From One White Person to Another: Here's How I Work to Fight Racism

In the wake of systematic racism, I can’t help but think about it: I’m white. I grew up in a very multiracial, multicultural neighborhood, because my mom was disabled (and so am I), and our town was fairly segregated—non-white, lower-income and disabled people all lived in the same concentrated areas, which were marked by their easy access to community programs within walking distance, and access to resources like free or cheap food.

Still, while I never outwardly discriminated against anyone on the basis of race, I did nothing concrete to confront racism. Not my friends’, not my neighbors’, not the system that we all grow up in that is built on it. It wasn’t until we talked about racism—and other forms of systematic oppression—in a college class based on social justice work that I really confronted it. I was reading an essay that basically said, “You never reach the moment where you’re perfect—no longer racist, ableist, homophobic, transphobic, classist, etc. It’s a constant and continuous battle of re-thinking and challenging our beliefs and the beliefs of those around us.”

I can admit this: while I was growing up, I thought I was ‘safe’ from being racist. I had plenty of non-white friends. In fact, a majority of my neighborhood was non-white and I really only had two white friends growing up. I’m disabled and queer, so I thought, “I can’t be racist.” But I wasn’t really doing the work of challenging my own thoughts, challenging those around me and challenging the system. By doing nothing, I wasn’t really enacting useful change. I was just hiding behind my white privilege.

After what’s happened in the last few days, I’m sick to my stomach. Because I’ve gone out of my way to be aware of the Black Lives Matter movement, this isn’t the first time I’ve felt this way. And being silent isn’t standing in solidarity with the black community in any way.

After Orlando, as a queer person, it meant a lot to me to see non-queer people holding space for the LGBTQ+ community. It meant a lot when people were willing to defer to the LGBTQ+ community—especially to Latinx queer people—and listen to us, even when it became uncomfortable or complicated. It meant a lot to me to see that solidarity, and see these people were a safe space, were people I could talk to and be myself around, were people who I could honestly just say, “Yeah, I’m exhausted today, because Orlando affected me” to without worrying about further discrimination. That’s what, as a white person, I want to do for the black community now, and I want other white people to use their privilege to do, too. Because as a queer person after Orlando, it was exhausting using that time to fight with people about whether it was ‘really homophobia or a hate crime’ and educating people that yes, violence based on sexuality does exist. And I never want people of color to feel that they’re alone.

Here are a few ways I practice standing in solidarity with people of color against racism.

Listen to the voices of people of color.

There’s a saying in the disabled community that goes, “Nothing about us without us.” I’ve never liked it when allies talk over disabled people or LGBTQ+ people on issues that affect us—and the same can be said for standing with the black community or POC in general.

If people of color are speaking—especially if they’re part of the group that was affected by whatever is going on—defer to them. Listen to what they have to say. Don’t speak over them. Let them be angry. Let them be emotional.

Do not jump to conclusions, even if they start a sentence with, “White people…” If you jump in with something akin to, “But all lives matter,” or “Not all white people…” then you’re part of the problem. It’s obvious they don’t mean all white people, but as non-POC, we are being complacent in our white privilege if we don’t challenge it. Let POC challenge white privilege. Let them say, “I hate when white people…”

Think about what they have to say, and really take it to heart. If you can, institute change. If they say something that sounds like something you’ve done, or your friends do, or your community allows, stand up for change. Next time it’s happening, say, “Isn’t this acting on white privilege and systematic oppression? Can we do this differently? Can we be more inclusive? Can we find a workable solution that challenges white privilege and racism?”

Don’t expect people of color to do the work for you.

Yes, listen to them, defer to them, don’t speak over them. But don’t rush to them, especially after a tragedy, and ask them what you can do to be better.

People of color don’t exist to educate us. They don’t exist to eradicate racism and systematic oppression. That isn’t their job. That’s our job.

Read the literature, listen to their voices, but don’t sit back and expect them to do all the hard work. Rally together with other non-POC activists and allies. Use your non-POC privilege to support them, to stand behind them and to give them a bigger platform. Speak out against racism and microaggressions when you come across them. Take a look at approaches and policies and ask yourself, “Is this inclusive? Does this policy depend on stereotypes, and does it challenge systematic oppression? Or is the policy in itself oppressive?”

I believe strongly in beta readers (the idea that if you're writing something about a marginalized community, you have members of that community read it and weigh in on portrayals), and in the community having a say in work that involves them or is for their benefit. If you’ve come up with a community-based, workplace or school solution for systematic oppression you’ve witnessed against POC, ask if any POC would want to be your beta readers—if they’d want to take part in what you’ve thought up, if they have any suggestions, if they’d like to give their feedback. If they’re exhausted in the wake of a tragedy, don’t push them. But offer the opportunity before instituting any sort of systematic change.

Challenge your beliefs, and the beliefs of those around you.

It should go without saying, but use your white privilege when you can to dismantle racism. If you see something racist happening, do what you can to stop it. If a friend or significant other makes a racist joke, call them out on it and ask them what makes that joke funny. Tell them it isn’t funny to you because it’s based on systematic oppression that threatens the lives of many people.

The truth is that we were all raised in this system. We’re all subject to stereotypes and beliefs steeped in discrimination. Doing the hard work means thinking about these things and challenging them to the best of our individual abilities.

There’s also plenty you can read on racism, oppression and how to be a part of change. Like this, this, this, this (this one features queer POC voices!) and this. Keep searching, keep seeking out education. When possible, share the voices of the black community on this topic, and use your privilege to amplify those perspectives in the media. Unless a post or an article specifically says it's supposed to be a safe space for black people only, it's okay to retweet or share or like or read it in support. 

Keep intersectionality in mind.

People are often quick to jump to, “But I’m not privileged, I’m___!” It’s really easy to do. I’m not entirely privileged myself, and as a queer, disabled woman, I’m also in a constant fear of violence. 

That doesn’t take away my white privilege, though. No matter how much I understand the experience of being oppressed and marginalized, I will never understand what it’s like to be a person of color in a racist society. Never. No amount of empathy can ever change that fact.

Intersectionality exists. Just because you’re oppressed in some ways doesn’t make you ‘safe’ from being racist or complacent to racist systems. You need to keep in mind your own safety and health sometimes—as a disabled, queer woman, I’m at risk of bias and violence, and I can’t always literally step up to the plate to physically stop racial violence. If I stepped in to stop law enforcement during a Black Lives Matter protest, there’s a good chance that because I’m visibly queer and disabled, I might also be persecuted. But when you can, use your privilege to educate, to challenge and combat the system. If you can be at a protest, be there. If you can serve as a barrier to the black community in the aftermath of what’s happened, do it. If you can speak out on the issue and raise your voice as a white ally, do that.

Your voice matters. I guarantee that. The fact that you show you’re supportive of the black community, but also that you’ll defer to them, really listen and really support—even when it’s complicated, even when it’s challenging and uncomfortable—means a lot. Black people need a safe space right now, among those they know won’t judge them and aren’t trying to take the microphone and speak over or for them.

Educate yourself. Immerse yourself. Don’t just borrow the culture of POC when it’s convenient, as a fashion statement or Halloween costume or a catchy song on the radio. Read books written by black people, read articles and personal essays. Listen to podcasts. Listen to what they have to say, and remember that sometimes, as angry as you are, you’re here to support. This is your fight to support, but you’re not the one directly at risk in this instance, regardless of any intersectional and oppressed identities you may have. So just support and show unconditional love. And hold space—safe space—for those who need you to do that.