All the posts and all the hashtags and all the running with Maud won't make the next tragedy any less likely
The most useful thing for white people to be doing is exactly what we've avoided the most
Whites who are sincere should organize themselves and figure out some strategies to break down the prejudice that exits in white communities. This is where they can function more intelligently and more effectively… in the white community itself.. and this has never been done before.
Malcolm X, 1964
I said I wasn’t going to write anything more than a few lines about Ahmaud Arbery and I really meant it. I even texted a good friend asking them to hold me accountable for not adding to the cacophony. And then, last night, I went for a run and realized that there was something that had been eating at me, something that I hadn’t been able to process.
I suppose what I did was a #runwithmaud, since it took place yesterday, but like all things I do, it was still more of a #runwithmysameoldwhitemanself. I ran covered in both a blanket of societally-assured physical security and self-inflicted insecurity: completely not-at-risk, constantly assuming that both my stride and my intentions were off.
I ran past a thousand stories of race and class before I even hit the mile mark. I turned East, past the craft beer bar one block from my house, a place where drinking and hanging out is considered helpful to the future of our city. I turned West, past the boarded up bar and corner store also one block from my house, a place where drinking and hanging out is considered a threat to the future of our city. I ran past a Dollar General that serves as a a DMZ between cool new apartments and an uncool but functional public housing block. I ran past one of the high schools that served as a polling site for Wisconsin’s recent death election. Truth be told, I mostly ran on the river. It’s very pretty, after all, and what was actually on my mind wasn’t Ahmaud Arbery specifically but the distance between where we need to be and the place we’re stuck.
I am writing, as I usually am, to a particular variety of white person— the right-thing-attempter, the Black Lives Matter-er, the aspirationally conscious. You know, people like me. In the last 48 hours, we have posted. We have hashtagged. We have run. And while it would make for some extremely Good Internet Drama for me to harangue us collectively for the futility of those actions, I know it’s more complicated than that. I know for many of you, your posts were at least a small assurance to Black friends that white people in their life cared. For others it was a demarcation to more outwardly biased white friends and family as to where you stand, an important line in the sand. For many, it was an emotional release. There is value in all that. It plays a real function. If the alternative was that I had to look at one more childless person’s perfectly scored loaf of homemade sourdough break, I’ll take it I suppose.
What all that posting doesn’t do, though, is move us towards a place where there won’t be another name and another hashtag and another 48 hours of timeline grief. I know because we have literally done all this before. The reason I have been so confused and muddled and furious-with-whomever-it-was-that-even-invented-language over the last few days is the crushing hamster wheelishness of it all. Literally everything I read— all of the points and contra-points and well others have said this, but nobody has said THIS had already been written for Travon and Sandra and Alton and Michael. Verbatim. They might as well have been copy and pasted.
We have spent a decade doing this. Nobody who witnessed the last 48 hours hadn’t seen these arguments before. The McMichaels were not unaware that good, conscious white people had been saying Black Lives Matter in all those other moments. All the posts in the world didn’t change their mind, didn’t stop them from hopping in their truck, didn’t stop their hands from grabbing guns, didn’t stop them from giving chase, didn’t stop them from lynching a human being, didn’t stop their friends from describing them as God-fearing men and didn’t stop and didn’t stop and didn’t stop and didn’t stop and what does it mean to be God-fearing anyway because that doesn’t seem to be what they were afraid of. Oh damn it all.
I ran to the river last night because still water stagnates, still water festers. I needed to see water in motion for a change.
I have spent the past few years learning, through both research and trial and error, whether it’s possible for white people to change each other’s hearts and minds on issues of race and racism. In that time, I’ve discovered two things: first, that yes, it’s very possible! White people CAN effectively be trained to move each other towards anti-racist action (not as a substitute for learning from Black, Brown and Indigenous people, but as a complement to it). Secondly, that what actually works is completely the opposite of what most of us have been doing.
I have written about this before. I’m such an annoying, broken record acolyte because I’ve seen first-hand the power of effective organizing and persuasion to move both the most dangerous out-right racists (yes, even the McMichaels of the world) as well as the polite, non-gun-toting ones in your office or PTA. I’ve seen its power in transforming both the persuader and persuadee. It’s 100% possible, but it requires asking yourself a few questions, every single one of which will be just as hard for you, the aspirationally good white person, as anybody you’re trying to persuade:
Do you want to do this?
No really. People who know me know that I am constantly asking them to re-read this Joanie Mayers article. But for real, you should read it. It’s about why so many “good anti-racist” white people (including, I’d argue, many of your favorite, famous ones, the ones with the books and the platforms) get stuck on what looks anti-racist than what builds more anti-racists. It’s a real choice and it’s worth deciding if you want to make it fully, because there is very little glory and validation in all the steps that come next.
Do you understand the difference between the work we do in heterogenous and homogenous spaces and are you willing to do both?
One of the dilemmas of moving other white people towards racial justice is that, for it to work, it does take time and energy and a focus on you and the other person and your whiteness. The problem is, doing that in public, on social media and in heterogenous spaces is annoying at best (and deeply painful at worse) for Black, Latinx, Asian, Middle Eastern and Indigenous folks. Instead of public conversations that, for once, might focus on what BIPOC people are experiencing, they instead get the white feelings hit parade over and over again. In the meantime, the white people in those heterogenous spaces aren’t really doing effective organizing because we’re performing and peacocking. That’s to say— when we show up in public it should be in acts of listening and learning and humility and solidarity. There is then a parallel path that we need to take in private with each other as white people— a longer, messier path that leads to decentering whiteness, but which, ironically, requires first centering it in a different, new way.
Are you actually, truly rooting for you and the other person/people to become less racist together or do you just want to show off and argue and feel better about yourself?
This is a real decision that you have to make. We often hear calls to “be comfortable with being uncomfortable” and “being willing to call out racism” and assume that means that our only job with other white people is just to yell and argue with them. And yes, to the point above, if you’re in a public space and people of color are being hurt by acts of racism, then yeah, your job isn’t to coach or patiently move another white person— it’s to center the experience and safety and people of color. Yell away! Stand in solidarity! But if you are actually trying to move and transform your relatives or your fellow parishioners or your coworkers or your neighbors in private, yelling at them (at least as a primary or sole strategy) becomes more about your moral righteousness than it does about organizing. You’ll feel great, but I can guarantee that the other person will be less likely to actually move.
By contrast, there is no great organizer in the world who doesn’t start with an actual love for who the person they’re organizing could be at their best, of the potential good they could help build for the world. Starting here goes not merely beyond “calling out” but also its currently zeitgeisty antonym (“calling in”), which in practice has come to mean “still trying to argue with them, just at a lower volume.” You have to start from a desire to actually get to know and be in relationship with the other person, not just to convince them to come to your side. You don’t have to love their racism or their ugliness or anything they’re doing now. You do, however, have to believe in who they could be.
Do you actually know WHY you’re rooting for the other person?
When I coach white people on either persuading another individual or organizing a group, I always start with having them imagine- given that person or group’s power, influence, strengths, values— what it would look like for them to be fully and powerfully useful to collective, multi-racial liberation work. What would be true if your CEO, your aunt in the police department, the guy next to you on the factory floor were actually attempting to be ant-racist? Who would they be listening to? What would their relationship be to BIPOC communities? How would/could they help push you as well? If you’re not building towards that specific vision, you’re not playing a long game… you’re just trying to scrub away the other person’s deficits. And in turn, you’re more likely to just toss in the towel after a couple arguments.
Do you know what they’re afraid of giving up? And, equally important, do we know what we’re afraid of giving up?
One universal truth I’ve discovered, with every group of white people with whom I’ve ever worked, is that the key factor holding them back isn’t ideology or access to information or knowledge of anti-racist vocabulary or whether they own Ibram X. Kendi books or even inherent bias: It’s that we’re all afraid of giving something up. And of course we are! That’s why racism persists— because we have been gifted a world where we’re on top, and as much as we rhetorically want to build a different world, we also like the comforts of this one (be they material or psychological).
The problem is, we frequently yell at other white people about what THEY’RE giving up without realizing the parallel moves we need to make. It isn’t actually brave or hard for me to say “Black Lives Matter” because I’m not a cop— it changes zero things about how I do my job. But that doesn’t mean I’m actually a better, more advanced white person than a police officer— the proof of that is in the huge list of things I’m deathly afraid to give up (privileges for my children, access to funds and influence for my nonprofit work, etc.). It does mean, though, that my coaching or organizing is going to be deeply ineffective if I’m not willing to think through what I’m scared of as well. If I do so, however, the conversation can become not one of authority and self-righteousness on my part, but on us working through the gap between both of our values/actions contradictions together.
Are you ready to get behind the face-level arguments the other person will make to talk about what’s really behind the veil there?
I have become increasingly uninterested with mere surface level conversations with other white people about racism as a public policy issue. It’s not because there aren’t truths to be discovered there. The problem is, those conversations don’t actually reveal anything about why we believe or act in the way we do. It isn’t about whether you value “the rule of law” or “personal responsibility” or “justice” or “love.” What’s interesting isn’t any of our first draft arguments— it’s what’s behind them. It’s the conversations about how we see the world and why it’s so scary for us, as white people, to imagine that the entire painting we’ve been viewing might be a mirage.
This isn’t about finding common ground. I don’t spend time with any white person in order to be convinced to be less anti-racist. What I have noticed, though, is that you can do infinitely more with a conversation that is led by a long series of “well why do you believe that?” “why is that important to you? “why is it so hard to hear the opposite of that?” and “what would it mean if the opposite of what you believe is true?” than you can with our typical conversational patterns (you hear an argument/you make an immediate counter-point/you yell/you “agree to disagree”).
Are you willing to use a variety of tactics and strategies over time— sometimes yelling, sometimes listening, sometimes reflecting, weaving in opportunities first to listen to and then be held accountable to BIPOC folks, trying increasingly ambitious stair-step actions together?
I am collapsing a lot here (and if you want to talk more about what it looks like in practice let me know— it’s what I do), but I’ve actually discovered that people with whom I’ve worked understand how to do this much more intuitively than they think they do. There is a difference between amateur and master coaches, of course, but all of us know what it feels like to be coached effectively. In turn, we all have at least some of the skills needed to apply that to others. And make no bones about it— this is coaching. Just because it isn’t all yelling and cursing 24/7 doesn’t mean this is about coddling each other. Over time, great coaching is much more uncomfortable than any single argument. It’s a road you walk with another person or group of people that moves you from the place you are stuck in towards a more beautiful destination together. And yes, that’s a long game, and yes that will be rife with frustrations and you will get no credit for the time you put into it and it will NOT look good on social media. But the good news is, if you stick with it, it’ll be transformative. It’ll reduce the harm you and the other person do in the world.
Again, do you really want to do this?
Is your goal to absolve yourself of guilt? Is your goal to impress your Black friend? Is your goal to prove that you’re the best white person, that you’re not like the others? Or do you actually want the other folks in your parenting group to not hoard all your district’s resources at their tony, segregated school? Do you actually want your influential church or synagogue to come out in favor of reparations? Do you actually want your company or organization to upend its entire hiring, compensation and performance management system? Do you actually want that next big city contract to go to a firm owned by a woman of color rather than the same old boy’s network? Do you actually want your other buddies on the force to be less likely to shoot an unarmed black man, on or off duty? And do you actually want them to not only do that, but to lobby their FOP to admit that something, urgently needs to change in their ranks?
The way we continue to transform our behavior in public, heterogenous spaces matters. Our willingness to listen more and interject less when our BIPOC friends and colleagues share what they’re experiencing matters. Our willingness to have our own actions guided by accountability and humility to communities of color matters. Our willingness to respond non-defensively when folks tell us we’re not helping matters.
But it isn’t enough. Nor is it even enough to say “I’ll work with other white people” if we’re not up for the totality of what that means. It’s not sufficient to just commit to being the most anti-racist voice in a room full of white people. Organizing isn’t about making ourselves look good, it isn’t about our volume or rhetoric. It’s about building relationships that help both you and the other person grow together. And it’s about building those relationships both with the white people in our lives whose actions and beliefs mirror our own imperfections the most AND those who we find the ugliest and most abhorrent.
It was too late to #runformaud yesterday. It’ll be too late again if we stay stuck on the banks of stagnant waters. It isn’t communities of color that are holding back progress. It’s us. White people. And we aren’t doing so due to insufficient social media posting. If we’re not willing to try something different, if we’re not willing to actually organize, if we’re not willing to get in the river and start paddling forward, we will instead only clog these shores with more hashtags, more tears and most tragically of all, more bodies.
As I’ve alluded to throughout this article, coaching and training other white people on how to organize with each other is literally my life’s work. My work email address is firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to talk about it. I have a backlog of emails right now (because I’m full time with my kids) but I will get to all requests and questions and comments and critiques. I promise.
Song credits— “Whitey on the Moon” by Gil-Scott Heron, “Okie from Muskogee” by Merle Haggard