By Elizabeth Winston, PhD
“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
— Lilla Watson, Aboriginal Elder, Queensland, Australia
Fostering a healthy community involves taking care of ourselves and one another. During the past year, this has meant changing our lives in major ways in order to prevent transmission of the coronavirus while staying healthy. At the same time, we have faced the urgency of acknowledging and working to undo the long history of racism and white supremacy still very much alive and present in the United States. According to Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility, racism is a system of advantage based on race, and white supremacy refers to the centrality and assumed superiority of white people and practices based on these assumptions.
In Madison, we have had multiple well-publicized wake-up calls, such as the Race to Equity report, highlighting the racial disparities in educational access and achievement; the fatal shooting of Tony Robinson by a Madison police officer; and calls for justice and equity by Black Lives Matter leaders and demonstrations. As a community, our liberation is bound together; when we work together to dismantle racism, we co-create a community that is healthier for us, for our children, and for their children. This connectedness reaches back to our ancestors and forward to our descendants in order to build an enduring anti-racist culture.
What Does Being Anti-Racist Mean?
In short, being anti-racist means actively working against the racism that is endemic in our society. Refraining from engaging in obvious acts of racism is necessary, but not sufficient for change. Many of us do not use racial epithets; we do not tell racist jokes; we do not (consciously) behave aggressively or violently towards Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC). We may also feel that we are actively fighting racism when we tell our children to treat everyone equally and are ourselves friendly to BIPOC. While all of these things are important, they do not actively dismantle racism and white supremacy. If we are truly committed to improving our well-being, we do more.
We need to acknowledge the vestiges of our nation’s history of slavery. Many Black Americans can trace back just a few generations to great, great grandparents who were born into slavery; Jim Crow laws, which legalized segregation until the Civil Rights Act of 1964; and policies that have enduring detrimental impacts today, such as redlining. Redlining was a series of Federal Housing Administration policies during the 20th century which prevented Black Americans from buying homes in middle-class cities and then suburbs, thereby establishing segregated neighborhoods which exist today. This systemized government-sponsored policy has contributed to the enduring discrepancy in wealth between Black and white Americans.
Many of us grew up learning that racism is an explicit act. Heroes from the civil rights movement, such as Rosa Parks, were fighting explicitly racist laws. Thanks to the brave and hard work of civil rights activists, many blatantly racist laws were overturned. This vital change in the laws of our land did not erase the endemic systematized advantages afforded white people based on this history. In order to continue to fulfill the ideals that our country purports to be founded on, we are tasked with acknowledging and understanding the ways in which the systems in our country are rigged to perpetuate these advantages. The work now is to fight against insidious, systemic racism that continues in our institutions, including schools, courtrooms, and corporations. If we are not actively working to make these structural changes, racism will continue to harm individual BIPOC and our collective well-being.
What Feelings Come Up When We Examine Our Own Racism?
Many of us try to combat racism on an intellectual level, but racism exists on emotional and visceral levels too. On an emotional level, it can be really hard and painful to be called out on benefiting from being white.
How does it feel as white Americans being invited to examine how growing up in a racist society has impacted our own development and identity? It can make us feel defensive. It can make us feel overwhelmed and exhausted. Being called out can make us want to avoid dealing with racism. There’s an inherent privilege being white in America in having the option to ignore racism altogether.
White people benefit from racism in America because, by definition, we receive unearned advantages. By acknowledging that racism exists while not actively fighting against it, we are complicit. And thinking about being racist or supporting white supremacy feels so bad, we likely anxiously avoid thinking about it and feel ashamed when we do. This can make us feel powerless, confused, and isolated, which helps to explain the frustrating lack of progress in racial justice despite our best intentions.
Anyone who grew up in this country unwittingly learned how to be racist and perpetuate white supremacy. Perhaps we can soften the pain of our individual shame by also having a collective focus on our nation’s failure to work honestly and authentically towards being a nation where everyone has equal opportunity. This may involve a focus on equity—making up for significant gaps in opportunities, wealth, and health. This is not preferential treatment; it is equitable treatment, and unless we keep the conversation going, those gaps in equity will continue to be bridged inadequately rather than filled conscientiously.
What Can We Do?
We can support our public schools by voting for pro-education leaders, supporting school referendums, electing BIPOC to school boards, hiring BIPOC teachers and principals, and sending our children to the neighborhood school. We can support local businesses, making a deliberate effort to shop at BIPOC-owned restaurants, bars, boutiques, bookstores, bakeries, and confectionaries. We can intentionally seek BIPOC healthcare providers and professional service providers, such as doctors, dentists, insurance agents, and bankers. We can de-center ourselves by standing back and being quiet in order for our BIPOC friends and neighbors to be consistently seen and heard. We can do a much better job of communicating privileged information more widely so that BIPOC hear about good job openings, homes that are for sale or rent, and academic and extracurricular opportunities for children. We can intentionally dismantle racism day by day with our awareness and thoughtfulness.
Welcoming multiple perspectives in our workplaces, schools, businesses, and community leads to more interesting and creative ways of seeing things, solving problems, and just being in the world. When there is less to be justifiably angry about, there is more peace. Let us work together continuously to harness our minds, our hearts, and our bodies to make sustainable change in our community so we and all who come after us can thrive.