part one: what a time to be alive.
right now we are in a fast river together – every day there are changes that seemed unimaginable until they occurred.
if you are a white person (or a man) this is a time of intentionally relinquishing power, or having it pulled out from under you. i know it seems fast and everywhere, but it’s actually not a rapids, not a waterfall, not a tsunami. most people who aren’t white have in our lineages or lived experiences the whiplash of much more drastic changes, placed upon us by your ancestors. being snatched from home and shipped into slavery, weighed and measured, worked to death, lynched daily by authorities, reminded that our lives are expendable at any moment (and yes this is true even right now, hence #blacklivesmatter and #defundthepolice).
or being displaced from the land we were given instructions to love and care for, then raped, killed or reprogrammed.
or being burnt up by new weapons your ancestors created to speed colonization or domination. being cast as the savages or terrorists in their worldview in a way that stuck to us even outside the stage of their minds; stuck in your minds such that it’s nearly impossible for you to even see it without cultural ice buckets poured on the delusion.
your ancestors did not fight fair, and they didn’t teach you to be in right relationship with anyone. they didn’t give our ancestors time to wonder, ask for help, course correct, negotiate. this is why some say you should be grateful we seek justice, equality, and our humanity, versus revenge. because right now, after years of physical, intellectual and cultural warfare on peoples who were different from white, you have an opportunity to leap forward, dive into this river of change, rather than be deluged and drowned in it.
the time for denial is over. you were not raised in a secret mountaintop retreat disconnected from the world, you haven’t existed with no contact for over 400 years…so we know you see and know what is going on. and you’re scared, saddened, defensive, guilty, and unsure of who to be if you aren’t the default superior. so you make choices towards or away from or against your own highest self.
when you say ‘but don’t all lives matter?’ we hear ‘i refuse to acknowledge the harm i have caused you by benefiting from false constructs of supremacy. i cannot prioritize your pain over my privilege.’
when you say ‘ok ok so teach me’, we hear, ‘my time and needs continue to be more important than yours. i refuse to google and read, i demand your labor.’
when you say ‘but what do i do?’ it sounds like procrastination, because we have told you a million things. here.
here are ways i recommend for diving into this river:
learn to say, and mean, ‘i am sorry for the impact of my white supremacy.’ don’t post it on the internet, say it from your heart and gut directly to people you’ve impacted, especially in situations when you were/are in positions of leadership or authority. and then – and this is important – shift your behavior so you never need to give that apology again. riffing off fellow nerd albert einstein, practicing white supremacy and expecting a different outcome than race war is one definition of collective insanity. i don’t want the apology without the shifts in behavior, policy and access to power, without the end of the monsoon of constant harm.
commit to doing your own work without seeking accolades. yes, some people of color will be welcoming, will even celebrate what you do – i am sometimes moved to tears when i hear how acts-of-white-people-being-kind-to-black-people touch my black southern father, who just never thought he would see that. and/but many people of color won’t clap because the point of this moment is decentering whiteness in the story of humanity. that means not centering white course correction with the attention we give a baby’s first steps. we won’t patronize you for rejoining a collective path…and that should be good news.
don’t revert to supremacy under pressure. it breaks trust. if you are told you are practicing white supremacy, consider that we see and feel things you do not because they’re weaponized against us, weighted against us, scarring us, limiting us. we aren’t generalizing or reducing you, we are protecting our vulnerable lives.
redistribute resources. not as charity, which is just another way to assuage the conscience of privilege. redistribute money, leadership positions, decision-making power, land, time in meetings, visionary space, relationships with philanthropy, speaking opportunities, press attention, health care benefits – if you can measure it, you can redistribute the resource.
i am taking the time to write to you because i am a mixed race black woman. i am connected to the same lineages of harm as you, even as i am harmed by them. i am in intimate familial relationship with white people, and i want those relationships to be honest and accountable. i benefit from how the artifacts of whiteness in my skin, cadence, and cultural shaping make me more visible and comprehensible to you, more human to you.
it’s a devastating weight to carry, to work to be fully myself, humble and brilliant and messy and great, against a delusion of white supremacy so pervasive and invasive that it can grow within each of us without invitation. but just because something alive violates us does not mean we asked for it, does not mean we partner with it, believe it, or even let it live.
i in my wholeness am working to hold the contradictions of white supremacy responsibly, to weed my own garden even as i demand and build my and our black power. we all have our work, and none of us can do anyone else’s.
part two: a variation on paying attention to white people
in the spirit of ‘what you pay attention to grows’, i want to bring more attention to the white people who are in my life, none by accident, none tolerated, each beloved and cultivated. not everyone has an experience of white people who love, learn with, and follow them. i want to practice, in this moment, attending to them as much as or more than we attend to the swarm of karens and beckys and donalds and other haters.
i do not believe whiteness will just disappear in shame, or that white people committed to race and other offenses to science and god will self-segregate in a way that leaves the rest of us and the planet safe. so i must believe that something else can emerge, is emerging, even if it is still small and rare. and my belief is met by the presence, felt much more than spoken, of white people who are blessings, peers, beloveds, comrades, self-responsible humans.
i am blessed by my mother. she gave up everything she’d been raised in, family and resources, when she realized she was in love with my father. she began unlearning racism without training, decolonization curricula, language monitors. she began her unlearning in relationship, both as wife and as mother. she was the one who came storming into classrooms challenging our racist teachers. she has taken our sides and has our backs and asserts our brilliance at every turn. she doesn’t claim to get it right, she keeps leaning in and learning with love. she makes me consider that something can shift deep within when you birth a black child, or three. i am not interested in denying that, ridiculing that, making it smaller than what it is.
i am blessed by those in my southern white family who reach out to let me know they love me and listen hungrily to suggestions for what they can do to be in solidarity, to raise their kids to see beyond the racism they’re all raised to swim in. they do help to offset the pain of knowing there are white people related to me by blood who watched me be a black child and then chose to vote for the klan’s favorite president, frump.
i am blessed by the anti-racist white people in my inner friend circle. instead of perfection, these friends are committed to practice, to asking questions and really listening to the answers, to doing their own work and not putting it on me, to releasing rigid control and seeing that that there are many ways to be productive and efficient, to growing ease in taking leadership from black people, from people of color. and then diving in deep with other white people. and decentering themselves in their fields. and fucking up, and then letting it grow them rather than make them performative or bitter. they do most of their race work elsewhere, and yet it is palpable to me without feeling like guilt, charity, pity or other power-over emotions.
i have had a white partner in the past, and though i revel and thrive in black love now, when i look at movement i actually see a huge number of leaders with white partners, white family, white community. sometimes claimed, sometimes quietly kept off screen. i think we need to bring more attention to why those people get to be in our lives, why any white person gets the privilege of being in intimate space with those who have experienced enough ancestral harm from white people to stay away forever. attend not in a carrot/stick way, not denying your humanity, not cheerleading what you are already just supposed to do, but simply to acknowledge that it is work.
it isn’t a shift at the level of slogan, political correctness or press release, though those cultural quakes do soften the soil for new organic infrastructures of antiracist life to take root. it is deeply personal work to relinquish white supremacy, and it helps me if i think of the white people in my life not as exceptional, but just a few steps ahead in their work.
think of those confederate statues coming down. all my roots are southern…those statues seemed like they’d always been there and always would be. and then slowly the realization that they were celebrating the worst of humanity, the plantation hitlers, that that’s what white supremacy is really about. now it feels inevitable that we are pulling down the symbols, while inside everyone’s minds we are pulling down the ideas of racial supremacy.
but then there’s the gap, the statue’s empty base, the place where that idea once seemed right but now there’s just the wound, the world shaped around the absence of a clear way of being. i just purchased the bust of a black man, head full of amethyst, from damon davis; and last year i visited the lynching museum, full of statues to honor the murdered. both of these works are perfect and i wish they were everywhere, so i am tempted to make a case for replacing the statues with black heroes and martyrs. but i can also see the case for no replacement statues, in our town squares or our minds. we live in a beautiful interconnected world that needs our attention. maybe if we drop the performance of celebrating difference, we can make it possible to actually survive difference.
it must be possible. we must make it possible, or else we will always be in a position of demand, or counter policing, or rage. i want us to use this current justified rage to shape demands that take the labor and danger off of us. so that our grandchildren don’t have to live such taut, hurt and angry lives.
at the same time i want us to contend for power, and notice who truly invites that power. that is the common trait of every white person, every person, i allow into my life in a meaningful way: there is a mutual invitation. both of us in our power and truest selves are invited into every space.
so for the white people walking this path with me, thank y’all for keeping me faithful when a mass perspective on whiteness still feels pretty hopeless. thank you for being willing to be visible, or not. thank you for not waiting for praise as you unlearn the supremacy you were programmed to practice, and for not reacting personally to the righteous rage and shifting boundaries required to move through this collective transition. thank you for offering support instead of demanding more labor.
mary hooks has articulated a mandate for black people in this time – to avenge the suffering of our ancestors, earn the respect of future generations, and be willing to be transformed in the service of the work. the white people in my life must align with that mandate – put your lifetime in service of undoing the work of your ancestors, earning the respect of future generations, and being willing to be transformed in the service of the work.