A Letter to White Folks, from a White Charlottesville Native
This post is written especially to my white siblings working to contribute to justice. May the future legacy of whiteness and white people be one of courage, redemption, compassion, love, justice, and our conscious undoing of white supremacy.
Loves. We need to talk.
First, I see you. I see you working to take an active, concrete stand for justice. I hear and hold your anger: the rage and disgust that rises from your belly, from your deep center of knowing, as you look at the violence and explicit racism and injustice you see around you in places like my hometown of Charlottesville. I see the pain you’re feeling, too: the utter ache and shock. It can be like jumping in an ice-cold lake, the first time — the sting, the coming up gasping for breath, the disorientation, the “how is this possible?,” the aching numbness, the throbbing in your marrow. We know it is fundamentally different from and incomparable to the pain that folks of color and other marginalized and oppressed folks feel and have been subjugated to for hundreds of years. We can still acknowledge that making the choice to become conscious to the prevalence of white supremacy and specifically to our role in and collusion with privilege and white supremacy culture — hurts. I hear your voice at rallies. I see you working to show up — more often, more boldly, and more explicitly — against racism and other forms of institutionalized oppression and injustice.
I acknowledge you — and us. And. It’s time we name a difficult truth: it isn’t working.
It hasn’t, and it won’t. At least, not this way. Not the way so many of us are engaging.
I want to show you something.
“But how can you even compare these two!? Ours is the side of justice! Ours is the message of equality!” Yes, loves. It’s true. Let me be quite clear: violence, racism, bigotry, anti-Semitism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, patriarchy — white supremacy in all its forms — is abhorrent. The content of our message is a righteous one. But I’m not comparing the messages, themselves, between two groups above — I’m comparing how each group relates to and uses those messages against the other.
Here’s the difficult truth: we’re using the same toxic, structural artillery and it just.won’t.work. Let’s examine how we as white folks commonly attack racism and racists in America.
(1) When we use tools in the structure above, our intent is often to cause pain to people rather than pain to systems. It is possible to reject and denounce a message (a belief, a law, a system, etc.) while also not denouncing someone’s humanity. Anything that consciously seeks to obliterate someone else’s humanity starts to repeat history lessons we ought to have learned by now. I can absolutely stand against what you believe and still operate from a place of love and shared humanity — not only in how we engage but also in my willingness to see your humanity, no matter how vile I believe what you stand for to be. If being pro-my-message requires that I refuse to see and hold your human spirit, injustice has already won. White people, we will not undo racism — we will not dismantle white supremacy — by using hate as our method, even if it’s not our message. It just doesn’t work that way. We cannot out-hate hate.
(2) The artillery we’re using is built with and on white supremacy culture. (If the phrase “white supremacy culture” and the idea that you are actively a part of and perpetuating it is new to you, stop and read this resource.) Look at the structure of how we’re doing the work side-by-side again. Audre Lorde was quite explicit about this: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” White supremacy culture — the everyday cultural norms and systems that uphold whiteness, white wealth, white comfort, white values, and white bodies as better or more “normal” — uses beliefs systems, media, government, institutionalized racism (like our prison system), language, and economic institutions to do its work. And, it also uses interpersonal dynamics and communication norms (like defensiveness, paternalistic reasoning, avoidance of conflict, either/or thinking, the fallacy of objectivity, etc.) to create disconnection and separation between humans. It strikes me as odd that we believe we can bring about equality and justice by using those same tools and directing them as weapons toward an enemy. When I espouse moral indignation, when I disconnect from you, when I choose to numb myself out to your humanity because your message triggers my hatred (which is different from taking a break from the work or a conversation. That is one thing; refusing to acknowledge your humanity is another) — I am participating in a system that’s worked for hundreds of years to fuel white supremacy and injustice. I’m serving the system of white supremacy culture; I’m sharpening the master’s knives. As white people, if we hope to redeem the violent history of our whiteness to-date, we must begin to evolve faster than white supremacy — we must UNlearn at some point this deep-seated belief that justice is won by attacking others, by creating an enemy, by going for the jugular, by needing to be more worthy and disproving someone else’s worth to prove our own.
Our work is not to immunize against racism and white supremacy culture. It simply isn’t possible. White supremacy is the DNA of this country, and it’s the (deplorable) air we all breathe every single day. Our work is not to reach perfection or inoculation. And our work is certainly not to attack others in ways that further strengthen the systems we seek to dismantle. Our work is to build our capacity to resist, to disrupt, to act — from love — for justice. That begins — and always continues — with deep, inner work. We must find in ourselves where we shut down, where we go numb, where we turn off, where we have built and strengthened habits of white supremacy culture, where we respond with the intent to obliterate someone’s humanity and worth. We must find what within us agitates us to resort to attack mode and work the shit out of those things, with love.
White folks, there’s a lot we need to DO to right our wrongs, to redeem our current legacy and ensure its future is one of liberation. Inaction is not a choice. But our doing must flow from our being. To dismantle oppressive structures out in the world, we must learn to dismantle oppressive tendencies inside ourselves. And we cannot BE liberation and justice by embodying the hate, dissonance, and disconnection used by white supremacy culture. This is our work, and it is not abstract: to learn to be with versus over; to learn to become soft in the presence of emotion rather than to harden; to train in coming closer when we want to back away; to learn to speak rather than hide; to learn to hold space for the full humanity of a person across from us even while we refuse to hold space for their bigotry; to be present, in love. Our message is righteous, but our methods are problematic and were designed to keep the system alive — even as we think we’re protesting it and tearing it down. May we learn to commit, resist, and practice justice another way.
My work has been inspired by many thinkers and teachers; it is essential to note that people of color have been saying all the above for generations on generations on generations. I want to acknowledge several teachers and writers directly and encourage you to support their work and writing: Rev. angel Kyodo williams; Dr. Beverly Tatum; bell hooks; James Baldwin.
Are you interested in concrete guidance and support on how to do some of the deep inner work mentioned in this article around undoing white supremacy culture inside your body, head, heart, and relationships? Stay tuned for my new project which goes LIVE this month. Follow me here on Medium or on Facebook for further announcements/writings about my work.