Saturday, May 10, 2008

Open letter to a potential white ally

This is my submission for The Angry Black Woman's Carnival of Allies. You can submit too. Write a piece about why you are an ally and submit it here!

* * *

You, me, and two women of color were sitting at lunch. You and I are both white. You said that you just don’t understand racism, how can people blatantly hate? One of our friends spoke up saying “it’s not blatant hate a lot of the time. It’s ignorance. It’s a lack of education. White people say and do certain things because no one has bothered to teach them why it’s wrong.”

You nodded in agreement but then turned to the other woman of color and asked her for help in dealing with racism. There was a bit of a silence and I spoke up. “You can’t ask people of color where to begin. You have to begin with yourself. On your own.”

“I don’t know how”

“Yes you do. Do you go out to movies? Then see movies with all-black casts or foreign films that are not from Europe. Do you read fiction at home? Then read fiction written by people of color. If you think the connection to yourself is too vague then read lesbians of color. Pick up magazines produced by people of color. Put yourself in situations where you are the minority and see what themes are discussed. If you don’t understand a concept or a word, look it up on your own time. Don’t ask these women for help until you’ve reached a beginning level of understanding.”*

“But that’s so exhausting”

* * *

Dear White Friend:

I hate that reason. Of all the reasons to not engage in anti-racism the amount of work is the least logical excuse. The fact that all of us must do a tremendous amount of work to destabilize these systems of power is the very reason to engage in anti-racism. And white friend, the fact that you don’t know where to begin shows that you don’t realize the ubiquitous nature of racism. Racism is present in the grocery store, in public transportation, on college applications, and in access to public parks. If you don’t know where to begin then go back to your own education.

Read books labeled “African American Studies” or “Asian Studies”. Read books with Brown and Black people on the cover. Yes, the books that are published, the magazines that are produced and the movies that are shown nation-wide generally have sweeping messages about “the Black experience” that leave no room for nuance. Yet they are still important. After watching or reading ask yourself what you were inspired by? Was it the role of families? Was it an issue of access to jobs or education? Was it the lack of sex education given the characters? Grasp onto that issue and begin educating yourself from there. If you care deeply about young women being given access to comprehensive sex education than educate yourself on sex ed’s racial background. Learn about the history of forced prostitution among female Chinese immigrants in the 1930s. Learn about the eugenics movement and how birth control is mandatory for female employees in many U.S.-owned sweatshops in Mexico. Know who Loretta Ross is and why she is important. Find out why the 2003 March for Choice was changed to the March for Women’s Lives. Start from where you are passionate because every single topic is embedded with race.

Know that there are many people working against white supremacy. You do not need to be featured in the paper or overturn a Supreme Court ruling in order to do good work, in fact accolades should be the last thing on your mind. Sometimes it is hard to know if people are fighting racism but don’t judge everyone by standards reflected in Western white middle-class college-educated values. Surviving is a means of resistance, so is creating art or raising children who are articulate and aware. Having a bake sale to bring picture books with Black and Brown kids into kindergarten classes may not be the means you think is most practical. But think about the immediate result for that generation of children, to see their selves reflected in literature. Likewise, litigating for 13 years to get non-discrimination clauses into a company may seem like 13 years too many but legal changes are as needed as medical, social, and educational changes. Know that there is no one-way to resist white supremacy, we need people resisting on all levels and in all ways. But any way that is not supported by people of color has something fundamentally wrong with it.

Yes, white supremacy can be overwhelming, that’s kinda part of the definition. But if you start small and focus on your passion then you will be making a difference. Consider the fact that people of color never get the option to stop working for change. When things get rough, and they will get rough, think about someone you care about. If no one comes to mind than think of yourself. Sometimes I worry about this narcissistic train of thought, but I must confess that my life as a white man would be 100% better if all the white people I interacted with were educated on racial issues and what “institutional racism” meant. If all the Black and Brown students were given an equal opportunity to visit doctors or see their history (which is our history) in the classroom my life would be improved as well. Half of my time at work is spent trying to re-forge connections with communities and organizations of color, and I could get a lot more done if I didn’t have to apologize for the continued ignorance and arrogance of my people. But I have to do this and I will continue to do this until white supremacy is taught as a negative concept in all the schools of the U.S. While I have friends and colleagues of color that I fight white supremacy for, I also know that I fight it for myself.

When you, white friend, put off learning about race and racism you put off learning about yourself. Trying to act superior all the time strains your health. Having no knowledge of other people and cultures keeps you in a whitewashed ignorance about the rest of the world. If you don’t know the history of the U.S. grabbing land from Mexican and Indigenous populations, if you don’t know about the Chinese Exclusion Act then you do not know your very own history. When your taxes go to support government programs that only engender racial injustice you feel that loss in your pocket. When your ignorance causes people of color to avoid your presence you miss out on friendships and partnerships that could be world shattering. White supremacy and racism hurt you every day.

You are a woman and a lesbian. White supremacy has never meant to help you. You are a recent U.S. immigrant, white supremacy does not want you here. When you ignore that racism is implicit in homophobia, racism, sexism, and classism you are hurting yourself all over again. Racism is very clever. When you fight for your right to love whomever you want but forget that women of color have fought for this very right you end up hurting yourself. When you choose not to fight racism because you have the privilege of not addressing it every day you ignore that the goals of white supremacy are as much about eradicating women's rights as they are about eradicating the rights and lives of people of color.

Yes, racism is an overwhelming concept. When we realize at 20, 30, or 70 that we have lived an unexamined life it can be disturbing to have to learn our history all over again. It is not unusual for white people to grieve the lost time, I certainly have. I can understand the appeal of sitting in ignorance. As long as you do not know how hurt you are, as long as you do not look at the actions of your ancestors than you are not burdened with responsibility. All that responsibility can be terrifying. But you are not alone in fighting against racism, there are many people dedicating their lives to it. When you choose ignorance (and yes it is a choice), you are hurting yourself and your children. When you chose not to act because of the amount of work that must be done you diminish the work of all those around you who choose action in the face of white supremacy. In the words of Damali Ayo “Truth be told, if white people really wanted to end racism, they would. White people are very smart. You’ve come up with some of the world’s most notable inventions. Racism is only one of these. No one is better qualified to dismantle it. Unless, of course, you decide you’d rather keep it.”

It is our choice. The size and extreme ignorance we’re up against are nothing in comparison to our hearts and minds. The comfortable ignorance we leave behind is nothing compared to the friends and information we will be making on our journey. It is your choice.

*OK, I know that there are people of color in Europe and that non-English speaking immigrants are discriminated against in the US. I know that skin-color hierarchies exist in a lot of countries and that even watching a film from India it is unlikely to see a racial mix of people. But this was in the middle of a discussion and I…you know…I stumbled.


Laura said...

What an excellent article -- thank you. It's so important for us as white people to take responsibility for educating ourselves and dismantling racism, piece by piece, and not just to sit back and claim innocence. You offer some good suggestions for how to do that. I would just add: read some nonfiction as well, by authors such as bell hooks, Audre Lord, Patricia Hill Collins, Gloria Anzaldua, Cornel West, and others. Thanks again for a very thought-provoking blog entry.

Mik Danger said...

Thank you!

This post was meant as sort of a beginning anti-racism work 101 so I was trying to suggest activities that would engage people who weren't already clued in to issues of race. People who had gotten to the "being mean is bad" point but hadn't yet realized that their unexamined privilege was part of the problem. I think all those authors are fantastic, but I worry that without an initial understanding white folks write them off as "reactionary" or "looking for trouble"...But that's a very good point! Without these amazing authors I certainly wouldn't have the language to speak of these issues, and I think that's true for many people.

Ruth said...

Thank You for being such an incredible and inspirational voice in my life. This is so well written and I love you for the person that I've been able to see you become. With Love, Ruth

Rachel McKinney said...

This is great, Mik. I especially like your point about "mere" surivival being a means of resistance.

Missing you,

Mik Danger said...

Thank you both! I miss you both as well and can't wait to plan trips around the East Coast for visits.

Rach, I loved your edit to your Thomas Beattie post, I thought it was excellent and really thoughtful.

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