Dear White People Part 2,
Over 35,000 people have read the article I posted about the need for myself and other white people to acknowledge and be responsible for our racism. Thank you to so many people for reading and sharing this. I asked my partner Chanelle to collaborate with me on responding to the most common responses.
From Chanelle & Sunny:
The responses have been very mixed. From Black people, people of colour and Indigenous folks, direct responses have been overwhelmingly positive and encouraging. Obviously some would not have felt comfortable or wanted to give critical feedback. It’s also racist to expect entire groups of people to agree with each other or share the same opinions. From white folks, the responses have been more mixed. Many white folks said “yes absolutely”, others that it was a challenging yet important thing for them to read and engaged in critical conversation from a genuine place of wanting to understand, discuss and learn. A smaller number of white people wrote Sunny abusive messages. This article is especially directed toward those white folks who felt challenged but also wished to understand and learn more. We want to talk to you because we care about supporting you to move you further toward liberation and because we need you in the movement to end racism. We want to be part of a movement of white folks taking responsibilty to educate each other and hold each other accountable, so that this labour doesn’t fall on the shoulders of BIPOC* (Black, Indigenous and people of colour) communities.
A few white people mentioned that they found the title of Sunny’s first piece depressing, because the suggestion that racism is inevitable in white people as long as we live in a white supremacy, makes it seem like we can’t do anything about it. Yes, it’s true that white people created racism and we enforce, defend and maintain it everyday- some of us intentionally and others of us through our denial or our inaction. However, the good news is the fact that we built it also means that we have the power to resist it everyday in hundreds of ways! We can learn to dismantle it and build mindblowingly beautiful things in its place, following the strong leadership of BIPOC communities and stepping up into leadership roles in transforming ourselves and other white people.
Firstly, we want to honor that what we have learned about racism, we have learned from Black people, Indigenous folks and people of color. These communities have explained and documented racism in every possible format and setting. Books, art, kitchen table storytelling, journalism, science, music, poetry, historical research, blogs, theatre, fashion. Entire libraries and schools–and critical viewing of the nightly news–exist for those wanting to understand racism. We have also learned a huge amount from other white anti-racist organisers and friends, like from workshops and training (e.g the Catalyst Project’s Ann Braden Program). We say this from a place of care: many of us white folks remain confused or willfully ignorant of some of the most basic structures of racism (and oppression more broadly). We are not trying to judge you. We make mistakes all the time–there will certainly be mistakes in this article too! We aim to be supportive and firm and this may mean we feel really uncomfortable sometimes.
“But people of colour are mean to me too – isn’t that reverse racism?”
Many of the comments regarding the original article fell into this category: “But people of color did this to me–so how come when I do it you call it racism and when they do it, it’s not?” The idea of “reverse racism” comes from a misunderstanding (intentional or not) of how racism and oppression work. White people created the idea that if us white folk experience discrimination, harassment or any kind of unpleasant thing by Black, Indigenous or people of color then we are experiencing “reverse racism”. This is a used by many white people as a justification for not having to be responsible for racism.
The concept stems from the misinformed idea that racism is just shitty behaviour from one individual to another, and that it’s about feelings and not power. Let’s talk about power and see how that informs our experiences of individuals.
Like all forms of oppression, racism has (at least) 3 layers:
Internalized. This is the ways that oppression lives inside of people’s hearts and minds, how people are being oppressed compare themselves negatively to those with power and hate themselves and their families and communities, sometimes being self-destructive or undermining or distancing ourselves from each other. Someone could be experiencing internalised racism, internalised homophobia, internalised sexism etc.
Inter-personal. This is what happens between individuals. So this would include a person with power (in this case white privilege) discriminating against someone, acting from prejudice based on stereotypes. This can be everything from micro-aggressions like avoiding eye contact all the way up to murder.
Institutional, Societal, Cultural. These are the larger structures that we usually didn’t create ourselves but that we inherit and that we either benefit from or are targeted and exploited by. Like schools, legal systems, workplaces, economic systems, religions, government etc. Almost all of these institutions are shaped and dominated by white people, specifically rich white men. This is the key to understanding why a power difference can’t just be “reversed”.
These institutions are a set up to punish some and benefit others and the impacts are so pervasive. Let’s look at how things are right now: a kid of color is born. Over her lifetime, she is more likely to die at childbirth, to not get the nutrition she needs, to go to poorer quality schools and drop out, to live in substandard housing or become homeless, to struggle with her self worth because she’s been told she’s not as valuable, to experience violence from state agents like the police and in her personal relationships, to be denied respectful and effective health-care, have her culture and spirituality disrespected, not be able to get a job and to earn less than white people in whatever work she does find. There is a lot of variation within this but each exception does not disprove the overwhelming evidence that there are structural forces creating these problems.
So if someone doesn’t give an individual white person a job because they are white, that may have an impact on that person. But it is likely an isolated incident and doesn’t have entire systems of power perpetuating it every single day. Discrimination against us white people might hurt our feelings or have some harmful impacts. That could be a real bummer. However, there are no institutions that harm white people because we are white (they may harm us because we are poor or trans etc, but that’s not based on our race).
Inter-personal racism–context is important
Another way to think about it, is that the context is important. It is the presence of not only shitty behaviour, but its combination with power that makes racism real. Let’s look at the example Sunny gave of how it’s racist for him to get the names confused of people of colour, even though he also frequently mixes up white people that he doesn’t know. A lot of white folks struggled to understand this. A friend, Tiara, responded very succinctly to this on their facebook page when questioned:
“there’s a lot more cultural history and baggage associated with POC (people of colour) being confused for each other – “oh all you Asians look the same” etc – sometimes to malicious means (WW2 propaganda about how to spot a “Jap” for example).”
We experience things based on how we’re treated in other spaces and at other times. It’s actually a very white thing to divorce ourselves from the context, to think that we can operate independently from our surroundings. So if a person of colour or another white person doesn’t remember who I am, it may just feel like a personal sting. Compared to, for a person of colour, it may jab into a painful spot that’s been jabbed over and over again. I hit you once, it hurts. I hit that spot 400 times, I’ve created a wound. And of course it’s more complicated than that – lots of white people feel dehumanised or have baggage around this for different reasons – like because they/we are trans or femme women etc. We’re not over-riding your experiences of being squashed for various parts of your identities – we’ve chosen to focus on unpacking white supremacy and racism in this article.
Respecting Black, Indigenous and People of Colour Only Space
Some white people took offense when they were asked to refrain from posting on some facebook walls and spaces in the aftermath of the Zimmerman verdict. Sometimes we simply don’t recognize the impact that just our presence can have. We are whole human beings and have many different impacts on the world, both wonderful and crappy. And being white automatically impacts a space. We bring our whiteness everywhere and our (unintentional or not) racism. It makes total sense that sometimes (or often) BIPOC communities would want spaces for their own healing, discussion, fun or organising, where they don’t have to deal with our racism. It also makes sense when a person of colour doesn’t want to be our friend. If we were being treated awfully by a racist world, I imagine many days we’d hate white people too. In fact, expecting people of colour and Indigneous people to like us can actually be a sign of being privileged – why should we feel entitled to other people’s respect, without it being earned? Between the two of us, some of the most exciting, powerful and transformative experiences we’ve ever had have been in spaces that were centred around a particular group of people facing oppression (e.g. femme or trans only spaces) and so we absolutely want to celebrate and support BIPOC folks doing the same and encourage white folks to step back.
What makes us white people so confident that we really understand racism?
Some white people also commented that Sunny had chosen “ridiculous” examples that weren’t really racism. White people – how would we know what is and isn’t racist?! The only way we can understand that is to listen to Black pepole, Indigenous folks and people of color (BIPOC). And not just one or two people–be tuned in to movements. The fact that we might not understand how some BIPOC may experience our actions, speaks further our racism. Consider this — in what ways is it essential to your everyday life, your job or your survival, to know about racism, or anything at all about BIPOC communities?
In an in an anti-oppression workshop, artist, activist and educator Kim Katrin Crosby pointed out that she has to know everything about white people. As a woman of colour, her survival is dependent on knowing exactly how to navigate a white system that’s designed to squash her (she said it way more eloquently than this). As white folks though, we could learn about various BIPOC communities if we wanted to, but our survival is not dependent on it. We can get by just fine remaining ignorant. And in fact, it’s not just a passive ignorance – many of our ancestors and our current white culture works very hard to actively erase the voices, histories and ideas of people of colour and Black and Indigenous people. Who gets to write the history books? Who controls the vast majority of mainstream media outlets? Who has the resources to put their ideas into action? Who gets their television shows produced? Yes, mostly white people. For every Oprah, there are 100 David Lettermans. So, in a culture of white supremecy, while it’s not a personal failing for a white person to not know much about communities of colour, it is, nonetheless, our responsibility to find out. And not in the way where we just culturally appropriate and exoticise and devour everything about others. Rather consensually valuing, respecting and learning how to treat people with dignity and respect. Another teaching Kim offered in her workshop, was instead of the saying “treat people how you’d like to be treated” to rather treat people how they want to be treated. If communities of colour are saying something is racist, if we don’t understand why, it’s our job to find out.
“But people of colour are racist to each other too”
What is called “lateral-racism” is real–and it is is based on racist white systems offering folks of colour and Indigenous folks some privileges by competing with each other for points in a system designed ultimately for white people’s benefit. When white people point this out though, it’s not usually to take responsibility, it’s to divert any attempt to be responsible for our own racism. Of course, folks of colour and Indigenous people have a lot of healing to do around racism. And there are a lot of people of colour doing powerful organising around building alliances together to do this.
“But what about mixed race people?”
Some people have pointed out that Sunny’s original article doesn’t acknowledge mixed race people. You’re absolutely right. That was a shortcoming of the article. These conversations are so much more complex than “black or white”. We’ve heard some mixed race people talk about complex experiences of sometimes passing as white (being read as white) and other times being read as from a non-white cultural background. Let’s remember to keep complicating our analysis and understandings.
“But what about me?”
We all experience intersections of power and privilege. Some of us are white–and also poor, trans, disabled, fat, femme and experiencing a lot of oppression based on that. Yes, transphobia, poverty, fatphobia, ableism and misogyny suck. And if you compare your experience with someone with the *same* identities and experiences–except they are not white–you can see that there is a dramatic difference. Some of us white folks cannot stand a conversation about our racial privilege without turning it into a conversation about our other experiences of oppression. This is called derailing or detouring. But our needs do not need to be in competition with each other. What made you think that by focusing an article on racism, it was detracting from your liberation?
There is a powerful saying from a Murri community (an Aboriginal community in Queensland, Australia), “If you’ve come to help me, you’re wasting your time, but if you’ve come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Working on our racism will support our own and other’s liberation. In fact, it is NECESSARY for our liberation. Why? Because the people most impacted by our shitty systems often live at the intersections of multiple oppressions – like people who are dealing with poverty and racism and transphobia and sexism all at once, for example. And these people have seriously powerful stuff to offer social change movements. They don’t need to go to university to learn fancy words like “intersectional politics” – these concepts are obvious from their lived experience–and when the solutions that have been created by these communities have the power and resources to be implemented, they benefit us all.
Second, because it feels incredibly shitty to be a world where it is difficult to build genuine relationships with people because racism has divided you and to know that many of the good things in our life (our privileges) rely on other people being oppressed. If we want to see justice, peace and safety, and realise our true potential as communities and individuals, then we need to understand that we can’t achieve this while some people are dehumanized, robbed and victimized by systems of white supremacy. How are we going to have to transform to be a world where we all get a fair piece of the pie? That’s the amazing challenge ahead of us, that we have the power to embrace everyday in a million ways.
Working on our racism will unite us, not divide us
A few white people commented that they thought Sunny’s article would just divide white people from Black, Indigenous and communities of colour (BIPOC), by pointing out the awful things, rather than the things we have in common. Whether we talk about it explicitly or not, our racism gets in the way of our connections with BIPOC every day. We may not notice it because we’re not the ones who our racism most obviously hurts. But we are divided because we are NOT talking about racism and NOT actively transforming our racism. Denying the ways our racism keeps us separate from BIPOC is not going to bring us closer. Only actively working on our shit will.
This racist system our ancestors built (and that we perpetuate) was very intentionally built to keep us separate. Let’s take a quick trip down history lane with an illuminating example from the tobacco fields of Virginia. In the late 17th century, black and white workers on the farms were starting to organise together to fight for better working conditions and possibly overthrow the white bosses. There were so few white bosses, vastly outnumbered by the thousands of black and white workers. So, to increase their stability, the bosses used “divide and conquer” strategies. To break up the workers, they created the the concept of “white” (before this there was English people and German and French people etc), lumped most of the pale skinned people together, and gave them privileges like extra food rations and shorter working hours. Now the “white” people had something to lose. If they continued organising with their black comrades, they’d have these privileges taken away. This still happens today. Even though ultimately only 1% of the population (mostly white people) get the most massive benefits from the work of the rest of the world, because other middle class and working class white people get some benefits, comparative in general to people of colour, Black and Indigenous people, we fear that if we rock the boat, we’ll have it taken away.
It is this racist system of handing out privileges to white people and punishing people of colour, Black and Indigenous people, that divides us. And we will stay divided unless we work on our racist shit.
We’re not saying you’re the Ku Klux Klan
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate.” Martin Luther King Jr. from “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”
Sometimes those white people most opposed to racism are the most defensive (and therefore unaccountable) about our own racism. We can respond with rage, disbelief and denial because we believe that opposing racism means having erased it out of our hearts, lives and minds. For example, when Chanelle was about to undertake an anti-racist training program, a white person said to her “gee you must really have a big problem with racism”. It was unthinkable to him that continuing to do active work on racism was a part of being anti-racist. He saw himself as above that, as an anti-racist person who had it all worked out and was therefore just “not racist” anymore.
Aside from the pretty clear arrogance of believing that white people get to decide for ourselves when we’re “done” with our racism, we also see it differently because of our understanding of institutional racism. White folks are placed into racist institutions whether we want to be there or not. For example, for the most part, our schools reflect white realities, goals, histories and leadership. So no, you don’t need to be a part of the KKK to be a part of white supremacy. We’re all in it, it’s up to us how we respond. Some people feel so much shame about this that they give up (or use it as an excuse to give up). What if, just as an exercise, you removed any personal shame associated with the word racist? Would that change what you would consider racist? Just for this exercise, imagine you saw doing racist things with as little emotional weight or shame as say forgetting to take the garbage out on garbage day? This is not meant to trivialise racism, rather as a tool to assist white people to acknowledge our racism as the first step in being responsible for working on it.
Being in Love with Our Communities: why we take a stand against racism
A racist world tells us as white people that we will lose stuff if we challenge racism. That there’s not enough to go around. That it’s too much work. That we’re not responsible anyway. That racism is over. Or any number of other slippery ways to get out of being responsible. What we stand to lose by failing to address racism, is far greater than the comparatively small things we will have to give up like being right, being the centre of attention, being comfortable 100% of the time etc. Working on our racism, we risk looking silly or ignorant or being called out – for example, we will likely have made embarrasing mistakes in this article. Contrast this with what we risk by failing to work on our racism – friends, awesome communities, healing, justice, safety, peace, learning and living in a harmonious world. And we can do this work from a place of love for ourselves, our friends and our communities. It’s not about hating ourselves as white people, it’s about loving ourselves so much that we want to live in a awesome world and stand with our friends who are Black, Indigenous and people of colour.
To read the original article, “Racism is to White People, as the Wind is to the Sky”, click here.
If reading is your jam, here is a fuckton of resources you can check out.
We also recommend quieting that inner voice and practice listening to the people of colour, Black and Indigenous people in your life.
Some other popular blog articles:
Check out video, photos, theatre shows and workshops on Sunny’s website