“I’m not racist but…”: Engaging our White privilege in doing anti-racist work

White folks, we’ve got to step up.  Now’s the time. We cannot leave the work of addressing racism to people of color on our campus, in our community.

In recent weeks, conversations around racism have crescendoed on our campus, mostly due to concerns raised by people of color—students, staff, and faculty.  As a result, our campus is engaged in an institutional dialogue around racism and how to work towards a more inclusive campus. These kinds of institutional moments do not come along very often and therefore we need to seize the opportunity.  To really seize it, we cannot leave these conversations to those most directly impacted by racism and rely solely on people of color to do this work.

White folks, we’ve got to step up.

By step up, I mean listen. Seek understanding. And listen some more.

This time last year, there were similar campus-wide conversations around sexism & misogyny, in response to public comments made by the then-Police Chief which perpetuated rape myths and victim-blaming attitudes. At the time, I was deeply disappointed and discouraged at the lack of men’s voices in the chorus of people raising concern about the comments and the subsequent response (or lack thereof) from the university.  I found that men—even those I assumed to be “allies”–were generally dismissive in hearing these concerns.  With the exception of a critical few men, it was mostly up to women to educate, even while many of us were very directly impacted.

This is how privilege works.

Privilege is blinding.  When faced with our own privilege, the tendency is to respond defensively, dismissing and rationalizing. To see privilege, address it, and challenge it we must be vigilante in the hunt for it.  When we don’t see it, we’ve got to seek out ways to understand it and see it—because it is there.   It is always there.

That is how oppression works.

It grants the privileged permission to discount the voices of those affected by that privilege.  Often when advocating for more just responses to gender-based violence, I’ve felt dismissed as the “crazy rape lady”, just of those “radical feminists”, my concerns devalued with a wave of the hand and an utterance of, “here she goes again”.  Over time, internalizing these responses results in the undermining of our own experiences; I often wonder, “maybe I am just overreacting”.

Systematic oppression often makes us question our own individual and collective truths.  Privilege silences others’ voices that speak their own.  It is only through really listening to ourselves and others that we are able to connect the personal to the political and begin to see injustices at work.

We’ve got to listen.

Unfortunately, we listen more, differently, to privileged voices.

This means that to dismantle racism, White folks have some work to do.  We cannot rely on our community members of color to be the ones who alone speak truth to power.  We are all part of the problem and we all must be part of the solution.

Here’s what we can do, right now:

Confronting our own White privilege is uncomfortable. We’ve got to get over it.  To get stuck there in discomfort, shame, guilt is to continue to privilege our own experience at the expense of others.

Because of our White privilege, it’s hard to know what we do not know.  We therefore must start by acknowledging our White privilege, naming it, and calling it out.  We should challenge ourselves to be vulnerable in our not knowing and seek understanding from those that do through listening, reading, educating ourselves.

We need to show up for opportunities to engage in this work.  Step up by showing up.

Challenge either/or thinking.   Instead, think in terms of both/and.  For example, Dean Jackson’s administration can be both flawed and impacted by racism. To see one truth does not negate the other.  Oppression needs us to think in binary terms. Don’t buy it.

When faced with problems or posed with difficult questions, there’s a tendency to rush to offer solutions. Sometimes—actually, most of the time—it’s just as powerful to simply acknowledge and genuinely consider the questions raised.  The questions are just as important as the answers.

We’ve got to be prepared to screw up.  Addressing injustice is a messy and complicated process. We’re going to screw up. The fear of being perceived a racist cannot paralyze us in our anti-racist efforts.

We cannot rely on people of color and those organizations/positions/units/departments charged with “diversity” work to do the business of anti-racism and inclusion.  Such an approach continues to place the burden of oppression on those most directly impacted.  We must prioritize engagement in these issues—it affects each and every one of us as members of this campus community.

Let us pause in this institutional moment of dialogue and appreciate it for what it is: a tremendous learning opportunity, an opportunity for transformation.  I have found in the past few days that when I have taken the time to ask my community members about how they feel about racism on our campus, the question opens up powerful dialogue that would have been missed had I not taken the time to ask.

It’s unfortunate that it often takes moments like these to engage in this kind of dialogue, as an institution.  And yet here it have it.  We have a responsibility to ourselves, to our community to seize it.

We’ve got to step up.

2 thoughts on ““I’m not racist but…”: Engaging our White privilege in doing anti-racist work

  1. hey Amy, real happy my Dad sent me a link to your outpost. The fact that two kids growing up across the street from one another in 1977 in Cadiz, Ky. as Chomksy-friendly, committed progressives, well, it sort of gives me a bit more faith in humanity and generational change and all that. Definitely not what our town elders would have expected or wanted. Like a lot of journalists who worry about their jobs (i was actually fired once over politics, basically, and it was scarring) i keep a low profile online, but i read your last few posts here and just wanted to pipe up in encouragement. maybe if you’re headed to Western KY for this ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_eclipse_of_August_21,_2017 ) our families can have lunch… Lee Hendricks

    • Hey Lee! So great to hear from you. Thanks so much for piping up with such thoughtful words of encouragement. I’m sure you can appreciate how much it means. And yes, yes, yes. Cadiz kids, out here trying to make the world a better place. It does instill faith. I do totally get laying low–we’ve got to navigate those waters. A while back, my mom shared some of your writing with me and after years of hearing what an amazing writer you are…it was wonderful to finally experience! Please share. I’ll check out this event–would be a blast to have lunch! Thanks, Lee. So so much.

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