White urgency to end racism: why now?

How can whites work against racism while also ensuring that we don’t re-center white supremacy in the process?

Beth Berila
23 June 2020, 7.06pm
George Floyd protest signs at the Ottawa Courthouse on June 5, 2020.
Flickr/Janderson L. CC BY 2.0.

The urgency with which many white people are calling for racial justice in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, Dominique Rem’mie Fells, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks and so many others embodies a critical paradox: how can whites work against racism while also ensuring that we don’t re-center white supremacy in the process?

On the one hand, ending racial injustice is urgent. It needed to happen decades ago. All of us, but particularly white people, need to be speaking out against racial injustice and actively dismantling structural racism.

On the other hand, this transformational energy needs to be sustained over what will be a long journey of racial transformation. Institutional racism has existed for decades, and it will not be undone overnight. The movement to end structural racism needs to be sustained, creative, deep and long-term.

In fact, it has been those things, though some of us are only just now noticing. People of color have been leading and working in racial justice movements for decades. That some of us - particularly white people - are just now realizing the depth of racial injustice is part of the problem.

It’s good that people are noticing. But it can be painful for people who have been saying this for years to witness the “waking up” of those folks who are just “joining the cause.”

Because I’m a white person who is committed to doing my part to end racial injustice, I’m going to talk to other whites in this article. Whites have particular roles to play in ending racism. People of color also have work to do, but it is different work - healing from the trauma of oppression, dismantling internalized racism, building coalitions across racial identities and so on.

Ultimately, we need to come together to create a racially-just world. But it can be strategically useful to take some time for our separate work, so that we can be more skillful when we come back together.

Many whites are rightly feeling urgency around ending racial injustice - too many lives lost, too much violence and injustice. The world seems at a tipping point. I have some deep hope that things will actually change this time.

As we collectively work toward racial justice, I invite those of us who are white to examine our impassioned reactions.

Reflect on that urgent energy. Where is it showing up in your body? Is there a temperature, an impulse or movement? How is it manifesting? Is there an urge to do, and do you engage that impulse immediately - or can you create space to reflect on it first?

Now go deeper. What’s underneath that urgent energy?

Is it actually deep pain at the pervasive violence of racism?

Is it because you didn’t realize or acknowledge systemic racism until now?

Is it a pain that you contributed to it in some ways, even if you didn’t mean to?

Is it a confusion that you don’t know what to do or how to help?

Is it a righteous rage that this has to end now? If so, I invite you to go deeper still: what’s underneath that righteous rage?

Is it, at heart, a longing to be a good person? For people to know you are a good person?

It’s important for white people to feel the deep pain of racism. As many racial justice leaders have pointed out, racism is not actually people of colors’ responsibility to end, though they bear the violent consequences of it. It is white people’s issue to dismantle.

Can we, as white people, bear that pain, including the pain of our complicity?

Because we are complicit as white people. Maybe we have laughed at racist jokes or haven’t interrupted them. Maybe we get angry when protesters shut down highways or otherwise inconvenience us. Maybe we take up a lot of space in meetings or talk over people of color. Maybe we haven’t noticed all the resources, opportunities, and safety granted to us and denied people of color.

Institutionalized racism is vast and deep, and it works in part because many of the ways of being that white people take for granted actually uphold racist structures. That means that those of us who are white participate in those structures, often without realizing it. White people’s work in racial justice means, in part, dismantling all the ways in which we participate.

As we unpeel the layers of our complicity, the pain is deep. This is not to say that white pain is the same as the pain of people of color. It is not. But until whites learn to be with our own pain we will continue to enact racism.

Much of the urgent energy we see coming from whites right now, especially whites new to the cause, stems from our inability to be with our own pain. In his profound book, "My Grandmother’s Hand: Racialized Trauma and the Pathways to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies," Resmaa Menakem distinguishes between clean and dirty pain. Clean pain “is a pain that mends and can build your capacity for growth….Dirty pain is the pain of avoidance, blame, and denial.”

There is a parallel distinction around urgency. Some urgency is a catalyzing force for transformation with integrity. But when we try to manage dirty pain, it can morph into a self-serving, individualistic, and ungrounded urgent energy. This urgency can feel frenetic, righteous or frantic.

It’s vital to notice that impulse to do something. Yes, all of society needs to do something to change racist systems, but feminist, antiracist, and social justice organizing has long taught us that those who are most affected by an issue need to be centered in movements for change. In this case, that means amplifying Black leaders, taking their lead, listening to what they want and need, and playing a supportive role.

The impulse to do something can be another way to center whiteness. Whites are doers. We have been taught that we are the movers and shakers in the Western world. How much of our impulse to do is about reenacting that pattern? What would it be like to sit with that impulse and instead take direction from Black racial justice leaders? And how much of our need to do is a way to avoid feeling?

Our discomfort with not knowing what to do comes from a similar place. Can we sit in the discomfort of not knowing? Can we learn to feel? And listen to Black leaders?

This process is messy, but practices like mindfulness teach us how to be in that messiness, and also that growth requires discomfort. Mindfulness helps us to learn to be with what is, cultivate our capacity to feel our embodied experience, and witness what arises without automatically reacting.

This practice needs to happen both individually and collectively, so that we can experience pain, urgency, and dissonance and learn to respond in a way that supports racial justice, rather than react in a way that reproduces white supremacy. Large-scale social, political, and cultural transformation isn't going to happen without some discomfort. Those of us who are white have a responsibility to do this work.

We also have a stake in it. The construct of whiteness has cut us off not only from the humanity of people of color - which is why it then becomes possible to violently dehumanize them; it has also cut white people off from our own humanity.

It is in everyone’s best interest for whites to learn to reconnect to our own humanity, dismantling white Menakem calls "white-body supremacy" in the process.

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