A handy list of things that you’re going to need to catch up on. Buck up, because it won’t be easy.
Are you still reeling in shock at the presidential election results? Are you pulling at your hair wondering, “How did this country get so racist??” Are you posting statuses about how it is now time to come together to fight racism in the face of current political threats? Have you found yourself saying, “Well, at least this administration is waking people up.”
Hi! I see you there! Welcome to the anti-racism movement. I know you were kind of hoping to sneak in the back of class in the middle of this semester and then raise your hand in a few days to offer up expert opinion like you’ve always been here — but you’ve been spotted, and I have some homework for you, because you’ve missed A LOT and we don’t have the time to go over it all together. I’m glad you are here (I mean, I’d really rather you arrived sooner and I’m a little/lot resentful at how often we have to stop this class to cover all the material for people who are just now realizing that this is a class they should be taking, but better late than never I guess) and I know that once you catch up, you can contribute a lot to the work being done here.
If you are just now feeling the urgency of the need to fight systemic racism, chances are, you are white. I know, I know — I’m starting off with blanket assumptions about you and that doesn’t feel good; you literally don’t have to tell me about it, I’m quite familiar! But seriously, you are probably white or white passing (yes, I’m aware that Ben Carson and Lil Wayne exist and some people of color are capable of holding on to baffling amounts of denial, but I do not have whatever power it would take to break through that level of delusion so let’s just stick with new white folk). I’ve written down this handy list of things that you’ve missed so far that you’re going to need to catch up on, on your own time. This knowledge and preparation will not only make your fight against racism more effective, it will allow us to continue our progress as you catch up.
If you are just now feeling the urgency of the need to fight systemic racism, chances are, you are white.
This work is the worst.
Woah, I know — I’m starting off in the most negative way possible but look, I need you to know what you are signing up for. Fighting racism is one of the most difficult things you will ever do. I mean, reading this essay might be a little uncomfortable, but it is NOTHING compared to the conversations you are going to have to have, the privilege you are going to have to sacrifice, and the brutality and pain you are going to have to be able to look in the eye every day. Not only will this work get harder and harder the further you dive in, you will also get what at times seems like a very small return on your efforts.
If you want a fucked-up silver lining, you can always remember that people of color (POC) are also doing this work, never have the option of taking a break, and also have to live through the actual racism being fought in the process. So, buck up and get ready.
Your welcome parade. You missed it.
It was a beauty too — floats and streamers and everybody was clapping and cheering. But then it ended and we swept up all the confetti and everyone had to get back to work. Sorry.
Every idea you have for how we can better fight racism has already been discussed.
I know you might be saying “but how can you know that Ijeoma, you don’t know me?” I know. Trust me. I know. You are a 10-year-old explaining to a theoretical physicist how time travel might work. The theoretical physicist has already heard your theory and many others. She probably had some of those same theories when she was 10. And while your interest in time travel and your imagination and intelligence might well lead you to eventually help invent time travel, it will only do so after it has been paired with a lot of the education and experience that the physicist that you are trying to explain time travel to already has. But you are not actually 10, so your ideas are not cute. Keep them in your hat for now while you learn the basics.
Your journey to understanding that racism is a real problem and you have been contributing to it has already been covered.
Please don’t raise your hand to tell us all the tale of how you came to see that you are part of an oppressive system. We were there. When you didn’t know, when your obliviousness was contributing to our oppression, we were there being oppressed. When you were ignoring our cries for help, we saw you look away. As you stumbled along the path of recognition, we were the people you took down with you in each fall. We would rather not go over that all again.
But all is not lost, and your story does have real value — to people who are not in this room, who are afraid of acknowledging the part they play in a White Supremacist society. You can show fellow white people that they can survive the self-reflection necessary to fight racism. Please, share your story with them, it can do real good.
Your ramp-up period. You missed it.
When POC were very, very small, we got a few years of comfort and protection from some of the realities of a White Supremacist society. When we were safe at home with our parents, the effects of systemic racism were muted somewhat, although never entirely. Then when we were 4 or 5 and went to preschool we discovered we were four times more likely to be suspended from preschool, and by the time we went to kindergarten another kid called us a “nigger” or another racial slur, and from then on we’ve been neck-deep in that shit.
So, if you weren’t there, you missed it. Nobody is going to hold your hand through this. If you fuck up, you will be called out. If you slow us down, you may be left on the side of the road. If we are angry at white people, we will say we are angry at white people, and nobody is going to add “not all white people” for your benefit. You will find a way to keep going — we have.
Nobody is going to hold your hand through this. If you fuck up, you will be called out.
Free, individualized education is not a thing we do anymore.
I know you would prefer a nice, safe sit-down with someone who would patiently walk you through all of this, but we have millions of people we need to get right and an entire system of White Supremacy to fight. We do not have the time or energy. Also — that “free labor from POC” thing is kind of how we got into this mess. The questions you are asking have already been answered by POC — some of whom have already been compensated for their time and effort. Google is your friend. If we have to live it, the least you can do is Google it.
We care about multiple things here — at the same time.
Yes, we are aware of how dangerous this administration is. No, we do not have “better” battles to be picking right now. We are doing multiple things at once, because we cannot be sure if it is the cops that will kill us, or the racist jokes at work fostering an environment where we are seen as unreliable and dispensable that will leave us unable to feed our families. But we know that it all can kill us in body and spirit, one way or another, so we will drag people for cultural appropriation and demand that schools provide a more diverse education to our children, while also raising alarm about the Muslim ban, ICE raids, and police brutality.
You could maybe help pick up some of the slack instead of trying to refocus our efforts in a way that makes sense to someone who doesn’t actually have to live with the consequences of what you think we should just “let go.”
Your privilege is the biggest risk to this movement.
That’s right: the biggest risk. The compromises you are willing to make with our lives, the offenses you are willing to brush off, the everyday actions you refuse to investigate, the comfort you take for granted — they all help legitimize and strengthen White Supremacy. Even worse, when you bring that into our movement and refuse to investigate and challenge it, you slow down our fight against White Supremacy and turn many of our efforts against us. When POC say, “check your privilege,” they aren’t saying it for fun — they are saying it because when you bring unexamined privilege into anti-racist spaces, you are bringing in a cancer.
Your privilege is the biggest benefit you can bring to the movement.
No, I’m not just talking nonsense now. Racial privilege is like a gun that will auto-focus on POC until you learn to aim it. When utilized properly, it can do real damage to the White Supremacist system — and it’s a weapon that POC do not have. You have access to people and places we don’t. Your actions against racism carry less risk.
You can ask your office why there are no managers of color and while you might get a dirty look and a little resentment, you probably won’t get fired. You can be the “real Americans” that politicians court. You can talk to fellow white people about why the water in Flint and Standing Rock matters, without being dismissed as someone obsessed with playing “the race card.” You can ask cops why they stopped that black man without getting shot. You can ask a school principal why they only teach black history one month a year and why they pretty much never teach the history of any other minority group in the U.S. You can explain to your white friends and neighbors why their focus on “black on black crime” is inherently racist. You can share articles and books written by people of color with your friends who normally only accept education from people who look like them. You can help ensure that the comfortable all-white enclaves that white people can retreat to when they need a break from “identity politics” are not so comfortable. You can actually persuade, guilt, and annoy your friends into caring about what happens to us. You can make a measurable impact in the fight against racism if you are willing to take on the uncomfortable truths of your privilege.
You will get better at this, but at first you will fuck up a lot, and you will always fuck up a little.
You are a human being and human beings are inherently flawed. You are also a human being who has lived with an entire life of unexamined privilege and racist social programming. You are going to fuck up hardcore. You are here because you are a decent human, and because you are a decent human you are going to feel pretty shitty when you fuck up. You will probably be called out, you may even be dismissed by some folk, and that may make you feel angry and defensive along with feeling shitty. You will need to get used to the pang of guilt from realizing you have fucked up and it has hurt people. Because it will hit you again and again.
It is okay to feel guilty about things that you are guilty of. It will not kill you, but hiding from that guilt and responsibility can kill others. So feel the guilt, realize you are still alive and intact, figure out how to do better, try to make amends if possible, and move forward. You are not alone. We are all fucking this up in various ways, every single one of us. Right now, there are whole big problematic chapters in our movement. We are all trying to do the work and wrestle with the ways in which we are causing more harm than good. But we have no choice but to keep working, even when it sucks.
You are here because you are a decent human, and because you are a decent human you are going to feel pretty shitty when you fuck up.
I’m glad you are here. I’m angry you are so late — have I mentioned that? I’m very, very angry you are so late because so many of us have been lost fighting without you. And you are going to just have to live with that anger for a while because you deserve it. But I am also glad you are here. I am glad you are seeing more clearly now and have decided that you no longer want to be a part of the problem. Eventually, I may get over my anger and I may even trust you, but until then I’m still going to need you to do the work to help dismantle the system that you have benefited from and have helped maintain for so long.
Because I do need your help, and I do know that you can help in ways that I cannot. Your reward may not be the warm welcome and heartfelt thanks that you might have been hoping for, but a more just and equal world will have to suffice.