The recent turmoil following yet another murder by police of a Black man has made it clear that systemic racism is embedded in our history and our culture. Yes, there have been real efforts to effect change over the last 50 years:
- Diversity trainings have been annual events for corporations and educational institutions for decades.
- Since the early 1960s, many companies, organizations, and educational institutions have designated affirmative-action or diversity officers whose job it is to make sure that qualified BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) are recruited and retained.
- Black studies departments have been part of colleges and universities since the late 1960s.
- Professional mental health organizations have established committees and published policies to make their members aware of the impact of racism and to establish best practices.
- Martin Luther King Jr Day was established as a federal holiday to honor the Civil Rights leader in 1983.
- Juneteenth has been increasingly recognized as a state holiday. Since Texas recognized it in 1980, 45 other states and the District of Columbia have recognized the day. There is now a push to make it a federal holiday.
Despite such efforts, racism continues in America. Why? I suggest that many Americans have let “awareness” — or at least the illusion of awareness be a substitute for action. The efforts to increase awareness allow white America to blindly continue the practice of systemic racism that is embedded in our culture. Performance of anti-racism isn’t the same as enacting it. It is an excuse.
How many of us have observed people attending staff “diversity trainings” rolling their eyes at the presenter? How many of us have ignored the eye-rolls? How many of us have been outraged by voter suppression in Black precincts and done nothing about it? How many of us have been happy to have a day off on MLK Jr Day but not participated meaningfully in carrying on his work? Oh, we’re aware of racism all right, but what have we done about it?
In her book White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo strips away the illusion. The fragility she describes is the difficulty white people have in talking about race and the defensiveness that results when asked to recognize white privilege and to do something about it.
The solution? For me, it’s to not let awareness be a substitute for action. It’s not letting statements of concern and sympathy, speeches and demonstrations of solidarity, and the trappings of policies passed but not implemented, drown out the very real negative consequences of racism experienced daily by BIPOC. It’s not letting myself become desensitized to overt police brutality and institutional microaggressions that shadow their lives every day. It’s making the commitment to daily, actively identify my own racism and to call out the racism in others.
I am a white psychologist writing to white readers: Racism is not a Black problem. Racism is a threat to the physical safety and mental and emotional health of everyone. It is not up to the Black community to educate us and to take the lead in changing white behavior. This is a call to action, to putting our energy and time and money into actively combatting racism — to not let awareness suffice.
How We Can Put Awareness into Action
Refuse be satisfied with awareness: We cannot allow ourselves the delusion that having taken a diversity training or gone on a march or read a few books makes us not racist. Yes, our awareness is a start. But it is only that.
Do our own internal work. We must recognize and own our privilege: Being white, we have had more opportunities. Being white, we haven’t had to live with constant anxiety about how we are being perceived. We haven’t had to live with fear for our own and our children’s lives.
Confront our own white fragility: If we remain defensive, if we insist that we are “different” from those racist other people, we cannot see our part in maintaining racial bias. We can’t solve a problem we won’t see and won’t talk about.
Learn: Philosopher George Santayana is often quoted: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We must educate ourselves about the history of racism. Education sensitizes us to how systemic racism is maintained. Education gives us direction for what we need to do to make change.
Become an ally: We must take whatever steps we can to dismantle racism at our workplaces, in our schools, in our government, and in our communities. That means standing up. It means taking risks. It means putting our moral values above expediency or comfort.
Use our privilege: Instead of ignoring it, it’s important that we use our privilege and relative safety to vote, to petition government, to march and demonstrate, and to work ourselves into positions where we have influence so that we can insist on and enact change.
Teach our children: We must make a conscious, systematic effort to teach our children about racism and how it harms everyone. We must teach them to become the allies of the future. It’s our job to make sure our kids get to know people whose skin color and/or ethnic background is different from their own. Positive relationships are the key to mutual understanding.
Stick with it (even if you make mistakes along the way): I’ll speak for myself here. Having been active in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, I allowed myself to be lulled into the idea that the battle for equality was, if not won, then certainly not needful of such active involvement on my part. I let myself put the constancy of racial issues on a back burner, while I turned my attention to daily stresses and crises that come with balancing work and family life. I let my awareness suffice. In that very real way, I’ve been complicit in maintaining racism.
The demonstrations of the past week have shaken me out of my stupor. I acknowledge that whatever I’ve done in the past, however much I’ve let myself believe I’m living out moral principles of equality personally and professionally, I’m not doing enough. My challenge, and maybe yours, is to refuse to let my awareness be a substitute for further action.