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Confronting RACISM: A Letter to My White Friends

As a nation, we are witnessing a swell of desperately needed outrage over racism, and those of us who are white can no longer allow the condemnation of these atrocities to fade with the news cycle.

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CasarsaGuru / Getty Images

Dear white friends,

It is a drastic understatement to say that systematic racism is one of the most universal, enduring, and tragic blights on our human existence. An unconscionable number of lives have been lost, voices silenced, and communities torn apart due to a doctrine of supremacy. For too long the burden of confronting racism has fallen on the minority, those oppressed by systems and perspectives that perpetuate hate and intolerance. As a nation, we are witnessing a swell of desperately needed outrage over racism, and those of us who are white can no longer allow the condemnation of these atrocities to fade with the news cycle. We must own the responsibility, remain infuriated, and speak truth to power.

As a white, cisgender, heterosexual male, I am aware that I have tremendous privilege. I also realize that by writing this letter, I potentially open myself to unanticipated scrutiny and criticism. I don’t pretend to believe that I am any farther along in wrestling with these difficult issues than the next person. It is in this spirit that I invite my fellow white people to join me in considering the following paradigm, with the acronym R.A.C.I.S.M. It is a framework for confronting the presence, impact, and effects of racism in our lives, and to work toward an antiracist community.

Research

It is important to truly understand the structural and systematic ways that racism is built into our culture, our history, and the institutions of which we are part, or to which we belong. The New York Times’ “1619 Project” and the Aspen Institute’s Roundtable on Community Change are among the many good resources to start this work. Recently, I discovered that my Quaker roots are tangled in slave ownership. It was like a gut punch, but one I needed, as I had been blinded by my pride in our religion’s history with the Underground Railroad, abolitionists, and a legacy of peaceful activism for equal rights. It forced me to confront the reality of deeply ingrained racism from the past, and the inescapable implications for the present. Despite a firm commitment to social justice, my faith must wrestle with the danger of self-righteousness or pietism that could lead to either complacency or moral hypocrisy. 

The lack of a more widely acknowledged, accurate perspective can cause us to overlook the presence of racist undertones or actions within our communities. Schools, businesses, organizations, and families need to closely examine our past to be more inclusive, less damaging, more just, and better for our future. We cannot settle for the easy answers in our research or rely on incompletely constructed narratives. It is incumbent upon us to take a critical approach and be willing to uncover and accept the hard truths of what might be purposefully, or unintentionally, buried. Join me in reading Michael Eric Dyson’s “Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America”  and exploring the concept of “white innocence.” 

Assess

What are the ways that race intersects with our life, work, and relationships at this moment? We cannot—and should not—burden Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) with pointing out the ways our communities are racist. Nor should we expect them to lead the protests or solve the problems. The profession of college admission, in which I work, is a perfect example of a system that is rife with unjust policies and racist practices. Even the most surface-level evaluation of the admission process exposes inequities, from the misuse of standardized testing and preferential treatment of legacies to biased approaches to recruiting, marketing, and student loans

It is incumbent upon organizational and institutional leaders to unpack the implicit and explicit ways that racism infects our communities. There are useful models and exercises available for groups to evaluate their work around racial equity, and the Racial Equity Tools website is a great place to begin. The Anti-Defamation League and Project Implicit at Harvard also have helpful resources for examining our personal biases. It takes time, energy, and dedication and should not be optional if we seek antiracist institutions and communities.

Check

What are the ways that we have privilege? We must check ourselves and the inherent benefits we have from being white, wealthy, or educated (maybe all of the above). It is not enough to acknowledge the existence of white privilege, we need to better understand how these advantages disenfranchise others. How does our whiteness exclude those around us from having the same opportunities, freedoms, and safety in which we find solace? This will be uncomfortable to confront, but the choice of whether or not to address it is the very manifestation of that privilege in a system that is inexcusably working exactly in the ways in which it was designed. 

Dig in. There are many great resources to assist in exploring white privilege and tools for working with it. It requires the willingness to honestly and openly cede power and embrace humility. I have the privilege of knowing that the college admission process was built for students who look like my son. When I take him to look at schools this year, the fact that information about racism on campus is not easily accessed will not impact him in the way it does his BIPOC friends. I don’t need to worry that he will be unsafe because of the color of his skin at some colleges. He will have the freedom of choice while others do not, and that needs to change.

Impact

We can have the best of intentions for how we treat people, the words we use, and the actions we take. Intention, however, is not enough—we must consider the impact of what we say and do. Microaggressions, the subtle and often unconscious ways that hostility and prejudice emerge, can be as—or more—harmful as overt racism. Sometimes our good intentions blind us from the ways others experience our actions. 

For example, I recently challenged a predominantly white group with whom I was working about the lack of inclusivity in our presentation. While my motives were well-meaning, I failed to consider the impact that my approach might have had on our Black team member. As the proverb reads, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Instead of assuming that our rationale is sound and therefore best, we must consider the ultimate consequences more carefully. The National Education Association’s (NEA) EdJustice initiative has great resources for facilitating dialogue about issues of race and justice.

Sphere

Where do we have influence? What is the range of our ability to effect change? What groups, organizations, or communities do we operate within? Sometimes we can be paralyzed by feelings of powerlessness, but consider the quote, “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.” It has been attributed to The Dalai Lama, and there is some debate over whether it was originally an African proverb, but the message is clear, one individual can effect change. 

Structural racism is pervasive, so where is one to begin? I might not be able to change the racist underpinnings of our nation or my state, but I can influence my immediate circles with the hope that my actions will have a ripple effect. If we all do this, imagine the groundswell that could transform our communities. I can start with my family, my neighborhood, my school, and my profession to force conversation and action to confront our racist assumptions and behaviors. I can use my writing to call out racist practices and to lift up voices that have been undervalued and/or unheard. I have failed to include admission leaders from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) in my past writing simply because I don’t have an established relationship with individuals at these institutions. This is no excuse, and I am committing to change that. 

Whether you are in education, government, healthcare, business, law enforcement, real estate, or any other sector, there are undeniably racist practices and policies that you can challenge. First, influence your immediate sphere and then progressively widen the scope of your impact. 

Move

It is great to be aware, but unless we act on it, it is simply navel-gazing. I need to be more active as an antiracist rather than just staying comfortable striving to be free of racism in my own beliefs and interactions. By all means, attend protests, march in solidarity, donate to antiracist organizations, boycott racist companies, and make definitive statements about ending racism. But we cannot stop there. Signing an online petition or showing up at a Black Lives Matter event on a Saturday morning is merely a start. This fight will require a sustained and focused effort to reconstruct a society that is deeply seeded with systematic racism.

Put it in writing. What are the specific steps you are going to take over the next month, six months, and year to make meaningful change? Rather than add antiracism initiatives on your long “to do” list, put it on your short “must do” list. Involve others who will not only support your efforts but will also hold you accountable. Among the many inequities of our education system that outrage me, I am infuriated by the systematic racism in the disparity in school counseling in our nation. The American Civil Liberty Union’s (ACLU) “Cops and No Counselors” report highlights that 14 million students in this country are in schools that have a police officer but no counselor, nurse, psychologist, or social worker. It also points out that “the consequences for these funding decisions fall on the most vulnerable students,” explaining that “historically marginalized students—such as students of color—often have to attend schools with fewer resources and supports.” This not only impacts students’ mental health but also the availability of post-secondary planning and access. Furthermore, the A.C.L.U. reports that “Black students were arrested at a rate three times that of white students. In some states, they were eight times as likely to be arrested.” We cannot rely on our BIPOC friends and colleagues to pull us along or to spotlight the urgency. Antiracism work must be as much — or more — a movement led and maintained by white people. Yes, in word, but primarily in deed.

Racism is systemic in our society — there is not a part of our lives, work, or relationships that is immune to racism, and therefore we need to apply this critical lens to every aspect of our communities and raise our voices. A more just and equitable world cannot be achieved as long as we allow the hate and disparity to fester. When white people see something, we need to say something and use our privilege to make a change. With every life we lose to systemic racism and inequity, we are failing our community — and ourselves. If we are unsure whether to speak up in a situation or we are hesitant about engaging in this work, we must remind ourselves that our sustained voice makes a difference.

Be well and do good,

Brennan Barnard

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