“In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist—we must be anti-racist.” — Angela Davis, 1979
“What can white people do? How can we help?” a white teenager recently asked me during a speech to a high-school class about race and the social realities facing Black Americans today. They were predominantly white teens, living in a predominantly white town, who were concerned about all the political unrest they saw unfolding on television and social media each day.
“Honestly, the best thing that white people, especially young people, can do, right now, is start at home,” I replied. “Disrupt the exchanges and instances when you see injustice happening. Don’t be a bystander.”
I then explained that people who benefit from systems of power and privilege and are afforded greater access to social welfare benefits, equal protection under state law, and due process in our criminal justice system —among other things—have an immense responsibility to challenge the status quo. I reminded them that this goes for all systems that orchestrate and facilitate injustice, like those that rely on transphobia, sizeism, classism, sexism, ageism, and racism.
“This is how we begin to dismantle the systems that work to keep injustices like those that caused the deaths of Michael Brown, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, and Rekia Boyd in place.”
sexism, racism, and homophobia signs in the trash (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A few weeks later, I found myself in an “anti-racist” curriculum workshop with mostly white academics. We had been talking for over an hour about combating racism on our predominantly white campus through methods like putting “race” in the title of course names and making sure syllabi included more people of color.
I raised my hand.
“How do we differentiate between ‘non-racist’ and ‘anti-racist?’” I asked the room. “There’s a big difference between the passive work of simply not being racist and the active work of dismantling systems of oppression that is being anti-racist.” A few people nodded. Others snapped. Some even let out an “mmm” in thoughtful agreement.
Many of the solutions I heard in that room and other rooms like it were “non-racist” subtle processes and practices meant for well-meaning whites to let themselves and other “good whites” off the hook for their complicity in systemic racism. Their participation in this system, they believed, was mostly subconscious. So, by opting out of explicit involvement in that system, many concerned white people believed they were doing (some of) “the work.” The expressions on most of their faces when I spoke up that day showed that actively disrupting the racist modus operandi and intentionally divesting from systems of white supremacy was a foreign concept. Like the teens I had spoken to a few weeks before, they seemed confounded at the role they could play in this ongoing process. They were overwhelmed by “the work” required to both confront the systemic oppression faced by others and reckon with their own oft-hidden entanglements in that system simultaneously.
With the election of Donald Trump to the highest office in the United States, many white people have started asking: What can I do to end racial inequality in the United States and the world? How can I use the resources and privilege I have to create real, sustainable change for racial minorities, especially Black Americans? Where do I fit into this puzzle?
Angela Davis (Photo credit: Screenshot from YouTube/Black-Palestinian Solidarity)
The desire to “do work” on one’s self, immediate community, and the larger world makes these questions imperative. They are the first steps toward taking stock of one’s own participation in systems of racial hierarchy. But, as critics of the “safety pin allyship” have rightly pointed out, much of the activism originating outside of communities of color devolves into performative gestures with little material purchase and even less sustainable impact. As we move into the New Year, closing in on the anniversary of Trump’s inauguration, white people who want to “do work” on ending racial oppression and disparity in the United States will have to do more than have “difficult conversations.” They have to push past the initial discomfort of correcting friends and family who rely on “insensitive language” or archaic ideas about race in the United States.
Anti-racist pedagogical work in the classroom must be connected to communities and grassroots organizing because curricula and coursework in race, gender, and class that does not center those most affected by systemic disparity is incomplete. I create a space in my classroom for students of color to express their experiences with racial aggression and frustration. I don’t censor them in the name of respectability politics—a set of unspoken rules that regulate the public and private lives of non-white, especially Black, people into particular behaviors of decorum and conformity.
In the coming year, white people will have to work with their communities to ensure that they are divesting from anti-Black policing and criminalization of those most at-risk, top priorities for the organizations within the Movement for Black Lives. Conversely, this work must include investing in health care and education access and fair wages for communities of color. This means writing to congressional legislators and governors about how they spend tax dollars, like Chicago’s continued spending to grow the police force as schools are continually closed. It means donating to organizations like BYP100, a Black member-organization of 18 to 35-year-olds who are committed to building Black futures, and Color of Change, an online racial justice community dedicated to making a “less hostile world for Black people in America.” Exacting systemic change at the institutional level is more impactful than conversations alone. It targets the redistribution of economic and social capital in the United States.
Safety Pin Box (Photo credit: HBO/Vice)
Modern capitalism is rooted in racial injustice. Many of the financial structures and processes in the United States that facilitate social and economic mobility are marred by generations of racism, from predatory lending to redlining. So, the work of ending that disproportionate economic access also includes a real engagement with the many forms of reparations and racial redress to Black Americans. To this end, Safety Pin Box is a “monthly subscription box for white people striving to be allies in the fight for Black Liberation…to financially support Black woman and femme freedom fighters while completing measurable tasks in the fight against white supremacy.” While learning how to actively dismantle anti-Black systems, subscribers also invest directly in the financial health of Black women and femmes. Inherently, these small actions work to reverse the larger systems that operate at the expense of Black and poor people in the United States. It also pays Black women and femmes for labor that often goes unrecognized and unacknowledged.
The Chicago Community Bond Fund is another organization working to dismantle anti-Black systems of oppression. They use donations to pay bonds for those who are charged with crimes in Cook County, IL, which is notorious for jailing the mentally ill and poor and never letting them out because they can’t make bail. In a system like this, simply getting arrested results in the accrual of exorbitant fees, longer terms in jail, risks of worse sentencing, job loss, and long-term surveillance from police and parole officers.
Giving to these organizations creates deliberate change by focusing on a critical issue facing Black communities and working to end it. These actions take physical labor, monetary sacrifice, stepping back, and centering those whose quality of life is threatened daily by our status quo.
This is anti-racist work we need right now.