“Don’t stop listening. Don’t tune out. Lean into your discomfort”
Image via Flickr
Hey, fellow white person. How much do we suck, huh? You know I used to defend the white racists who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution by saying, “Well, they didn’t live the words they wrote, but they framed our country around morals that made us better than themselves.”
But that was kind of bullshit, because here we are 240 years later and we just elected a white nationalist demagogue, pretty much for the sole reason that he’s a white nationalist demagogue. We really fucking blew it, and we won’t even be the ones to suffer the consequences.
So now lots of white people are making themselves feel better by putting on safety pins, which is really bullshit. But not you and me. We’re going to do some things that will actually help the people we (as a racial cohort, anyway) have harmed. We aren’t going to congratulate ourselves on it; we’re not going to wear some stupid symbolic badge that says, “Hey, I’m a good white person” so other white people will congratulate us on how woke we are. We’re just going to do these things because they’re the right things to do when you believe in fairness and equality and all those things the white racist founding fathers wrote about but didn’t believe.
Here are some really easy ways we can take concrete action that will bear results:
1. Be intolerant of intolerance
The first thing we have to do is make it clear that racism, discrimination, and intolerance are no longer values that we as a society will value. That means confronting other white people and making them feel marginalized for behaving in ways that do harm. You have to stand up against friends, relatives, and even strangers when you hear them saying racist or discriminatory things.
It’s not that hard. You say, “What the hell is wrong with you?” and you walk away. One instance might not make a difference, but if it happens often enough, and if white racists learn that intolerance costs them social standing, they will eventually change — after all, the whole motive behind most white racism stems from loss of status.
The one exception is when you witness actual discrimination against another person. In those cases it is your responsibility to defend that person, not only by condemning the hate speech, but by staying with that marginalized person and treating them as an actual human being. You want to help people feel safe? Then forget your safety pin and do the work of actually helping people feel safe.
2. Seek out marginalized voices and perspectives
Here’s a question: How many black people do you follow on Twitter? How many black authors do you read? If you’re like many white people, the answer is not very many. I know I didn’t for a long time; I had to make a conscious effort to change that.
America is a culture that segregates by race, sometimes intentionally but often as an unexpected consequence of our social tendencies. Social media makes this worse — we’ve all heard of the echo chamber effect at this point. The best way to break free of that is to proactively seek out voices you aren’t hearing from.
The great thing, though, is that once you start paying attention to people different from you, whether that’s people of color, LGBTQ people, Muslims, people with disabilities, Desi people, East Asians, etcetera, you will begin to encounter other new voices that you’ll appreciate. But you have to take that first step.
Here are a few people I would suggest following, who have helped to broaden my own exposure. You can find them on Twitter, or in longer form if you’re not so much into Twitter. Just Google their names. This is not a comprehensive list, nor does it cover all communities, it’s just a good starting point in my opinion: Deray McKesson, Roxane Gay, Shaun King, Baratunde Thurston, Raquel Cepeda, Rebecca Cohen, Xeni Jardin, Sara Yasin, Kumail Nanjiani, Anil Dash, Jamelle Bouie, Rembert Browne, Heidi Heilig, and Ta-Nehisi Coates.
3. Confront your racism and don’t be fragile
Here’s something I can promise: If you take my advice on #2 and start paying attention to more marginalized voices, you are going to encounter some opinions that will upset you. Some that might make you feel discriminated against, some that might even make you feel victimized by racism.
Don’t stop listening. Don’t tune out. Lean into your discomfort. Force yourself to consider other opinions, and understand why people might say something you find offensive. I’m not saying you can’t still disagree — in fact, the ability to respectfully disagree is itself a skill many Americans, especially white Americans, are not great at. So learn.
You’ll learn a lot of terms you might not have encountered before, among them “White Fragility.” This is a reference to the tendency among white people to take offense when they are called out for saying or doing something discriminatory or even racist. It’s that thing you may have noticed where some white people think “racist” is itself a discriminatory slur, and instead of listening and examining what about their behavior might be problematic they get offended and even demand an apology from the person they have offended.
So don’t be fragile. Your feelings might be hurt, sure. You might even be offended. But resist that urge, and make yourself listen. Lean into the discomfort. All of us are programmed by a culture that embeds racism, and if we are going to be allies we have to recognize we are all capable of racist actions — only by listening can we learn to do better.
And remember, you don’t have to AGREE with everything you hear, nor do you have to express your disagreement. You just have to listen to other people’s views and try to understand where they’re coming from.
4. Use your privilege to support marginalized movements
Join a Black Lives Matter march. Attend a meeting of your local community group. Go to a black church. When people ask what you’re doing there, say, “I’m here to support you.” Then ask how you can do that.
Your whiteness affords you privileges that can be a powerful asset for activists of color and from other marginalized groups. For one thing, police and politicians tend to take a movement far more seriously when there are white people participating — consider the difference in the way the Occupy movement was treated, versus the protesters in Ferguson, Missouri.
However, you have to resist the urge to appoint yourself a leader. You might think I’m joking, but it’s something white people are programmed with, often by the prevalence of “White Savior” narratives in our entertainment media. Your job is to follow the leaders of the movement and do what you can to support them, even if you think you might know a better strategy.
On a related note, be prepared for the moment when a reporter with a camera will seek you out at a protest to be the spokesperson for the movement. As a white person in a minority space, I promise it will happen — it’s happened to me more than once. When that happens, here’s what you say: “I’m just here to support the movement, because I believe in it. You should speak with the leadership, I think they’re over there.” Then point in the direction where the reporter can find group leadership. Resist the urge to make further statements, because I promise it will be your face on the news that night, and none of the people of color who greatly outnumber you.
5. Give your time and money
There are a ton of organizations that do good work protecting marginalized groups in the courts, through lobbying and public advocacy, and through education and community organizing. You can donate money to them, and, often, you can donate time by volunteering.
Among those I would personally endorse: The Southern Poverty Law Center, Council on American-Islamic Relations, the American Civil Liberties Union, International Rescue Committee, Planned Parenthood, and the Disability Rights Network. All of these organizations are effective and deserve your money.
If you can’t volunteer for a large organization like one of these, you can find a food bank or other organization in your community that helps serve vulnerable communities. Your local black church can almost certainly help direct you.
6. Be proactive about inclusion in your daily life
If you are in any position of authority, be it at work or for an organization or club, you have an opportunity to be more inclusive of people from other backgrounds and communities. But the mistake a lot of white people make is to think that simply not discriminating is enough. You can do more, and do better, by taking proactive measures to invite people of color, immigrants, and other marginalized people into your space.
If you’re recruiting at work, don’t simply put your ads on the usual web sites and newspapers and expect that to be enough. Seek out places where you can recruit people underrepresented in your workplace; in many locales predominantly black colleges and black business associations can help you recruit. LGBTQ community centers will have job posting boards, and your town or city may have organizations that exist specifically to connect immigrants, refugees, and racial minorities with the community.
Make sure that the space where you meet is accessible to people with disabilities, who may be confined to a wheelchair or otherwise unable to use stairs or to reach buttons or door handles. It’s also good to be convenient to public transportation, since many people from poorer communities rely on public transit to get them around.
Also, don’t be afraid to outright say in your job listing or community post that you encourage participation from members of minority communities, LGBTQ people, immigrants, people with past convictions, and so on. This sends a signal to people who might otherwise assume that they are not welcome and can go a long way to diversifying your environment.
7. Avoid segregation
Once again, American culture tends in many ways to self-segregate, for many reasons that I won’t get into here. For whatever reason, white spaces tend to be very white, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do something to fight that tendency.
If you’re willing to put a lot of effort into it, you can move. I realize that’s extreme, but I think it’s a powerfully transformative measure, especially if you have children. Growing up in a diverse community surrounded by people from different backgrounds tends to make people more accepting and open-minded, whereas growing up in homogenous spaces (like most suburbs) can make people fearful and insular.
Even if you don’t move, you can find easier and cheaper ways to diversify your own surroundings, or spend time in places that are less familiar. In many cases it’s as simple as going into the city nearest to you, and particularly into neighborhoods that are not associated specifically with white tourism. In New York City, which is famously diverse but also strikingly segregated in many neighborhoods, you can eschew the Met or the Natural History Museum in favor of the New Museum or El Museo Del Barrio. Skip dinner in Little Italy and go get soul food at Sylvia’s or matzo ball soup at a kosher deli.
Most houses of worship are very welcoming to people who don’t necessarily share their faith, especially parents seeking to expand their children’s horizons. Find a local mosque or synagogue and participate. Join a community group in a community different from yours. Your local chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters is just waiting to help connect you with a “little” who, in many places, is likely to be from a family of color or an immigrant family.
If you’re willing to do a little work and a little traveling, there are lots of ways to make America less segregated.
8. Do the work to be inclusive
Finally, one of the easiest things white people can do (and yet often refuse to do) is to simply keep up with what’s happening in communities other than white communities, including the language people use with and about one another.
One does have to wonder how many white Americans out there will be wearing their little safety pins to indicate support for marginalized communities, but not even willing to learn the difference between Latinx and Hispanic; why “person with disability” is preferable to “disabled person” or “handicapped”; or recognize that “they” is now an accepted singular pronoun for those who wish to avoid gendering.
What many label “political correctness” is in fact a minimally difficult effort at using language that shows respect and engagement with communities that are not the predominant wielders of power in the United States. When white people complain that “they can’t keep up” with the changes in the way marginalized communities prefer to be addressed, what we are really saying is that we can’t be bothered to learn new words simply because they make other people feel more included and respected.
So take the time to learn new words, and learn what emerging issues are of concern to non-white people. If you’re following the other suggestions above, this actually won’t feel that difficult — but all of these things go a long way to actually help include and support non-white communities who have been harmed by recent American events. You can save your safety pin for laundry day.
This story was originally featured on Medium.