Growing up I thought racism was something “out there.” Slavery, the KKK, and white supremacists were what I thought of when I heard the word “racism.” Of course, it wasn’t something that hit close to home for me or that I even acknowledged as a problem. I knew there were racists in our country, but it was something that I only saw on TV, or read about in my children’s US history books about the evils of slavery.
I regret that only recently I’ve becoming aware, of white privilege and systematic oppression of people of color (POC), particularly African Americans. With extreme cases like Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, and Michael Brown we are confronted with a pervasive racism in our country which needs to be addressed. But not only this, but even on a much smaller scale, in daily interactions, we need to be aware of the racism that POC face.
As I’ve become more aware of this I feel two things: “How come didn’t I clearly see this earlier?” and “How should I respond?” I’d like to address some of my feelings on the second question in how I feel white Americans can respond to racism in our country:
1) Listen first
This is an uncomfortable place. If you’re like me, you will naturally react in your mind when you hear people talk about “white supremacy of America”, “white privilege”, or “systematic oppression.” If you’re like me, you will feel reactions against what is being said to you and excuse yourself from injustices that you feel you had nothing to do with. Acknowledge that while you might feel non-racist, push yourself to LISTEN first. Speak less. Think about the things in your life which might have strings of prejudice attached and start pondering there.
If someone says they are being discriminated against, don’t write them off. Really listen. Consider it from multiple perspectives.
2) Push back against your “filter against anger”
No one likes to be yelled at, cursed at or called names. The reaction is to stop listening immediately. But look beyond that. Challenge yourself and your way of thinking.
There is a lot of talk about the angry black folks and people discarding what black people say if there is a slight twinge of anger in their voice. Being a communications professional, I’m particularly sensitive to mediums of effective communication, but if one is to be superbly understanding, look beyond the emotional response of the communicator and listen to the content of the message. People have a right to be angry about institutionalized racism, and it is our place as the listener to filter through the anger, and listen to the underlying message. Find voices out there who are balanced, intellectual, and bold like Michele Alexander or Ta-Nehisi Coates.
3) Don’t embrace self hatred for being white
Feeling a deep sense of “white guilt” or feeling regret about your race is not going to help you. Part of the initial guilt is a good thing, helping us to realize the privileges we have in this country due to our race. However, you can do something about it. While other people may stoop to the level of saying hateful things about someone based on their race, you don’t have to let it soak into your skin. Acknowledge your privilege, but don’t hate yourself for it. See my article “Why I’m OK Being White” which talks a little about my personal experience of discovering my whiteness as it pertains to being in relationships with POC.
4) Be an advocate
One way to fight back against racism instead of sitting back and doing nothing, is to be an ally. Look at your race and privilege as an opportunity to build others up. When you see an injustice going on, speak up. If you’re put in a position of power which a POC color deserves, step down (easier said than done).
5) Speak up
Even though some people say white people need to “shut the f* up,” I disagree. If one listens first, there is great power when someone with privilege gives it up and speaks out against it. If only people of color are speaking out against racism, we will not get very far in seeing it actually eradicated.