On my feed I was excited to see a post called the 7 Stages of White People Getting Woke. Great–someone outlining the emotions and actions white folks go through when we first open our eyes to the truth of systemic racism in this country. I was all on board for recognizing white privilege, researching the pervasiveness of racism, feeling the feelings, connecting to others, defending your new outlook…but I made a full stop at number six: purge.
The idea was that after sharing your newfound understanding, you should turn around, look at your social media platforms, and expel everyone (including Cousin Pam and your high school buddy Dave) who doesn’t recognize white privilege or who is downright racist.
No no NO.
Do not purge your followers of all your white friends who espouse #alllivesmatter, your family who shout about black-on-black crime, and your former colleagues who are adamant they are victims of reverse racism. At least, not YET.
Let’s say you’re at the point where you’re sharing articles about white privilege, and Uncle Bob (who usually only shares about his favorite Nascar driver and wishes you a happy birthday once a year) leads with, “I never lived a privileged day of my life. Your aunt and I work like dogs for everything we got. White privilege my ass. Some bullshit liberals cooked up. Makes me sick.” There’s a natural urge to jump down his throat with your awesomely fiery typing skills. Or simply unfriend him.
Or try something different:
- Remember just a few days/months/years ago when you weren’t aware how Black folks are more likely to be pulled over for a traffic stop and then killed while detained on the side of the road? I’m taking a wild guess, but I imagine it wouldn’t have been helpful to be yelled at, shamed, ridiculed, or unfriended by a white person who thinks they’re superior because they understand racism and you don’t. When I feel ashamed, I want to disengage and never look back. There are already enough white people who are afraid to ask simple questions or open their mouths in a conversation about race. How would you have wanted to be treated before your eyes were opened? It’s a millennial adaptation of the golden rule: Refrain from shaming others the way you would like for others to refrain from shaming you.
- Ask yourself, “How can I turn this person into an ally?” Let this question be your guiding principle. Even Alabama Governor George Wallace–the angry white man who stood in front of university doors to prevent integration in higher education–eventually came to reject his own virulent racism. Imagine that within every oblivious white person is a racial justice ally waiting to come out. Invite in a little compassion for these white folks. You know they are embarrassing themselves. You know they are on the wrong side of history. It sucks to unknowingly say something ignorant or untrue or get stuck pigheadedly in a belief just because we’re afraid to entertain the truth. Yes, they are making mistakes–and we have too. Don’t condescend and don’t make a big deal about helping them see the error of their ways. Be cool. Be gentle. See the potential in them to wake up.
- Engage with them. Be as compassionate as you can. Empathize: “I know it’s hard to see someone else’s hardship when you’ve had so much of your own.”
Ask them questions about why they believe what they believe. “Hey Cousin Pam, I hear you saying black folks should solve crime in their own community first. Did you know there are lots of local and national organizations that do this work every day, but we don’t hear about it in mainstream media? I’m wondering, just like our country works to solve problems domestically and internationally, is there a reason why any community can’t work on and ask for attention and change around internal and external problems at the same time?”
Keep asking questions. Be interested and curious. Redirect the conversation back to race when you can. (Trying to avoid talking about race is a big tendency in most white people, even when we’re awake.) And remember, every minute you spend engaging with a racially unaware white person is a minute they can’t spend antagonizing a person of color with their micro- and macro- aggressions. By drawing hostile fire, you divert their energy away from expressing their frustrations in more harmful ways. And you exhaust them. And you might–slowly and imperceptibly–change their minds.
- Think of your silent followers. You’ve got the difficult white friend who’s not afraid to openly question the validity of any Black person’s experience in the world. But you’ve probably also got the vast silent majority of white friends and family who are watching you and how you handle their outbursts. If you, in your frustration and passion, insult and counterattack that difficult friend, your silent friends start to think you’re a bit extreme about the whole thing and begin backing away slowly. They also register that you’re a risky person to approach if they have some basic questions about white privilege or institutional racism; you might tear into them too. On the other hand, if they see you as friendly, knowledgeable, and patient, they won’t be afraid to contact you for support in their own waking up process. And best of all, they’ll use you as their model for how to deal with their racially unaware family and friends.
- Share articles, videos, and books with your difficult people. Like this one. Read them yourself first. Be enthusiastic and authentic. Share how these resources have softened, opened, or transformed your own understanding.
- When you get exhausted, enlist your other awake white friends to engage with your commenters. Send them this article, tell them about your compassion strategy, privately message them, and ask them to step up for you on a trying comment thread. Sometimes a second, third, or fourth voice can start to nudge a white person in the direction of greater logic and self-regulation. There’s nothing like knowing other folks are paying attention and agreeing with the other side to uplevel a conversation beyond name calling.
- Let them unfriend you. Fill your social media posts with so much wise and unapologetic love and support for the struggles of people of color that your intractable white friends/family just can’t take it anymore. They’ll either hide you from their feed or block you. Good riddance.
- At the end of the day you might still find your finger twitching over the block button of a “friend” or two. Purge them if: a) they leave unprovoked nasty comments on your posts when you’re not around to moderate or engage, b) if they harass your black and brown friends or create a hostile environment on your page, or c) you just don’t have the energy to deal with their crap after you’ve tried all of the above. Give yourself a break. There will be other word battles to disarm when you’ve cleared off all the bullshit and refilled your compassion tanks. I’ll keep calmly responding to your brother’s friend who can’t stop going on about imaginary increased violence against police while you recover. We’re all in this together.
More Radical Reads: When Being the “Hero” Goes Wrong: Why We Get Defensive about Privilege
Listening to, engaging with, and gently educating other white folks are constructive ways of using your white privilege to move your friends and family in the direction of supporting racial justice. You have access to their hearts and minds in a way no one else has. Know that you’re planting seeds you may never see grow. But give them time and friendliness. You may be delighted and surprised to wake up one morning and find Cousin Pam posting her newfound support for #blacklivesmatter.
More Radical Reads: 6 Ways Well-Intentioned People Whitesplain Racism (And Why They Need to Stop)
[Please note that these recommendations are for how white folks can deal constructively with other white folks’ white privilege and racism, and not advice for black and brown folks on how to deal with white folks’ ignorance. That’s not for white people to suggest or decide.]
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