Last Friday and Saturday in Charlottesville was unequivocally an act of terrorism and hate on the part of white supremacists and neo-Nazis. They were not there to demonstrate peacefully. They came not only to spew their hate but to engage in extreme violence. In an interview this week, Virginia’s governor Terry McAuliffe reported that authorities actually found stockpiles of weapons stashed around the city by the white supremacist groups for this rally. They showed up on a university campus wielding torches and clubs. So called “militias” showed up with semi-automatic weapons to what was supposed to be a peaceful assembly. They hurled soda cans filled with cement and bottles filled with urine at counter protesters. And a man drove his car full speed into a throng of pedestrians, murdering a young woman and seriously injuring a score of others, including my colleague’s brother.
This wasn’t an isolated incident by a handful of people. Terrorist groups do not just disappear into the ether. This isn’t going to go away if we close our eyes and ignore it.
Acknowledge White Privilege
The term “woke” has become a somewhat comical meme in the last couple of years, referring to whether people are “woke” to their privilege and biases or not. Truly, we are at a crisis point in our country’s history where an awakening must happen, and let’s face it, we white people have been hitting the snooze button for far too long. Time to get to work.
The systems and cultural norms in this country past and present have set up a nation where whites get automatic advantages. For more on this, read Dr. Peggy McIntosh’s article, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”
The point of her paper was to wake fellow white people up to their privilege, to help them become aware of the daily advantages they possessed that were not provided to people of color. Dr. McIntosh mentioned twenty-six daily advantages she recognized in her life that people of color are not afforded. Although the article was written over 27 years ago, the social discrepancies she outlined are still in existence.
For example, because of the color of my skin, I know that I:
- can go shopping alone without being followed or harassed by sales staff or security
- have always been shown mostly images of people of my color as national heroes, founders, leaders, and important historical figures
- am able to protect my children from people who may not like them or wish them ill
- can speak, act, and dress any way I wish without people attributing my actions to my race and judging me negatively
- can be confident that if a police cruiser pulls me or my family members over, none of us will be treated brutally because of our race
Acknowledging privilege does not require us to live in shame or guilt.
Dr. McIntosh emphasized that her intention was not to throw shame on white people for their privilege, rather to call attention and awareness to this very real element of our society. Accepting my social status does not mean an admonition of “guilt” for having privilege. It is what it is. It’s utterly stupid that the color of my skin dictates how I’m treated in society. But it’s the truth. Rather than feel shame or defensiveness, it’s important for me to just call it what it is and not shy away from owning my privilege.
Ignoring our privilege as white people ignores the lifetimes of disparate treatment that our friends and family members of color have experienced, that their friends and family members have experienced, and so on. When those of us with privilege stay silent because we allow ourselves to believe that these issues don’t affect us, we are not being patriotic Americans. When we reach for false equivalents to try to lessen the cognitive dissonance that we feel in the face of the stark reality of institutionalized prejudice in our country, the message we send to people of color is that they don’t matter to us. When we say it’s not our problem, we immediately become a part of the problem. Our silence and detachment contribute to the ugliness that is racism and ethnocentrism.
It doesn’t have to be that way. We can, and MUST, be part of the solution. And that takes risk, self-reflection, and humility.
Take Action: Leverage Your Power.
If you, like me, are searching for ways to take action in the wake of this last weekend’s atrocities, here are just a few tips and resources:
- The Southern Poverty Law Center recently published an excellent guide called “Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Response Guide” with lots of tips and strategies for getting involved, supporting victims of hate crimes, and pressuring elected officials and community leaders.
- The Indivisible Guide has a local resources directory that will match you with advocacy groups in your area.
- The Bystander’s Guide to Helping a Person Who is Being Targeted, a poster distributed by the city of Boston, offers simple steps to follow to be an ally and fight ethnocentric intolerance. Although it focuses specifically on harassment of Muslims, the steps are relevant for anyone who observes a member of a disenfranchised group being targeted.
- Mary-Frances Winters’ Inclusion Solution blog has great insights into white privilege and what white people can do as advocates for equality and inclusion.
- Become a diversity advocate in your local schools. If the school doesn’t have a faculty, staff, administration, school board, that reflect the diversity of our country, speak up at school board and PTA meetings. Ask questions to ensure that the curriculum used to teach your kids accurately and courageously represents the inequalities that minorities and women have encountered in our nation’s history.
- Think about who you spend time with at work. Become aware of who is getting invited to meetings, who is asked to join committees or high profile projects, even who you choose to eat lunch or have coffee with. If a coworker makes an inappropriate joke, even if nobody else hears it but you, tell them that’s not cool with you and explain why.
- Talk to your kids about privilege in a way that doesn’t create divides but builds a sense that we are all created equal. Teach them the tools to stand up to bullies and people who make malicious comments. I created a character named Petunia who regularly has to deal with issues of exclusion, both as the observer, the perpetrator, and the victim. I use humor and childhood scenarios to help my kids learn lessons in compassion and empathy as well as standing up to bullies.
- Put your money where your mouth is. Yes, totally keep donating to organizations that are aligned with your values. But also support minority-owned businesses and boycott businesses that do not stand for diversity (be it who they hire, how they treat diverse customers, and what sort of ideological or social agendas they support). We in America love to say that money talks. Well, here’s your chance.
- Just show up. Talk to other people about these issues. Get involved at the local level. Don’t be afraid of saying the wrong thing. Come with curiosity and a genuine desire to help fight hate and create a truly equal community.
I’m reminded of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
The voices of the white supremacists are loud and ugly, and must not be discounted. But just as dangerous to the future of our republic is the silence of the majority. It is urgent that we all step forth at this time in our nation’s history to raise our voices together and drown out the hate.