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Lithium How to be anti-racist when everyone is white

Jun. 25, 2020
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I’ll never forget how it felt leaving my predominantly Black school in Kenya for an overwhelmingly white one overseas. During my first few weeks, I’d furrow my brows in every classroom and assembly, thinking in disbelief, “There’s no way I’m the only Black kid in this entire middle school.” I was. 

Despite people’s suspicious reluctance to talk to me for the first month, and the entitlement that left handprints pressed into my afro puff, race wasn’t the first thing on my mind—I just needed a seat in the cafeteria. Still, I can’t help but think that if my peers had been better educated, my transition would have been a lot easier.  — Simi

Like Simi, I also went to a majority white middle school. And high school. By “majority white” I mean 89% white and only 2% Black. 

I live in a small town in Maine, the whitest and oldest state in the country. As you can imagine, race is not something Mainers talk about, and when we do, it’s not in a constructive or well-informed way. 2019 saw the (warranted) resignation of Lewiston mayor Shane Bouchard after a text message leaked in which he compared elderly Black people to “antique farm equipment.” The first daylight KKK parade in the United States took place in Milo, Maine. Violence and discrimination against Black residents of Maine and other primarily white communities are completely visible, even if the Black population itself is less so.  — Eliza 

Regardless of your community’s diversity, it’s important to recognize that racist sentiment doesn’t rely on the physical presence of Black and brown bodies—it relies on the assumption that whiteness is both dominant and the standard, making anything else undesirable. 

This current wave of Black Lives Matter activism is in danger of transience, so if you truly want to turn this moment into lasting change, we have some tips.

  1. Politicize the dinner table.

White families, including mine, love to say “no politics at the dinner table.” Push to have those uneasy conversations more often. Remember that a white person can’t have authority on the Black experience, but it helps to have sources in your back pocket. I found this video about the most productive way for non-Black people to talk about Black issues by writer Sonya Renee Taylor helpful. Once you successfully start a discussion, don’t compromise your values to make others at the table more comfortable, even if they’re older or “of a different time.” The people that seek absolution by that excuse tend to be the ones that need to confront their discomfort the most. Your grandparents were most likely alive during the civil rights era, and your parents during the 1992 Los Angeles riots. They know how to talk about racism; they just don’t want to. 

2. If you’re not Black, protest peacefully.

By now I’m sure you’ve seen videos of white “allies” wreaking havoc in the streets. Whether they’re spray-painting private property or throwing bricks through windows, their destruction is supposedly in the name of Black liberation, which is laughable at best. America already views its Black citizens as threats to be subdued (that’s why we’re marching!), so for non-Black people to embody that exact presumption in the name of our cause is a slap in the face. If you’re not privy to our struggle, don’t try to emulate our pain. One Black protester said it best: “They’re not going to show your faces when they see that on their building. They’re gonna blame that on us.”

3. It’s more complex than just “white” and “other.” 

In Maine, we have a saying: you’re either from Maine or you’re from “away.” Most of the time, it feels as though we think about race the same way, as “white” and “other.” I have a sneaking suspicion that this mindset isn’t anomalous. The Black Lives Matter movement is about Black lives—although it’s incredibly important to realize that all people of color are victims of systemic racism in the United States, it’s also important to acknowledge that other races benefit from their proximity to whiteness; to ignore the boundaries between non-white races is to attempt to erase the specific experiences and challenges of each group. 

4. Black people are neither teachers nor therapists.

Don’t get me wrong—I love talking about race. I could go on for hours about the innovation and intricacy within Black identity, how my rich heritage has shaped me, and the ignorant comments that Black people hear so often they’ve become inside jokes. So if I want to let you know something, I will. 

But don’t expect Black people—including your friends—to help you unlearn your prejudice. We don’t have PhDs in oppression, and it’s exhausting enough navigating the human experience alongside the unique struggles that come with Blackness. While it’s beautiful that so many white people are working to harness their privilege in solidarity with us, please don’t flood our DMs with white tears and questions about how to do so. Just like you, we’re learning. We’re working on it. And if we haven’t offered, we don’t want to teach you nor reassure you that you’re not racist. Lucky for you, though, plenty of activists have compiled resources to help you out. There’s also Google. 

5. Don’t buy from companies that use prison labor! 

Many of our favorite brands depend on prisoners to create their products, a disproportionate number of whom are Black, non-violent offenders. They’re forced to work in slavery-adjacent conditions, often with zero compensation, while firms, private prisons, and even governments push for legislation to keep facilities, ergo their own pockets, full. The typical punishment for refusal to work is solitary confinement, which is described by UN experts as “psychological torture.” The prison-industrial complex personifies the amorality of capitalism. 

By refusing to buy from companies that benefit from mass incarceration, you’re hitting them where it hurts most by decreasing demand (and supply) for their products. If sustained, this reduces the financial incentive for facilities to remain overcrowded, and at the very least puts pressure on companies to source ethical labor. It’s only the first step in criminal justice reform, but it’s a good start. I highly recommend the Netflix documentary 13thif you’re interested. 

6. As a white person, you don’t have the right to determine what’s offensive.

If we aren’t able to recognize microaggressions, it’s because we don’t experience them. UCSC offers a list of common microaggressions and their implications that I’ve found useful in examining the biases in my speech. “Micro” in this case may mean small in size, but not small in impact. Imagine a backhanded compliment. Now imagine twenty a day that few people recognize as backhanded. Make yourself someone who recognizes microaggressions, and, more importantly, somebody who calls them out. 

7. Recognize that infrequent racist incidents represent a lack of diversity, not a lack of racism.

When everyone in your circle looks like you, it’s very easy to distance yourself from conversations about racism, especially if you can’t see it happening around you. But just because there are no nearby Black people for you to call the cops on doesn’t mean you wouldn’t if you had the chance. Even within our own communities, minorities are taught to aspire to whiteness, so it’s crucial that wherever you are, you strive for a less white-centric worldview. Lobby your school for a more representative curriculum. Ask institutions and employers to create detailed provisions addressing racist incidents. Sit down informally with your friends to deconstruct your implicit biases. It’s very difficult for people to speak up for themselves when they’re overwhelmingly underrepresented, so don’t think their silence means you don’t have work to do.

8. Don’t share graphic content.

Circulating videos of Black death contributes to desensitized white viewing of Black trauma, not empathy. It shows that we’re aware of what white people are permitted to do to Black people and underscores the fact that we’re doing nothing about the perpetual violence of these subjugations. Especially in predominantly white spaces, introducing videos of cops brutalizing Black people as the only imagery of Black existence makes that violence the norm. Although videos such as that of George Floyd’s murder can serve as vital incriminating evidence and can light a fire under the collective ass of the public, think about who’s really served by the circulation—and even fetishization—of Black death. As writer Akilah Hughes puts it, “When I say don’t look away, I don’t mean consume Black death like it’s a meme on TikTok. I mean look in the mirror…and don’t look away.” 

By Simi Fagbemi and Eliza Rudalevige

Illustration by Tyler Comrie for The New York Times