I remember when my best friend died at the age of 30. It was the first time the ground beneath me gave way. So much of what I'd built my life and defenses around collapsed, and I floated in this ethereal and existential crisis, grieving for quite some time.
What I remember most is how personal a journey my grieving had been. It's wasn't neat or linear. It didn't follow any timeline or have a schedule. There's was no beginning or end. It evoked a range of emotions, at any given time I could be brought to tears, become enraged, withdraw into my own zone or just feel lonely. And though I knew that all of those feelings were completely normal, expected almost, I still struggled through the various 'stages' of grief that many experience.
Essentially, it's widely accepted that there are (at least) five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Not everyone experiences all of them, and not necessarily in that order or for any given length of time, but many people, including me, have experienced these coping mechanisms and stages of feelings, allowing us ultimately to move forward.
So, what does this have to do with my journey towards anti-racism? Well, I feel like I'm going through stages of sorts as I continue to socially, emotionally and spiritually engage in the work. Similar to stages of grief, there seem to be waves of deep reflection and reckoning that can be difficult to bear without beginning or end. What I do know is that the feelings within each stage are potentially powerful deterrents to doing the work. So, I thought I'd spend today unpacking them, and try to wrap my head around how I can consciously and unconsciously give myself the freedom to feel and heal deeply as I experience each one, so that I can ultimately continue to move forward.
There seem to be waves of deep reflection and reckoning that can be difficult to bear without beginning or end. What I do know is that the feelings within each stage are potentially powerful deterrents to doing the work.
As a white person, I benefit from several privileges that are not afforded to persons of color. One of those privileges is that my white culture gives me permission to ignore the perspectives and powers of people of other races. Meaning, I could go through my whole life with only a superficial understanding of the 300 years of slavery, the birth of this nation through colonization and oppression, the devastation of the reconstruction era, the entrenched systemic racism that touches every structural pillar of our society –– from education to housing, policy to mass incarceration –– or the opportunity, wealth, healthcare, environmental injustice gaps these policies and history have brought to bear on Black Americans today. And I have. For the better part of my life, I stayed comfortably in my white bubble of denial, ignorant of where I come from, and what this country is truly made of.
But once you begin to break through the bubble, an avalanche of information, facts, history, videos, books, podcasts, literature, research, and essay sets you on a path towards truth. I'm certain there's a different catalyst for each of us that starts the white wheels turning, but the key question is what will break your bubble? For me, it was having my whiteness called in front and center, and I had to explore what it meant. One courageous conversation led to another, and sparked my desire to change the way I saw the world, and the way I see myself.
In this transition from darkness to light, I am no longer Alice living in Wonderland. But in so many ways, I am grateful that my white bubble of denial and ignorance is bursting, because I can see more clearly the real world, the truth as it were, as wonderful and terrible as it may be.
As I continue to break down denial and ignorance, there begins a consciousness-building or awakening stage, and I am inundated with the largess of what I don't know. And as I peel back the layers of history and its lingering impact, I am confronted with a mix of difficult emotions: shame, guilt, anger, hostility, embarassment, hopelessness, vulnerability, defensiveness. Just to name a few. But I keep my north star in mind to push through: a commitment to what Layla Saad calls becoming a good ancestor, not only for those you love today, but for generations of loved ones to come. And I realize that these difficult feelings, while completely normal and at times intolerable, don't help the struggle for justice.
And so I continue the work to sharpen my racial consciousness, build stamina, learn new things everyday, connect dots, and become more vocal in my world. This stage for me, is centered around making the unconscious conscious and aspiring towards actual anti-racist practices in my life. For now, all it takes is an open mind, a commitment to doing the work, the grace to make mistakes, and the courage to work through my resistances as they arise. And they do. Everyday. Upholding the status quo of white supremacy at every turn is in my nature, so really, the work is not only an external awakening of what racism is, but an internal one of how I can change what it means to be racist. Recognizing that I have been shaped by a racist system, I have biases, patterns and an investment in that system, how can I begin to see my whiteness differently and discover that space where whiteness can be good?
The work is not only an external awakening of what racism is, but an internal one of how I can change what it means to be racist.
This stage is hard, and I continue to have moments where I feel so helpless, wanting to regain some control over how badly I feel, but I'm realizing that feeling badly about being a racist in a racialized society is not the destination, it is actually the beginning of the journey to better feelings. For me, I keep my north star in sight. My loyalty lies not with our history or even with the seemingly insurmountable challenges we face in the present, but with the future. My hope is that the work I do today will help to ensure that my children's children do not have to do this same work. In that world, we will be closer to living the ideals that this country was founded on. And somewhere in time, all lives will matter.
Fundamentally understanding the system of racism into which we have all been socialized is a good first step, but there's so much work to be done towards the kind of transformational change needed. This next stage shifts thoughts and feelings into action. It'll be different for all of us, but in essence, It's about getting racism on the table, and keeping it on the table. It's reimagining the status quo that currently perpetuates racism, and leaving complicity and complacency behind, it's becoming accountable in my practice, and putting in place checks to keep me on the right path.
This stage comes with its own unique challenges and trappings because I want to challenge racism responsibly. But, operating ethically and responsibly as I work to dismantle white supremacy, while working through my implicit (and unconscious) biases and patterns is work that requires care and intention. I have read about a few resonant ideas over and over again that I thought I would share that seem to be good practices that help me check myself as I work towards becoming anti-racist:
Acknowledge my racial privilege. Yes, there are many ways and many white (and other cultural identities of) people that are marginalized (based on gender, sex, class, religion, disability, etc), but this truth does not erase my racial advantages or white privileges relative to people of color.
Recognize how to extend my privilege to activism, while at the same time being careful not to use my voice in any way that might marginalize the very people I'm hoping to act in solidarity with. Become a listen and learner.
Deepen my connection to my friends or colleagues who are persons of color. Accountability matters. If I keep a feedback loop in my life and facilitate critiques from my friends or colleagues of color, I can make sure I'm at least on the right track.
Change it up if it's not working. I have no idea where I'm going, but I do know that so long as I listen, adapt and respond to whatever it is I'm learning in the moment, I'll continue to get closer to whatever being an ally truly means.
Call in and engage my white friends. In the same way I was taken in by my colleagues, calling my white friends into the work, listening to them, and both offering and being open to feedback is a critical component to this work. Racism is a white problem. We have to be the change.
Acknowledge Black and Brown voices that are shining the light for me. Giving credit matters. Supporting Black and Brown leaders, organizations, businesses, artists, and more should be a given. But because we've been socialized to dismiss the observations of people of color, it's that much more important to share with others that it is the collective wisdom of people of color that represents the headlight on my train moving forward. If not for reading and listening to the words and works of people of color, I would not be on this journey, nor would I have the courage to continue.
Share access and resource with people of color whenever possible. Networking matters. I am a connected human and can forge connections for other persons of color. I am conscious of opening the gates wider, I am intentional about yielding positions of power to amplify the voices of others.
Get involved with a specific organization in the fight for racial justice. Organizing matters. And the fight on the local, state and federal level against racism across the board is fundamental to the anti-racist struggle. Black Lives Matter and SURJ (Standing up for Racial Justice) have local chapters almost anywhere and was a great place for me to start, but anyplace is a great place to begin.
Bridge an anti-racial lens to politics. It should go without saying, but politics matter. We need to make sure that the candidates we vote for locally or nationally have racial justice platforms that go beyond their stances on policing, but are tied to a broader array of issues, like underfunded schools, environmental injustices, housing, their response to COVID-19 in marginalized communities, immigration, incarceration, among other issues.
Though this stage feels like it might be a culmination of sorts, I know it's truly just the beginning. The more work I put into the other stages, the closer I will get to be able to stand in stronger solidarity in the fight for justice.
I often think about an even broader lens that Tim Wise speaks to in his article, 'Code of Ethics for White Anti-Racists.' Racial justice work, Wise says, is not something we should do for Black and Brown folks. It is something we must do with them. White people, all people, are not fighting racism on behalf of people of color, we are fighting racism because we resist the injustice of a white supremacist society. And while white supremacy principally damages people of color, it compromises all of humanity in its toxicity within the systems and structures of our lives.
White people, all people, are not fighting racism on behalf of people of color, we are fighting racism because we resist the injustice of a white supremacist society.
I have a feeling I'll be peeling back the layers of these stages for the rest of my life. I can see why this is love work. love of people. love of humanity. love of justice and the future I want for my children. And more importantly, I'm beginning to understand that 'love is not a verb, it is an action.'