White People — What Does “Do the Work” Mean?
“Why are we here?” the Rev. Benjamin J. Chavis Jr. asked at a funeral. It was 1987. An innocent woman named Yvonne Smallwood had been murdered.
“Because the New York City Police Department has participated in another execution of one of our loved ones.’’
More than 30 years ago he went on to say, “The best memorial we can give to Yvonne is unity and action in our community. We must make this city a more just place to live, without racism and without killer-cops,” (emphasis mine).
‘’Enough is enough,’’ he said. ‘’There have been too many funerals lately, and we can’t take it anymore.’’
Thirty years ago, they couldn’t take anymore. Three decades ago, there were too many funerals.
Imagine if your community was burying their own before their time, so often, that your soul was exhausted by injustice and loss.
Unfortunately, racial injustice has always been a “timely” issue in the US. Just because white people’s outrage has fomented into a tipping point lately doesn’t mean that people of color haven’t been living through and with their outrage all along. We’re shocked, they’re exhausted.
My fellow white people —now that so many of us are here, outraged and ready to make a difference, why do we keep hearing “do the work” when that’s exactly what we’re trying to do?
What does that mean? What are we doing wrong?
Do you ever feel like we’re getting conflicting messages about how to be allies? “Do the work.” “Speak up.” But then we’re told to sit down and let POC speak for themselves and to stop centering ourselves. Then we get in trouble for not leveraging our privilege, for relaxing in our comfortable silence.
The reason we’re being told multiple and sometimes conflicting things is that Black people are not a monolith with one voice. POC as a whole are a massive collective of individuals. Of course different people have different ideas about how to solve entrenched and complex structural problems.
So read as much as you can. Watch Chimamanda Adichie’s The danger of a single story.
“Doing the work” means reading what POC and justice advocates have been saying since the last time a police officer killed an innocent person without cause. And the time before that. And the decade before that. Follow that helix spiraling back to our country’s original DNA. This is our genetic lineage, our shared history.
Empathize with the pain of your fellow Americans. The daily-ness of it. But here’s an important thread I’m seeing in a lot of writing — process your shock and grief with other white people. When you try to talk to POC about your shock and outrage, especially if it’s new, you can inadvertently wind up seeking comfort from them. Or worse, reassurance that they know you’re not racist. Now is not the time to seek validation that you’re one of “the good ones”. It’s just time to be good and do good.
1. Be uncomfortable. Stay in that discomfort and keep reading. The more you read the more hypocrisy you will discover. While POC already know this because they live it, you might find yourself as astonished as I’ve become.
For example, ask yourself where all the Blue Lives Matter outrage was when a white man shot and killed seven law enforcement officers in 2018. Ask yourself why you never even heard about it and how in the hell he was arrested peacefully.
Work through the discomfort like you’re at the gym. No pain, no gain, right? The reward is not more white guilt or self-loathing. The reward is quiet compassion. Speak up among your fellow white people. But never speak over people who are speaking for themselves.
Start embracing your comfort, and keep moving forward, ever-mindful about how best to channel your outrage. Keep researching. There is no finite answer and some answers will necessarily change or be different in different situations. We’re all navigating this together but the important thing is to stay on the train.
POC don’t enjoy the luxury of deboarding when that train starts going too fast or going a direction they don’t like. They have been the tracks, they have been the crashes and the perpetual passengers.
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2. Do your own research. Requesting a curated TED Talk from your friends (and strangers) of color is emotional labor. Not every POC wants to be your go-to expert on racism and race. Some do. But chances are they have already talked to you about it or they write about it online. Support their work, follow them on social media, and if you don’t already, share their articles.
But don’t cherry-pick from Black history in a way that perpetuates a false narrative — a narrative that is harmful to Black peace and progress.
As in, don’t just listen to Candace Owens and call it a day. Dig deeper.
If you haven’t read conflicting perspectives or conflicting advice about how white people can be allies, about what we can do to help, you might not be reading enough POC writers. Just like any group, no individual can comprehensively speak for the whole.
So when you read suggestions that conflict with something else you’ve read, great! People are complex and you are learning more about individuals.
3. Watch documentaries. If you’re reading this you have likely already watched 13th. If not, start there and then watch 10 more documentaries — most of which I hadn’t heard of until reading this article below.
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4. Read President Obama’s suggestions. Remember when we had a leader with leadership skills? Here is Obama on Medium with concrete suggestions about “how we can sustain momentum to bring about real change.”
He emphasizes the importance of researching and voting in local elections: “It’s mayors and county executives that appoint most police chiefs and negotiate collective bargaining agreements with police unions. It’s district attorneys and state’s attorneys that decide whether or not to investigate and ultimately charge those involved in police misconduct.”
And stresses how critical specificity is when we’re listening to campaign speeches and press conferences: “the more specific we can make demands for criminal justice and police reform, the harder it will be for elected officials to just offer lip service to the cause and then fall back into business as usual once protests have gone away.”
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5. Vote. Donate to political campaigns. Pay careful attention to who is running for District Attorney and judgeships and your state legislature. Read about candidates. Support candidates like Kentucky’s former cop and hero Marine Josh Hicks — candidates who fight for equality.
6. Listen. If no one in your intimate circle is talking start researching. If you don’t know where to start or whom to listen to when our dear leader is offering not leadership but fascism, listen to JLo. The entertainment mogul is a greater resource than the White House.
“If you’re not sure how to respond, LISTEN. If you’re not sure what to read, RESEARCH. If you’re not sure what to do, DONATE. “Not sure” becomes “Not my problem”… It’s not enough to be “Not sure” when racism is still taking lives.”
Follow her thread for solid recommendations. And remember that Puerto Rico is still recovering from Hurricane Maria — three years after Trump literally threw paper towels at a devastated community.
Empathy is not one of Trump’s “killer instincts”. But it needs to be our response to his.
Look. I know your great-great-so-and-so didn’t own slaves. Neither did mine. They were impoverished farmers. We’ve been taught that only the Klan embodies evil and that Jim Crow laws perpetuated slavery but that’s all in the past now. Right? Wrong.
Maybe the reason we’ve collectively come to the erroneous (and lazy) conclusion that we are post-racism is because the white people before you did the work. They listened to the abolitionists crying out for humanity. They listened to Black people and Black activists, followed their lead and confronted the social norms of their time — slavery and segregation.
Now we’re confronting the social norms of our time — police brutality, unequal sentencing, qualified immunity, Karens and BBQ Beckies, racial profiling, voter suppression, housing discrimination, job discrimination and hair discrimination. And we need to listen to Black people. We need to believe them and follow their lead.
Doing the work means moving from sympathy to empathy. Empathy is the goal here. If you can emotionally and psychologically put yourself in someone else’s shoes your empathy can inform your activism. It will compel you to read more, to learn more, and, ultimately, do more.
Racism is not a “Black” problem for Black people to solve while white people click their tongues sympathetically. Racism is a human problem created and inflicted by white people.
Yes, we need to be at this concert – this magnanimous moment in history where enough people showed up for this “timely” movement. It’s always been timely. But not enough white people were outraged at the same time to create a tipping point.
And remember, white people need to be a loud and supportive audience. But we don’t need to take center stage. As Jeanette C. Espinoza says, “This is not just your ‘time to shine’, this is my life.”
We can “end white silence” by being a reliable trustworthy part of the chorus – we are not the lead singers. We are the studio musicians ready to do the work.