Being anti-racist: My commitment to discomfort
Updated: Jun 5, 2020
I've started writing this three or four times over the past week, and every time, something changes or I learn something new or I just get overwhelmed. But the work of combating racism and changing your mindset is inherently overwhelming, and we have to just do it, so here we go. This is as much for myself as it is a reminder and check for all my White peers.
The past week, I've watched the outrage, sadness, and fear of Black communities in our country erupt over the internet - vocally and visibly enough for White people to finally tune in. The acts of hate and violence - literal murder - committed within anti-Black systems are truly horrific, and I struggle to fully comprehend their meaning. While I know socially-condoned violence against Black people is tragically commonplace, and these are discussions Black communities continually have, these acts remain shocking to me because my White privilege keeps me insulated from them. I look up from my Twitter feed, full of anguish and distrust and hope, and from the news showing militarized police teargassing protestors and sending armored vehicles through the streets, and I see the sun shining on my freshly-planted garden, my cat sleeping on the deck, my neighbors out for a walk. I go inside my house to work, remotely and in a safe place, at a job that I still have. At night, I listen to the rain patter on the roof and picture it gently watering my new plants, encouraging them to grow. All week, I have struggled to match my peaceful reality with the news and firsthand accounts and literature I read. But stepping out of my privilege and using my distress as motivation to change are essential to become a better ally for the Black community.
I try to remember that being distraught for a few days is nothing, absolutely nothing, compared to the day to day struggles that Black people in America (and elsewhere) go through. As a White woman in academia, living in an area of SE Michigan with little racial, cultural, or socioeconomic diversity, I can begin by acknowledging my privilege and recognizing the bubble of comfort in which I exist. Because I am White, I have the ability to go through most of my life willingly ignorant of and blind to the daily, systemic racism around me. That means I have the responsibility to think and act with intention and purpose when it comes to race and being anti-racist. (If that term is unfamiliar, it's okay - click the link!) I can escape the reality of racism - Black people cannot.
I know that it's okay to not be okay, but I recognize that being sad and angry about this brief window into the realities of racist America is only a first step to racial healing. I am working to force myself beyond grief because not everyone has the luxury of having Sad At Home be the extent of their interaction with racism. I've been comfortable for long enough - I can't be any more. I shouldn't have needed a major, national movement to push me, but that's the trap of the white privilege bubble: it's easy to forget you're in it. Once we step out and feel that discomfort, we have to actively choose, each and every day, to stay there, to be uncomfortable. It's what will motivate us to keep working. To be inactive, to stay willfully ignorant, is to be complicit in racism and anti-Black systems. We can't only acknowledge racism when it's convenient or news-worthy. We have to keep doing the work.
So instead of asking a defeated, "What can I do?" I'm trying to ask a motivated, "What must I do?" I am starting to take responsibility. Being an ally to Black people and being anti-racist is about both thoughts and visible, tangible deeds.
Here are a few things that I can do, and need to continue to do, to be a good ally to Black people and activist movements. (Do not expect Black people to educate you - take that responsibility yourself - but thank those who do use their time and efforts to educate.) (Some of these points are modified from this excellent resource on becoming anti-racist - please give it a read.)
Recognizing my privilege. How have I benefited from systems that are racist against Black people? How can I use my position to (a) support and lift up Black people and voices in my community, and (b) to change the system to be less racist?
Recognizing my racism. This is perhaps the most uncomfortable part. When I have a split-second reaction to a Black person, I check myself: Would I have the same reaction if they were white? Often, the answer is no.
READING. This is never over. (None of it is.) You can always find more to read - new books, articles, voices. (A plus: supporting Black-owned bookstores! For Ann Arbor/Ypsi friends, check out Blackstone Bookstore. I think it's a good sign that many of their anti-racist books are currently backordered.) I started reading Black and other non-white literature and memoirs a few years ago, and that has been a solid and accessible stepping-stone to other ways of engaging. But just because I'm steadily reading Black and non-white voices doesn't mean one day I'll reach the end of the list, or that I shouldn't also be engaged in other ways.
Listening to and amplifying Black voices, and following more Black scientists, authors, and cultural figures. On social media, this is easy. Just click that follow button and see how your feed changes, how the narratives and perspectives shift. (Try #BlackAFinSTEM for a start.) Give credit to original content from Black people. Unfollow people and organizations who you discover to not align with your antiracist values; you can also mute people who either aren't posting relevant material or just to see how your feed changes if you mute White people. (Thanks to my labmate for this suggestion!)
Knowing that this change won't come overnight - in fact, the work is never really over - and embracing that it is uncomfortable. I am internalizing the privilege of 'learning about racism' and 'educating myself' rather than experiencing it every day of my life, and using that as a drive to keep going. We think this week has been exhausting? We can't even begin to imagine living the life of a Black person in this country.
Contacting local, state, and federal officials to change policies that contribute to violence against Black people. Mayors, house representatives, your senators. Call them, tweet at them, fill up their inboxes. Specifically, contact your representative in support of: H Res 702 - Justice for all H Res 988 - Condemning police brutality (My rep is Debbie Dingell; find yours and their contact info here!)
Making my feminism inclusive. This has been a focus of my reading for a while and, like everything else on this list, it will continue to evolve as I educate myself and familiarize myself with feminist issues non-white women and Black trans women face. (Save the Tears: a short guide for white women)
Looking critically at my workplace and having hard conversations with my colleagues about what we need to change, not just what messages we need to send. Academia remains an incredibly privileged, white, and un-inclusive part of society, despite the committees and statements and initiatives that universities have put together. This is a whole other conversation and I'll devote a separate space to discussing it, but essentially, we need radical structural and individual change if we want academia to truly become diverse and welcoming.
VOTING IS IMPORTANT, from your local city elections to the presidential race. It can:
Change policing policies that lead to violence against Black people, including their deaths going unpunished.
Prosecute violence against Black people.
Demilitarize the police; defund the police; change police training to decrease violence and murder. (To take action on this now, see 8cantwait.org)
End discriminatory housing/eviction practices, increase renter protections, and change zoning to include affordable and multifamily housing.
Provide better healthcare, mental health services, and social support for Black communities.
End racist gerrymandering that's designed to keep Black and minority voices silenced.
End voter suppression - see above.
Increase protections for especially at-risk Black groups, such as trans people.
End and prosecute discriminatory hiring practices.
Prosecute people who commit hate crimes or participate in hate groups.
Decriminalize marijuana and retroactively free those jailed unfairly.
Reform prisons and our system of mass incarceration.
End standardized testing and increase the quality of education in underserved communities
HOLD POLICE AND WHITE AGGRESSORS ACCOUNTABLE.
Small (or not so small) things that can contribute to a better environment:
As a teacher, responding to civil unrest and police brutality against Black people has been by far the most emotionally challenging classroom experience, even remotely. My students are struggling just as much, if not more, than I am; if it were up to me, I'd just change the final writing assignment to be about social justice and racism and call it a day. But I'm not in charge, so instead I respond with empathy and compassion. I am open and honest with my students about how I, too, am distracted and upset and uncertain. I give flexible deadlines and extensions and I don't really need to ask why. One student had a family friend whose store was looted and had to go help. Another was tear-gassed in DC and apologized for not having their camera on in our zoom call. Many are out protesting. Most are not Black. I want to tell them that yes, the Black Lives Matter movement and being engaged in protests, social justice activism, anti-racist movements, and civil disobedience are far more important both for their own growth and for creating a sustainable future for themselves and their peers than... this class.
I try to be verbally and physically friendly with Black people when I'm out walking in my neighborhood. I want my neighbors to know they are seen and safe. Say hi, give a wave. It takes almost no effort and makes a difference. (But note: "Being nice is not being not racist" - Rachel Cargle. You have to do more.)
Think before sharing a reaction gif or meme featuring a Black person. These often contribute to stereotypes, dehumanization, and "digital blackface" - essentially, all reducing Black people and bodies to be a source of humor. (Instead, share original humor content by Black creators.)
Think about what slang you use, in-person and online. So much of mainstream pop culture is appropriated from Black communities.
Be familiar with anti-Black/racist narratives and be prepared to argue back. We have tools for arguing against pseudoscience - climate change, flat Earth, etc. - so why shouldn't we also have tools for arguing against racist narratives, which are equally (if not more) damaging to science?
Call out racist comments and microaggressions - including those from family and friends - and don't let Black peers be talked over in conversations.