Innovation

When Arguing With ‘White Nonsense’ Gets Too Exhausting, These White Volunteers Will Do It For You

by Rebekah Sager

August 14, 2017

With sworn white supremacists and neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend, even the most privileged of Americans have been forced to confront the nation’s deep roots of racism. Unfortunately, a lot of them are doing so in a cringe-inducing — if not downright offensive or dangerous — way.

Enter Terri Kempton, an early education teacher, and Layla Tromble, a paint store manager, two activists from Bellingham, Washington, who decided to use social media to lighten the loads for black and brown people by educating fellow white people on the subject of race and racism in America (when they’re being completely clueless on the topic).

We constantly tread the line between doing some of the emotional labor and ... never presenting ourselves like we have the answers.

Their project, White Nonsense Roundup, runs with the help of about 35 long-time volunteers, plus 150 more who’ve recently signed up. The all-white and mostly LGBTQ group dedicates round-the-clock people-power to engaging and enlightening the misinformed on multiple social media streams. 

“We started this in July 2016, after Philando Castile and Alton Sterling had both been killed by the police. There was a video on Facebook going around. A black woman was asking white people to step in and help,” Tromble, who prefers the pronoun “they,” says. “If it’s a public post or someone says something [racist] on your page or a public page, you just tag us, and the volunteer on duty will enter the conversation and engage with that person,” they said. “All of it happens virtually.”

Making sure to only enter a comment thread when invited, Trombel says the most common theme has been when someone accuses the Black Lives Matter movement of being a terrorist organization or asking the old favorite of racists and maybe even a few well-meaning white people: “Why don’t all lives matter?”

“We get that a lot… That’s when I start a conversation about why “all lives matter” is dismissive to the needs of black people in the U.S. right now. And I will encourage them to watch and listen to interviews with the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement. A lot of times people talking about it don’t really know anything about the organization except what’s been filtered to them through other media sources. So, I try to get them to engage with the core content of the movement, and try to see something outside of the perspective they’ve been given,” Trombel says.

Co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, Patrisse Cullors, says she’s aware of the work WNR is doing and thinks that conversations by and with white people around race are important, but more concrete campaigns will have to happen to create deeper change.

A conversation is a first [step] trying to change people’s everyday realities, but a conversation has to be coupled with real-time action and campaigns.

“A conversation is a first [step] trying to change people’s everyday realities, but a conversation has to be coupled with real-time action and campaigns. They have to be built inside an infrastructure that’s trying to challenge the state. So, that while what WNR is doing is interesting one-on-one engagement work, at the end of the day, I’m an organizer. So, if the conversation isn’t tied to some sort of campaign, we’ll end up in the same cycle,” Cullors said.

Amy Hickel is a volunteer with WNR. She admits the moments of changing hearts and minds are few, but when they happen it’s worthy of celebration.

“We had a good experience with one of our volunteers who was engaging with a middle-aged white guy from the South, who kept saying ‘racism doesn’t exist,’ and ‘racism is a concept that died in the 1960s.’ Our volunteer took him off the thread he was disrupting and started talking to him through private message — which we find is a really effective way to work with folks, and it takes some of the burden off the person whose page the commenter is on.”

“Our volunteer was speaking with him for over an hour, showing him statistics and giving him information about institutionalized racism and talking to him about housing discrimination. They left it with him saying, ‘Ok. I’ll read this information.’

“A week later, the man messaged our page with a long thank-you note to our volunteer, saying, ‘I read all those articles you sent and it hit me in this place where I just couldn’t believe I had been perpetuating this by pretending it didn’t exist.’ So, that was a real celebratory moment for the page. We’d reached this guy — the target demographic of racism deniers. At least in that one moment we gave him some perspective to work with. In the end, he wrote he was going to ‘teach his kids better,’” Hickel says.

Tromble says the group is careful not to view itself as any kind of savior.

“The white savior complex is terrible. We constantly tread the line between doing some of the emotional labor and heavy lifting, which is what we’ve signed up to do, and also never presenting ourselves like we have the answers. We know that black and brown people will always be the experts on what racism looks like in America. We’re never going to be more insightful or have more information or a better knowledge base. We’re just not — because we’re white people,” Tromble says.

Hickel says the fact that the majority of volunteers are LGBTQ does offer a window of empathy and an opening for potential understanding, but she’s quick to point out that she can only extrapolate what it feels like when black and brown people talk about racism in America.

White folks are emboldened to behave in their most racist and terrible ways.

“I know what it feels like as a queer person to have someone say or do things that a person who’s with me who’s cis [someone whose gender corresponds with the sex assigned at birth] and straight may not notice. But, I’m still a white person. I still have white privilege. I still have internalized racism. I’m still a white person in America and no amount of queerness is going to change that,” she says.

“White folks are emboldened to behave in their most racist and terrible ways,” Cullors says. “It can be depressing. I’m depressed at this moment, but truthfully my one hope is being inside of this movement and knowing there are people who’re dedicated to the resistance.”

“It’s a long-haul fight. This is a blip in history, like there have been many blips in history. We have to decide which side we’re going to be on. There have always been moments in great and powerful movements, and then a backlash against those movements. It doesn’t mean the movement ends, but it means the movement is in greater danger, and there’s going to be more state repression and we’re going to have racist and transphobic laws enacted, but it doesn’t mean our work doesn’t continue,” she adds.

Share image via WhiteNonsenseRoundup, Twitter and Instagram.

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When Arguing With ‘White Nonsense’ Gets Too Exhausting, These White Volunteers Will Do It For You