In late June, I received an email I found hard to answer with a quick reply. It was from white man who’d read and loved my book, How To Be Black, and wanted to be more involved in creating a more equitable world when it came to race. Over the following weeks, especially after the not guilty verdict in the murder trial of George Zimmerman, I received emails, tweets, and Facebook tags from others with a similar interest in how white people who wanted to be part of the solution could constructively engage. Many of these people were angry at what they saw in their own country.
I thought about writing these folks back individually, but being a fan of efficiency and generally anti-redundancy, I thought a more public response would be useful. I also figured others would have valuable responses to the call, so I posted the question to my Facebook and Google+ communities and aggregated the responses. Below is a collection of lightly organized, mildly proofed thoughts on the subject along with the found wisdom of others.
I want to thank my research associate, Jenna Trojnacki and chief of staff, Julia Lynton-Boelte, for their help in pulling this together.
The Original Email
I recently read ‘How to be Black’ and wanted to reach out let you know how much I enjoyed the book. As a 28 year old white man, the most pointed moment is when you suggest turning over the responsibility to fight racism to white people. I thought about this a lot and my question to you is – What are we supposed to do about it?
It is evident that many white people still have racist sentiments. In my experience this has not been outwardly directed at minorities but is typically shared in a confidential manner amongst friends. Many times I have heard the following (These are NOT my views):
Black people don’t work and take all of our money through the government
Black people shoot people and are generally dangerous
Black people are rude
Black people don’t know how to drive
You may think that some comments above should be written off as coming from ignorant or callous individuals but you would be mistaken to do so. This is how many affluent and non-affluent white people feel.
Although there is a growing chasm between races, it is my opinion that the age of technology holds the key for reconciliation between cultures. The studies of Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman suggest that familiarity breeds understanding and acceptance. Currently, our cultures tend to live isolated of one another. Without any form of integration we are slowly growing apart from one another.
The question then is how to we begin to get different cultures more familiarity with one another? First, your book is an excellent start. Another potential benefit would be through our children. Perhaps there are opportunities for digital ‘field trips’ between classes of predominately white schools and classes of predominately black schools. This would occur at a young age and give the opportunity to play games with one another.
Personally, I would LOVE to be involved in education about racism today but there is no evident means of where to even get started. If you or any group you know would have use for a moderately intelligent accountant then I would be that guy.
Things You Can Teach
"Don’t tolerate racism in your life. Call people out if they are being insensitive."
“Start from the simplest acts (which I believe are often the most effective): don't tolerate racism in your life. If friends / acquaintances make racist or culturally insensitive comments, call them on it. This can be done with sensitivity so that they don't simply feel attacked; it's a teachable moment.”
“Call out racism/stereotypes/etc. but do it with grace - not because they deserve grace for being ignorant or racist - but because treating them like the aloof assholes they are doesn't help them learn. Like I said 99.9% of us whites were not raised with an awareness of how intrenched [sic] racial inequality is. That makes 99.9% of us accidental assholes. So, when you speak to others who are uneducated on inequality or just flat out overt racists, remember that you were probably once an asshole too.
"Develop real relationships." (Baratunde Note: check out the radio interview Tanner Colby and I did about interracial friendships)
“But as far as the children go, especially, the first place to start (and this may be more or less difficult depending on where the person lives) is to attempt to make sure that the parents have acquaintances and friends that represent the community at large. Of course this is a tricky one as one shouldn't 'seek out' anyone as an example of one's enlightenedness either. Helpful organizations are tricky imho... one has to be careful one is not always 'being helpful' to poor unfortunates that happen to not be white, can send a subtle message to the kids that black folks are in need of help. And of course one's personal behavior (again, speaking of children) is of paramount importance concerning the acceptance of stereotypes, jokes, etc. Discussions concerning relative privilege can be had at any age in an age-appropriate fashion. And even doing all this, you're still fighting against the media and the outside world every day.”
“I think it starts with individuals, with yourself, not with organizations. Teach your children your own history, and show them how your history has given you a position in society. If you want to support organizations, or start an organization (like a discussion group for kids about racism, for example) that needs to be grounded in personal understanding of what has shaped, and shapes, your own life, as well as the lives of others. We're all part of the same web. That's why you can't fix racism if not everybody is willing to change.”
“Make sure that seeing more than white people in their lives, on their block, in their schools, and on the television is normal. Make it normal to see black activists and Asian cultural critics and brown actresses and First Nation commentators.”
“Most of all, be humble, take critiques as sign that you're seen as "worth educating," and do more listening than talking. Don't try to set the agenda.”
“Empathy takes awareness, and our culture encourages us to be hyper aware of our own groups and to remain in ignorance of others. I think that [How To Be Black] may have opened a lot of eyes - comedy has a unique power to do that well. The book is great about mixing unblinking criticism with a personal poignancy that is unique and able to short circuit readers' normal patterns regarding race and class.”
“Closing the empathy gap is the start of change.”
Things You Can Learn
“Educate yourself. 99.9% of white people were not raised with an awareness of how intrenched inequality is (you can start here if you want)”
“I would encourage looking at the White Privilege Conference. Also, more important than supporting organizations is getting educated and talking to other white folk about racism, discrimination, and privilege.”
“The most important thing is for critical thinking to begin in the home. All the memberships won't mean a thing if you are inherently biased in any capacity to any human being. Be devout to history, learn the good and bad and ugly from every continent to learn at the root the humanity of each and every being regardless of skin tone, culture etc From thereon you will also learn why certain mentalities and myths pervade but you cannot deconstruct them unless you are versed in their root and reasoning no matter absurd and distorted. I say this because to battle racism is a lifestyle, not something relegated to the weekends."
“Local news is a good place to watch, or check out the volunteer/get involved sections on their web sites - the first big outreach for a lot of folks is to get their group in local papers or on the news. Oh, and check out the neighborhood newspapers, the ones in grocery stores - local volunteer opportunities can be found there, too.”
“Come to Detroit and observe gentrification in the works, explore the community and connect with the people on an organic level. It will give him some insights into how he can help without coming off as a cape wearing super savior.”
Media Worth Consuming
Notes From No Man's Land by Eula Biss. The book deals with issues of race in America, and in particular, Biss often explores what it means to be a white woman in predominantly black spaces, the issue of white privilege, and the inherited, deeply ingrained racism of American culture.
White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son by Tim Wise. It is a personal account examining white privilege and his conception of racism in American society through his experiences with his family and in his community.
Memoir of a Race Traitor by Mab Segrest. Against a backdrop of nine generations of her family's history, Mab Segrest explores her experience as a white lesbian organizing against a virulent Far Right movement in North Carolina.
bell hooks. The author of numerous critically acclaimed and influential books on the politics of race, gender, class, and culture. Celebrated as one of our nation’s leading public intellectuals by The Atlantic Monthly, as well as one of Utne Reader’s “100 Visionaries Who Could Change Your Life,” she is a charismatic speaker who divides her time among teaching, writing, and lecturing around the world.
Alice Walker. An American author, poet, self-claimed womanist, and activist. She wrote the critically acclaimed novel The Color Purple for which she won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.
The Color of Fear (Movie). An insightful documentary film about the state of race relations in America as seen through the eyes of eight North American men of Asian, European, Latino and African descent. Racism is an age-old problem. This award winning documentary by noted filmmaker Lee Mun Wah sits eight men down with each other to examine racism and explores what it means to be white, and what it means to be a person of color in America.
Wendy Jane Soul Shake (Blog). One woman’s blog about her humorous obsession with race relations.
"Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" by Peggy McIntosh (PDF)
Some Groups Worth Supporting
"If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time; but if you are here because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together." -Lilla Watson
Community Change Inc. a non-profit organization whose mission is to promote racial justice and equity by challenging systemic racism and acting as a catalyst for anti-racist learning and action.
Operation Hope a non-profit organization providing economic education for America's inner city communities.
All Stars Project Inc. creates outside of school, educational and performing arts activities for thousands of poor and minority young people. It sponsors community and experimental theatre, develops leadership training and pursues volunteer initiatives that build and strengthen communities.
NAACP: the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization. From the ballot box to the classroom, the thousands of dedicated workers, organizers, leaders and members who make up the NAACP continue to fight for social justice for all Americans.
Southern Poverty Law Center: an American nonprofit civil rights organization noted for its legal victories against white supremacist groups, its legal representation for victims of hate groups, its monitoring of alleged hate groups, militias and extremist organizations, and its educational programs that promote tolerance.
National Association of Free Clinics: the only nonprofit 501c(3) organization whose mission is solely focused on the issues and needs of the more than 1,200 Free and Charitable Clinics and the people they serve in the United States.
National Urban League: mission is to enable African Americans to secure economic self-reliance, parity, power and civil rights.
Black Girl Dangerous: a multi-faceted forum for the literary and artistic expression of queer and trans* people of color.
Black Girls Code: a nonprofit organization whose mission has transformed into a global movement to give women of color the tools to become inventors, leaders and creators of their own future in the world’s technology economy.
Year Up: mission is to close the Opportunity Divide by providing urban young adults with the skills, experience, and support that will empower them to reach their potential through professional careers and higher education.
National Conference for Community and Justice: a human relations organization promoting understanding and respect among all races, religions and cultures; providing education and advocacy, and building communities that are inclusive and just for all.
National Police Athletics/Activities Leagues, Inc.: exists to prevent juvenile crime and violence by providing civic, athletic, recreational and educational opportunities and resources to PAL Chapters.