By Kendra Carpenter © 2020
White people: it’s time we understand the power we wield as white people in a society deeply unequal by race, and use that power to dismantle racism. I’m speaking to you here, as well as myself, as a white person. Systemic white supremacy and racism — the foundation of both the U.S. and Canada — is alive and well and you and I unethically benefit from it. Understand that you’ve been sleepwalking and you need to wake yourself up.
Want to start now? Here are some ideas:
Understand your racist programming
Whether you were aware of it or not, or wanted it or not, the system programmed you to be racist. It enrolled you through consistent, ongoing messages since you were born, and deeply assimilated you. It’s wasn’t just you — it programs everyone. We’ve all internalized and reproduced white and male supremacist ideas, in our families, workplaces, social circles, and in our own minds. We’ve kept silent when we should have spoken up, we’ve allowed all white spaces or leadership teams to run unchecked, we’ve modeled racist tropes to our kids. This programming didn’t start with you or me — but we must be responsible for interrupting it now.
Understand your socialization into whiteness
Understand that you were socialized into a white racial identity. Although you were likely unaware of this, it was still happening. It may be new or unnerving for you to see yourself as a member of a social identity group (white), but stay with it. Whiteness has been normalized. You’ve internalized yourself as the default human; rendering everyone else an ‘other.’ This is where your unconscious bias and sense of superiority can crop up, expressing itself when you tone police others, when you judge people with different ways as incompetent, when you assume your lived experiences are universal.
Know that while this may be the first time seeing yourself as white, people of color have likely always seen you and dealt with you as white. This does not discount you as a unique individual, but rather situates you within the larger experience of a group identified as white. Allow it, if you will, to create empathy in you for members of historically and currently racialized groups, who likely have ample experience of being treated as a member of a group primarily or instead of being seen as a unique person.
Understand your unearned, unethical advantage
Understand you have unethically (even if unintentionally) benefitted from the oppression of others, by colluding in a pre-arranged uneven contest — what U.S. Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal calls “unjust by design.” Understand your advantage is not having to be followed in a store while shopping, not having to constantly prove your competence to your white colleagues or white boss (unless of course you’re a woman of any phenotype), not having to deal with racial slurs/biases/aggressions, not having to deal with the police murdering you because you’re jogging while Black or sleeping while Black or the RCMP harassing and harming you because you’re walking while Indigenous or an Indigenous woman or for being Black brown Indigenous or racialized in any setting, time or place.
Understand that, according to abundant data, your white skin means that you will likely make more money, have more accumulated wealth, own your own house, live in an area with good schools, have more access to quality healthcare, have better health, and have a longer life span. You are less likely to die of Covid-19, and less likely to be stopped and killed by the police. You are more likely to get enough pain medicine when you’re ill, to be given empathy, to be promoted for your good work. It is very likely that you will never have to have ‘the talk’ about police brutality with your children.
I’m sure you worked hard. And, you also benefitted, and continue to benefit, unfairly, from the racist policies put in place to keep you up and others down. These are intentional policies, not accidental. Please, read and understand history. Learn who has been valued, protected, and included, and who has not been. See you have an unfair white-skin advantage in this racial hierarchy we’re in, and use it to increase the advantages of others. Use it to speak out against injustice, to call out other white people.
Understand your complicity
See all the ways in which the white supremacist system foils any insight into the system by gaslighting you, by feeding you lies so you can feel good about yourself and carry on while others are exploited, terrorized, criminalized and killed. See where you argue for your goodness, or the goodness of the system based on your lived experience, rather than listening to the lived experiences of others. Trust the lived experiences of others. Ask yourself why it takes many people to convince you that their experiences living in and surviving in a white supremacist society are real.
Understand how you have unconsciously participated in the white supremacist scripts, maintained silence, and reproduced white dominance in your interpersonal relationships. See where you’ve made decisions to uphold white solidarity, white representation, white comfort. See where you’ve worked to assimilate others. See it and interrupt it.
Be okay being uncomfortable, because you will be; when you interrupt racism and white dominance you reveal the unequal system and upset the equilibrium that keeps white people in comfort, colluding. That’s good. The equilibrium is white comfort at the expense of the lives of everyone else.
Understand your impact
Understand that your perception of yourself is limited. Understand that others who identify as Black or Indigenous or a person of color, others who have swum in the waters of white culture and hierarchy and control and dominance are well-aware of your and my whiteness and rightly may see you and me as a threat/danger or at least a burden or major inconvenience to work around.
Reckon with the cumulative stress from racist terrorism that keeps people exhausted and hypervigilant, in a state of heightened fear and awareness, like a second job that takes energy, effort and work, something Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan describes as being “on yellow alert” all the time. Reckon with the legacy of the police who protect you but not others — understand the origins of the U.S. police were slave patrols, and the origins of the Canadian RCMP were Indigenous patrols — intentionally set up to control, bully, terrorize and literally keep people ‘in their place.’ Educate yourself.
Pay attention to your impact; don’t focus on your good intention. If you notice where you’re complicit, or someone calls you out for being racist, acknowledge your impact, apologize and repair. To acknowledge your negative impact on another — with or without your explicit intention — is reckoning with the system in yourself. And doing so makes it much more likely you can be a partner in this work.
Understand our shared humanity
Understand your humanity is tied to all humanity. We are, literally, a human family. We started in Eastern Africa. We migrated all around the world. We’re all Africans. We’re all migrants. We’re all immigrants. We’re all sisters and brothers. We are family. When one family member is ill, everyone is impacted. We must heal the injury that is on our familial one body. And we must start with ourselves. Seeing our own humanity. Seeing that we exist beyond the capitalist function of producing something. Seeing that we have intrinsic value, de-coupled from what we achieve, do, fix.
As a person committed to ethics, justice, peace, equity and a world that works for all, and as a leader educating organizations on how to be anti-racist, I must do the work to show up anti-racist. I must intervene with individuals and organizations who are white supremacist and racist. I have found this takes courage, humility, leadership, and a deep heartfelt connection to our common humanity.
Anti-racist work takes what I call heart-iness — the practice of being centered in your heart, in compassion, empathy, and truth. It’s being courageous enough to actually feel the sorrow, the grief, the anger, the shame, and the whole range of emotions that arise when we awaken to our unwitting complicity as white people in an unethical, oppressive system.
Sufi poet and philosopher Jalal ad din Muhammed Rumi said, “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” To dismantle inhumane systems, we must start within our own systems, our own individual bodies and minds. To sense and feel what comes up and not run away. To touch the sorrow of our legacy of colonizing and brutalizing others. To feel the pain of reproducing a racial caste system we don’t believe in. To feel all of it and in doing so to deepen our commitment to humanity, to justice, and to anti-racist action. To awaken more deeply to our own humanity so that we can awaken to our greater humanity.
Understand! And do the work for yourself, for all.