25 Jun WHAT SHOULD I, A WHITE PERSON, DO?
I can’t imagine you have an answer to this question. But you seem willing to try tackling hard questions and I (a cis white queer in a mid-size city) am at a loss. Everything is awful. Every day there’s a new atrocity in the news. I see it all, and I feel it all, the whole world is obviously broken. But what do I DO about it? What can I do?
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Dear Brave Correspondent,
I am of two minds about answering your question, to be honest. On one hand, I have to confess that I want to say “Why are you asking me this when there are so many Black organizers, scholars and activists who have written so many good books on the topic?” And on the other hand, knowing that sometimes white people can only hear things when other white people say them, I feel like “all right, if you can hear it from me, that’s definitely better than nothing.”
Let’s do both, shall we?
To begin with, you should read So You Want To Talk About Race, the brilliant book by Ijeoma Oluo, which is a sit-yourself-down-and-think exploration of what you’ve already said and done that’s racist, why it’s racist, and how to not do those things anymore. Its a good place to start because she has a way of writing about mistakes and misconceptions that really lets them get in, which I appreciate.
After that, I’d read Mikki Kendall’s amazing Hood Feminism, which digs in to the ways misogynoir functions in daily life and shines a bright light on how Black women are specifically and sometimes violently excluded from mainstream “feminism.” I think white queer people hang a lot on the lessons of our white feminist forebears and it’s useful as hell to see how some of their errors and willful refusals have informed us today.
Then, read Ibram X. Kendi’s tremendous book, How To Be an Anti-Racist, which details – action-step-by-action-step – what to do now, and why. This article digests some of the most crucial points of the book if you want to start with a primer but the book goes into so much more detail, and is very readable for an average layperson.
There’s also the Justice In June curriculum created by Autumn Gupta and Bryanna Wallace, which offers multiple options ranging from 10 minutes to 45 minutes per day and is a multimedia curriculum, comprising articles, books, podcasts, movies, and action steps to take in order to move the world closer to justice. It’s split into Watch, Read, Listen, and Act and if you’re keen to to DO SOMETHING you’ll have things to do every day. There are also a LOT of white people looking for groups or pods in which to read and discuss this right now, even though we’re well into June. Ask your Facebook friends, for sure someone is gearing up for Justice in July.
What else? Follow Black writers and cultural workers on Twitter, including the authors above (@IjeomaOluo, @Karnythia, and @DrIbram in order) and then add a couple dozen more: Vilissa Thompson (@vilissathompson), Imani Perry (@ImaniPerry), Damon Young (@DamonYoungVSB), Jamil Smith (@JamilSmith), Feminista Jones (@FeministaJones), Monica Roberts (@TransGriot), Michael Harriot (@MichaelHarriot), N. Hannah Jones (@NHannahJones), Raquel Willis (@RaquelWillis_), Tourmaline (@tourmaliiine), Kortney Ziegler (@fakerapper), Samantha Irby (@WordScience), R. Eric Thomas (@OurEric), Awesomely Luvvie (@luvvie), Tressie McMillan Cottom (@TressieMcPHD), Roxane Gay (@RGay), Jamelle Bouie (@JBouie), Jay Smooth (@JSmooth995), Samuel Sinyangwe (@samswey), Brittney Cooper (@ProfessorCrunk), Jamal Jordan (@LostBlackBoy), Mariame Kaba (@prisonculture), the Harriet Tubman Collective (@HTCSolidarity), Jael Richardson (@JaelRichardson), and so, so many more. My advice? Follow all or a lot of these folks, and follow the people they RT onto your timeline, too. And – this is very important – when you see something you don’t understand or disagree with, still just read and listen. You will learn. You may still disagree after you’ve listened/read for a while, but it’s actually okay to just quietly note that and not try to argue.
Also: there are a LOT of other really brilliant pieces being written, both formally and informally, right now – for example, expand and then just inhale this whole post from Robert Johnson Jr., who writes as Son of Baldwin and get it into your circulatory system; let it populate every cell:
Honestly, I could go on and on. The fact that mainstream media doesn’t lift up the voices of Black and Indigenous and other creators of color means it’s more difficult to just be passive and let their brilliance flow directly into your brain stem, but this is actually a really good metaphor for how white supremacy (and kyriarchy, generally speaking) works. It’s a rushing river of media, expectations, reinforcements, forms, processes, systems, and everything else that forms a macro culture from museum exhibitions to grade 2 worksheets and they are all, all, all designed – in general if not in specific – to reinforce and uphold the power of maleness, whiteness, heterosexuality, Christianity and everything the people with the most money and power in this world are and/or like. “Mainstream” equals white, and so does “universal.” If you want to NOT support this system you have to paddle against that tide constantly or it will push you in the wrong direction. Sometimes even when you think you’re paddling like a champ you will still get pushed, or something that got in when you were small will show up again, and there you are doing the work of kyriarchy without meaning to (and sometimes while actively trying not to). That’s how this system was designed to work – to claim all brains; to absorb everyone and everything into it. It really sucks to do something thoughtlessly oppressive, and it happens to everyone, so be vigilant but also: be a learner. When you mess it up, apologize and thank whomever pointed out your mistake and use the opportunity to be better next time. Make better mistakes tomorrow.
An example I value about this: some years ago, the Lambda Literary Foundation gave a “pioneer” award to Kate Bornstein, whom I love and adore, and I was also shortlisted for an award that year so I travelled to NYC for the ceremony. In the conversations that surrounded the event, spoken-work troupe Dark Matter (now disbanded, but then comprising Alok Vaid-Menon and Janani Balasubramanian) asked why a queer and trans organization was honoring people with the term “pioneer,” which was popularized around the “western expansion” of the “united states” – aka, when many Indigenous people were murdered or enslaved, lands stolen, and cultures trampled into the mud for surviving generations to attempt to restore and re-create. At that point I was a 40-year-old queer with 25 years of activism and organizing under my belt I had never thought of it. Ever. I had accepted awards for being a “pioneer,” I had applauded other “pioneers,” (can someone please call the air quotes backup dancers?) while SIMULTANEOUSLY refusing to celebrate “Thanksgiving” because I just never thought of it.
“I just never thought of it.” – a white guy, usually.
By the way, this is why when someone who holds a certain identity says that a comment or piece of media or experience is oppressive or violent, it’s crucial to believe them instead of trying to argue with them about it (unless we also hold that identity; that’s a different flavor of disagreement). Because when you start trying to talk someone out of the idea that some racist or sexist or ableist shit just happened, you sound like… well, W. Kamau Bell does it much better, no surprise.
And then there are the things that are baked so deeply into the culture that it’s hard – if you’re on the privileged end of a particular identity category – to notice them easily as the reasons why we do such utterly busted things. Let’s take the example of non-Black people who try to touch Black people’s hair (never do this). Every single Black woman I know has eleventy stories of being asked if some stranger can touch her hair and eleventy more of some misguided individual just taking it upon themselves to… reach out and touch (seriously, NEVER DO THIS). Why? Why does this happen?
A part of this, undoubtedly, is the remnant from the time of enslavement of Black people as not fully or not really human. See also: 3/5ths compromise, Black women used to be put into circuses and there were “human zoos” with exhibits of racialized (mostly Black) people in them as recently as 100 years ago. Also, remember those National Geographic magazines with all the cover stories about either brightly colored animals or brightly-adorned Black Africans from smaller villages or Indigenous tribes? Yeah. It adds up sooner than you might imagine to a willingness to just touch a stranger in an intimate way for no reason (as well as to things like medical students being taught that Black people don’t feel pain as much as other races of people; yes the fuck really).
Why does this come up so often around hair? Let’s think about shampoo commercials. You’ve probably seen a zillion of them, plus magazine ads and so forth, and what do they all look like? Like this, right?
Think about it: how often have you seen a commercial or ad that shows a Black person taking care of their natural hair? Even this poetic Pantene commercial below, which is ABOUT HOW AMAZING BLACK HAIR IS, doesn’t show any part of the process. Black hair care and narratives are just absent, largely, from the mainstream cultural conversation (though Chris Rock did make a truly great movie). They’re erased. So, if you are a non-Black person, your curiosity about Black hair – which you probably think of as a natural curiosity – isn’t natural at all. It’s created by capitalism, which props up a white beauty standard, and largely removes any information about Black hair from macro-culture information and entertainment streams so it can sell more products. And who bears the burden of this?
The same people who also bear the burden of erasure – Black people. Does this seem fair? No, because it’s not fair, but that doesn’t stop people who are not Black from a) doing a harmful thing (asking to touch Black people’s hair like they were an exhibit of some kind) and then b) being really mad when someone suggests what they did was hurtful. Sometimes they talk about a time they were in Asia and people were very excited to touch their hair, which is perhaps an occasion of prejudice but not racism. Why isn’t it racism? It lacks a systemic element, like being consistently erased from mainstream narratives, or something like natural Black hairstyles being banned and considered “unprofessional” and otherwise generally treated abhorrently.
So, okay, this is an advice column and you wrote looking for some advice, Brave Correspondent. Besides “read and listen to what Black leaders have to say,” and “don’t go try to touch Black people’s hair,” what other advice do I have?
Here’s the thing: there’s no new advice. Here’s a piece from Awesomely Luvvie in 2016, after the murders of Terence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott within 24 hours made some waves. Here’s Melissa Harris Perry in 2012 about what white people should learn from the murder of Trayvon Martin. There’s a course at Mount Holyoke framed around studying the murder of Amadou Diallo in 1999. Here’s an entire curriculum with action steps from Mariame Kaba for building a society based on mutual aid, rather than policing and incarceration.The problem is still structural racism. The solution is still dismantling white supremacy and all its tentacular inroads into our lives (including our brains). And so many Black and Indigenous and people of color have written SO MANY books, articles, blog posts, songs, videos, magazines, and more about how to accomplish this. What’s needed isn’t so much more advice as it is more action by people who are not Black.
So what do I return to, to advise you? Where I started, basically, Brave Correspondent: first you have to listen to Black people and then you have to listen to Black people some more, where listen = take action. Not like when my 5yo “listens” in that he could repeat what I said. Listen like when I say “put on your shoes” and you actually put shoes on your feet, but for white supremacy. You have to do the things.
A big one that’s mentioned often is vote, but that’s more than just showing up on balloting day every four years – a LOT of important decisions get made at the local and state level; don’t just pay attention to national races. Who’s on your local water board or committee determines who gets filtered water fountains and where public pools go and whether non-gendered washrooms meet the local ordinance about apportionment of washrooms in public buildings – do you know who’s making those decisions for you? Who’s on the school board in your city or town – they’re making decisions that shape curriculum, materials, teaching. Do you know who they are? The judges, the district attorneys, the town council? Do you know who decides where and which trees get planted or cut down and how incredibly connected to race and class that is? Give money to candidates in your area, host fundraisers or meet-and-greet for them in your house, tell friends what you’re learning, publish a guide anyone can use like Chicago dream team Ellen Mayer and Stephanie Skora did. And remember that voting is choosing your opponent – once you know who they are, time to get in there and fight by calling, writing, advocating and making yourself heard, especially about issues affecting communities of color.
Listen, read, believe, unpack. Ask questions, like: “who else is on this panel?” and “why isn’t anybody Black applying for these jobs?” (never believe them when they say there just aren’t qualified Black people; that’s bullshit and you should challenge it if you hear it). There is a chance you will make yourself unpopular in doing this, which sucks but not as much as it sucks to worry every time your Black child leaves the house that they might be traumatized or murdered by police before they can get home to dinner. So, take a deep breath and find better people to spend your time with. Push back on the concern trolling (“I understand people being angry but these riots are too much…”) and the attempts to just ride this moment out as though it were a blip. Keep reminding people that the whole quote is actually “one bad apple spoils the barrel.” Don’t let anything go if you have a choice to not. Send whatever money you can. Get in the streets and protest if you’re able. Demand accountability from government – especially police – at every juncture. Call or email five politicians every day before lunch and tell them what you want them to do. Look more closely at everything.
Brave Correspondent, I am so sorry to report that I have no idea at all where to end this column because there’s just no end. It took me a week to write this as I tried to include enough people and be careful about my perspective and make good rhetorical choices – all of which I’m sure I could have done better and may indeed receive feedback about – and in that week there were more assaults and murders of more Black people by more police. That’s why being perfect isn’t as important as DOING SOMETHING RIGHT NOW. Will you mess things up? Definitely. Might people be mad at you? For sure. Is it still absolutely so urgent that you get moving and start trying to grind the gears of white supremacy any way you possibly can? Yes, yes, yes. What can you do, friend? Literally any one of these things. The most important question is “when should you begin doing these things that all of these Black activists and organizers and scholars and thinkers and leaders are urging?” and the answer, Brave Correspondent, is right now.
love and courage,
Questions submitted will be kept confidential and may be edited for length.
S. Bear Bergman
writer, educator, publisher, storyteller, advice guy
Asking Bear is an advice column written by S. Bear Bergman. Bear is a busybody know-it-all with many opinions who is only too happy for a sanctioned opportunity to tell you what he thinks you ought to be doing (as well as a writer, storyteller, publisher and activist who enjoys telling educational institutions, health care groups, and portions of government what he thinks they ought to be doing).
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