Learning to become a white anti-racist

The “Clio Heritage Mural,” featuring George Wallace, is situated in the center of town.

The “Clio Heritage Mural,” featuring George Wallace, is situated in the center of town.

The small town where I grew up in Southeast Alabama boasts two famous hometown “heroes”: Don Sutton and George Wallace.

You may not have heard of the former unless you’re a big Major League Baseball fan, but you’ve probably heard of the latter. The echoes of Wallace’s legacy still ring in Clio, though perhaps not as strongly as they did during my childhood.

My early encounters with racism were common and far from casual, though I didn’t recognize it until much later. I’m still learning and growing every day. I still make my own mistakes. But I also strive to embrace anti-racism, with a side of intersectionality, so I can help create a society that I’m proud to be a part of, that I’m proud to raise my kids in and that is better than what we’ve had before.

Here are a few lessons I’ve learned in my personal equity journey that I think can benefit other white people who are striving to do better.

Be willing to admit and acknowledge your own place in a racist system

This is probably the hardest for most people to swallow. Most white people don’t consider themselves racist. Yet I’ve met very few who “don’t have a racist bone in their body.”

A lifetime of “that’s just the way things are” is hard to unlearn, particularly when so many systems in America were built to prop up the kidnapping and enslavement of Black and Brown people. From the school-to-prison pipeline to the electoral college to segregation and redlining — these types of systems have existed since the beginning of our nation, and they still exist today.

I had the privilege of visiting the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which is just over an hour south of where I currently live, in Montgomery. I highly recommend a visit as a tool for understanding the systemic racism that still exists in the U.S. 

EJI founder Bryan Stevenson  also has written an illuminating book called Just Mercy, which will be released as a movie in December 2019.

It’s easy to deny that you have a place in all this. It’s easy to argue that slavery was generations ago. If you’re in denial over the privilege afforded you as a white person (because regardless of whatever disadvantages you’ve experienced, your skin color has not been one of them, at least not in a systematic, long-term way), I encourage you to open your mind and educate yourself on systemic racism and how it still affects Black people today.

Listen to Black people, but don’t expect them to educate you

If you’re lucky, you have Black friends in your life with whom you can have conversations about serious topics like race, equity and privilege. You should still remember that, even though you probably mean well and they might not mind, it is not their responsibility to teach you about racism, and they cannot speak on behalf of the entire Black population.

If that’s true for people you have an existing relationship with, it’s even more true for strangers, and you shouldn’t be offended if they refuse to answer your pressing questions about slavery, discrimination, affirmative action or Black hair.

The good news is that a number of Black writers have released memoirs or novels that can play a huge role in helping you better understand the impacts of racism and what you need to know as a potential white ally. Two of my personal favorites are Ta-Nehisi CoatesBetween the World and Me and Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race. 

Another book (by a white author) that’s on my to-read list that I’ve heard a lot of great things about is Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Race. A quick Google search for “books for white allies” yields multiple lists of other resources.

And, finally, if you are lucky enough to have Black people in your life who are willing to call out your racist behavior or microaggressions (which are likely unintentional but still happen to most of us!), you must listen to them, apologize if needed, thank them for their feedback, and do better.

You don’t have to fear difference

Much of the racism I encountered during my childhood — like so much hatred in modern society — was driven by fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of losing a perceived place in society, fear of possibly being treated the same way you treat others.

But knowledge overcomes fear, which I learned as I began to be exposed to ideas and especially people different from what I’d grown up around.

To quote from KHA CEO Keecha Harris’s recent piece in The Chronicle of Philanthropy (with former presidential advisor Valerie Jarrett), “We need as many good people as possible loudly proclaiming that diversity is a strength. This is not a time to be faint of heart.”

If you want to continue to learn and grow as a person, it’s vital to engage with people and ideas that are different from you and that challenge you. This is a core ideal of a democratic society, and it’s necessary for the benefit of the whole. Refusal to change and insistence on perpetuating systems that benefit you is selfish and will only lead to your own short-term gain.

You have the easy part

It might feel scary or overwhelming to embrace new ideas about race and equity. It might feel like you are giving up something that you’ve earned (hint: you’re not — you didn’t earn your privilege).

But good news: You can do it, and you actually have the easy part. Black men and women have stood against systemic oppression for generations. They have stood on the backs of their ancestors who made strides, and still they fight. It’s time for some folks with fresh legs to stand up and provide support.