YWCA Southeast Wisconsin
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December 2016

By Martha Barry, PhD, Racial Justice Director, YWCA Southeast Wisconsin

Role of Whites in Racial Justice

These are challenging times. There is a great deal of hatred, divisiveness, bigotry and uncertainty in the air. Many of us, as good white people, want to get through it, but feel unsure how to stay engaged. At times, our fear of making mistakes stops us from taking action.

As a white woman, I need to think deeply about my role as an individual dedicated to a more just and equitable world. What can I personally do to challenge the narrative of disdain and hatred? How is it possible to think bigger and act boldly as the oppressive systems of racism, classism, sexism, and heterosexism roar into gear?
These are a few things I have decided to do. Join me; add to the list.

Listen to the stories of people of color, people who aren’t in your friend-circle, your family you hold in disdain for their views, or anyone who is marginalized. I know listening to people whose voices are not always invited or encouraged, is an important first step in building awareness. If I can listen to how life is for people different from me, I can learn a great deal. I can remember that I know and love Muslims, immigrants, people who identify as LGBTQ, face life with a disability or are women and men of Latinx, Black and Asian backgrounds. They face feelings of racism, sexism, heterosexism, able-ism and the intersections of their multiple identities. I need to get better at listening to the hurt, the rage, the fear and terror. I may have my own feelings, but it is important to set those aside to listen. It is good to remember that it isn’t necessarily about me.

Find the truth. Learn about civic issues in your neighborhood and community. I recently listened to my son discuss the court system. He explained the gerrymandering ruling in a way I could understand. I found learning from him reminded me of my own mind. I can think, research, learn and challenge myself.

Pay attention. Notice your heartbreak, anger, disgust. I have found levels of anger I did not know were buried in me. I can and will continue to disagree with friends and colleagues I know and love. I am also determined to find ways to remember our commonality. I have not been able to call a friend of mine who sent me an offensive cartoon recently. I’m not writing him off, or deleting him from Facebook, but I realized calling and talking to him now while I’m hurt and angry will not turn out well. He has called a couple of times. I think he knows he went too far. I’ll reach out when I feel more certain what I want to ask of him relative to his decision to send such a sexist cartoon.

Cry. There are moments when someone is paying attention to me and really listening closely. It is at those moments that I can cry. My feelings are hurt because I thought we had made some progress in addressing racism. Now, I ask, “Why did we allow ourselves to return to a space of such divisiveness?” This is not the world I want!

Use my power. I have to face a level of defeat that I know is a trigger for old feelings of powerlessness. It is not a new feeling. We’ve experienced powerlessness many times before, particularly as young people. I remind myself, and have friends and colleagues who help me remember, that I, and many of us together, are powerful. I can use my mind and heart to strategize better outcomes in ending racist policies and practices.

Speak up. When you witness racist situations impacting your friends or colleagues, speak up! Don’t wait for the perfect moment or issue. The reality is that if you were targeted by a hurtful situation, you’d want someone to notice, speak up and say something. Remember that you may not do it well or perfectly, but it is better to try and fail than never to have tried at all. How does a young person learn to ride a bike? Lots of chances to fall, get back up and try again.

Lean in to the discomfort. Be attentive to your feelings. I can’t let my feelings be a guide for action. Use the discomfort to lead to action. Connect with each other. What issue do you want to put energy into – equal pay for women, specifically women of color? Maybe its reproductive rights or violence against women. Who is invested in the issue you want to fight or support? How can you connect, learn more and contribute your passion to changing outcomes?

Get involved. There are people and groups concerned about many issues. Research online, connect with them, and get involved. Don’t let those feelings of defeat and discomfort overwhelm you. You can make a difference.

Remember that white people are not always out to discriminate, hate or incite violence. Good people are still in our midst. Find those people who are smart, strategic, or have different skills than you. Work together. It will take closing numerous gaps for us to live in an equitable world. We need each other now more than ever. Our democracy is counting on us to think, strategize and work on big issues in new coalitions.

Remember your goodness and the goodness of those you love, but may not always like. Together we can fight against oppressive forces that want to separate us from one another, interrupt our good thinking and strategically, we can act powerfully.

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The 2038 Racial Justice Blog includes monthly insight from YWCA staff and community members working for a more just and equitable Milwaukee. Learn more about our 2038 goal.