I received a wonderful gift this Holiday season. The gift of time. Time to read, to ponder, to reflect and to repent.
One of my final posts of 2015, was challenged by my friend Chris Burton on Facebook. In short, Chris described the post as white-centered and protective of white privilege, putting the burden of obtaining racial equity squarely on the backs of African American citizens. Chris was right.
The basic premise of my post, which was titled “Why White People Don’t Speak Up,” is that there are helpful ways of engaging in racial dialog and unhelpful ways. I shared that if the conversation starts with divisive language, white people will opt out. Chris rightly pointed out that the ability to opt out is whites exercising our privilege. By suggesting that African Americans change their approach, I am protecting this privilege and basically saying that blacks have to work harder at keeping whites comfortable. This is not what I intended to convey, but I can see why Chris read it that way.
Chris went on to say,
“The problem I found with this, was that it did not allow white people to hold the proverbial bag. Black folks are still doing the heavy lifting: dying from this, educating and being ignored. Americans are undereducated about white supremacy, so this does not seem critical to them. Most white people do not think they have to talk about this; much less do any of the work that combats white supremacy. I’d be interested to see what this conversation would look like if it held white people accountable.”
I have been pondering Chris’s words and asking myself, “How am I doing the work of educating myself?” I realized that the majority of the individuals whose books I am reading, twitter feeds I am following, conferences I am attending, and TED Talks I am watching are white peoples. As Chris pointed out, there are dozens of people writing about, talking about, educating about the realities of racism in our country. How do we keep those efforts from being ignored? We listen.
My friend Reesheda Graham Washington, provided me with a list of books to read and people to follow on twitter and Facebook. The first book she suggested I read was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me.
I read it in 2 days. It is the most powerful book I have read in years. It is real, raw, profound, challenging, convicting, deeply disrupting, but most importantly honest. I value honesty, even when it is painful to hear. That is why I am so thankful to Chris for being honest with me and helping me see my own blindness.
In 2014, I wrote a similar post titled, “Race, Violence, and a Silent White America.” In that post, I argued that the reason white people don’t speak up is because we have nothing of value to add. I realized after this exchange with Chris, that recognizing our ignorance and learning to shut up and listen was the first step in holding the proverbial bag. I can think of no better place to start than Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book.
In my 2014 post, I shared these thoughts for my white readers,
“So what is it going to take for white America to truly come to the table and engage in the conversation of race and violence? We have to be willing to get out of our comfort zone and accept this is not about us personally. It is way bigger than our little egos. We also need to build authentic relationships with our black brothers and sisters and try to see the world through their life experiences, not our own. This will require that we leave our homogeneous middle class neighborhoods and go into places where we feel “unsafe.” It will require that we shut up and listen deeply to the victims of our current systems that are often racist, even when it flies in the face of our own reality. It will require that we stop focusing our efforts on “help” with Band-Aid approaches that simply address surface issues, and go to the underlying causes of powerlessness and voicelessness being perpetrated by racist systems. It’s time to grow up White America, and stop pretending that this is not our battle to fight. We have to put down the remote control, get off our butts, and join hands with our fellow Americans who are simply battling for a more just America.”
I have asked Chris to share his thoughts on what it would look like to hold white people accountable and I am hopeful that he will continue to share his wisdom with me.
I invite you to share your thoughts below. How can white people shoulder more of the burden in the struggle for racial equity?