Since the "Race to Equity" report was released at the YWCA Racial Justice Summit, and even more since Rev. Alex Gee’s article “Justified anger” was published in the Cap Times, I have been approached by an increasing number of people to talk about racial justice issues. I am excited to see this upsurge in awareness of race issues. At the same time, I notice that many of my conversations with other white people seem like attempts to deny or minimize the reality for people of color or — at the other extreme — jump too quickly to “fixing” the problem without much depth of understanding. These are frequent experiences for racial justice professionals at the YWCA and elsewhere. I try to use these opportunities to educate, and also to remember where I’ve come from on my own journey as a white person learning about race.
I grew up in Madison, a community perfectly designed for my comfort, education, enrichment and success. I also believe that it was — and still is — a community perfectly designed to help white people never have to see that people of color live a different experience here, one eloquently described by Pastor Gee. We have to try hard to understand that other reality. And if we never do, it is all too easy for us to misinterpret racial disparities as a symptom of what is wrong with people of color, rather than the result of systems of racial injustice. And it’s also too easy for us to believe that as long as we are all “nice” and nobody uses racial epithets, there is no problem about race.
My first inkling that I might have some personal learning to do about race occurred in my freshman year of college. Standing in a large lecture hall, I tried to tell the person next to me who “Professor Smith” was. I explained that he was about 13 rows up, five people in and had elbow patches on his jacket. My classmate looked at me strangely and said, “You mean the black man?” I couldn’t say the words “black” or “African-American.”
A few years later, as a resident adviser in the dorms, I called security because a group of black men were being loud and disturbing the other residents. I was challenged by the black student caucus in the dorm, which suggested that my decision to call security — rather than simply ask them to quiet down — was racially motivated. I was horrified, flatly denied it — I was not a racist! But (fortunately) also began to wonder if it could be true.
I have since spent years unlearning the beliefs about race and racism that I absorbed naturally as a white person in America. Through classes, readings, workshops and conversations, I am still learning.
Here are five things I think white people who want to be part of the solution can do to become authentic partners in the struggle for racial justice:
1. Start seeing color. Pretending that race and ethnicity don’t matter or that we don’t notice them is a poisonous form of denial. We have to see and acknowledge differences, grapple with any discomfort we have, and actually hear our own internal prejudices. We all have them. Only then can we hope to deal with racial justice issues. Learn about yourself and your own racial biases. Learn how to talk about race intelligently and without fear. Learn how to listen.
2. Start seeing privilege. White people, even poor and disadvantaged white people, have greater accumulation of and access to wealth, education, work and other opportunities than people of color. Centuries of policies — from slavery to Jim Crow to redlining to the war on drugs — have created today’s disparities. Most white people have worked very hard for what we have. However, people of color have also worked very hard, with very different results. Learn the history.
3. Believe people of color when they talk about their experiences. Re-read Pastor Gee’s article and consider that this other reality might exist. That it might not be fair. That the color of a person’s skin might negatively affect their experiences, their treatment and their prospects even in Madison, Wis. Get to know people who are different from you. Go to events in communities of color. At the same time, do not expect people of color to be responsible for your race education. People of color are exhausted from explaining their reality to white people over and over. From these new beliefs, accept that racial injustice is real and present. Only then can you work toward solutions.
4. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Unlearning our assumptions and misbeliefs about race is a lifelong process. Get help: Attend the YWCA Racial Justice Workshops, the Institutes for Healing Racism with Richard Davis or the White Privilege Conference. Read good books and articles on the topic, complete an online class or join the Groundwork white anti-racism collective.
5. Finally, look at the places that you do have power and/or privilege and use them to help in the fight. Do you hire people? Do you have or spend time with children? Do you set policies? Do you create marketing or advertising? Whatever you do, can you find places to change the story about race? Can you create more access or opportunity?
Rachel Krinsky is chief executive officer of the YWCA of Madison.