White Silence Is Violence:

ryan james
Mar 5, 2017 · 9 min read

A beginner’s guide to dismantling racism in white social circles

This guide is for the countless white people who are ready to begin recognizing and undermining white supremacist culture and speech when they rear their ugly heads at work, online, in public, at home, and within the reader.

As someone who has increasingly become engaged in anti-racist work as a white dude, I have been the recipient of a myriad of questions from my white relatives, friends, and coworkers who want to know how to be a better white person within a society that they are beginning to realize is deeply broken and racist. I am no expert, but I have said and done racist shit enough times and have found the resources compiled here to be helpful and effective when going up against racism in myself and in my life. Feel free to take what you need and leave what you do not, and please share the love with others who could use it.

Racism within white-dominated spaces and social circles is one of the most nefarious manifestations of white supremacist culture for myriad reasons.

  • It is ephemeral — racist speech can appear out of thin air, do damage, and before we can blink, the conversation has moved on.
  • It is illusive — it can hide behind ‘innocent jokes,’ misleading statistics, or coded language.
  • It is intimidating — interrupting or revealing characteristics of white supremacist culture feels like a social risk at best, and social/professional suicide at worst.
  • It is unyielding — many of our cultural and social norms serve to entrench the racist status quo and make it impossible to pave the way for a better world.

While it can be frightening and anxiety-inducing to call out a stranger or friend for their actions, to not do so is to passively uphold white supremacist culture. Cultivating spaces free from racist speech and practices requires real work, and this emotional and interpersonal labor should fall unequivocally on white people. After all, if the responsibility of dismantling racism rested solely on the shoulders of people of color, the work would have wrapped up long ago. White people have an inescapable responsibility to work within their circles of influence to dismantle racism or be complicit with our white supremacist culture.

With anti-racist work, self-education must always precede action, and this piece is no exception. We will start with two sections on racism and white supremacy within ourselves and our organizations, and then we will move on to ways we can begin interrupting racist speech and practices when we identify them.

Step 1: Understanding Our Own Privilege

All white people are racist: a phrase being thrown around in social justice circles and printed on hoodies that immediately puts most white folks on the defensive, so much so that the creator of the aforementioned hoodies shut down his operations after receiving death threats. Before we can truly take on anti-racist work, we have to grapple with our place as white people within a systemically racist society.

Does it make me uncomfortable to hear that I are a racist? Sometimes, yeah. That is the point. Does it mean that I actively think people of color are inherently inferior to me? No.

Recommended Reading: White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack

White people that navigate a society plagued by systemic racism are granted, simply by being born with low melanin counts, privileges and advantages that come at the direct expense of people of color. We cannot not have white privilege in our society, and we cannot do away with it. Not only does privilege grant white people advantages, but for every head start and leg up that being white in a racist society grants us, a person of color is held back and held down. In fact, a critical study of the history of the United States will quickly reveal that since its inception, our country has and continues to prosper through the direct exploitation of people of color. The wealth that underpins our society is tainted by colonialism, slavery, and oppression, and the land we till is saturated by the blood of the Natives that were annihilated in order for the United States to exist.

So long as systemic racism persists in the United States, those considered white will possess an unearned advantage over people of color. This is what is meant by the phrase “all white people are racist.” The saying is intended to elicit discomfort in white folks and force a conversation about the ways that white people, whether they like it or not, benefit from systemic racism.

To be clear, this does not mean that white people are not also subject to oppression in our society, but it does mean that no one is oppressed simply for being white. The key here is not to waste time feeling guilty about possessing privilege we never asked for, but to leverage our privilege in the fight against racism.

Recommended Reading: Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person.

Step 2: Identifying White Supremacist Culture

A critical analysis of the status quo and the cultural norms that keep it in place is a principle building block on which a broader critique of white supremacy must rest.

One of the most revolutionary acts a person can commit in the midst of an oppressive culture is to actively define and name the oppressive aspects of that culture. Racism has, over the course of centuries, insidiously invaded countless aspects of our every day lives; our cultural values, definitions, communications, and organizations can and do serve to further solidify the oppressive status quo. Turning a critical eye inward at our habits and being open and honest about what we find is crucial if we are serious about being anti-racist.

Required Reading: Challenging White Supremacy Workshop’s (CWS) — Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture

The above piece goes a long way in helping readers look past seemingly innocuous aspects of our culture in order to see the ways that they uphold unjust power systems and racist norms and standards. Read through the characteristics, give yourself space to digest them, and then go at them again. It took me multiple reads before I began understanding how previously overlooked aspects of my job and my personality were oppressive.

Having attuned ourselves to notice the subtle ways that white supremacist culture creeps into our institutions, organizations, and daily lives, we can begin the slow work of changing oppressive habits and biases. Lastly, at the organizational level, this goes beyond one-off trainings and meaningless platitudes about diversity, and at the personal level, this goes beyond the occasional charitable contribution.

Step 3: Interrupting Racism — Accountability is Key

On to the action. Once you feel comfortable and versed in the first two sections of this piece, you can feel confident about interrupting racist speech or action where you find it.

Whether you are bringing up oppressive structures in the workplace, shutting down a troll in a Facebook thread, or confronting a friend about a problematic statement they’ve made about #AllLives, keep these points in mind.

  • Focus on impact and let intent lie. It often feels easier to call someone a racist instead of focusing on what they did and why it was wrong. Calling someone a racist, while potentially accurate, only gives them an easy out as they can always play the “you don’t know what’s in my heart” card. See the video below for more.
  • Interruption is primary. Barring any other result, simply airing the fact that something said or done is problematic or racist is extremely important. Vocalize that as long as you are around, such talk or action will not be tolerated.
  • Be prepared to fail. In the case of interpersonal anti-racism, the perfect is the enemy of the good. Each time we let a comment slip by without interrupting because we aren’t 100% sure of the best way to handle it, we are giving the tacit green light for future racism.
  • Get ready to be uncomfortable. Our white privilege means that we can decide when and where to talk about race, our activism is at our convenience, making it easy to avoid any potentially uncomfortable situations. Be ready to sacrifice your comfort in order to have necessary conversations about racism.
  • Make it personal. Do your best to speak from your own experience instead of from a place of moral superiority. Relating a person’s mistake to a similar time that you fucked up can make all the difference between a defensive or receptive audience.
  • Withhold judgement. Do your best to separate the person from the mistake.

Step 3.5: Be Ready to Receive Criticism

Be ready to fuck up. Be ready to say something insensitive. Be ready to be called out by others.

I can claim expertise in this case — as someone who regularly fucks up and who interacts with other white people who regularly make mistakes I can say that there are absolutely right and wrong ways to react when others point out your errors. Unsurprisingly there is a wonderful variety of wrong ways to own up to your own racism, and really only one right way. Without listing off all the ways that white allies skirt responsibility for their own racism I will say this —When we are called out for being racist our first and only reaction should be to stop and listen.

For me, my embarrassment pushes me to react by explaining what I really meant™ by that racist thing I said, or by arguing that I am trying™ as if my efforts somehow preclude me from the same criticisms featured in this piece. Through some cringe-worthy missteps and blunders we need to learn that when called out for oppressive behaviors the only acceptable reaction in that moment is to back up and consider how we can improve moving forward.

Many of us keep our mouths shut tight because we fear that moment when we screw up. The reality, however, is that to remain silent in the face of oppression is a far greater mistake than making an effort and learning from the mistakes that we will all inevitably make along the way.

Step 4: Spread the Love

As we discussed earlier, education is an indispensable prerequisite for anyone looking to join front-line communities of color in the struggle to dismantle white supremacy. It is unfathomably helpful to simply put resources out there for your friends and coworkers to digest. Locally, identify the groups in your community that are doing anti-racist work and share their events. Find the individuals blogging and writing about their fight against racism and signal boost them! Do not be afraid to state loudly and proudly that #BlackLivesMatter and be generous with the reading material.

Step 5: Never Go It Alone!

Ask any life-long activist the secret to staying the course, and they will tell you two things: 1) freedom is a constant struggle, a marathon, not a sprint, and 2) whatever you do, never go it alone. Grassroots organizing must be our primary vehicle for systemic change and such work can only be done through intentional and collective action. If you do nothing else on this list at the bare minimum find and join an organization fighting for racial justice. You can make a difference in your immediate social circles on your own, but without the support and resources of a group, your talent and energy will be squandered. We are stronger together, don’t forget it.

Keep learning, keep fighting, stay humble, and remember what Desmond Tutu preached in 1984 — “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

Thanks to Nicholas Lukacs

ryan james

Written by

Portland, Oregon

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