Finding your words: how can I talk about anti-racism as a white person?
Updated: Jun 16, 2020
How are you feeling?
I think that since George Floyd was murdered and a subsequent movement began in parts of the Western world, I’ve been feeling a combination of motivated, confused and extremely anxious.
You may have recently found out you are white, instead of never having considered your race. Found out that you might not be an anti-racist.
It’s unsettling. It might feel awful. But you want change.
This is an article to read if you’d like to a) see beyond the place you're in now to the place where you are honestly motivated by and engaged with Black Lives Matter, and b) not burn out before you’ve begun.
Who am I to tell you anything? Well, nobody, frankly, which is why I’m going to quote and reference in this article. Also, I'm a white woman trying to take some responsibility[scroll to ftnote 1]. I started my anti-racist education around 2 years ago, when a real-life incident coupled with a move to America stimulated me to follow @rachel.cargle and take her #DoTheWork course, which in turn prompted me to do some basic googling and reading and reading and reading. My experience of the still-limited anti-racist education I’ve undertaken and continue with is that it does take a while to let truths settle down within you: let them settle so they can come out again in a useful way. This is why I’m going to separate this article into thoughts for the short term – this current overwhelming global movement – and long term – ie the rest of your life.
Anxious? Motivated? Still confused?
A good thing to bear in mind
The thing to remember in both the short and long term: make genuine offerings. What are those? Something you feel is true rather than something you feel should be true.
Knowing what’s genuine right now may seem hard; before you act or react, ask yourself:
- This action – more than just the vital ‘does it feel good in my gut’; can I stand by it when questioned? Have I considered how it comes across to someone with a different life experience? This is useful to consider when making any sort of public statement, responding to something that feels like a challenge, or creating original content.
- This petition/resource link/donation link/influencer I’m sharing – have I already signed it/used it/donated/engaged with their content? If not, why am I sharing it? The work starts with me.
- The person I’m talking to – do I understand their perspective? If not, could I listen harder? Maybe I'd find out something I need to hear. Maybe they are already giving me an effective way to connect with them that I'm not yet engaging with.
Getting involved with action that excites you is an effective way to build your confidence in both the genuineness and usefulness of your offerings - as ultimately, we want to get passed empathy and to active change. As Ava DuVernay puts it:
"I’m told#BlackOutTuesday began to create space for white folks to learn/talk/read/think about racism? Okay. Add this to your agenda. Think about how you can actively work to dismantle the generations-old systems that encourage and protect police misconduct and murder. Actively. Work. To. Dismantle. Take cues from fellow white people who wanted tans and tattoos, so they marched on state capitols with their guns and wallah! States opened[scroll to ftnote 2]. Swagger into the halls of power that you have access to with an outrage on behalf of Black Life. Think about how to defend against police officers who murder us and get away with it. Actively. Work. To. Dismantle."
So let’s go.
How to take anti-racist action: short term
Mix it up. Spent too much time on Instagram or Twitter? Read the news, or turn it all off and go to a protest. Get lost in an article. Watch a film. Listen to a podcast. Consciously buy from a black business. Text your friend. We don't have to do it all, definitely not at the same time.
Self care. When I found out I was white – what that meant for me and my fellow human beings – I did freak out. But I got to do it quietly within my support networks, rather than feeling any need to do it on social media, in the middle of a pandemic. I count myself very lucky! Don’t let guilt about who you think you have been stop you from taking care of yourself right now, because you are required to continue this fight. If you get Overwhelm and end up quitting because it’s Too Much, that's not going to enact systemic change.
Reni Eddo-Lodge puts it best in Why I'm No Longer Talking To White People About Race[scroll to ftnote 3]:
"I don't want anyone of any race, when faced with the insurmountable task of challenging racism, to collapse into despondency...I know how much it can paralyse, how the feeling of hopelessness works to utterly crush creativity, and passion, and drive. But these are the three things that we will definitely need if we're ever going to end this injustice. We have to fight despondency. We have to hang onto hope."
Speaking of which.
How to take anti-racist action: long term
Build it in. This is pure logic talking now. How do you integrate anything new into your life? You do it regularly; set reminders; create networks that will hold you accountable; make it a habit. Yes that’s completely embarrassing because no of course you shouldn’t have to set reminders to remember that your fellow human beings continuously experience racial injustice within a system you’ve helped to maintain. But also, just set them, because you care about said humans and you forgive yourself (so that you don’t have to keep asking for forgiveness) and you’re getting on with changing the world.
What might you be reminding yourself of? What habits might you be building?
- Regular checking of sites like Color of Change and GrassRoots Law Project to see what good action you can take that day/week/month (I've got my America head on right now, so please suggest UK sites below!)
- Regular re-examining of your space. Do you run a business – what are you doing about racial equality this week/month/quarter? Do you know black voices – how are you amplifying them? Are you part of a system or institution – what did that statement they released at the start of June 2020 actually change (base your reminder to them on this template maybe)? Do you still not really understand this whole anti-racism thing – what have you read or watched very recently that might help it click more for you?
- Regular donations – there are so many organisations to support. My current personal pick is The Loveland Foundation (seriously Rachel was my gateway drug), which enables therapy for black women and girls, with black therapists. I'm supporting this because I love my therapy sessions and everyone (especially black women and girls) deserves a regular hour with someone who listens and gets it. There are endless things to donate to and you should leave your favourites in the comments below. Avoid the reminder by making it a direct debit!
It’s ok to be realistic about what you can do; it’s also important to remember that habits are hard to make stick, and that real change takes effort.
Centre black experiences and voices. This has not traditionally been my area of expertise: for example most of my content, including this damn article, is consciously or otherwise containing or aimed at white people. But I won’t continue that way.
It is to state the obvious to say that there is an inexhaustible supply of work by black artists and creators and crews available for everyone to consume and support. I've upped my screen time during lockdown so am currently practised at raving about screen work. I will start big with The Hate U Give (which actually I saw on an aeroplane last time I was permitted to go on one). The cast are amazing, the story is expertly and thoroughly told, and the climax is devastating BUT don't watch just expecting to be devastated because there are Reasons To Be Glad too. Want a TV series? Issa Rae and co's Insecure on HBO is great: funny and truthful to the challenges of somehow maybe becoming a grown up.
Companies commission what they think will be consumed, so let's be louder about what we love. Raving can be international, national or local and goes ENDLESSLY further than the arts, but at the moment I'm most engaged with the industry I work in, so please comment below on yours!
Have the conversation. Awful, isn’t it, totally awful, to say something and end up causing hurt/anger/conflict. With your friends, with your colleagues, with your family. That raised voice, upset tone, or worse, silent disdain. Something you’ve avoided before.
Not any more.
We cannot make excuses for racism existing within our networks. I’m going to come at this from a particular angle as well as make a sweeping assumption about my readership; I think it is likely that your friend, who tells you to “stop getting worked up about a little harmless joke”, can vote. It’s likely that your aunt, who holds her purse closer when passing a black man, can vote. It’s likely that your sibling, who says, “Yeah I care, but what can I do about any of it?”, can vote. What’s more, their vote counts EQUALLY to yours. What? You’ve done all this work to drag yourself out of ignorance and the ignorant people can still vote?! We must do something (not that)!
Here are three tips for making it through difficult conversations with people you love or just like a bit:
- Pick your moment. A family Zoom celebrating your brother’s graduation might not be the moment. A birthday party with a lot of alcohol is unlikely to be the moment. A one-on-one, a small group at home, a walk in the park – those might be moments. Just as I said that you have to step back and indulge in self care to stay in the fight long term, you have to step back and make smart choices to keep the trust and respect of those you’re hoping to influence.
- Ensure they know you have heard them: reiterate their key points back to them - “Ok, so what you’re saying is…” This will both make them feel heard and check you understand, because if you haven’t understood then you can’t make a contrasting point. It has the added bonus of increasing the likelihood you’ll remember their argument, so that if the opportunity arises, you can use their own words not against them, but to make them think. Side and relevant note: it might be difficult, but don't blame someone for what they express.
- Model the attitude you want to encourage, both in tone and content. Your conversations might sometimes not be about other people, but about you. Share your views and anecdotes, together with how those things make you feel, and you’ll become the person that other interested parties can approach with thoughts, questions and ideas.
Be flexible. Conversations might go differently than you imagined, that’s ok. You haven’t failed, you’ve learned something. You’ll try again. Do this, do it with everyone and do it forever, and we WILL change the world.
Final words from Lemn Sissay, speaking on How To Fail by Elizabeth Day:
"Human beings...have the capacity to forgive the greatest wrongdoing; make change; and also be kind to themselves." I hope he won't mind me adding - "and each other."
 Quote from Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider: “Women…are still being called upon to stretch across the gap of male ignorance and to educate men as to our existence and our needs. This is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns. Now we hear that it is the task of women of color to educate white women – in the face of tremendous resistance – as to our existence, our differences, our relative roles in our joint survival. This is a diversion of energies and a tragic repetition of racist patriarchal thought.”
 Just in case you'd benefit from context, Ava is talking about the protests across America against lockdown this spring, during which some protesters arrived with guns and right wing propaganda, and the president validated their cries. Which he's not doing so effectively during these protests.
 I just found in some notes from last year: “THIS BOOK HAS AN INSANE BIBLIOGRAPHY, YOU CAN USE IT!” So can you!
All photos my own, taken in my Chicago neighbourhood. Artist tags are underneath each photo.