Maryknoll sisters in Selma.
By Garrett Bucks
Jul 14, 2016
What’s up white people.
It’s been a few days since something unspeakably awful, perpetrated against people of color (and against black people specifically) hit the headlines in a big, news-cycle seizing way.
Goodness knows we’ve been here before.
And you realize that there’s a bit of a pattern, right?
[Terrible thing happens. Furrowed-browed entreaties are made to care about it (ummm, yeah... about that). Debates are had on timelines. Those debates make you mad. Y’all get on that unfollow button like… ‘click/click/clickety/click.’ Repeat]
But if the name of this song is “An Unthinkable Thing Happened To Black People Again (White People Can’t Ignore It Any More Remix, Feat. Common and Macklemore)” then all that stuff above are the verses. The chorus though, the refrain that comes ‘round more than anything else is “But what should I do about it?”
I don’t hate on that question.
That’s an earnest question, right there. A loving question. An attempt at outreach and connection.
Good on us for asking it (though, you know, we probably could spend less time asking it to people of color while they’re busy mourning / organizing / healing the wounded / taking care of themselves / just being understandably tired, but I digress).
Double good on all the folks who then respond to that question by making another clear, painstakingly curated list of “Things That White People Can Do to ________”
Wait… have you seen how many lists out there are like that?
Check this absolute hyperlink symphony, gathered in a good five minutes of low-grade, minor league quality Googling:
This too! (side note: THAT’S A SUPER INTENSE PHOTO!)
This one’s all about workplaces!
Any teachers in the house?
What about parents?
Any of y’all plan to go to any protests?
Ok, this is actually a link to Young Jeezy’s ‘My President,’ because you probably forgot how great it is, especially that line about his son and the polos. Jeezy basically centered an entire verse on a dad joke. It’s amazing. Why do people sleep on this song?
Ok, we’re back!
Yeah, I’m clowning. But wow… that’s a lot of lists, right? And I really didn’t try that hard. So… what’s the deal then?
Yeah… What’s Up With That? (or ‘What We Talk about When We Talk About Needing Anti-Racist Action Steps’)
I don’t know every white person out there (not to say I haven’t tried- I’m a Packers fan AND I’ve listened to Ryan Adams’ 1989 covers album), but here’s some guesses as to why we keep on asking the “What Do We Do?” question:
- Some folks ask because they honestly have never seen a list of “what white folks can do.”
- For the rest of us, there’s likely some sort of cognitive dissonance going on… a chasm between the size of the problem and what we perceive as the impact of the actions encouraged by lists like these.
- Oh, and there’s probably also a fair dose of “all this stuff feels weird/uncomfortable/silly” there too.
We can take care of that first one pretty darn easily… If you literally have never seen a “so what do you do” list… well, you should probably read one. I shared a whole bunch of them, plus an absolutely fire Jeezy track, just a few lines above. You’re welcome.
Ok, on to the next one, b/c it’s harder.
We think about ‘structural racism’ or even one of its specific manifestations like ‘black people being killed by the police at disproportionate rates’ as this huge, massive, hard-to-move thing (because, well, it is), so yeah, I get it. It feels small and unsatisfying to stare that down and then see that these lists tell you to do things like ‘listen to people of color’ or ‘keep educating yourself’ or ‘talk to/organize other white people.’ They can seem trite.
But wait a second. The question was ‘how can we help?’ And, since we’re talking about a fight for another group of people’s liberation we’re deliberately not equating ‘helping’ with ‘taking over’ or ‘leading.’
So, in that light, why are we balking (or even acting surprised) if the answer coming from people of color is heavy on “learn as much as possible so you’re not taking extra energy from us while we’re trying to work” and “go help more white folks to be doing less harm?”
I mean, that actually makes a lot of sense.
Finally, the third point…
I won’t front here. As a white person, trying to do more and more decent, humane stuff to fight for racial justice IS going to feel weird, pretty frequently in fact. Some of that weirdness is because you’re exercising muscles that aren’t just atrophied, but were never developed in the first place. The second is that, because this is all going to be new to you, you’re going to make a truck-load of clumsy mistakes. Finally, a lot of this stuff is just inherently awkward stuff. I’ll say it: I love protests, but they’re weird! People are always getting the chants messed up, there are usually too many drums, you’ve got to deal with bored newscasters who have already heard your take on whether ‘these streets’ are ‘our streets.’
But that’s OK. We do weird, uncomfortable things when it matters to us. I’m a parent of a toddler. My whole day is weird. I drive around pointing at stuff and yelling “WHOA… A DIESEL TRAIN! IT LOOKS LIKE IT’S WORKING HARD!” I get super hyped when I can find Goldbug in Cars and Trucks and Things that Go. I recently told my spouse, without a hint of irony, how “awesome I was” at rolling up little bits of muffin into dense little muffin balls before feeding them to our son (the thinking being that this would eliminate crumbs? I guess?).
That’s the nice answer, by the way. The more honest reply is that, if our friends of color have to deal with walking through every step of life with a tiring/fear-inducing/gaslighting-fueled double consciousness it’s pretty profoundly uncool of us not to be willing to not do stuff because it will be weird.
Marathon training for justice
All that is fine and good but I worry that, by responding to those potential concerns one-by-one, I’m accepting a premise that in and of itself sets us up for failure. I mean, we both know darn well that when we ask “What can I do?” what we’re really asking for is “Hey, please give me the most efficient singular action I can take ?” But this isn’t how it works, is it?
Let’s say you were pretty darn out-of-shape (walking up a couple flight of stairs leaves you awfully winded) and you wanted to run a marathon. Let’s also say that your being out of shape was intimately connected to your whole lifestyle — you ate nothing but fast food, never got off the couch, didn’t sleep well, etc.
But you REALLY want to run that marathon.
It wouldn’t be enough to take a single action. You couldn’t JUST buy a nice new pair of sneakers. You couldn’t JUST make a big grocery run at the beginning of the week so as to stave off the drive-thru dinners. You couldn’t JUST pop one of those ‘26.2’ stickers on your car. [Side note, do they make snarky ‘0.0’ stickers for the lazy/passive-aggressive market? Update- yes].
No, you’d decide “whoa, I’ve got to change my entire lifestyle.” You’d research healthy recipes, training schedules, etc. You’d change your shopping habits. Keep a food journal. Get super into your fitbit. Buy a big old water bottle and keep it by your desk. Your whole life would go on, but every hour you’d be asking “am I making moves that help me with this marathon goal?”
Well, that’s what we’re talking about here. You actually KNOW the single biggest step you have to make to help out here, don’t you?
[Note, if you’ve read this far, I’m operating with the assumption that you already agree with me and, um, Newt Gingrich (Apparently!?) , that as white folks our privilege shapes every aspect of our lives and that our lived experience (and therefore the choices we’re used to making) is totally different than folks of color. If that’s not the case, as I hinted at above I actually wrote something for you as well and I’d love to talk.]
Ok, so you know where this is going then… you have to make the choice that you’re ACTUALLY serious about this and are therefore willing to view your entire daily schedule as an opportunity to (a). learn more/push yourself (b). teach and influence and organize other white people (c). make good, just choices in your corner of the world.
And yes, many of the individual things you’ll do (almost all of which are on those many, many lists) are pretty small. But so too are individual acts like “eating grilled salmon instead of four Bloomin’ Onions.” When you make the deliberate choice to open that door fully you start to realize that far from not knowing what to do that your list of ‘things to do’ becomes an embarrassment of riches.
Here’s what I mean.
Every day, I have choices…
About where I get my news. About what media I introduce to my kid. About what kind of questions I ask about the experience of people with whom I work (read: do I even ask how things are being felt across lines of race or do I ask for feedback in a way that feigns colorblindness). About whether I respond to the inevitable feedback these questions will reveal defensively or not. About how I spend my free time and my money. About what ‘causes’ I support. About what I like or share on Facebook. About whom talk to about race (for example, just people who agree with me or not). About which friendships I cultivate.
The cool thing about this is that the deeper you go in making all these choices through a racial justice lens, the more you learn way more things you can do to help. For example, at work, once I got serious about first building a more diverse team and then actually listening to feedback from that team, I learned (and constantly learn anew, each week) all the things I wasn’t/aren’t doing well across lines of difference. Spoiler: It’s a lot! And I have to work on it every day.
Another example: Once I decided to follow activists like Deray Mckesson, Brittany Packnett and Johnetta Elzie on Twitter (instead of just white guys who like Bernie), the more I learned both about longitudinal change efforts like Campaign Zero (from which I then learn all sorts of other opportunties for action) AND learned about ways that folks like privilege can help in singular moments (for example: this weekend, when Deray got arrested along with many other protesters in Baton Rouge,Brittany, Netta and other activists tweeted out numbers to call to appeal for their release and donation links to support the ongoing protests).
The other cool thing is, if you actually view this not as a series of choices, but a deliberate lifestyle change, you’ll be less likely to convince yourself NOT to do things that you know you should be doing. When, thanks to whom you’re following on Twitter, you hear about the protest, you’ll be more likely to go even though you hate drums (and when you do, you’ll reference that cool list above about how not to be a jerk as a white person at the protest). When you get that hard feedback at work, you’ll be less likely to justify it or explain it away. And when you’re wondering whether ‘speaking up’ right now (either online or in person) is the right thing to do, you’ll have much better instincts to do so based on what help people of color are asking for instead of ‘will this make me look stupid.’
I’m not holding myself up as ANY sort of example of efficacy here. In fact, I debated heavily rather than to use personal examples at all. All I’m saying is, if you’re held down by paralysis by analysis then I can offer myself as at least one example of a white person who no longer spends much time still asking “what should I do?” Instead, more and more every day, the number of choices laid out in front of me get clearer and clearer… like that alarm going off telling you to go to the gym at 5:00 AM, or that fork in the road at the grocery store between the chip aisle and the ‘things that are green but harder to prepare than lettuce’ aisle.
So thank you for asking ‘what should I do?’ I mean it. Like I said before- you’ll get no hate from me for asking.
But you know the answer. So now that you’ve asked, I’ve got a question right back at you.
What’s YOUR next move?