We haven't, historically, wanted to call this work what it was when it comes to racism in America. That is simply fact if we take into account our collective work. Today, of course, is one of those days when it's smack in our faces in a way we cannot ignore no matter how much ignorance accompanies that. Today, many Americans are still mourning the massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC. Today, many Americans know the history of that church, the truth behind the motives of the terrorist, and the sickening behavior that perpetuated his praying with Black church members for an hour before murdering them.
Today is, also, Juneteenth. Google it.
Today is, also, a day when I get asked the million dollar question: what can I do to help in this work? How do we fight racism? Like, really fight it?
If that were an easy answer, we would have done it already. But this battle is tied up in traditions and policies and implicit bias and internalized messages that we live and act out.
So, let's loosen up this forcefield around conversations of race and how to become an anti-racist. Because it takes action to do this and cannot lie in our "liking" of a Facebook post or screaming WHEN WILL THIS END? HAVE WE HIT THE BOTTOM YET?
(Though, admittedly, that feels good to do to shake it loose.)
Often, I tell people about how I can't wake up and not know what race I am and that's not just because I feel Black. I'll give you an example from a good (white) friend of mine who lives in Texas, but I'm changing her name to protect this personal story.
Kris has lived in Texas her whole life and, on the occasions I get to visit with her she repeats the same phrase all the time. "Well, I'm a proud 4th generation Texas, so, of course!"
It seems to be in response to something like when I ask if she likes Mexican food or swimming in ponds or knows something historical. For years, this grated on my nerves and I couldn't put my finger on it so I decided to ask her:
Every time you say I'm a 4th generation Texan I wonder what that means. What does that mean? I mean it in all seriousness.
She laughed as her first response and stammered about for a moment until she responded to my question with a question.
What do you MEAN what does it mean? It means my family has lived and worked here for 4 generations.
Yes, but what does that mean to you? Why is it an important source of pride?
We LIVE here! We're proud to be from here and own all this land and we have my grandmother's heirlooms and my grandfather's farming equipment. Aren't you proud of where you're from?
She made me search for a moment and I considered the Northern Migration written about in Isabel Wilkerson's book The Warmth of Other Suns that I tout often. As proud as I am to be a native Chicagoan it isn't something I make a regular part of my conversation. I'm a 4th generation Chicagoan sounds odd. But, I'm equally proud to consider my parental heritage homes of South Dakota and Louisiana.
We battled over this for quite a while (and some really good margaritas were involved) until I got to the crux of it and that is the privilege her family has enjoyed in that land. It's not without its Americanism, either. There are enslaved people involved and ownership that was gained through the transfer of land from Native Americans as well. It's hard to be proud of something you earn through theft. But, her secret and silent racist tendencies were really difficult to reconcile.
This work isn't easy, but you already knew that. Yet, my friends are still asking how to do it. As much as violence against Black bodies is an exhausting part of American life, the friends who ask this of me and others is equally as exhausting. Sometimes, if I'm being perfectly honest, this irritates me because, well. I think that's obvious and I don't need to state it.
The conversations I've found myself in for the last several years have, I admit, finally been a conversation and not just me yelling into a void or having private conversations with just people of color. It's so much easier these days to combat and mention the ridiculousness of "color-blindness" because we have tools at our disposal as well as real and true stories of what color means. Incidentally, those nuances and style of "color-blindness" are something that Eduardo Bonilla-Silva mentions in the third chapter of his book, Racism Without Racists. The title of that chapter is "The Style of Color Blindness: How to Talk Nasty About Minorities Without Sounding Racist".
That's just one thing that I've used to spark conversations.
But, our work is cut out for us. Here's what I truly believe: we can't sustain this current stage and the only thing, besides the speaking up by our white allies, is doing the work of Anti Racism.
Until we break those carefully constructed walls, face our past and reconcile it with why things are the way they are, and actively seek that change, we're going to remain right here. Mind you, this isn't the work for people who don't even see it as a problem. This here is work for the grown folks.
Let me ask a question: do you recognize racism and implicit bias in your place of work? Our jobs, our businesses, our industries are filled with that nasty stuff and it doesn't just go away when you hire that Model Minority and pretend like that fixed everything.
Contact your places of employment and get them to DO THIS WORK. Bring in anti racism trainers to dismantle this monstrous problem. It's one thing to talk to your family and friends and reach out in communities, but it's another to attack this problem in the places that are our livelihood.
1. The one I'm currently working with is Crossroads AntiRacism Organizing and Training. The definition we use is this: race prejudice + the misuse of power by systems and institutions = racism.
Racism dehumanizes us all —
Dismantling racism heals us all.
Recognizing that racism goes beyond personal prejudice, Crossroads offers a distinctive Power Analysis of how racism functions in institutions, and offers tools to create antiracist transformation.
2. There is Community Change, Inc where my good friend Shay Stewart-Bouley is the Executive Director. She writes a fabulous blog named Black Girl in Maine which you should check out as well.
Community Change was born out of the Civil Rights Movement and in response to the Kerner Commission which named racism as "a white problem." CCI has done what few organizations are willing to do: shine a spotlight on the roots of racism in white culture with the intention of dealing with racism at its source, as well as with its impact on communities of color.
Shay kindly offered a resource for people looking to start somewhere today. She said to me:
"I often tell white folks the best place to start is by reading Debby Irving's Waking Up White. Debby is a colleague and friend of mine and her book is like 101 level designed for people just entering the conversation of race and anti-racism."
3. There is Interaction Institute, People's Institute which offers sessions for individuals.
Our staff, affiliates and board have experience working in communities, progressive organizations and social justice movements around the world. We understand the challenges you are facing to create lasting change. We bring our skill, experience and passion – and our focus on the lenses of equity and power, networks and love – to your project to help you move forward. We put together the best team for each project to help you maximize results.
Our cultural values get lived out in our institutions and Anti-racism work IS the reparations part of our work.
That means we have to start mapping our history with racist policies and practices and then we have to start changing them.
That means we can't fall victim to the derailing of race conversations and we must start having an agreement that we're going to do this work together. It has fallen, historically, on people of color in America.
That means the uncoordinated efforts for change agencies cannot live in a silo. Join something. Read something. Say something.
That means that instead of using empty terms like diversity and equity and inclusion and multiculturalism have to be addressed in the body of work of Anti Racism. That means we can't substitute those kinder, gentler words when we really mean race.
That means tearing down the "But we're all just the human race" low-level thoughts that lead us to the racist monocultural efforts of our ancestors.
That means we have to admit that you can be a multicultural institution but still not be antiracist.
That means getting eyeball-to-eyeball with how the racist power has levels to it in terms of disempowering and oppressing people of color. That means acknowledging how this country has provided unearned privileges and power to socialize us into racialized rules and roles that misshape identity.
That means confessing and denouncing that we have ensnared and dehumanized whole races of people and continue to use dog-whistles and coded language.
That means owning that we're complicit in kidnapping the narrative to ensure that whites stay in positions that neither concede our colonialism nor the power that has to create generational racism.
Where we are currently, in the conflict and chaos stage, is a painful place to be. It is, as Jon Stewart mentioned in his entirely humorless segment on The Daily Show last night, a "gaping racial wound that will not heal but we pretend doesn't exist".
The conflict and chaos stage is not sustainable. Do you want to know what the work is? It's leaving this place and doing this work.
Photo courtesy of Beloved Festival