I wrote this for facebook but I’m posting it here for posterity.
I share a lot of posts about race and racism to bring awareness. I’m pretty sure it has caused a lot of my friends to mute all my posts since I get very little engagement on them. Let me know if you don’t have me muted.
This particular post is to share my journey to becoming antiracist. It’s not my intention to distance myself, to elevate myself in self promotion, or to be performative. I don’t consider myself better than anyone else, I just have knowledge and have spent time doing deep reflective work. I’m not done nor will I ever be done with that self-reflection, as antiracism requires, but I have moved through all the stages of grief to acceptance.
I have heard through the grapevine that people I know are in those early stages of grief as they become more aware of how racist and oppressive our country and society really is. This post is for them. What I hope those people will see is that wherever you’re at is fine, but for things to change for all people for the better, you gotta work through all the stages, feel all the feelings, and then commit yourself to DOING something. By putting all my vulnerabilities out there, admitting the ways in which I was wrong, I hope you can find the strength to keep going.
Becoming antiracist is a journey, a hard one, full of guilt and discomfort and depression and wondering how to find joy in a world that is so oppressive of people. I have felt lost having all this new old knowledge and not knowing what to do with it. Feeling hopeless. Fucking up! And fucking up again, and again. And learning from those mistakes. Then doing.
Here’s how it began:
Before 45 was elected, I was your typical white apolitical liberal: self-focused and lived in my little bubble of self-interests that is fiction writing and video games. I hated politics (tbh I still do) knowing how corrupt it is, so I purposefully disengaged. My life wasn’t being affected by policies so I didn’t give a shit. Because I lived in my bubble, there was no one to listen to about how politics and policies can negatively impact their and other people’s lives. It didn’t even occur to me how politics can be a life or death situation for many people in this nation and worldwide. I wrote, I played video games, and when my girls were born, obsessed with the website BabyCenter (where I “met” many wonderful mothers, learned how to set boundaries, and how to deal with narcissistic and toxic family).
I saw the protests of the Black Lives Matter movement, didn’t fully understand its purpose, was probably critical of its methods (do protests that shut down traffic and a city really work? (yes they can and do)), but I kind of understood the message. I supported that Black people want to stop being killed by police, but my support went as far as a conversation with my husband. I did nothing else. The same could be said of any and all atrocities being committed in this country and world. I noticed, but did nothing. I didn’t know I could do something. That I should do something. That something could be done in general. I was naive, and I had no one to talk to about it in a way that would galvanize me. That is mostly because the people who surrounded me were and are just as naive. I’m going to return to this near the end of the essay.
FIRST AND SECOND STAGES OF GRIEF: DENIAL & ANGER
When 45 was first elected, I freaked the fuck out. My mind wen to worst case scenario immediately (nuclear holocaust). While I’m glad it hasn’t come to that, there was also thoughts of concentration camps and lots of suffering. It took longer than I thought, but we got there: the cruelty of this administration is very apparent. It was apparent in the first few weeks with the Muslim ban. In the beginning, I sought out an older friend (Meg!) to figure out if my freaking out was actually warranted. She pointed me to Ijeoma Oluo.
I followed her for a while and took comfort in some of what she said. But she posted a lot about racism. I didn’t know who she was, what her work was. I just knew she was a friend of my friend. And admittedly, I became turned off by her constant posts about racism. I unfollowed her.
I knew racism existed. I knew Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) experienced it, but not to the extent that it actually happens. Not in the multifaceted ways it happens. Not at the systemic way it happens (i.e. embedded in all institutions from schools to hospitals to government, etc). My choice to unfollow was more based on not wanting to hear the reality of BIPOC. I found it annoying. Surely she could talk about something else, I thought.
Unrelatedly, around April 2017, I decided I wanted to go back to school. But for what? I took several months of trying to discover what I wanted to do with my life after being a stay at home mom for several years and feeling extremely unfulfilled. Don’t get me wrong, I like being a mom, but there is more to life than motherhood. My love of linguistics was discovered during my last year of undergraduate work, and I decided that’s what I wanted to do.
That led me back to Twitter, where I followed anyone with the word “linguist” or “linguistics” in their profile. That led me to activist scholars who used Twitter to talk about race and racism. Racism in linguistics, racism in general. Then Charlottesville happened.
I was stunned, shocked, and dismayed. BIPOC were not. They have been protesting violence against them en masse for a very long time. In recent history, since Trayvon Martin’s death in 2012, with the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement. They took to the streets when Rodney King was beaten on film and the cops were acquitted of any wrong doing. The civil rights movement, the suffrage movement, etc. etc. They have been writing about it, talking about it, since they’ve been enslaved. Our education system fails to teach these true histories, and we white people (and even some BIPOC) must seek it out on our own to know how long our oppression and cruelty toward racialized people actually is. Hint: since about 1590.
The only reason why Charlottesville got more attention than other protests was because a white woman had died at the hands of the white supremacists marching. Because the hoods came off, emboldened by the president who spouted the racist rhetoric daily. Because the internet is inescapable. Because some of us started paying more attention than before we had a vocally racist president. Of course there are people who knew before 45, but racial justice has slowly become a national conversation because of this particular incident.
When the BIPOC people I followed said, “if you read these books and these authors you will see this is nothing new,” I took their advice to heart. Being a stay at home mom, I have time to read articles, academic papers, books, twitter posts, etc. more than the average person who works can do. I deep dived into it, because again and again and again I read Black women write “The only people who will save us are ourselves.” And that is fucking terrible…and mostly true. More true than not.
It was Dr. Nelson Flores who first told me that studying linguistics would not solve the problem of racism. “We must redistribute resources. Read the article ‘Whiteness as Property’ by Cheryl Harris.” (Google it, it’s free and very illuminating.)
STAGE THREE: BARGAINING
What does Bargaining stage of grief look like in this journey to become antiracist? It’s the “not all white people!” It’s when Black folx point out that a majority of white women voted for 45, we respond with “Not me! -EYE- didn’t vote for him.” “I’m not racist.” It’s when you’ve learned something new and surely you have great ideas on how to fix it as if no one in the history of capitalism has never had your idea.
Me <– Guilty as fuck in the bargaining department. I’d like to think I wasn’t obnoxious about it, but any moment we say any of those things, it’s obnoxious to the BIPOC on the receiving end. They hear it… a lot. By lots of white people. It’s A Thing We Do to try to assuage our guilt, to disassociate or distance ourselves from “those racists over there.”
The truth of the matter is this: being ‘not racist’ is not the same as being ‘antiracist’. Being ‘not racist’ is a passive way of being racist. More on this when I get to ‘acceptance’.
At this point I’m heavily involved in twitter. My quest to learn about linguistics turned into following any and all people who wrote commentary on race and racism. My ‘follow’ list grew from finding all linguists to utilizing “Follow Friday” where the Black women I followed uplifted other Black women, then Indigenous women, Latinx folx, queer folx, disabled folx. If they are an activist in their own community, writing about their oppression, I follow. And I listen (or read). And I watched other white people make mistakes: I got to watch them “not all white people” posts, and watch patient and impatient BIPOC and white allies respond on why there is absolutely no reason to ever say that phrase.
Don’t get me wrong, I made my own mistakes on twitter. Someone called me out when I made a statement that was clearly distancing myself. There were other instances where I clearly had not educated myself enough before making some sort of reply and got put in my place. Describing these instances in more depth will take too much time, but I am not free of being an ignorant white person. Even now, I still have so much more to learn, and I will inevitably make mistakes in the future. The system of white supremacy is complex, convoluted, and requires immense self-reflection. I still have many blind spots (and luckily have patient mentors to point them out to me). Deprograming our whiteness is a long and necessary process to becoming antiracist.
STAGE FOUR: DEPRESSION
As I learned more and engaged in deep self-reflection (thanks to Andrea, who pointed me to Layla Saad’s work (see below)), the more uncomfortable and depressed I got. It’s hard not to feel guilty when you’ve gone a large portion of your life cloaked in privilege. The privilege of never being harassed while walking through a store, the privilege that no one will ever mumble a racial slur about you, the privilege that no one will call you ‘articulate’ because of implicit biased about how a person with a particular skin color is ‘supposed’ to talk, the privilege that no one will dismiss you or think you’re unintelligent because you have an accent. So much more. “Why did I never notice? Why did I never see this before?” Two questions I have asked myself as I ruminated about my ignorance and inaction.
We are products of our environment. Our white supremacist society has an incidious nature to hide how it works. Our education system is carefully curated to keep (white) people ignorant: To hide the injustices that our government commits, to pretend that all is well and good. Our white supremacist society has mastered the art of gaslighting, wherein we are quick to dismiss the anguished and angered marginalized communities as ‘playing the race card’ or ‘being too sensitive’. Our white supremacist society has demonized the descriptive word ‘racist’, connecting a negative connotation of judgment of moral character rather than what it really means: a power structure in which rich white men benefit the most and the rest of us get fucked. The powerful rich white men gaslit lower class white people into believing that the tiny bit of privilege we get is worth holding onto because at least we won’t be at the bottom like them Black and brown folx. We, the people who have no power or wealth, are pitted against people in similar situations because of an easy visual marker, while the powerful rich men laugh and horde wealth and create policy to keep us so trodden that we have no energy to fight back.
Fighting back is work. It’s swimming upstream while the wind is howling into your face. It’s never stopping because the moment we stop we start to slide back to where we were before, or even worse. We eat up the rhetoric that our social problems are caused by immigrants (both legal and undocumented), the poor, the criminal because it makes it EASY to find a scapegoat to shove all our problems onto. It makes fighting the system that causes us so many social harms so hard to do because we’re focused on the wrong thing.
We don’t see the problem because the problem has been improperly named in our in-group of white people. Even if we have a mixed group of friends, the idea of talking about race in a way that is open and truthful doesn’t happen in reality because a huge majority of white people are neither ready nor equipped for that conversation. Until we find ourselves in a position to be taught to see the world from a different perspective, how else are we to know there are other perspectives, and that they are just as valued and worthy as our own?
Plus a huge majority of people don’t have a solid grasp on the multifaceted way racism works. All people. It is a field of study. It requires depth of knowledge to understand, and it is not something a white person can experience to the degree BIPOC do on a daily basis. In addition, there’s a need for interpretation that we as white people need to be told. Those who have a true understanding of it will have a very specific political leaning: anti-racism (anti-white supremacy), anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, anti-patriachy, anti-militarism, prison industrial complex (PIC) abolition, police abolition, feminism and shared wealth. Yes, really. All of that. If it causes suffering, it needs to go. We should seek to fight bigotry in all forms and to heal trauma because everyone should have a quality life. To be seen and treated as human. But I digress (a post for another day).
Because of my deep dive where I read about the cruelty of white supremacy nearly all day everyday, I spent many sleepless nights endlessly thinking about how terrible this world is. I have conversations with my husband, and sometimes those conversations got shut down because it’s just too much to talk about right before bedtime (the only time we really get a chance to talk). We became more and more aware of our privilege, and we felt lost and stuck.
What do I do? How do I help? Will people accept my help? Will my skin color get in the way?
I read over and over and over that this is a white people problem, and that it is our responsibility to do something about it. I read about our need to make sacrifices, and being willing to do so. What does that mean exactly?
STAGE FIVE: ACCEPTANCE
This is the start of acceptance. Acceptance is realizing that when I’m not actively working to do antiracist work, that I am upholding racist power. Dr. Ibram X Kendi describes it in his latest book, “How to be an Antiracist”, like this:
“The good news is that racist and antiracist are not fixed identities. We can be racist one minute and an antiracist the next. What we say about race, what we do about race, in each moment, determines what – not who – we are.”
There is a hyperized stigma against the word ‘racist’, but the truth of the matter is that when we do nothing to fight the system of oppression, when we stay in our comfort zones, when we aren’t willing to make mistakes in fear that we’ll mess up (because we will!), we’re sitting in the position of ‘racist’.
As I mentioned before, I follow activists/speakers of a wide variety of oppressed people. As they talk about white people – that vast generalization that we white love to hate (“Not all white people!”) – I have learned to be okay with those generalizations. It once applied to me. It sometimes applies to me now. Is it worth getting mad at the person who delivers the message that so many BIPOC constantly repeat? No. Because the problem isn’t with them, it’s with us. Once you get into acceptance – because you’ve done the necessary internal work – you see the Truth in what they say, and you know it is necessary to broadcast those Truths to your white friends. And those white friends may mute you, but perhaps some are actually paying attention and listening. That’s all we can really hope for.
So what can you do? As white people, we must first start with internalized work. We will not be useful in the war of equality, equity, inclusion, belonging, and antiracism if we do not address the problems within us, and that in and of itself is a huge and hard battle.
If you’re in the beginning stages – Denial and Anger – here is my biggest suggestion: Read and listen and most importantly, don’t engage with BIPOC about race (I’ll explain why in a minute). There is a plethora of books and podcasts out there that talk about racism. Utilize your local library – that’s what I did. Learning America’s true history of cruelty and oppression toward BIPOC is a huge first step. A book that I think is a good anthology of readings is The Charleston Syllabus. Then read How to Talk about Race by Ijeoma Oluo.
If you’re in the bargaining stage and find yourself wanting to “not all white people” or defend yourself and your whiteness, you need to start with deep self-reflection. Layla Saad’s “Me and White Supremacy” book comes out February 2, 2020. This will be the best deep dive instruction guide for self reflection you can find. In the meantime, read White Fragility by Robin diAngelo. Continue to not engage BIPOC about race and racism.
The reason why I say don’t engage is because you will be tempted to either seek solace and/or demand to be educated. What you’re really doing is demanding free emotional labor, something we have been doing historically since the founding of this nation. Don’t do it. They have already done the labor by writing books, creating podcasts, or being gracious enough to make twitter threads. Buy their work. Pay them. I’ll repeat once more: Pay them.
If you’re in the depression stage of grief, direct give. Direct giving saves people’s lives. There are so many people on social media who seek help on rent or medical costs. Give as much as you can. Even $3 can make a huge difference. Pay race scholars for their work. Donate to bond funds, both locally and at the border.
If you think someone is scamming you, well, do research on who you’re giving to. But really, it’s not your place or business what someone does with the money you give. Most people are wanting to survive, and if a bag of Hersey’s kisses is what they need to help them get through the day, then so be it. But honestly, everyone I’ve given to is using the money for rent or bills or medical care or escaping violent situations. People have been kind of enough to give to me, and I can tell you there is immense relief in knowing that at least for that month, you don’t have to stress about money. Knowing your bills are paid, or that you won’t have to eat ramen at the end of the month, makes me indescribably thankful. I pay it forward every month when I can.
If you don’t have money, give your time. Show up. Find an organization led by BIPOC and join. Don’t expect to be able to do work immediately. Build your credibility and integrity by sitting and listening. Be honest about what may cause you to step back for a bit, like depression/anxiety or family life or what have you. But continue to show up when you can. Eventually, you will show your value and you will be given the opportunity to help. And realize that you should keep yourself in a support role rather than try to take the lead. We need BIPOC leaders. There are more than enough white people in leadership positions, and this is one of the things we must sacrifice. We must let others lead.
Find ways to bring antiracism to your job. Continue to read and learn and listen. Speak up when you see something racist occur. And accept that there will be times where you fuck up and burn bridges and ruin friendships before they get a chance to get started because we are always in the process of learning. Be graceful and grateful if someone calls you out. Find other antiracist white people to talk to. Apologize without ‘ifs’ and ‘that’s not my intention.’ Ask if there is a way to repair the harm. Be ok if they don’t want to right away or ever.
Antiracism is a skill. It takes active learning and patience and practice and a willingness to make mistakes in order to learn and grow.
One cool thing I’ve learned about being antiracist is that there is a world that opens up to you that you may not know about before. In an effort to be more inclusive, you get to learn about other cultures, view new media you may not have sought out before. You find new actors to love, a wider variety of work to find joy in. When you learn to be okay with giving up on shit that upholds white supremacy – which is very hard and heartbreaking at times – you are able to replace it by opening yourself up to a new world that has always been there. Just be respectful about it. Learn what appropriation is.
There are duel foundations to antiracism work, particularly for people of European descent: internalized deprogramming of whiteness, and uplifting and supporting BIPOC. Ijeoma Oluo wrote
“If your anti-racism work prioritizes the “growth” and “enlightenment” of white America over the safety, dignity, and humanity of people of color – it’s not anti-racism work. It’s white supremacy.”
“The beauty of anti-racism is that you don’t have to pretend to be free of racism to be an anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself. And it’s the only way forward.”
These two statements seem contradictory, but they’re not. And as you learn, you’ll find out why.
I’d also like to thank Andrea Vaughn for introducing me to Layla Saad’s work.
And finally, some may ask “what have YOU done to be antiracist” – aside from the internalized work, I honestly feel like I haven’t done much. My capacity is limited. And honestly, talking about it can be seen as performative, which is why I don’t and probably won’t in the future. But since this post is all about my antiracism journey, here’s what I’ve done:
I’ve read books by BIPOC. I focus my readings particularly on anti-Blackness, for that is the true root of racism (read Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X Kendi). I’ve attended various talks, both online and in person, that describe anti-racism in depth. My societal/political work is in progress. I’ve shown up to city council meetings to speak out against dog-whistle policies that target Black youth (which is still a work in progress and I need to show up again). I’ve been building relationships and being part of the community when I can. I see inequities in my child’s elementary school and district wide, and I’m trying to figure out how to approach it in a way that is both palatable to those in charge while at the same time bring the changes necessary for all kids to feel like they belong. I’ve done some community participation in a school district’s math adoption meetings. There are other pieces that are starting to fall into place, but until there is something concrete to show for it, I’ll just continue posting news articles and status updates from and about BIPOC.
Wherever you are in your journey, I hope this post helps you see that it’s a process. When you get stuck, please reach out. I’ll help you in every way I can.