Every other day, a white person asks me what white people can do to fight racism (“or be a better ally,” or “defect from white supremacy,” etc.). While it’s not my responsibility to answer that question, I want to speak to what people are actually asking of me. Sometimes I feel the need to a kind of once-for-all post, to questions that I get often, so that I can drop a link in response to it in the future. Here is my once-for-all to the question of what white people need to do to fight racism.
I’m borrowing an analogy from expert Dr. Beverly Tatum as a frame for this advice. In her book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria: And Other Conversations About Race, Tatum speaks of anti-blackness as a smog. The smog is everywhere. Everyone has inhaled it, which means everyone’s lungs have been affected. Since everyone’s lungs have been touched, everyone exhales it too. “We are all smog breathers,” Tatum says.
Let’s be clear about the smog. The problem I’m talking about is not that people are generally prejudiced against one another (although that is an unfortunate fact). The problem we’re talking about is that, for centuries now, black people have been deemed to be without value, in order to legitimate oppressive policies, cultures, and societal structures.
With the problem framed in this way, I can make my once-for-all suggestion to those who keep asking me what they can do. My advice is that all white people should be fighting the smog. Daily. I think this should be done in two ways. First, as individuals, white people should seek treatment for the internal effects of the smog. Second, that white people should organize amongst themselves to improve the air quality.
Fight the Smog Within
A friend of mine moved into lower Manhattan just after the Twin Towers were destroyed in 2001. The amount of dust and debris that calamity expelled into the air still affects her breathing to this day. Years after the fact, she is still coughing. The smog of antiblackness effects people like that. The calamities wrought on black bodies since the so-called “enlightement age,” have ruined the air quality for everyone living in their wake, even to this very day. Centuries after the fact, we are still coughing.
No one is exempt. Everyone, from time to time, exhales the smog.
Antiblackness is subtle. People often don’t realize that they’re exhaling the smog. The story that actor Liam Neeson told early in 2019 illustrates this.
A friend told him that she’d been assaulted. First, he asks “What color was he?” Slow down right there. He didn’t ask “Did you get a good look at the man? What did he look like?” No. Neeson’s first question was about specifically about race. The actor then admits he trolled the streets looking for “some black bastard” to kill. The notion that any black man can die in the place of a specific black man—that we are fungible—is an old racist logic. Whether Neeson meant to or not, he acted on that logic instinctually.
How is it that someone who doesn’t regularly think about killing black people on a daily basis can be ready to lynch any random black man if given the chance? Because all of the programming to carry out that kind of racial violence is already in the air we breathe. Neeson’s story is an example of how people can harbor antiblack sentiment without being aware of it. Any who thinks they are immune is vulnerable.
When you’re amazed that a black person speaks well and say “you’re so articulate,” as though eloquence were endemically a trait of whiteness, you’re coughing. When a black man enters your store and you watch him more closely than others, you sound like you’re coming down with something. When you tell a black person that they’re not black black because you don’t perceive them as criminal or dangerous, cough! cough! When you blame “black culture” for gang violence and poverty, you’re hacking.
Because everyone is effected by the smog, white people should be vigilant and proactive about their own respiratory health. They should be educating themselves about air pollution sickness and its symptoms: that means educating themselves on whiteness and antiblackness, so that they can recognize it. They should be reflective when black people tell them they’re exhaling the smog. They should be seeking to manage the effects of the smog on their thinking and behavior.
Take personal responsibility for your own respiratory health. Black people are not your doctors. You are responsible for your own freedom from antiblackness. You must figure out what it means in your specific context to practice antiracism.
Research. Racism is not a mystery. It has been written about for centuries. Go to a library. Use Google. Search for articles, books, classes and learning resources, documentaries and videos about antiblack racism. They’re out there. Find them.
Find other white people and organizations that are helping white people confront their complicity in antiblack racism and show up for black lives. They exist. Google them. Follow them on Twitter.
Stay accountable to black people. This does not mean pester your black friends to teach you everything you don’t know about racism. This means taking it seriously when black people tell you that you’re expressing antiblackness. Make sure any groups you join are also accountable to black people that are knowledgeable about racism, and not just black people who tell you what you want to hear.
Fight the Smog Around You
Trying to heal individuals of smog poisoning is a self-defeating task if nothing is done about the smog producers. America was founded in antiblackness. Black death was chosen as fuel for our economic engine, beginning with the Slave Trade. Antiblackness was literally written into the U.S. Constitution. Antiblackness has been the rule of law from slave codes to now. If you’re not sure about any of the facts of this paragraph, then you know what to Google.
The bottom line is that if nothing is done about the way that racist ideas and outcomes are produced by our educational systems, bureaucracies, media, organized religion, economics, policing and more, there will be no real “racial progress.” White people that want to cultivate racial justice must contend with these smog producing systems.
To do this, they’ll have to:
Learn everything they can about how our societal institutions express antiblackness.
Educate other white people.
Wage nonviolent struggle to change the white supremacist structures of our society. Look to social movements in the past that have led to reform to find potential solutions.
I have already written elsewhere that struggle will be necessary for racial progress, as it has always been. Until ordinary people take this seriously, we’ll continue to have the same conversations. It’s time to act strategically, consistently, and vigilantly to create an antiracist society. I’d recommend 2 books for white people who take this idea seriously: Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy and Srdja Popovich’s Blueprint for Revolution. That’s a start.
This is my answer as of today.