White Accountability to Black Lives

Much has been written in the last several weeks (and in fact, over the years and decades) about what white people can do to get in the struggle for full racial equity, how to be an ally, how to beef up their knowledge base. I don’t intend to rehash any of that. It is Googleable, in the Twittersphere, or on the FaceBook.

First, white supremacy is a white people problem. Full stop. The responsibility for dismantling this bloody system of racial oppression must rest with white people. BLack and Indigenous people of color (BIPOC) have been in the struggle to dismantle this system from the first European contact with Indigenous peoples of the Americas, with the arrival of the first slave ship at Jamestown in August of 1619, with westward expansion and Manifest Destiny that saw our southern border crossing Mexicans in the Louisiana Purchase. The reason white people fail to recognize this rests upon the lies we’ve all been sold: Native Americans were generous and welcoming, Africans were eager to please and mostly a happy people, the explorers were long lauded in history classes as noble people and were just searching for knowledge of the world and better, more fertile lands.

The lessons we learned in our primary and secondary educations was woefully incomplete. Much of it was a flagrant lie. History is written by the victors and Europeans have a long, dark, and bloody history of colonization that worked to transplant European history over the histories of the indigenous peoples they encountered on their exploration and carving up of the world. For too long, this colonial mindset has deculturalized, decontextualized, and white washed the histories of BIPOC of the world over and over. Europe controlled knowledge and knowledge construction of the world through many mechanisms; the first of which was an assumption that the methods used for exploration were the only or best ones. Written language and publication was a vehicle by which knowledge was created and disseminated about BIPOC throughout Europe and the colonized world. This is why white people in the America’s fought so hard to keep Black and Indigenous peoples ignorant by separating us from our families and creating a trauma, denying us an education, making teaching us to read or write a crime, etc. They did not want their “knowledge” about us to be constructed by us so they maintained dominance in cruel and bloody ways for centuries because they did not want us to gain access to the tools of knowledge creation and dissemination.

Since the early days of colonization, predating the Columbus myth and 1492, BIPOC have been resisting, agitating, speaking out against, and dying at the hands of the people who keep this system running. To say we are tired is an understatement. It is 2020. We are 66 years from Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas (1954), 56 years from the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 55 years from the Voting Rights Act. Fifty-seven years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his Letter from Birmingham Jail and on August 28 it will be 57 years since he delivered his I Have a Dream speech where he called out police brutality. Malcom X spoke of police brutality 58 years ago which was one of the primary reasons he saw little value in nonviolence as the vehicle to deliver our people to full liberation. The Black Panther Party rose out of a need to protect the people from police brutality and white terrorism and developed their 10-Point Program 54 years ago this October. Public Enemy released Fight the Power and NWA released F* Tha Police in 1988, Tupac released Trapped in 1991, Eminem released White America in 2002 and Killer Mike dropped his Reagan track in the early aughts.

There is no part of what is happening right now that is new. The only new thing is the democratization the internet provided for the flow of information and cell phones capable of documenting events as they unfold making sharing picture and video evidence more fluid.

Regardless, BIPOC are resilient people. We agitated and struggled against these oppressions. We worked to make white people see themselves and their own horrors. White people, by and large, have refused to see themselves, their people, as the purveyors of cruelties, as the ugly white people screaming violently into the faces of Black children integrating schools or standing in the lynch mobs overcome with patriotism, love for their people, hearts swelling with pride as Black children, women, pregnant women, and men were lynched. They have refused to take an honest look at themselves, for the pain would overwhelm their delicate dispositions.

Now we find ourselves in 20motherfucking20, having to go over the same conversations that have been had over the last 70 or so years and the long racist history of this Amerikkka. And in every moment of upheaval, well meaning white people ask us, what can I do? Reading and watch lists are created, lists of people to follow on Twitter or other socials are curated, BIPOC are hired to come talk to a group of white people (or asked to come chat for free as if our time and this topic have no value), companies and institutions come out with messages of solidarity and some faux anti-racist or anti-oppression jargon, politicians (the people with actual power) say a bunch of words about solidarity and make symbolic gestures, white friends and colleagues reach out to their BIPOC colleagues, friends, and family, and people march. This is all about as useful as all the thoughts and prayers after yet another mass shooting. People comfortably pretend that change is beyond our abilities. Yet, there are examples the world over.

So, while I know many white people who are in genuine pain, have been doing the work for a long time, and others are coming along and finding their voices, I also feel much of this outpouring of concern is a little disingenuous. There are literally so many brief and digestible history lessons. This one, from John Oliver does a good job of showing some of the history, modern context, and ends with a full mic drop clip. The history has been there, it has been calling out. Now, it is bending in and folding over itself. We keep repeating the same conversations. There is no reason to remain ignorant to what is happening and the egregious injustices that have been allowed to happen for far too long in this country. Far too long.

I’ll say this one time. I am pretty confident that the white people reaching out mean well and that they are as fully present in these moments as they can be, are trying to connect with their compassion, are trying to feel the pain and suffering of the BIPOC in their lives or those they represent. I believe that they mean these statements in the moment and probably every other moment in their lives. However, white people by and large are in a pattern of complacency. Cognitive complacency. Follow up or through complacency. A complacency of status quo or a status quo complacency – or both, I don’t even know anymore. I know white people with integrity are hurting with us right now. I know antiracist white co-conspirators are out there fighting with and for us right now as well.

This work is not easy for BIPOC. We have our own unlearning of white supremacy, racism, and internalized hate to do as we learn the more complete, more accurate histories and stories of this country. Many of us have dedicated time in college and grad school to learning, others have dedicated whatever free time they have to learn and grow. We are not born into this knowledge. We are put in the position of having to undo a lot of miseducation to learn truths and then every moment of our lives is a battle. It’s so egregious, researchers have come up with terms to describe the mental health consequences of these things: microaggressions, racial battle fatigue, stereotype threat, generational PTSD, etc. And we navigate these things daily, on top of all the regular challenges of life humans just face in general. For some of us, it means reassessing and renegotiating relationships in our own lives.

So, white and white adjacent folks, this is a test. It is open book and open note. Tomes of books have been written from the first slave narratives to contemporary works of fiction and non-fiction. Movies have been produced and documentaries created. Gazillions of hours of video have captured heinous acts of violence and threats of violence against BIPOC by people who are supposed to protect, serve, educate, medically treat, etc. Articles have been written, research has been conducted, artists have created thought provoking art in myriad genres – visual, textual, auditory. There are no more excuses.

Stop asking us how to support us, how to fix these systems, how to change. Do the fucking work. There are no easy paths, no Spark Notes, no bandaids, no panaceas, and no amount of lipstick you can put on this pig to make it more appealing. No more gaslighting us and changing nothing. No more making a tweak here or there and declaring, “done!” when all that’s been done is a change of wallpaper. Think of the pain we used to feel when we were children and had an overwhelming mess to clean up. It’s time to clean up your room. You gotta do the work. And you gotta do it every day. Don’t just be an ally, be a co-conspirator.

That means you are calling out white supremacy where it lives in your personal and professional lives. When a white colleague says or does something racist, it is on you to hold them accountable and to do it in front of people, in the moment. Too many times BIPOC people face retaliation and job loss for speaking up and advocating for ourselves. And, it is not comfortable for us to do this for ourselves, especially when we see the embarrassment on your faces and hear no words of support, no calling it out. We see it and for too long, many of you have been more concerned with your own discomfort while our jobs and bodies and dignities are on the line, daily. Further, we didn’t come out of the womb knowing how to do this for ourselves. The state of this country has forced us to learn to do this – sink or swim or trial by fire. Because so few white people have ever had our backs, we’ve had to learn to be fierce advocates for ourselves and our community because no one was ever coming to save us but ourselves.

So, you have to call it out every time you see it – no matter how uncomfortable it makes you, no matter if you’re speaking truth to power, no matter if you’re scared, no matter if you may be risking your job. You’re white, odds are good you’ll find new friends, a new bar, a new job. That’s just facts. You gotta call it out at the thanksgiving table (especially there, that whole holiday is an ode to white supremacy) and at the boardroom table. You gotta call it out in rural small town America where no Black people live and in major cities that are majority Black. Call it out in the grocery store and in your friend groups. And I cannot emphasize this enough, call white supremacy and racism out WHERE IT LIVES!!!! NAME it, identify it, and CALL. IT. OUT!

The problem is that racism and white supremacy have always been sold to us as impolite conversation – never mind the impolite ways that racism and white supremacy has interrupted Black lives in the most violent of ways, broken up Black families, destroyed and leveled entire Black communities. And the same is true for Indigenous peoples, Mexican people, people of Latin descent, and Asian people in this country. These things do not directly impact white people so they can easily look away. However, now that we have amassed so much knowledge, so many first hand accounts, so much evidence, it is incumbent upon white people to keep looking even as they may want to look away. See. Really see the people being harmed and the ugly white faces staring back. Look in the mirror because that is white history more than it is Black or BIPOC history. To ignore all of the evidence is to be willfully ignorant.

“One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of the problems in power and policies, as an antiracist. One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist. There is no in-between safe space of “not racist.” The claim of “not racist” neutrality is a mask for racism.” ~ Ibram X. Kendi, How to be an Antiracist

Inaction is no longer be an option for anyone but least of all for white people. For anyone looking for a roadmap, there isn’t one. We have to create it. I believe we can do that but white people gotta get in the struggle and gotta stay in the struggle and challenge white supremacy at every turn. The politics of respectability got us here, it is not going to get us out of this mess unless white people allow themselves to sit and stay in this uncomfortable place until more just systems are created that will serve us all better.

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