Why I struggle against white supremacy as a white woman- and why I hope you will too
People always want to know my why.
It’s all about love.
My activism for justice and equality began in elementary school.
Although I grew up in a sundown town that was almost entirely white, I am a naturally curious and friendly person, and I genuinely love meeting people and listening to their stories- especially people with very different stories from mine.
As an adult, I helped immigrants become citizens and urban young adults launch tech careers.
I loved my work, especially the many hours spent developing relationships based on trust with young people of color I met through work, who I otherwise would not have met.
My mentees became my best mentors, teaching me what it is like to be a young person of color in our society.
They are very grateful for their incomes and lifestyles, but nonetheless face each day as a battle to preserve self-worth against a continuous onslaught.
The comment from a colleague about how “you were hired because of your race not your qualifications.”
The rejection on a dating site because “I don’t date n-words.”
The feeling of terror during any interaction with law enforcement that could turn violent or even fatal.
Their stories made me very upset, and also made me realize how different my life was from theirs.
I am largely invisible- no one ever perceives me as a threat.
I was told every day of my childhood that I am brilliant, beautiful, and well-behaved.
When I get pulled over, the officer doesn’t even ask for my license and registration, he just says “your taillight is out, ma’am, and you should get that fixed.”
I spent a long time looking in the mirror asking myself what I was doing.
Meanwhile, every time police kill another black or brown young person, it makes my heart hurt, because someone I love could have easily been the victim.
I think about how each police brutality video affects the people I love. How watching these videos- and witnessing police murder firsthand — affects children. Through activism I have met many mothers, fathers, and other loved ones of the victims of police brutality.
Their grief is irreconcilable.
On November 24, 2014, when the grand jury announced Darren Wilson would not face trial for killing Michael Brown in Ferguson, something in me shifted.
It occurred to me that most of my career had focussed on preparing people of color to thrive in largely white environments.
I realized I was focussed on the wrong people.
I decided that going forward, I would focus on helping white people understand ourselves better, so that we could form authentic caring relationships with people of color and dismantle systemic racism.
There are many people like me who grew up in largely white communities and now live in very diverse cities where we enjoy limitless career opportunities while many people of color born and raised in these cities subsist in joblessness and underemployment.
We believe that racism is wrong, and is something “those bad racists over there do.”
But almost all of our friends look exactly like us.
I call these “naturally occurring all white social circles,” and I am a part of them, too.
Nine times out of ten, if a white friend invites me to their kid’s birthday party or a happy hour, everybody there is white.
We do not intend to exclude anyone, its just that due to white supremacy, we almost exclusively meet other white people, even as we gentrify neighborhoods.
I point out at these gatherings what racism is and how from the time we wake up until we go to sleep we are perpetuating white supremacy in everything we do. How as we stand here enjoying a beer together we are harming other people.
I am met with blank stares and quick changes of the subject.
But now, more white people are starting to wake up and feel like we need to do something about racism. But we have no idea what to do and when we try, it often doesn’t go very well.
Truth is, we will never defeat a white supremacist by replicating white supremacy.
My mission is to build and support a community of people committed to love, learning, accountability, and action on race in America.
I hope you will join us!
Some fun facts about me:
I do this work out of love, not to earn approval or validation. My approval and validation come from me.
This work is very tricky. It is hard to know the right way to do it. I make mistakes all the time.
But the worst thing I could do is retreat. I have to keep going.
Persistence is the key to effective resistance.
I am accountable to my mentors mentees and community of activists.
I do this work because I believe it is absolutely necessary and the highest priority for stopping terrible harm. So much of our “good work” -education, health care, mental health care, employment, philanthropy- is futile because it is replicating white supremacy. We must stop replicating white supremacy in these systems if we want them to help.
We have the power to end white supremacy. Unlike curing cancer or preventing global warming, this is something each of us has the capacity to change by working on ourselves, our relationships, and our spheres of influence.
In fact, that is the only way it will end- it will never be legislated away.
I do not wish I were another race or feel guilty or shameful for being white. I don’t try to be something I am not. I love my family and the values they instilled in me that led me to become an activist. Being white is nothing to be embarrassed about- we have no control over it.
What we have control over is how we choose to live our lives.
I work with people of color to dismantle systemic racism.
I work with white people to help us change our ways.
I strive to have a healthy white identity that embraces my being white while rejecting white supremacy. My goal is to have the Seven Strengths of a #SUPERREADER:
I do not believe I am superior to other white people- in fact, I feel empathy with all people, even those whose views I vehemently disagree with. We all have so much in common — we are all flawed and scared and trying to do the best we can. We need to remember that and be gentle with ourselves and each other, even when we disagree.
While my focus is on race, I am committed to ending all forms of marginalization- including marginalization of white people.
I want everyone in our society to thrive and to recognize the humanity in everyone else.
As Bobby Seale says, “you don’t fight racism with racism. You fight racism with solidarity.”
I am thrilled to see so many people stepping up to protest and engage.
I hope that, in addition to marching in the streets, we will use this opportunity to do the work of changing ourselves, of dismantling white supremacy in ourselves.
Some brilliant mentors of mine who have taught me tremendously are collaborating with me on an online class, Understanding Racism.
This class is for white people who are beginning their journey towards antiracism.
I hope you will check it out and join us.
And whether you take our class or not, that you get started on your journey.
Remember, the greatest gift you have is to give that of your own self transformation.
Karen Fleshman, Esq. is a Racial Equity Trainer, Huffington Post blogger, and Government Accountability Advocate. Her mission is to build and support a community of people committed to love, learning, accountability, and action on race in America. She offers talks and workshops at companies, universities, nonprofits, and government agencies and is active in the movement for police accountability. Karen is a graduate of Mount Holyoke College, The University of Texas at Austin, and New York Law School, cum laude, and is admitted to practice in New York. www.karenfleshman.com @fleshmankaren