How to Unlearn Racism and White Supremacy as a White American
As people unite nationwide and bravely remove Confederate statues, it is equally important to topple the Confederate statues in our minds.
If you grew up white in America, it is almost inevitable that you have learned racism and white supremacy, because our entire society is based in racism and white supremacy.
Many people have reached out in response to my article about #Charlottesville, #ThisISUs, to ask what specifically we can do as white Americans to change.
Step One: Learn What Racism Is
As I discussed in my article, most white Americans have no idea what racism is, because we learned what racism is from our white parents.
If you believe that white people’s status in society originated from our hard work and has nothing to do with our whiteness, and people of color’s status in our society is due to their not working hard and has nothing to do with our racism, you may as well be marching with tiki torches.
To understand what racism actually is, I highly recommend Dr. Ibram Kendi’s book, “Stamped from the Beginning: the Definitive History of Racist Ideas In America.” It is a tome. For those with short attention spans, Dr. Kendi summarizes his book in this article.
Dr. Kendi defines a racist idea as any idea that members of a racial group are superior or inferior to members of any other racial group in any way. The only thing wrong with people of color is discrimination, and the only thing exceptional about white people is our belief we are exceptional.
Dr. Kendi distinguishes the producers of racist ideas in America from the consumers of racist ideas in America.
Throughout American history, rich powerful white male leaders have acted in their self-interest, intentionally producing and popularizing racist ideas to aggrandize their wealth and power by justifying racist policies and keeping everybody else divided amongst ourselves.
Contrary to popular belief, according to Dr. Kendi it is not that “ignorance and hate lead to racist ideas, which lead to racist policies. In fact, self-interest leads to racist policies, which lead to racist ideas, leading to all the ignorance and hate.”
Step Two: Change Your Mindset and Behaviors
To become antiracist then is to stop believing that members of a racial group are superior or inferior in any way. It is to stop supporting racist policies.
Get some post its. Write “All people are equal in every way and deserving of respect and kindness.” Put them on your mirror, your wallet, your computer at work.
As you move through your day, evaluate yourself against these statements. Start to identify your racist stereotypes and behaviors. Look at your workplace, kids school, house of worship, community. Start to notice patterns. What racial groups are represented and in what ways? Is power distributed equally?
The Harvard Implicit Association Test can be helpful for identifying your biases.
Reflect on the messages about race you learned growing up and assessing your current social network against the demographics of the community where you live. In what ways are you currently replicating the stereotypes you learned about people of color in your childhood? Which racial groups are over and under represented among the people you are closest with?
How are your daily decisions about where you live, who you hire and promote, where you send your kids to school contributing to the racial wealth gap?
Research says the number one way to overcome bias is to increase your contact with people against whom you are biased. An added benefit is that sharing social capital across difference helps to end the racial wealth gap.
But initiating relationships across difference is tricky as Audre Lorde described in her 1980 essay, Age Race Sex Class: Women Redefining Difference, because “we have no shared practices of relating across human differences as equals.”
Social science research tells us is that interracial interactions are often awkward because we have divergent goals:
White people want to be liked, feel self-conscious, aren’t self-aware of racial advantages, act on stereotypes, want affirmation of not being racist, sometimes mistake microaggressions for compliments, and act too casual.
People of color want respect, to be seen as individuals, have no desire to affirm white people aren’t racist, and feel offended by white people’s casualness and microaggressions.
With that in mind, try the following approach to convey respect in interracial interactions:
- Be authentic.
- Understand the context.
- Err on the side of formality.
- Convey respect with eye contact, choice of words, and tone.
- Listen more, talk less.
If someone brings to your attention that they felt disrespected, respond this way:
- Own it.
- Don’t make it about you.
- Try not to repeat.
- Work on overcoming bias.
Once you feel ready to initiate new friendships without causing harm, scan Eventbrite for events that will be attended by people currently underrepresented in your network. Look for activities at public libraries, parks and recreation facilities, restaurants, bars, houses of worship and community events in neighborhoods of color, etc.
Don’t be a wallflower: talk to people. Follow up.
And if you’re more introverted and find large scale social interaction overwhelming, start small. Invite someone you know from work out for coffee.
Step four: Work together to stamp out racism in your sphere of influence.
The next step is to unite with likeminded people in your family, at work, your kids school, your house of worship, your community and push for change together.
- Speak up to contradict your family members and friends when they make racist statements. An effective way to do this is to say “I used to think.... then I learned..... now I think.....”
- Identify underrepresented groups at work, and change how you recruit to encourage candidates from underrepresented backgrounds to apply.
- Change the culture at work so underrepresented people feel welcome.
- Intentionally send your children to diverse schools. Demand your school district allocate resources fairly for all schools. Stand up to administrators and teachers who demonstrate bias against kids of color and ask them to change their ways.
- Organize “Overcoming Racism” workshops at your workplace, kids school, house of worship.
- Become engaged politically at the local level. Whatever your passion is, there is a local oversight body responsible for it- for me, it’s police accountability. I joined the #Justice4MarioWoods Coalition a month after SFPD killed him. We organized press conferences, protests, and lobby days at the Board of Supervisors. We testified regularly about the need for change. When I realized that San Francisco Police Department had a long and troubling history of racism and brutality, I began regularly attending and testifying to the San Francisco Police Commission. And likeminded people and I cofounded San Franciscans for Police Accountability to amplify our credibility. Now I serve on the workgroup overseeing implementation of US Department of Justice recommendations for ending bias at SFPD. By uniting with others, showing up and speaking up regularly you can have a dramatic impact on your community.
These are a few ideas to help you get started, and I welcome your suggestions as well.
None of this is easy, but it is all 100% doable.
As a mom, I am tremendously concerned about global warming, and I wish there was something I could do to halt it, but I feel like the amount of impact I can have is minimal.
When it comes to racism, however, I know that it is all in our heads.
If we woke up tomorrow and said, that’s it, I’m DONE, I am not going to think racist thoughts anymore, I am going to expand my social network, speak out when I see and hear racism, and push hard on my local officials for accountability, racism would end.
Only we who have them can topple the Confederate statues in our minds.
Which side are you on? Now is the time to decide and ACT.