This week has been an especially heavy one when it comes to the state of racism in the U.S. In particular, white supremacist mentalities affecting Black people in their daily lives are on full display, with the too-familiar incident in New York and the devastating death in Minnesota. I have been quietly watching my non-Black friends post both their outrage and their own feelings of helplessness when it comes to these incidents. Many of them aren’t sure how to be helpful in stopping these things from happening, and in some ways they won’t be able to directly affect these horrific occurrences. They can, however, indirectly affect the direction of our culture in small ways, which can in fact accumulate into real influence. Based on what I’ve experienced and observed in my own life so far, I have a few opinions on ways to do something.
1. Stop racist jokes.
One of the shocking things that perpetuates racist ideas and stereotypes is the “just a joke” conversational culture. Be brave enough to say “that’s not funny.” Practice stopping your own awkward-laugh response and make the joke-maker feel awkward for saying something racist. They should be made to feel uncomfortable, because they’ve been making others feel that way for who knows how long. Their defense may always be “I was just kidding,” but they weren’t, and need to be reminded that those jokes and their “lightly racist” mentality are unacceptable.
2. Don’t play “devil’s advocate.”
The latest episode of Insecure on HBO included an incredibly real and familiar “devil’s advocate” conversation when the character Molly experienced racism at a resort. Instead of acknowledging her experience, her boyfriend’s brother listed multiple reasons for why she was wrong about her experience being racist, and that she was solely at fault for not following a rule, despite this rule not being enforced for the white couple in front of her. Never discredit someone’s experience with racism when they are processing it with you. A person of color knows racism when they experience it, because it happens to them consistently and in a variety of ways- both blatant and understated. Believe them. Don’t explain it away.
3. Pay attention to how you vent about coworkers & neighbors.
When you vent about things that your coworker or your neighbor does, what do you say? Who do you say it to? How many assumptions did you make about them while you were complaining? You would be surprised how much implicit bias plays a role in how you view other people’s actions and subsequently talk about them. Furthermore, a white person in a workplace automatically gets the upper hand- they receive the benefit of the doubt easily, so they can cast a shadow over the image of a person of color without effort by using microaggressions. In 14 years of working in education, I’ve heard multiple complaints about black colleagues–especially black male colleagues–being lazy, inexperienced and emotionally out of line (angry). It was often based on one perceived incident, but clearly also came from prior biases that were added to the story to give it more weight. Remember that you can control what you say, when you say it and who you say it to. Your words have power, and in many cases, more power than others who are vulnerable to racism.
4. Speak out respectfully and directly, and use facts.
Whether something is outrageous or just inconveniences people of color in your community, speak out in a constructive way. Contact both lawmakers and law enforcement officials- tell them who you are, what happened and why it’s wrong. You are allowed to demand fair practices, and you are lucky because people will listen to you. The more you can make direct contact- a meeting, phone call, direct email- the better. Leave online warrior-ship alone- posts and comments with immature name-calling or the online version of yelling aren’t going to change society. You can also skip the shirt-making and ‘quippy’ signs sometimes too- use your money and resources to donate to human rights organizations that have the tools to advance your thoughts and help make a positive impact.
5. Don’t diminish the success of a person of color.
One of the tougher moments in my teaching career involved two students of color- one Black and one of another ethnicity. The Black student was telling me about how her brother got into Harvard, and she was so excited about it. The other student replied that they probably just got in because of affirmative action. I immediately addressed how that wasn’t something they should say and all the reasons why, but the damage was done for the other student. The hurt on their face is imprinted in my mind. People of color–Black people, in particular–are reminded throughout their lives that they will have to work twice as hard to earn everything: recognition in school, promotions or acknowledgement at work, trust within aspects of their personal lives…everything. Understand that it takes very little to discredit a person of color in an organization in which they’re in the minority. When you hear about the success of a person of color, never ever reply with “they only got it because…”. If you’re jealous or wish someone else got the recognition, express those feelings instead. Don’t drag them down with you. That damage can be irreparable, and we have to deal with the trauma it has inflicted every time we achieve something. I’ve asked myself many times if I was only acknowledged because of my color, knowing full well that I actually was capable, skilled and deserving. Be reminded that Black people aren’t meeting success simply because they’re Black- we’ve done it in spite of being Black in a discriminatory society. We’ve earned what we’ve worked for even though so many facets of society have tried to stop us; please keep that in mind.
6. Be kind in public.
The vast majority of people of color are familiar with The Look. It can be hard to explain, but we’ve all experienced it- people don’t just look at Black people innocently when they enter the room. Their look has meaning. What are you doing here? Are you supposed to be here? What are you about to do? Are you a threat? Why are you bothering me by existing? When you pass a person of color or turn to look at them, smile and/or say hello. Don’t stare, don’t turn your body in fear. They may or may not respond back to you, but you’ve at least demonstrated that you see them in a human way. You see that they are normal and in that place for the same reason as you. You are acknowledging that you understand that they exist as a human, and also that they aren’t as concerned about you and your day as you may have assumed.
7. Support culturally diverse places.
This is tricky to apply in the pandemic, but visiting culturally diverse areas if you don’t live in one is important to understanding more about how people of color experience life. Taking it a step further, supporting businesses that are run by people of color is a quiet but influential way to be supportive. This society is quick to start a boycott online, and people who are racist will incite boycotts against a person of color over next to nothing. When you see these things, ask questions, and if you think it sounds fishy, support that business and business owner. And when you do get to visit, see #6 for how to interact with people around you.
8. Don’t vote for Republicans right now.
This thought could easily be dismissed, but hear me out. It’s certainly true that not every Republican is a raging racist, but you may be surprised how many of them have supported more than a few racist policies. Over the years, I’ve had many people in my life that I respect and enjoy spending time with that have voted for Republican candidates in all levels of government. In the past 10 years it’s become pretty clear to me that the Republican party is no longer the party of financial and moral responsibility, as it has claimed to be in years past. I don’t know if we will ever see this Republican party exist again, regardless of what you hear them say today. Many of us have always known the truth behind Republican policies and actions–there is a strong undertone of maintaining oppression, reaching all the way back to the era of slavery. Maintaining institutionalized racism, creating laws that perpetuate financial instability, and diminishing the actions of those who commit blatantly racist acts are all a part of the “platform,” whether it’s on paper or not. Anyone who takes advantage of the public, bends the truth and hides facts should not have the privilege of being in charge, and each of us is still in a position of power as voters to take that privilege away from them. Don’t vote for them anymore.
9. Focus on your personal circle of influence.
Many of us want to solve every racial problem we see in our society, and end up feeling discouraged when we can’t stop the horrible things that are happening. But while all of that goes on, there are tiny things around us every day, multiple times a day, that can be addressed. Take a deep breath and confront the action someone took. Call them out politely, but directly. Do what you can, and pull your energy away from what you can’t control. As I said to my friends earlier today, no one person is going to be able to erase more than 400 years of racism and bias in the US, but you can start erasing it within your circles. Vote in every election for people who won’t continue the problems of the past. Call the people who make the rules where you live, and call them out. Donate to organizations who work to protect vulnerable people, especially when the law is working against those people. Do what you can– just don’t do nothing at all.
Learn more things.
Special thanks to all of my friends for the conversations that led to this post.