May 30, 2020

I am White. What can I do to help?

Ali Michael

What can White people do to be allies to People of Color,and especially to Black people, in this particular moment?  Ava DuVernay, inthis recent interview with CBS news, shared a common sentiment that it’snot the job of People of Color to help White people figure out what to do.  They are using all of their emotional energyto survive.  So White people have somework to do.  As a White woman who isasking the same question myself, here are the answers I’m coming to:


First, take time to feel it. Learn the names and stories of people who’ve died (Amaud Arbery, GeorgeFloyd, Breonna Taylor).  White peopletend to think about racism, not feel about it. But when we can really get in touch with our feelings and be moved bythem, we often know what to do.  Theprotests look at first like demonstrations of anger, but upon closer look, it’sclear they are demonstrations of fear and sadness and despair.  People are in the stages of a massivecommunity grieving process.  And we canother that process by gawking or hiding or judging.  Or we can join it and connect within it.  


Second, acknowledge the grief within your sphere ofinfluence.  Create space at your place ofwork (via an online platform) or with your students or family to acknowledgewhat has happened. Reach out to Black friends or colleagues as you would to acolleague who has lost a family member. It’s awkward.  You don’t always know what to say.  But that doesn’t matter—experts say that it’snot about what you say, it’s about saying something.  And then consider how you might act if afriend lost a family member to cancer or a car accident.  You might donate to cancer research, donateblood, lead a fundraiser, support an awareness campaign.  You have friends and colleagues who arelosing family to racism.  It’s the racismof police brutality, and it’s also the racism of how our country has reacted toCovid-19, and the ways that the pre-existing racial cracks in our democracyhave been widened these three months so that people are actually fallingthrough, when they were previously just hanging on.  Consider how you might say somethingpublicly, donate money, lead an awareness building group, campaign againstracism.  

Third, do your own work.  This meanslooking at how you might have fear of Black people or anti-Blackness inyou.  It’s easy to say “I would never dothat” (i.e. report an African American man for birdwatching in Central Park),but it’s harder to look at how we’ve all been conditioned by media, movies, andhistories, to be afraid of Black people, Black communities, even Blacklinguistic styles or Black cultural expressions in music and hair. Even thefear you have (and I have) about doing the wrong thing when you takeaction—that is a manifestation of a fear of Blackness. I know this because Itoo have been socialized to be afraid of Black people and neighborhoods.  And it runs along the same axis as myparticular anxiety about what Black people will think of me.  I believe this fear of messing up comes froma place of respect, a place of wanting to do no harm.  But what’s the worst that can happen?  A Black friend or colleague might tell youhow you could do it better, or that it doesn't fix anything, or that they’restill sad and grieving—and then you will learn, or you will sit with them whilethey grieve about the complete inadequacy of everything in ourcountry—including you.  And you will knowit’s imperfect.  And you will feel theinadequacy.  And you will sit together inthe grief of it all.  And you will feelit.  And the feelings will help you knowhow to take the next step.



Finally, recognize that the people who are taking to thestreets to protest are not protesting White people.  They are not only advocating for Blackpeople.  They are protesting a brokensystem that threatens to destroy them.  Butit threatens to destroy us all.  Mostpeople in the U.S. in this particular moment, aside from the wealthiest andmost powerful, are vulnerable in this broken system.  Democracy is not working right now; checks arenot being balanced; balances are not being checked.  Law enforcement is killing citizens foroffences that would not even require jail time if they went before a judge.  The people who are protesting are thecanaries in the mine, asking all of us to wake up and pay attention to a systemthat kills its own citizens, that legalizes citizens killing other citizens.  They are grieving and fighting for ourdemocracy. They are alerting us to the ways in which our country is beinghijacked by millionaires who don’t care about the lives of any of the rest ofus, and certainly don’t respect our rights. Black people have always done this in the U.S.; historically it is Blackpeople and Black led movements that have reminded the U.S. of what it said itwanted to be, what it could be, for everyone. Help people see this.  Help people connect to this struggle that isalso their struggle.  This struggle isabout building a multiracial coalition of people who want a democracy in whichevery person is safe and supported to build their family and their lives inpeace.


When you talk to White cousins, aunts, siblings, friends,move through these stages with them:

  • Express your feelings—your own sadness and grief
  • Don’t try to other them—or other Amy Cooper or DerekChauvin—by suggesting that they are the racist and you are theanti-racist---share what you are learning about your own bias and ask thoseWhite people who you grew up with, or who raised you, to help you figure outwhere your own bias might come from in your shared story (Where did we getmessages that Black people or neighborhoods aren’t safe?  Did you get that in your house?)
  • Help them understand that this is not Black vs.White. Or People of Color vs. White.  Oreven People of Color and a few allies vs. White.  This is all of us in the fight for our livesagainst a political and business elite that does not care about 100,000 deathsor about one in four people being unemployed, about fair trials or about freeelections.  The folks who are out instreets—grieving in public—are doing our work. Find ways to understand them, to connect with them, to support them, andto use your own sphere of influence to help others do the same.

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