Response: February 2016 Issue

Beyond Good Intentions: Cultivating an Antiracist White Identity

White people have a critically important role to play in the work of racial justice.

Beyond Good Intentions: Cultivating an Antiracist White Identity
New York City Mayor Robert Wagner greeting the teenagers who integrated Central High School, Little Rock, Arkansas. 1958.

Twenty years ago, an African-American friend and colleague, Lynnette Stallworth, challenged me to critically examine why I, as a white woman, so often looked to her as the expert on racism, depending on her to call me out or advise me when racist words, behaviors or policies were at play.

"What happens when I'm not here, Melanie?" Lynnette asked. "How are you, as a white person, holding other white people accountable? How are other white people doing that for you? Racism is a white problem — and it is long past time for you all to do your own work!"

I was convicted by her challenge. I had to acknowledge that I and many of my well-intentioned white friends did not have vocabulary to talk about racism in an everyday kind of way. We were frequently mired in feelings of guilt. When we encountered racism, we could not be counted on to speak up and confront it. Too often we fell mute, became confused, reacted with defensiveness or simply wanted to disappear. I could see that I was not trustworthy, especially when things got hot.

To understand what it means to be white in America and break the silences that surround it requires arduous, persistent and soul-stretching work. Sadly, too many of us stop short of that deep work. We assume that our good intentions and eagerness to help are enough. We come into multiracial gatherings or organizations expecting to be liked and trusted. But trust isn't something we are granted simply because we finally showed up. Trust has to be earned, again and again. Or, better said, we need to become trustworthy white people, passionately committed to eliminating racism — a system of oppression that unjustly benefits us.

Lynnette's challenge inspired me to launch Doing Our Own Work, an anti-racism program for white people who seek to deepen their commitment to confronting racism and white privilege where they live, work, study and worship. Doing Our Own Work is designed as a supplement to, not a substitute for, contexts where people of different races discuss and strategize together how racism can be confronted and dismantled. It has been an honor and a joy to do this intensive work for the past two decades with hundreds of people from communities all across the United States and Canada. Out of this work, I want to share some reflections about the deep and sustained work I believe white people can and must do if we want to be effective and trustworthy allies in the struggle for racial justice.

Own that we are "raced"

As white people, we have inherited an intergenerational legacy of silence, looking away, pretending not to notice, and numbness to pain. As Robert Terry said in the book Impacts of Racism on White Americans, "To be white in America is not to have to think about it."

In my experience, those of us who are white are far more apt to identify people of color by their race than we are to identify ourselves as white. Too many of us have not begun to explore how we feel about being white or how racism has shaped our lives. This means that we frequently enter multiracial conversations and collaborations expecting people of color to open up and share how racism affects them without being willing to share an equivalent level of vulnerability and self-disclosure.

The challenge Ms. Stallworth issued 20 years ago I've heard restated many times since by other people of color in my life who've said: "I appreciate that you want to understand my experience as a person of color in this country. But what I most need from you, Melanie, is that you begin to understand your own. I need for you to do the strenuous work of understanding what it means to be white in America. Unless you do that, you are dangerous."

Interrupt the habits, practices and policies that protect white privilege

One meaning of being white is that we are granted unearned privileges and structural power simply by reason of our race. Regardless of our best intentions, we are granted exemptions, entitlements and privileges denied people of color. For example, white people are not racially profiled or routinely followed by security guards in stores. We don't have to produce ID and explain where we're going when walking, biking or driving. We don't face higher insurance or mortgage rates by reason of our skin color. We're not called on to speak for other members of our race. Unless we have black or brown children, we don't have to engage in the tense yet necessary conversation with our kids about interacting with police.

Antiracism educator Peggy McIntosh has noted that "privilege is a fugitive subject" about which white people were meant to remain oblivious. Making privilege visible to ourselves and to other white people demands constant vigilance. Without that vigilance, we are indeed dangerous because we behave like dinosaurs that drag a large tail behind us, as a colleague Kate Runyon once described. Unable to see the tail, and convinced of our good intentions, we are oblivious to the havoc we wreak as we move through the world, knocking people over and flattening things in our path. How do we do this? By presuming we can speak for others, imposing our mission and outreach projects on others, discounting as "ungrounded" the fears and criticisms voiced by people of color, dismissing their pain as overreacting, accusing them of "playing the race card" when they call us on our oppressive behaviors, and then shifting the focus to our hurt feelings.

White privilege cannot be given away, but we can interrupt the habits, practices and policies that keep it in place. One of the habits is to make decisions for everyone without consulting anyone else, as Frances Kendall notes in the book Understanding White Privilege. We can interrupt that habit by garnering multiple perspectives and bringing all voices to the table. We can use privilege to ensure that power is more equitably shared. We can shine a light on every program, ministry and endeavor we are engaged in, asking: Whose voices are being sought out and heard? Who decides what is right, beautiful, true and valued? Whose cultural perspectives are overrepresented and whose are underrepresented? Who is seen as important to the mission, and who is seen as less important? How, when and for whom are our financial resources allocated? Who determines those allocations?

Practice accountability to people of color

As we seek to make privilege visible and interrupt racism, it is essential that we are accountable to people of color. Otherwise we may do more harm than good. If we charge ahead, eager to impose our solutions and interventions, we replicate old, oppressive patterns of white mission to, not with.

Our work as antiracist white people must always and everywhere be grounded in humility, collaboration and accountability. This means actively seeking out and listening to feedback from people of color. It means moving out of white spaces into places where we are not in control. It means becoming involved in organizations and movements like Black Lives Matter that are led by people of color, respecting the priorities they identify as strategies for change and sustaining our engagement over time. It means learning about the ways people of color have resisted racism long before we arrived on the scene. By showing up consistently, acting collaboratively and practicing accountability, we have the possibility of developing authentic relationships of mutuality with people of color.

Work through shame and guilt

When denial gives way, and the breadth and depth of racism is acknowledged, a profound sense of shame and/or guilt can consume white people for a time. While shame and guilt are not the same, both can surface in us as we awaken to the devastating realities of racism. Neither is particularly useful to people of color because both have the effect of turning the spotlight on white people's feelings rather than the continuing inequities of racism. I don't believe it's possible for white people to go around shame and guilt, but we can learn to move through those feelings into something deeper and more productive. The critical question is what we do with those feelings and the discoveries that birthed them. As Audre Lorde said, "If [guilt] leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge."

Do the work from a place of self-love

I am convinced that those of us who are white will not be able to keep showing up, resist checking out or stay in difficult yet essential conversations if we cannot come from a place of self-love. We need to love ourselves enough to forge new ways of being white in this world by consistently embodying an antiracist commitment. We need to recover the stories of white ancestors who resisted racism and worked with people of color to keep hope alive by creating change. Their witness and resolve can strengthen our own. We need to develop relationships and communities of support, challenge and accountability where we learn from our differences, care for one another and celebrate even the smallest breakthroughs with exuberance.

Stay on the journey

I believe it's possible to claim and embody an antiracist white identity if we are willing to move out of our comfort zones, risk having our assumptions challenged, our lives disrupted and our way of viewing the world transformed. Most important is the commitment to stay on the journey. Unlearning and interrupting the habits, practices and policies that keep racism and white privilege intact is lifelong, life-giving work, never done, once and for all.

Melanie S. Morrison, Ph.D., is executive director of Allies for Change and an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ. A version of this article appeared in the spring 2013 issue of Yale University's journal Reflections.

Posted or updated: 2/3/2016 11:00:00 PM