It’s Not Complicated — White People Must Do Their Part to Dismantle White Supremacy

by Lisa Lasky, Managing Director, National Equity Project

Photo by Taylor Smith on Unsplash

There is no question that the recent coverage and exposure to the pandemic of racism , white supremacy, and maligned indifference to violence against Black people, when combined with shelter-in-place orders, loss of jobs and income, diminished social interactions — and replaced with increased ingestion of news, blogs, social media exchanges, OpEd pieces, and statements espousing a commitment to diversity, inclusion, justice, and equity coming out from all manner of organizations, businesses, corporations, associations, etc. — has people talking. Talking about what we are seeing, hearing, thinking and feeling. I suppose that’s a good thing. The discourse reveals the thinking, the thinking reveals the underlying values and beliefs, and therein lies the intentions for action.

How many times have you heard a white person say any of the following:

  • “This is such a big problem everywhere. How could we possibly tackle it in our little space when it is so enormous and overwhelming and has been happening all over for so long? Where do we even begin?”
  • “It’s not just white people who are mistreating black people. Look at what they are doing to each other. Look at the racism from other people of color towards Black people.”
  • “If they (Black people) don’t have enough sense to not destroy their own communities and neighborhoods, how can we (white people) be expected to do anything?”
  • “We need some ‘law and order’ to get anything done. Nothing can happen in the midst of the chaos that they are causing right now.”
  • “But I’m one of the good (white) ones. I don’t hate or mistreat anyone. I’ve worked hard for everything I have. Stop telling me I have privilege — nobody handed me anything. In fact, I’m a victim of reverse racism because I was passed over for several jobs. I’m still struggling to get by.”
  • And my personal favorite: “This is really complicated stuff and it’s hard to know what is the right thing to do.”

Here’s where I disagree. It is not complicated — it’s simple. By simple I mean obvious.

Obvious that it is way past time to face the reality that the injustices we see on the news in the last several weeks didn’t just happen, nor did they happen randomly or by chance. They are a result of hundreds of years of lies, distortions, and misrepresentations fed to us white people by our schools, institutions, government, media, entertainment industry, popular culture — indeed even our families, loved ones, and faith communities. Racism is not getting worse (just because we are getting a steady dose of it lately), it is getting filmed (Thank you, Will Smith).

via Jesse Williams on Instagram @ijessewilliams

Obvious that it is way past time to stop making excuses that we (white people) haven’t directly caused this pain and injustice with our own individual actions so therefore we are not responsible for fixing it. Own up — we (white people) benefit every day and in every way from an intentionally designed and orchestrated set of systems, policies, laws, institutional arrangements, ways of thinking and operating that add up to a set of unearned advantages (meaning I didn’t do anything to get them other than have this skin) that can be used and abused at our will.

Obvious that claiming our intent and desire to be allies to our friends and colleagues of color is not enough. We have to be co-conspirators and accomplices in the challenging, dismantling, and redesigning (with a whole new set of mindsets, tools, constructs and intentions) of our institutions and systems towards the ends of restoring and supporting our collective humanity, dignity and rights. Time to admit that our fates are linked — we only win when we all win.

“This is really complicated stuff and it’s hard to know what is the right thing to do.”

Here’s where I also disagree. It is not complicated — it’s complex.

Complexity science and the work of David Snowden, Mary Boone, adrienne maree brown, Margaret Wheatley, Donella Meadows (and many others) call for a different approach to leadership, decision-making and action. One that demands we navigate the complex, unknown, non-linear territory where social issues reside. Time to move away from the “experts” going into a room and coming up with a plan for how to solve these kinds of problems and then rolling it out on the rest of us to ‘implement’ so we can ‘measure’ the impact 6 months later — getting disappointing results, blaming the failure of the solutions on the problem (or the people for whom that is a problem), and then waiting for the next expert to come in and save us with the next shiny set of solutions. And so it goes. This kind of entrained thinking and reproductive response mode suggests a linear cause and effect relationship, known variables, and trust in some kind of ‘expert’ with the right answer.

Complex social issues reside in a domain of emergence (A Leader’s Framework for Decision-Making by David J. Snowden and Mary E. Boone, Harvard Business Review). In this space , the ‘right’ answer cannot be known in advance of DOING something. We can’t understand why something works or has a desirable effect until and unless we design some experiments — probes or moves that will send us back some information, understanding and insight so we can then discern whether to do more of that or do less of it. We use approaches that allow patterns to emerge in our doing (not facts or ‘data’ that we can interpret in a moment of time disconnected from context). We use methods that open up discussion and involvement. This cannot happen in an oppressive, closed, ‘experts-only’ manner. We have to open up the discussion, seek multiple perspectives, invite dissenting opinions, co-design and learn together.

This IS the work. Learning, respectful engagement, humility and honesty about who are the experts — particularly centering those closest to the “pain” who are the experts in their own experience and the ones we should be following. Processes must be liberating, not oppressive, and should rest on some explicit intentions and mindsets to guide the way. Here’s a few liberatory design mindsets we believe are essential to this work:

  • Practice self-awareness
  • Focus on human values
  • Recognize oppression
  • Embrace complexity
  • Seek liberatory collaboration
  • Build relational trust
  • Share, don’t sell
  • Attend to healing
  • Exercise your creative courage
  • Catalyze opportunities to transform power
  • Work with our fear and discomfort.

In the rush to get back to our lives, quiet the noise, calm the streets, instill some order from the chaos, Sonya Renee Taylor’s message continues to resonate. We must not go back to “normal.”

via Sonya Renee Taylor on Instagram

We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack. We should not long to return, my friends. We are given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.
Sonya Renee Taylor

The direction is clear(er) now. Change is here. The future is now. Everything is at stake — for everyone. This is going to be a marathon through mud (thank you, Van Jones). A generation of young people are looking at America through the lens of race right now. They are watching to see if it is acceptable for a police officer — sworn to protect and serve — to squeeze the life out of George Floyd in public view and get away with it. If the answer is yes, then we will have to reckon with a worldwide generation of humans that have no respect for nor belief in any institution, government, law or policy. And maybe they shouldn’t.

So what is ours to do as white people in this moment?

  1. Read, listen, and learn. Step back and step up at the same time. Pay attention to the space we take up in this discourse. Listen to and believe our friends and colleagues of color. Lean into their stories — not to feel guilt or shame or denial — these are all exit ramps to taking responsible action.
  2. Do our own thinking and honest reflection. This is the time for mirror work. Educate ourselves on the history of racial constructs (both our own and others). Read, watch and process with other white people.
  3. Read and listen to everything written, posted, and offered by the following (parantheses=suggested starting points):

4. Read these Books to Check Your White Privilege (Thank you, Janna Jesson).

5. Read The Racial Contract by Charles W. Mills.

6. Listen to Trevor Noah school us about the Social Contract.

7. Consider this question — What is a World without Whiteness? (Thank you, Vajra Watson).

8. Take action in any or all of the following ways (Thank you, Corrine Shutack).

9. Support Black-owned and run businesses. Find out where they are in your community and circulate a list to everyone you know. Buy books from Black-owned bookstores.

10. Stop making excuses, or delaying action while we “gather more data”, “study the problem”, or wait for the right answer to appear. We can act to dismantle white supremacy in ourselves, to find humility that all the answers we seek are not going to be found in our own heads or hearts. We must do better, and we must not look away from the pain and injustice that we as white people continue to implicitly and explicitly perpetuate.

It’s not that complicated.




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