To make black lives matter the actions of whites matter: From ‘not racist’ to antiracist

Watching video footage of protests and unrest on the streets of Rochester in upstate New York reminded me how I trained for a marathon there a few years ago. To make jogging more interesting, I switched my routes regularly to explore new neighborhoods. So there I was jogging through these various, predominantly white, neighborhoods. And never realizing what a privilege it is to be able to jog there without a second thought.

It breaks my heart to read the various precautions that men of my age have to go through to be able to walk in their own neighborhoods, just because of the color of their skin. Like me, Ahmaud Arbery was jogging in a predominantly white neighborhood. He was shot to death. Shola Richards, in turn, explained in a viral post how he has to take one of his daughters with him to walk the family dog in his own neighborhood: “When I’m walking down the street holding my young daughter’s hand and walking my sweet fluffy dog, I’m just a loving dad and pet owner…. But without them by my side, almost instantly, I morph into a threat in the eyes of some white folks.”

In the four years they have lived there, he has never taken a walk alone. This athletically-built man has to hold his eight-year-old daughters hand when walking in his home street, “in hopes that she’ll continue to keep her daddy safe from harm.”

The outrage over George Floyd’s death is totally understandable. It is anguishing to helplessly watch the video where Derek Chauvin cold-bloodedly holds his knee on Floyd’s neck, keeping it there for several minutes even after the man has passed out. But the current protests are ultimately not about it. This incident was just the last straw in a series of previous major incidents and thousands and thousands of more minor incidents, where the bias of the police and society against the black community is visible. Most of the racism is structural and invisible for a white man like me. Floyd’s death just provided a horrible symbol for all the everyday injustices the black people have to endure. A middle-aged African American business man told Barack Obama how he cried when he saw the video: “It broke me down. ‘Knee on the neck’ is a metaphor for how the system so cavalierly holds black folks down, ignoring the cries for help.”

What then to do as a white man? Protests and civil disobedience are often necessary to make the political system to pay attention to injustices against various marginalized communities. So supporting and participating in peaceful protests, raising awareness, and using one’s platform to give room and amplify the voices of those who don’t have similar platforms is the first step.

But, as Barack Obama aptly notes, “eventually, aspirations have to be translated into specific laws and institutional practices — and in a democracy, that only happens when we elect government officials who are responsive to our demands.” And because in a democracy every vote counts, transforming the political system and institutions requires broad alliances.

In analyzing how the apartheid ended in South Africa, economists Daron Acemoğlu and James A. Robinson emphasize how “it was founded on a new coalition, between the ANC, the black middle classes, and the white industrialists.” This was part of Mandela’s brilliance. He realized that to make the transition, he needed allies from within the white elite. And from white industrialists he found those allies, and their relationship was strengthened through joint initiatives like the Black Economic Empowerment program. Through these collaborations they grew the mutual trust and respect that allowed them eventually to overturn the apartheid regime — without a civil war — and turn a new page in the history of South Africa.

Herein is the key responsibility of us white people. Passivity is not enough. Thinking that ‘I am not racist so I can stay out of this’ is not enough. The societal injustices don’t disappear without majority of people condemning them. The unjust policies and structures don’t get reformed until enough people vote for political candidates vowing to change them.

There is no neutral middle ground one can take between persecutors and those persecuted. Not confronting the persecution is passively supporting it. The often-repeated words of Martin Luther King remind us that “the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition is not the glaring noisiness of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” In our times the same message is put forward powerfully by professor Ibram X. Kendi: “One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist.”

Research shows that the most effective interventions against school bullying don’t focus on the victim or the bully — they focus on changing the attitudes of the classmates. When the bystanders turn against bullying, the bully quits. When they don’t, they silently support the bully.

This is the lesson we whites, who consider ourselves as not racist, should take to our heart. It is our silence that enables the racists to continue. The racists don’t stop shouting until they note that they are not only condemned by the black community but also shunned upon by their white friends. Only when we turn ourselves into antiracists — actively working against racial structures in our society and racial attitudes in our community and in ourselves — can we consider ourselves as allies in this fight against oppression.

Nobody is perfect. I am not perfect. I surely carry some racist baggage around in my attitudes and behaviors that I will be ashamed of tomorrow. This very writing might contain inadvert legacies of racist ways of thinking. The important thing is to realize that we are all learning together, and commit oneself to be part of this growth and development. “The movement from racist to antiracist is always ongoing”, as Ibram X. Kendi puts it in his book How to Be an Antiracist. In addition to acknowledging that I still have biases and blind spots, this movement involves making an effort to seek out and listen to the experiences, insights, and arguments of people of color. By, for example, using resources like this, this, and this.

Being ‘not racist’ is a passive state, being antiracist is a constant journey. A journey of growth. It plays out in two fields: Within society, as citizens and as members of various communities, we should make our voice and our vote count in the fight against racist attitudes and policies. Within our own minds, we should commit to actively educate and develop ourselves.

So my fellow white friends who consider themselves as not racist. That’s nice. But not enough. Let’s start the journey towards being antiracists.

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