no energy, no effort and no thought to their place. People like you and me. Who may not even be aware that we are on a ladder, or that a ladder even exists. The system just sets us there, on the upper rungs. And we get used to that, and some of us never even bother to look down. And that just sucks.
But you want to help. Here’s how. First and foremost we must read. We must learn about our terrible history, the one that they don’t teach in schools. We need to teach our children how to be allies, no-one else is going to do it. We must learn more about the key figures who have furthered the movement – from slavery to segregation, through the momentous civil rights movement of the 60s to the battle that is being fought right now. We need to know the names of those who devoted their lives, sometimes sacrificing them, in making a stand. Those who said no. Those who said enough. There is so much that we don’t know. So much we should know. So let’s start reading, right now. Even if you can spare just ten minutes a day, there are resources that can point you in the right direction.
Then, we listen. We listen to Black voices and we hear what they have to say. Even if we don’t like what they’re saying. We don’t argue. These voices have been muted for so long, it’s time to just step back and listen.
Donate. Give money to the BLM organisation. These are the people on the frontline, working tirelessly to transform the system from the inside, through legislation, through policy, through governance. Every cent helps. Donate to the victims. Donate to the protestors, to Black owned business.
Protest. Not everyone can get involved in protests, but if you are able to, it’s a great way to add your voice to the symphony. Turn up when they need you to turn up. Be there. Of course we’re still in the middle of a pandemic so be cautious about joining in. Don’t forget to wear your mask. And of course we’re still at the tail-end of a Trump administration. Don’t put your own personal safety at risk. Be there, but be safe.
Make amends, co-sign reparations. Find out the best way for you to do that. It will be different for everyone, but the deep and sustained injustices that Black people have endured must be mended.
As Nafeez Ahmed optimistically posits in his article, dismantling the system into which racism is inextricably woven isn’t just a matter of focussing on giving Black people equality. We are way past that. The last four hundred years have been spent building a complex society and way of life where our environment, our financial markets, our culture as a human race, our very existence is framed and tarnished by racism. It’s time to smash that system, as we head towards a reckoning. To borrow a phrase used by the organisers of BLM, now we transform. Now, as a species, we evolve, we move forward, we do better. Now, finally, we do right.