Frequent Question: What should I do about racism?
I was listening to a panel discussion of Black women activists the other day when they took a written question from the (virtual) audience. The woman wrote, “I keep going to discussions like these and waiting for someone to tell me what to do. What should I be doing?”
Let’s assume that she’s a well-intentioned white woman, a problem-solving white woman. And having found out that racism is a problem, she wants to roll up her Type-A sleeves and do something about it. And she had the courage to ask; ten points for that.
The panelists answered politely but they were clearly tired of the question, and I can’t blame them. I mean, if you see your neighbor’s house on fire, do you call someone to ask what you should do about it? Or do you call the Fire Department and then do what you can to make sure anyone inside gets to safety? Racism is just another form of harm being done to the humans we share this planet with. Put out the fire of racism wherever you see it—and start by not expecting Black people to do the work of educating you.
Back when the pandemic started, everyone and their siblings began baking sourdough bread. I bet you did, too.
How did you learn about making sourdough? Did you call up a restaurant famous for its bread and ask to speak to the chef? Of course you didn’t.
You did what we all do when we want to learn something these days. You watched some YouTube videos, Googled the best sourdough cookbooks and starter recipes, maybe recorded a couple of cooking shows on your DVR. You did your homework.
“Yes, but my Black coworker is right there. Why can’t I ask her how I can be antiracist?”
Do not treat the Black people in your life like some sort of living, breathing Google. You want an antiracist reading list? You can Google one for yourself in less than 10 seconds.
Black people have been telling us about racism for decades—at least—and we haven’t listened very well. Not when their grandparents were beaten up for sitting at a lunch counter or lynched for “looking at” a white woman; not when their parents were denied admission to universities and graduate schools, refused employment for which they were eminently qualified, fired or not promoted while mediocre white men rose to the top; not when they and their neighbors were turned away from voting booths, or made to stand in hours-long lines just to exercise their Constitutional right as citizens.
Many white people have decried this behavior—they’ve even passed the occasional bit of legislation—and yet racism still persists. And what do we do next? We move on eventually, forget about what we’ve seen, think that because we voted for a Black man for president (twice!), that racism is “over.”
Why should Black people expect this time to be any different?
It’s up to us to prove that this time will be different—not by asking Black people for help but by taking the initiative ourselves. Talk as an antiracist talks, think as an antiracist thinks, act as an antiracist acts. Understand how your language and behavior may inadvertently perpetuate racism—and help others to understand that, too.
Become an antiracist with every fiber of your being. And don’t shout about it to your Black friends, looking for a gold star because you’ve finally done what you and your ancestors should have done decades ago. Talk to other white people about why this is important to you. Change some minds; change some hearts. Starting with your own.