Racism: Meeting and Teaching vs. Doing the Actual Work

Life has shown me that if you are constantly meeting people where they are, you will never get to where you are actually going.

How are you able to connect initially and build trust when you don’t look like the people in the communities we serve? What do you do to bridge that divide?” I asked this and several other questions to a young white woman in her mid-twenties at a job I recently left. I was responsible for documenting best practices for community-based roles like hers, which serve low income people of color.

Later she complained to her boss, another white woman, who harshly scolded me for “attacking” her employee about her identity. When I mentioned this to my boss, he responded by acknowledging that I could have easily avoided this situation if I wanted to. He was right. I am a black American woman so I am well aware that white people tend to panic when race is explicitly addressed, but I chose to ask the uncomfortable question anyway. My boss advised me to “meet people where they are.”

Meeting people where they are can mean ignoring racism — even when it is a critical piece or the root of the problems we are trying to solve.

As a former elementary teacher, I fully subscribed to this idea of meeting people where they are. If a child doesn’t know addition, you can’t teach them algebra. But the child also has to want to learn, be ready to learn, and trust that you can teach them. If a child doesn’t see the point in learning math, is too distracted by a toothache, or doesn’t believe you have any business teaching, you have to fix all that before you can get to the hard work of teaching. And while you’re fixing those things, you still aren’t teaching addition and you can’t even think about algebra.

I first became aware that I would have to teach white people about racism, inequality, American history, etc. during my first week of college. During a conversation about Hurricane Katrina, my peers didn’t understand why people couldn’t just leave before the hurricane hit. Since that day 12 years ago, I’ve attempted to meet them where they are in multiple ways. First by being a polite, model minority. Then using numbers, facts, research and historical events. Finally, I started being more outspoken and sharing my story.

Based on my experience, most white people don’t want to learn about race and racism, aren’t ready to deal with discomfort, and/or are unwilling to trust that the oppressed are capable of understanding our realities and creating solutions. The true allies I’ve encountered, my spouse included, cannot make up for the masses of white people and white institutions that refuse to acknowledge the impacts of racism. By refusing to openly discuss it, even when it is obviously relevant like in my situation at work, we never get to the work of resolving it.

I’ve grown tired. And I still haven’t gotten to the algebra.

Life has shown me that if you are constantly meeting people where they are, you will never get to where you are actually going. In my effort to meet and bring them along, I never considered that perhaps I did not need the support of white allies to effectively address issues in the black community. Having white allies on my side would make solving these problems much easier, but that’s assuming I can acquire a critical mass. I’d either be an idiot or a liar if I were to state that I believe the majority of white people will willingly solve racism. Both the sacrifices my ancestors made and the pain black people continue to endure are in vain if I put all my energy, time and talent into making white people comfortable at the expense of the black lives. It’s time for me to get on with addressing the problems facing my community, but what does that look like besides protesting?

I decided my form of activism is to address issues of race and inequity through serving the needs of children in a sustainable way. I created Woke Girls. Woke Girls is the doll line and book series I dreamed of as a child. Its message of empowerment is meant to help girls of color, realize that they have the power and the right to solve the problems that impact them. My dream is that one day Woke Girls will allow me to provide funding to the community-led programs that support the needs of girls who are often overlooked. These programs are typically dependent on the approval and financial support of white individuals and institutions that don’t always understand the root causes of their problems, particularly those that are clearly due to widespread racial oppression.

Shemeka from Woke Girls

I don’t know if black people can save white America, but I know we can save ourselves. We don’t need permission to heal our sick, feed our hungry or educate our children. We already have the capacity to do it ourselves. Yet we haven’t done so because too many people like me have foolishly believed that we have a responsibility to meet white people where they are. We don’t. Racism is theirs to solve. We don’t need to pay for their sins with our lives.

I am done meeting those who refuse to meet me half way. I am done teaching those who don’t want to be taught. I have work to do.

Mickey is an educator and social entrepreneur with an MBA and MPP from Harvard Business School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She lives in Boston, MA with her fiance.