Celebrate Black History Month
Five Things White People Can Do Now to Combat Racism
While we need governments to address systemic racism, we also need people who understand the importance of that mission in their own lives. Very often, when white people increase their understanding of the ongoing scope of racism, they want to do something to help, but don’t know where to start. Here are several things you can do right now.
- Keep learning
Growing up and living in a dominant white culture leaves many people uninformed (or misinformed) about U.S. history related to the oppression of Black people long after the abolition of slavery. A fuller and more balanced historical and contemporary context is critical to understanding how Black Americans and other people of color continue to suffer today, and how white Americans continue to enjoy unearned privileges.
There are many books, movies and online resources available to educate yourself without asking Black friends and colleagues to do this work for you. Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund both offer recommendations.
- Confront your own feelings
Learning how you have benefitted (and continue to benefit) at the expense of others can raise difficult feelings and even defensiveness. “Reckoning with shame, blame, guilt, and anger takes courage and vulnerability,” write the founders of the AntiRacist Table that offers a 30-day online challenge to becoming antiracist. “To be anti-racist, you have to sit with the discomfort and put courage, compassion, and vulnerability over comfort.”
It’s important to deal with these difficult feelings through practices such as mindfulness meditation, self-compassion and exploring them with other white people. Otherwise, you may avoid this difficult work or even do more harm than good by consciously or unconsciously seeking excuses for ongoing disparities.
Educator and author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, Robin DiAngelo, maintains that most white people have been so protected from the stress of racism that they often find even small amounts of race-related stress highly challenging and will seek to avoid it. You can’t serve as an antiracist until you wrestle with your own racism, learn how to identify your own unconscious biases and start making new choices for your behaviors.
- Build relationships
This is tricky because “having a Black friend” does not make you antiracist. The desire to assuage feelings of guilt or cultivate a sense of solidarity can even lead white people to impose themselves on Black people. Instead, start by looking more objectively at how you spend your time and how often you are in all, or predominantly, white spaces.
Seek out situations where you may be in the minority. Then start by listening. People of all races and ethnicities need more diverse relationships to help us see each other as individuals. Research shows that getting to know people of a different race (or any point of difference) helps break down stereotypes and causes us to care more about the welfare of others.
“We must establish a personal connection with each other. Connection before content. Without relatedness, no work can occur,” advises Peter Block, author of Community: The Structure of Belonging.
- Step forward
Whether you call it being an ally, upstander or accomplice, the more you understand contemporary racism, the more you will want to do something to combat it. That’s a great urge, as long as you’ve first invested the time in educating yourself (and continue to do so), have done a lot of listening and do not expect Black people to show you the way or pat you on the back.
You become an ally when you are willing to stand in support of those who are marginalized and proactively use your influence to drive positive change. As an ally (and even more so as an accomplice) you are willing to risk your own comfort, friendships and social standing to speak up against racism.
You can also direct your charitable giving to organizations supporting antiracist efforts. You might also seek out Black-owned businesses and Black doctors, dentists, accountants, realtors, builders and others for needed services. You can vote for candidates you feel will most effectively pursue an antiracist agenda.
- Talk to other white people
White culture is still centered in our country and white people continue to occupy the great majority of positions of power. That makes it incumbent upon white people to lead the charge for racial equity. Another way to do that is by opening conversations with white friends and family about our country’s deep history and ongoing experience with racism, and to explore your own privilege together.
Black History Month offers numerous opportunities to both celebrate Black culture and learn about persistent challenges. It also offers an opening to invite others to a special event on race, launch a conversation with friends and family or re-set your priorities around who benefits every time you shop, invest or give.