A Message to White Progressives

We call ourselves progressive, but what are we actually doing to progress our society toward a more just and equal future?


Too many children across our country open their history textbooks to a page like the one pictured above. I understand that most parents want to protect their children’s innocence for as long as possible, but when we use language like “brought millions of workers” to teach our kids about this country’s history – about the way white people kidnapped people of color, stole them from their homes and forced them to work in brutal conditions for masters who committed horrible atrocities against them – we are not protecting our children’s innocence. We are not making them safer. We are not helping them. Instead, this language – this lie – is protecting, saving, and helping white supremacy. And in teaching these lies over and over, we have created generations of adults who don’t understand how our history connects to our present, how the fact that our country was established on the idea that white people are inherently better than everyone else means that our black and brown neighbors are still being systematically oppressed and murdered.

I’m not saying we need to share every gruesome detail with our eight-year-old kids. But we do need to tell them the truth in terms they can process. Let’s start with “enslaved people” instead of “workers,” for example, and “stole” instead of “brought.” I understand the desire to present our children with a world full of peace and love, but instead of pretending like that’s true, let’s make it true. Right now, eight-year-old children of color are being forcefully separated from their parents. They are starving in cells where they’re held without reason. They are witnessing the violent shootings of their fathers and uncles, often committed by police officers who are supposed to be protecting them. Compared to this reality, using words like “enslaved people” and “stolen” when talking to young white children is nothing.

The fact that we recently elected such a diverse Congress filled with various races, ethnicities, religions, genders, and sexual orientations is thrilling to me. Representation matters, and voting for these candidates was huge. I do believe our children will benefit positively from growing up with this. But y’all, we have so much more to do. Voting in diverse people was step one. Now we need to demand legislation to end gerrymandering and reform our election processes – two ways in which the U.S. government currently operates against BIPOC (Black and Indigenous People of Color). We need to call the principals at our kids’ schools and review the way slavery and race relations is taught. We need to write emails to textbook publishers and explain why pages like the one above are not acceptable. In an age where so many of us are always on our phones, there’s no excuse for not regularly calling, emailing, or posting on social media about these issues.

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Original t-shirt available now at Black on Black.

We also need to recognize that while these actions are important, altering our system from within isn’t enough. In order to be true allies, we need to put our bodies and our money where our tweets are. We need to show up at Black Lives Matter protests, patron local businesses run by BIPOC, donate to their organizations, read their books, visit their art exhibits, buy their music. Don’t think of these efforts as a one-and-done situation, but rather plan out how you can incorporate this into your regular routine. Maybe Sunday brunch can be at a local, black-owned restaurant like Daleview Biscuits and Beer. Or maybe all your friends can get birthday presents from a company like Black on Black. Or maybe instead of going to the same club every Saturday, you can try a new place featuring DJs of color. Taking action doesn’t have to feel like work.

But you know what does, and probably should, feel like work? The self-analyzation that needs to come along with these external acts. Healing our country requires that we white people look honestly inside ourselves, that we dig deep to figure out what’s buried in there from our own childhoods. A good starting point is to think back to what you were taught about the discovery of our country, our founding fathers, slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, and/or the Great Migration. What did your textbooks say? Hell, I wasn’t taught about Jim Crow or the Great Migration in school, but when I think back to my elementary social studies classes, lessons on slavery were definitely brief and always ended with how Abraham Lincoln, a white man, was a savior. Lessons on our founding fathers similarly focused on their positive traits, how they were strong, smart, and brave. And the pilgrims were to be heralded as the bravest of all because they fled persecution in their homeland, found a new home, fought for it, and flourished.

Now, let’s reframe these lessons using more honest words. For example, the pilgrims didn’t just fight for their new home, they actually committed genocide, or, “the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group” – i.e., the Native Americans. And our founding fathers may have been strong, smart, and brave in some ways, but they were also terrorists, as in, they “advocated and practiced the systematic use of terror, especially as a means of coercion.” Diving further into Merriam Webster, terror is defined as, “violent and destructive acts committed by groups in order to intimidate a population or government into granting their demands.” What was slavery if not violent and destructive acts – beatings, lynchings, rapes – committed by groups of white people in order to intimidate a population of black people into granting their demands to work the fields, cook dinner, clean the house, have sex, etc?

For many of us, this process feels wrong. It goes against everything we’ve been taught, and it feels blasphemous to think this way about George Washington, our great American hero. But we can’t let our discomfort keep us from doing the work – remember, BIPOC are still being systematically murdered because we white people don’t want to feel uncomfortable about the reality of our country’s history. Instead of running from or explaining away our feelings, we need to be in and examine them. No one is saying you owned slaves or committed genocide. We so easily get defensive and start tossing around blame instead of being in our own emotions. The wrong-doing here isn’t the act of applying the word “terrorist” to our founding fathers. What’s wrong is that we’ve been taught to worship these white men while ignoring the rest of history. We as a country – and many of us as individuals – have never implemented a collective practice to reconcile our past with our present, to decolonize our society, to dismantle white supremacy. In fact, we celebrate it! And because we’ve never truly addressed what our white forefathers did to the African Americans and indigenous people, much less tried to amend it, we are incapable of fully addressing and amending what is currently being done to these populations.

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Eighteen-year-old Nia Wilson died on July 22, 2018 after her throat was slashed in a hate crime.

Sure, we’ve outlawed slavery (except in prisons, which are disproportionately filled with black people working for little to no pay), we’ve granted people of color the right to vote (then created tons of obstructions to purposefully block them), we’ve passed the Civil Rights act (then did not enforce it), but these amendments have been treated as an end rather than a beginning – a measly beginning, at that. And now here we are, feeling defensive and claiming “not me,” or “I’m one of the good ones,” or “It’s not fair to lump all white people into the same category.” Basically refusing to get past our own egos, insisting that our immediate reaction is more important than whatever anyone else may feel, thus blocking ourselves from truly examining how we benefit from and even contribute to white supremacy, no matter how unintentional it may be. And because so many of us white people keep getting stuck here, people of color keep getting murdered. No, I am not the one who shot Maurice E. Stallard and Vickie Lee Jones in a Kroger store while yelling racist slurs, nor am I the one who stabbed Nia Wilson to death in her car. But I am a part of a society that allows this to happen. I am a part of the race that perpetrates it. And as long as so many of us continue to deny our role, nothing will change.

It’s okay to be ignorant. It’s okay to not understand. But it’s not okay to stay like that. Our kids are watching us – all of us, including those who aren’t parents. We have the resources and the power to change things, so please, let’s do the work and make some real progress toward a better future.

Resources for Learning More and Taking Action:


Instagram Accounts to Follow:

There’s an inspiring and educational dialogue happening on Instagram about race relations, art, music, gender identity, American history, and how this all intersects. Do not follow these accounts if you have not already started on your own work. It is not okay to go into their spaces and be disrespectful or to center the discussion around yourself. This is a wonderful opportunity to listen to and learn from others. Don’t waste it.

 

Images:
1. McGraw Hill textbook via Diversity Inc.
2. Black on Black original design.
3. Nia Wilson via CNN.

Writer’s note: A previous version of this post used the word “slaves” instead of “enslaved people.” I have since learned about the phrase “enslaved people” and prefer it to “slaves,” as it demonstrates the idea that slavery was done to a person rather than the idea that a person’s identify was being a slave. However, others feel that “enslaved people” is too polished, and that it glosses over the dehumanizing experience of slavery. Yet another testament to the importance of language.

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