— H i s t o r y V i l l e (@HistoryVille) February 21, 2022
With February being Black History Month, writer Cory Collins’ words have been on my mind.
He says, “All white people benefit from institutional racism and enact racism, but far too many are reluctant to admit this.”
We still live in a country where the unemployment rate for Black Americans is disproportionately high. It’s a country where people of color are more likely to have firearms pointed at them, be detained, searched, and handcuffed by law enforcement. It’s also one in which 75 percent of prisoners are African-American (mostly for drug crimes, even though white youth are likeliest of any racial group to be guilty of illegal drug possession).
What can those of us with some degree of privilege do about this?
It’s important that more of us envision answers to this question because as Caste author, Isabel Wilkerson, wrote: “When an accident of birth aligns with what is most valued in a given caste system, whether being able-bodied, male, white, or other traits in which we had no say, it gives that lottery winner a moral duty to develop empathy for those who must endure the indignities they themselves have been spared. It calls for a radical kind of empathy.”
From the reading I’ve done and people of color I’ve talked to, I’ve tried to distill the actionable items we can take—both on a more abstract and systemic level, and in our individual interactions with POC—into the following:
1. Teach our young the history.
Back when I was in middle and high school, I felt like our classes briefly skirted over the era of slavery and failed to condemn men like Christopher Columbus and the Confederates (even if they didn’t necessarily glorify them). Our textbooks didn’t so much as mention Juneteenth or the War on Drugs.
There’s so much I didn’t know as a kid that I think schools should be teaching us. For instance, I thought that prisons were filled with dangerous criminals who needed to be locked up. As I got older I learned that the majority of inmates are in prison for drug dealing, an offense that sadly carries a disproportionately long sentence and works against Black people. Additionally, changes in laws and policies (rather than increases in crime rates) are what caused the prison boom.
Countless studies have shown that Black people don’t commit more crimes, but are rather convicted with harsher penalties. Five to 10 years is the sentence for minimal drug offense in the United States, while six months is the norm in other developed countries around the world.
When marijuana became associated with white kids in the early 1960s, the government coincidentally decided to lower the penalties for it. Meanwhile, when the practice of smoking crack came to be correlated with poor Blacks, media imagery hyper-focused on them. These are important distinctions we should be teaching our country’s youth.
2. Support wider representation.
Another way to address this issue is through ensuring greater representation and inclusivity in our child and adolescent education system.
According to librarian Madeline Tyner, “In 2018, 11.6 percent of the books we received (at University of Wisconsin Madison’s book center) were about Black/African people.”
It’s important to introduce positive examples to our young—Black people as heroes, free agents, and protagonists of their own stories. We need them to see more individuals of color as characters with agency, dreams, and plans for their future that differ from the limiting, preexisting cultural expectations placed on them.
3. Pay attention to the the various specific ways discrimination plays out.
To arrive at a more complete understanding of an issue, it’s important to attune to the subtleties, not just the broad strokes. For example, East Bay Express once did an article on Black artists having their gigs canceled without any explanation.
Even though the police are supposed to provide written reasons for denying special event applications, as per Oakland city code, the Black artists interviewed in the article say they were never offered any explanatory documents.
This example serves as a reminder that racism doesn’t just manifest in single egregious, isolated instances of police violence. Rather, the beast is a series of daily occurrences that not only add up but have the potential to permeate and tarnish every corner of one’s day.
Be open to continual expansion of your mental repertoire while acknowledging that discrimination extends across all facets of life. The subtler, less obvious examples not only deserve our attention, but they will widen our understanding of the issue substantially.
4. Do internal work.
Some might think it takes too much work to change their thought patterns—but in my mind, it requires significantly more energy to be constantly on guard, or policing yourself against problematic beliefs slipping out. Slow reshaping of those beliefs is, in the long run, a more sustainable approach. Once we’ve done that internal work, we’ll have less to guard against.
We can do this work in part by reading and taking in—while quieting our egos that insist on bursting forth and adding their own perspective to the mix.
As Kamau Bell said, “I’d later come to realize that my number one best quality in being an ally is my ability to shut up and listen.”
5. On that note, do your research.
I can only imagine the exhaustion of repeated induction (on a minority person’s behalf) into an educator role they never asked to be in, but rather that their position in society seems to have placed them into it by default.
Those of us with any degree of racial privilege can take some of that onus off by educating ourselves. People of color have written about these topics before, meaning that resources, explanations, and actionable items are out there—attainable if we take the time to look. Search engines grant the opportunity for almost anyone to become proficient.
6. Support Black-owned businesses.
We all need to eat. We all need to clean our homes. Most of us like to splurge from time to time on sweets or hearty feasts for special occasions. Don’t have any birthdays or special events coming up? Take note of some of these for a later time when the occasion does arise.
A few in the Bay Area include Marcus Books (over 60 years old and carrying a wide selection of books by and about Black people); Iyoba for organic paraben, synthetic fragrance, and sulfate-free hair and body products; Jackie’s Place for amazing Texas style chicken and waffles.
Take a look at these exquisite cupcakes I bought from black-owned Cupcakin’ Bakery:
Wherever in the country or world that you’re located though, a simple Google search will pull up Black-owned businesses near you.
7. Allow space for a wide range of emotions.
As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote in Americanah, “If you’re telling a non-Black person about something racist that happened to you, make sure you are not bitter. Don’t complain. Be forgiving. If possible, make it funny. Most of all, do not be angry. Black people are not supposed to be angry about racism. Otherwise you get no sympathy.”
It’s unfair that POC feel they must adhere to this code of total composure on a constant basis, as it requires an unrealistic amount of cognitive and emotional labor. When people are continuing to see few changes on a systemic level, not only is their anger more than understandable, but its expression is a sign that a person is valuing themself and not standing for continued mistreatment.
It’s important that we hold space for friends’ and coworkers’ strong emotions in response to the full gamut of daily slights and indignities, and not shut down in the face of them. If you empathize with the injustice, you’ll understand that anger is a normal, proportionate response to it.
8. Reconceptualize racism as a systemic issue, not an individual personality trait.
Often, people think of racism as an individual characteristic that some of us possess and others don’t—like brown hair or extraversion—rather than as a system into which we are all a part.
Individual racist acts are byproducts of living in a racist society. We can imagine racism as a giant bowl of toxic soup we were all born into. No one emerges completely dry from the soup bowl; it takes years of unlearning to towel off. Yet too many people would rather continue holding tightly to the star-spangled towel of all-American denial than unravel themselves from it.
We all still have some soup remnants on us.
We’re not bad people because of this, but it does mean we still have work to do. As Robin DiAngelo wrote, “If I understand racism as a system into which I was socialized, I can receive feedback on my problematic racial patterns as a helpful way to support my learning and growth.”
It’s forgivable to have celery in your hair. What’s less forgivable is to leave it there once it’s been pointed out to you.