I am not an expert on Black history. I am not an expert on our present day. I can educate myself and I am learning but I have not, nor will I ever know what it’s like to live as any Black person, past or present. Because of this, I have written and rewritten this post in my head hundreds of times over the past months. I have started and stopped, afraid to misstep, afraid to say the wrong thing.
That was my first mistake.
In writing this, I have gone through countless iterations, down (new to me) rabbit holes researching things I didn’t know that I didn’t know, and into deep self-questioning and still, it won’t be perfect. I am not here to brag to you about how aware I am but rather to illuminate how asleep at the wheel I’ve been and to implore us both to wake up. This post won’t be the ultimate representation of the situation (many white people have finally realized) we are in because this situation is centuries old, endlessly nuanced and unbelievably ingrained in our society. This post will, however, aim to illuminate our harsh reality and how white people can do the inner work no one can do for them to address the past and the present. I may misstep. I have misstepped on this same path before and I appreciate those who have taken the time and energy to correct me. Still, my hope and my understanding is that being on the path is better than watching from the sidelines as I have been.
I don’t have all the answers but I know silence isn’t one of them.
So, let’s start with underwear, obviously:
“OK ladies, where are the best places to buy cute but comfortable underwear online? Go!”
This was a text I sent out to some girlfriends a few months back and the response? Overwhelmingly Aerie. Aerie, a child brand of parent company American Eagle, was one I’d heard of but never bothered to check out. I figured it would be the same stick-thin, whitewashed company I remembered from my youth.
I was wrong.
When I visited the site, I found myself among my people: women with curves, women with cellulite, women with stretch marks. None of them were hiding their “imperfections” or strategically posing to shield our eyes from their “flaws.” I saw myself represented in a way airbrushed media doesn’t often show, and it felt good. Yet, it wasn’t just me. Women of all shapes, sizes and skin colors graced the screen (though at my most recent visit, there were, unfortunately, more white faces than before on the main page). There were women with disabilities and women who had clearly had children and wore their tiger stripes proudly instead of covering them up (if you haven’t heard of Sara Shakeel and her amazing glamification of stretch marks, please check her out). It felt good to see a wider range of representation. Our bodies tell a story. It feels so validating to see your story shown, right?
The thing is, I’m white and if you are too, our story has always been shown (and often, glorified). While I may not have grown up seeing my particular body type represented, I have always seen my skin color represented. From government and other positions of power to media (everything from books, movies and magazines, down to the pamphlets you see in your doctor’s office) to toys and more, everywhere you look, there are white people. The default has been white and the thing is, if you’re white, you may not have even noticed. Everyone, regardless of sex or skin color, knows how horrible it feels to be misrepresented. Imagine not being represented at all.
Maybe you’re thinking “Yea, but how much damage could not being represented do?” Simply put: a lot (and we’ve known it for a long time). Seeing a singular positive depiction of what it means to be beautiful via whitewashed everything and a singular negative depiction of black skin (think only being cast to play the parts of enslaved people or criminals in movies, ads, etc.) whispers to us; it sneaks into our subconscious: white is better (and just to be explicitly clear: no, it’s not).
The Doll Tests from the 1940’s illustrated this as well. They illuminated the negative effects segregation had on African-American children’s self-esteem and their feelings toward their race and social status. When posed with a choice between dolls of different colors (at the time, there weren’t any Black dolls. A white doll had to be painted black), the children overwhelmingly chose the white dolls and assigned positive characteristics to them.
This test, performed by Doctors Kenneth and Mamie Clark was cited in the Brown vs. Board of Education Superior Court ruling which desegregated schools:
“To separate [African-American children] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”
And with that desegregation passed! Problem solved, right?
While this acknowledgement was a win against segregation, the NAACP LDF (Legal Defense and Education Fund), a legal organization fighting for racial justice, reported in this article that “Dr. Kenneth Clark was dismayed that the court failed to cite two other conclusions he had reached: that racism was an inherently American institution, and that school segregation inhibited the development of white children, too.”
The study has since been recreated and the results replicated. White and Black children more often ascribed negative terms such as “ugly” or “dumb” to the Black dolls versus the white dolls. While segregation is legally gone (although with redlining and racist policies, is it?), the impacts of devaluing darker skin remain. Social movements like the Black is Beautiful movement, which gained momentum in the 1960’s aimed to dispel the damaging narrative that black features were inherently ugly or bad (the societal rhetoric children were subconsciously bringing with them into the Doll Tests). Yet the sheer reality that such a movement ever had to originate shows just how much damage has been done and this is just one piece of the bigger picture.
Just one piece.
So, we’ve gotten this far in and all we’ve talked about is underwear? Well, no. We’ve talked about the deeply ingrained devaluation of darker skin. Why does this matter? One: because how we make people feel about themselves and how we feel about others should be based on who they are as a person, not ascribed to them based on negative, untrue preconceptions about their skin color. Two: because these preconceptions aren’t just painful, unjust and ugly, they are dangerous.
This problem of racism is massive. We haven’t even talked about the lasting financial effects of slavery and racist policy (essentially, our system is based on racist beginnings bringing us to a racist present where white people are helped to succeed and Black people are not). Kimberly Latrice Jones does one of the best breakdowns of our history I’ve seen right here. We haven’t talked about redlining. We haven’t talked about the unequal numbers of Black people incarcerated versus whites (here’s a quick fact sheet). We haven’t talked about the disproportionate brutality towards and killing of innocent people of color at the hands of officers of the law and white vigilantes. There’s innumerable ways racism has shown up and reared its hideous head in the world and it will continue to do so if we, as a society, let it.
So, what can you do?
Nothing, right? It’s too big. Too ingrained. Too powerful.
No. Sure, it would have been great if our ancestors never started this horror story or realized the wrong in their ways say, oh, 400 years ago, but they didn’t. We know that we know better. Now we have to be better. [Sidenote: If you are feeling overwhelmed by how much there is to do and learn to fight injustice, I get it. It’s a lot. Yet imagine being at the hands of that injustice for hundreds of years. Hundreds. If you are feeling sensitive, stop and feel that and then move forward. Remember (from Dear Ally): “As a first step, take the discomfort you are feeling about potentially being perceived as racist and use it to develop compassion for people who are experiencing racism itself.” Start wherever you need to in order to do the work within yourself. Encourage others to do so as well. Many hands make light work and we’ve got a mountain to move.]
Here are four things you can do right now to do your part:
Listen: I’ve heard it said a million times: You were given two ears and one mouth, use them proportionately. The easiest way to break down preconceived notions of people and obliterate hatred is familiarity. It’s a lot harder to apply stereotypes to someone when you actually talk to them. That being said, be respectful of people’s space, time and emotional needs and be realistic about your relationships. Reaching out to acquaintances or coworkers about such a deep issue is inappropriate. Don’t force friendships and don’t force friends to be your teachers. This is not anyone’s job but your own. Confused? Watch the quick clip below from Trevor Noah to give a little light and levity to the issue. You mean well, just make sure to do it well.
Learn: You know when you buy a new (or new to you car) and suddenly you see it everywhere? It’s the same with racism. The more you learn about how we got to our present situation, the more you see how it permeates everything, and the better you will be at helping to stop it. This is by no means an exhaustive list but it is one that I have been building myself and through the contributions of friends and leaders I deeply respect (thank you especially to TAB, EM, AM & CC all for your time and thought):
Books (Thanks, EM & KC!) – Not into reading? Listen on Audible:
- How to Be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi
- Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad
- Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston
- Beloved by Toni Morrison
- Native Son by Richard Wright
- The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
- Stop Killing Us by Terry Keys
- Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- The Round House by Louise Erdich
- White Teeth by Zadie Smith
- White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People to Talk About Racism by Robin Diangelo
- Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
- Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
- There There by Tommy Orange
- Sing, Unburied Sing by Jesmyn Ward
- A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn
- The Autobiography of Malcolm X
- Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing up Iranian in America
- The Collected Autobiographies of Maya Angelou (including I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings)
- I’m Not Dying With You Tonight by Kimberly Jones & Gilly Segal
Podcasts, Social Media, Articles & More:
Articles, Websites & a HUGE Resource List (#9)
- Kimberlé Crenshaw and her theory of intersectionality (see the highlight reel at the bottom of the page)
- “They Was Killing Black People” article
- Learn about Juneteenth in the Washington Post
- The Case for Reparations by Ta- Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic
- The King Center
- The Root – sign up for their newsletter
- SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice)
- White Ally Toolkit
- This incredible resource a friend (thank you, TAB!) forwarded to me. I don’t know who to credit for its creation but it is stellar. It also has resources for talking to your kids about race. The Doll Test showed us how early racism can affect our children. Don’t wait to talk to your children. Check it out here
Social – follow these accounts. You won’t be sorry.
- Janaya Future Khan – I really recommend this video here
- Rachel Cargle
- Layla Saad
- Ibram X. Kendi
- Kiley Clark of Fresh to Farming
- Nandi Bushell
- Queer Appalachia
- Check Your Privilege
- Patrisse Cullors-Brignac
- Trevor Noah – watch his standup special Son of Patricia
- Kimberly Latrice Jones – featured on Trevor Noah, John Oliver and all over the internet. If you do nothing else, watch this.
Speak: You know the request you see at airports: “If you see something, say something?” Well, if you hear something racist, say something to stop it. We’ve all heard racist things said. It’s time to say something. The more we all speak against even the smallest injustices, the less space we allow them to occupy. If someone tells a racist joke, don’t answer with uncomfortable laughter. Answer with education. Let the joke fall flat. Silence makes injustice louder. Mute, don’t amplify hatred. Share what you’ve learned and implore others to do the same. Speak up for racial justice everywhere.
Support: The Chief and I are on a budget. We are by no means swimming in cash. Every month we sit down and prepare a budget built on necessity versus want. There’s not a lot of wiggle room, but we’ve added donations as a non-negotiable part of our budget. If other things have to give in order to keep this up, give they will.
Every month we research (which takes us to the Learn step again) different organizations fighting for racial justice or that support causes we believe in. For example: Kiley Clark’s dream to start a Black-led, regenerative farm (donate at Kiley’s GoFundMe here). Donations contribute to a down payment on farmland with housing, farm equipment, infrastructure and tools to create a warm, nourishing place where all are welcome. A little more about this amazing project (and person) from Kiley’s GoFundMe page:
“I have always dreamed of working on my own land. As a Black, queer, woman land ownership has felt evasive for much of my life, not having the capital or the generational wealth to make this possible. I want to build a dream together, founded on regenerative, no till practices and paying homage to the traditional ecology knowledge of my ancestors, and the land’s original Indigenous caretakers.
Why now? In this time of horrific pain and reckoning over systemic racism in this country, it is crucial to not just support Black people in our deaths. You must also support Black joy, uplift Black liberation and invest in Black-led organizations and entrepreneurs. The farm I am building will be a community hub, a place where Queer folx can get their hands in the dirt, where our communities can thrive, laugh, and be fed.We’re building this dream together and I can’t wait to welcome you all around my future farm table! Thank you for your love and support.”
Think about the dollars you’re already spending on eating out, home goods, music, etc. Instead of solely shopping or dining (use this site to search Black owned businesses by state) at your typical spots, consider shopping at Black owned companies as well. I love Justina Blakeney’s site Jungalow for anything home goods. So good.
Support artists: anything by Desirée Hernandez of Sonera Pottery makes my heart sing, musicians (a few to recommend: Blood Orange’s Coastal Grooves, Goapele’s Even Closer, Beyoncé’s Lemonade plus accompanying film is important and amazing, The Alabama Shakes, Leon Bridges, Valerie June…), authors (see Books, above).
Support, however, does not have to take the sole form of donations. Support can mean a wealth of things and not all of them have to do with monetary exchanges. Get politically involved. Attend rallies and protests (safely). Uncomfortable with or unable to gather? Seemingly small things like calling and writing your representatives and senators or signing petitions have a huge impact and…
Support can flow through all aspects of your life. Does your workplace line up with your anti-racist values? If you’re in charge, change policy anywhere you can to make sure it does. If you’re not in charge, suggest changes. What about your children? Do you talk with them about race? It’s never too early (again, this resource has some really nice info on talking to your kids about racism). If the Doll Test taught us nothing else, it’s that it’s really never too early to talk about race and…(what the Supreme Court left out): diversity makes all of us better. Everyone’s development slows when we are segregated. Do what you can to open your children and yourself diversity.
Listen. Learn. Speak. Support. Just as we are all connected, so too are these four steps. You support a Black author by reading her book, and there you are listening and learning. You hear something you now know to be racist and you speak up. The cycle perpetuates itself, keep it going.
Teach others what you have learned.
Look inward and unearth the not-so-pretty preconceived notions you might have.
Do the work to move through them so you don’t perpetuate them or pass them on to others.
Dismantling racism starts with all of us. Let it begin within yourself.
One last thing:
I hear you if you’re thinking “I’ve struggled too.” I know you have, sweetie. You have without a doubt lived through pain, heartache and injustice. I know you have because you are human and all of these things are part of the human experience. But have you experienced these things based solely on your skin color? Maybe. Or maybe you’ve experienced them because you’re a woman or you grew up poor or you have a disability.
We all have something that has caused us to experience inequality. In this interview with Time earlier this year, Kimberlé Crenshaw describes today’s expanded notion of intersectionality as “a lens, a prism, for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other. We tend to talk about race inequality as separate from inequality based on gender, class, sexuality or immigrant status. What’s often missing is how some people are subject to all of these, and the experience is not just the sum of its parts.”
We’ve all experienced inequality but the reality is, if you’re white, societal norms and protections weigh heavily in your favor to keep you safer than people of color. Injustice is painful for everyone but it is disproportionately deadly to Black people. I mean, have you ever had to have this conversation with your child?
That is the difference. That is white privilege (the societal privileges that benefit white people over non-white people based not on their merit but solely on their skin color). As Peggy McIntosh wrote in White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack: “I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance”. Invisible systems can be brought to light and undone. It’s time.
Still not quite convinced? Read this article for examples of ways you might not even realize you’re experiencing white privilege or this one for a really helpful breakdown of the term.
Thank you for listening and perhaps, for opening up to learning. I know it wasn’t perfect (and I’m here for and open to feedback) but if we wait for perfect, we will always be silent. Move with your best foot forward, speak from love, live in this world with kindness in your heart and an openness to learn.
We are all human. We are all equal. We all deserve to be treated as such.
With love to you and yours,
I can’t say it enough: watch this
Comments? Additions? Ideas?
Please leave yours down below. I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me personally and I LOVE that but I think we also need to converse as a group to learn and grown together. Leave your thoughts below. Thank you for reading.
If you like Beneath the Borealis please feel free to show your support by subscribing or following below.