Here is the story: An organization is doing vital, remarkable justice work for marginalized people. The staff is diverse, but the leader—probably called the executive director, or some other title traditional to patriarchal power structures—is white. The organization is small enough that it isn’t required to have a human resources person on staff, so the leader is held accountable only to a board of directors. The board members are likely also majority white.
In the story, the leader mistreats a staff member of color, usually a queer woman or nonbinary person. When other staff members of color speak out against this mistreatment, they face consequences. The board of directors either sides with the leader or is not informed of the situation.
Staff members and constituents have had justice and antiracism training as part of their affiliation with this organization. But when a person of color is mistreated by the organization, most of the white staff and participants distance themselves from the situation, often reasoning that the leader’s actions were “the way things are done” or declining to get involved in order to preserve their own stability.
Do you know this story? Do you know it over and over and over?
White people who consider ourselves committed to antiracism: we have to do better.
We as white people have this tendency to be enthusiastic about racial justice whenever the stakes don’t quite touch us. We think so highly of ourselves and our allyship as separating us from those white people. I’m as guilty as anyone—following the 2016 election, I desperately tried to distance myself from the fifty-three percent of white women who voted for the man who became the forty-fifth president of the United States. Doing so boosted my ego and did nothing for the cause of antiracism.
We tell ourselves we aren’t racist. We talk as if we are co-conspirators with our friends of color, as if our allyship is guaranteed and trustworthy simply because we’ve claimed the title “ally.” We watch When They See Us and read The New Jim Crow. We might even plan reparations into our budget, participate in antiracist demonstrations, or belong to antiracist organizations.
But when we’re challenged to back up those claims and actions? When advocating for a person of color—advocating for what we know is justice—means personal risk or consequence? That is when our work matters most. That is when we consistently fail to show up.
And what happens when we’re asked to reconsider our perception of the world? When our comrades of color ask us to decenter ourselves and reject the paradigms we’ve learned through whiteness? We cling to what we know—what we’ve been taught by other white people—and tell our colleagues that they’re wrong, or they can’t be helped, or they’re right but that’s just not how things are.
Antiracism requires us to leave our comfort zone. It requires sacrifice. We fear our actions will jeopardize jobs, friendships, opportunities, even our bodies. Some of those fears may come true. But fear cannot be an excuse to abdicate our responsibility to antiracism.
If we simply say to our friends and colleagues of color, “I’m sorry you were mistreated, but I can’t risk my stability to speak or act on your behalf,” we forego antiracism for our own comfort. If we decide, “I think this person was mistreated, but I disagree with their reaction, so I won’t respond to the initial mistreatment,” we perpetuate the power imbalances that claim whiteness is correct and anything that compromises whiteness is inappropriate.
Antiracism cannot exist if white people only put ourselves first. When we are afraid of upsetting the status quo, of jeopardizing our own success, of questioning our worldview, we cannot claim antiracism for ourselves. Antiracism is action, not identity.
For white people who aren’t yet familiar with antiracism: take this chance to educate yourself. Ibram X. Kendi, author of the forthcoming book How to Be an Antiracist, introduces “An Antiracist Reading List” thus: “No one becomes ‘not racist,’ despite a tendency by Americans to identify themselves that way. We can only strive to be ‘antiracist’ on a daily basis, to continually rededicate ourselves to the lifelong task of overcoming our country’s racist heritage.” If you don’t have time for the entire reading list, Ijeoma Oluo, author of So You Want to Talk About Race, distills the essential information in a welcome letter to the newly antiracist.
We must do our homework. When people of color tell us they have been mistreated, we must believe them. When they ask us to take action on their behalf, we must follow through. We cannot tell people we are antiracist; we must show it.