Skip to content

Three Tensions at the Heart of Fighting Racism as a White Person

Over the past few months, a group of friends and I — three of us white, one black — planned a panel for the beloved Bioneers Conference on how white people, women in particular, can wake up and fight racism. Our conversations were wide-ranging, but one of the patterns that emerged was tensions.

There is a series of tensions that we believe white people have to hold if we are going to effectively and eternally be part of fighting racism. They are deeply indebted to the wisdom and influence of many women of color whom we have been in conversation with or read over the years.

We offer a few of them up to you in case they are helpful on your journey (and, as I’ve argued before, it is a lifelong journey):

1. Pause and slow down vs. take action.

As a white person, it is easy to read the news of another police shooting and want to give money to the Black Lives Matter movement. Not a bad instinct, truth be told. If more of us redistributed our wealth (white people hold 90 percent of the wealth in America despite only being 60 percent of the current population), a lot of change would take place.

But, until white people have the emotional fortitude to sit with the profound sadness of being part of a people that has enslaved and exploited for centuries, our action can only come from a shallow place, a place that doesn’t match the depth of the problem. We can end up in a cycle of clicking on petitions and donating to causes as a way of staving off our own discomfort. Not only does it keep our potential as change-makers anemic, it keeps us feeling dissatisfied and compartmentalized. The lead-up to transformation is not paved with strategically-timed donations to the ACLU; it is thorny and painful and messy. As Mia Birdsong, one of the panelists, said, “If you’re not f-ing up, you’re not trying hard enough.”

2. Try to influence other white people to do anti-racist work vs. perform your own anti-racism as a sort of ego-boost.

One of the things that white folks indisputably need to do if we are going to shift racial dynamics in this country is have real, hard conversations with our family and friends. Ideally, that happens within the context of a loving relationship, in person, maybe even around a dinner table at Thanksgiving. Showing Up for Racial Justice, an entity organizing white people to fight racism, actually has a Thanksgiving hotline set up so people can get support on these kinds of conversations in real time!

It’s not always realistic to have those kinds of heart-to-hearts. Sometimes we want to influence our social network via Facebook or some other means. I know that posting a brilliant article by Brittney Cooper to my nearly 4,000 friends, the majority of them white, is a worthwhile way to use my influence. Yet, when does the posting of that piece become more about how I want other people to see me rather than how I want them to see the world? How can I tell the difference? It’s one of those things that only shows up internally, so the more we pause and check in with our own motivational truth, the better we get at doing things from a genuine place.

3. De-center whiteness and learn about other cultures vs. objectify, co-opt, and/or disrupt sacred spaces.

No doubt many of you have heard the brilliant Heather McGhee. She spoke right before our panel this year and told the now famous story of how a guy named Gary from Indiana called up a C-SPAN show she was on and admitted to being racist and earnestly asked for her help in changing. Heather and Gary have now become friends in real life, and Gary has been on a journey to read about and experience cultures outside of his own, including, according to Heather, showing up at a black church. I cringed when I head her share this detail because it reminded me of one of the other common tensions that white people must struggle with.

On the one hand, we have to de-center whiteness in our lives. We should be deliberately consuming media made by people of color (The Read, Very Smart Brothas, Blavity, Radio Menea, Muslim Girl, etc.). We should be creating and pursuing spaces where we can build bonds with people of color. Friendship is not only the most foundational element of a happy, healthy life, but of radical social and political transformation, too. Proximity is where it’s at!

Yet, we have to make sure that we are not falling into the all-too-common traps of cultural appropriation (the adoption of the elements of one culture by members of another culture) or “collecting” friends of color as a way to feel better about your own inescapable racism. We have to make sure we’re not disrupting spaces, often spaces that people of color have fought tooth-and-nail to protect, that are designed for the sacred connection of people of color with one another. Some of this is obvious — don’t show up at a mosque unless you’re invited. Some of this is more subtle and goes back to building our muscle to be self-aware and check in about our motivational truth. And, of course, look for signs of how we are affecting those around us. If you’re trying to make friends from a transactional, objectifying place, folks aren’t going to respond with warmth. Read the room.

All of this adds up to a wiser way for white people to pursue lives of meaning, to be part of shifting culture and power, to make our lives — as small and insignificant as each one may be in the scheme of a daunting racist history and present — matter. It’s more complicated than I was socialized to believe it was, and yet, I am starting to understand just how rewarding it can be. Heather McGhee said:

“We have to tell the many stories of how white supremacy is materially and psychologically harmful to white people.”

Agreed; and we have to start telling the story of how being part of challenging and dismantling white supremacy is one way to grow up, get more genuine, experience the joy and pleasure of boundary-breaking friendships, shed delusions of superiority, stop worshipping individuality, and pursue spiritual maturity. It won’t make you a “good white person,” but it will make you a better human.

Share your reflection