“But when I ask white students how they know they’re white, the answer is almost always the same: silence. White students often stop short, unable to identify and articulate the cultural, political, economic and historic clues that tell them they are part of whiteness, let alone what being part of whiteness truly means. I let the silence grow. It gets uncomfortable. Then I step in to suggest that this phenomenon — not the individual student — is a significant part of America’s problem with race.” - SAVALA TREPCZYNSKI, Black and Brown People have been Protesting for Centuries. It is White People who are Responsible for What Comes Next.
Painting on College Avenue in Oakland, California. Taken by Cristina Bernardo , 6/10/20.
These few weeks have been hard. Really hard. But what I am feeling is nothing compared to my friends, family, and co-workers of color. I can’t even imagine how they possibly feel. As this writer so eloquently put it, I don’t or really can’t feel the pain so deeply, so meaningfully, or with so much heartbreak for the brutal loss of innocent black lives, because I don’t know and will never know what it feels like to be black in America. When I enter a grocery store, I have never had people immediately assume I work there or follow me because they think I may steal something. I have never had someone cross the street when they see I am heading in their direction. I have never been accused of a crime I so clearly did not commit because others find the color of my skin threatening. I have never been harmed and mistreated violently for an infraction I did commit or I was framed for because others did not value or respect my life. I have never had or likely will experience those feelings and a host of others you can find here, because I walk the world as a white, upper middle class, able bodied, cisgender, heterosexual, Cuban-American U.S. female.
Every day I get treated with more respect, am assumed to be more intelligent, and found to be more worthy of rightful treatment because of the color of my skin. And not just in the United States, but also in nearly every country I have visited or lived — Peru, Brazil, South Africa, Costa Rica, Cameroon, Thailand, France, England. Just the fact that I can easily get a visa, secure a passport, and can afford to travel, work, study or live in these countries, is an indication of the benefits and privileges that have been bestowed on me because I was born white.
I have benefitted from this system my entire life. My parents benefited from it before me when they came to the U.S. as white Cuban Americans. I used to tout the fact that Cuban Americans were one of the top performing Hispanic immigrant communities in the US in terms of GDP, without realizing that it is largely because many who came along with my parents back in 1961 were white, educated, and often already members of the elite. Their transition into the U.S. culture, though it too had its many bumps and struggles, was nothing compared to that of a black Cuban or a brown Mexican immigrant. I used to wish I had a more “latino sounding” last name like Hernandez or Gomez, without realizing that for so many years I have been treated so well because I don’t.
60 years later, my father’s accent is admired and celebrated while other’s accents are ridiculed as unlearned and un-American. He got jobs with ease, was granted a scholarship, was given a chance time and time again largely because of the color of his skin. And we qualified for a loan, were “allowed” to buy a home, went to top, local schools, and were accepted into our Maryland suburb community and thought to belong…largely because we were white immigrants.
And it didn’t just start here. My parents, grandparents, and great grandparents had great access to education, received broad community respect, and held and were promoted to positions of power in Cuba also largely because of their skin color. They were revered, upheld, followed, and supported because they were descendants of white Spanish and French Europeans. And that has and continues to hold much weight not only in Cuba, but also in the countries we work in Peru and Brazil, and throughout the colonized world. My mother’s father at one point, I was told, was even put in a closet when important guests came over in Cuba because his white skin was seen as a little too dark. The irony in many Latin American countries of so many white people wanting to get “tan,” while many darker skinned white family members have been shunned, mocked, or mistreated is not lost on us.
Yet it has taken so long for me to see this, to come to terms with it, and to acknowledge this, because I don’t have to. I don’t have to actively think about my race every day. I don’t have to anticipate how people will see me or judge me just because of my skin color in every interaction. I don’t often have to speak on behalf of the white world or white culture, or be seen as a representative of it. I don’t walk the world with a double consciousness, constantly aware and thinking of how I am seen first as a black person and then as an American, like W.E.B. Dubois. I don’t have to do any of this, because I am a member of the majority race in the U.S. and one of the most dominating races worldwide. White as “right” is seen and felt in nearly every country including South Africa, where whites are a minority and only 8.9% of the population as of 2011. Whites on the news, whites in the magazines, white models, white sitcom actors, white as perfection and beauty, white leaders, white Jesus, and white being synonymous with smart and hardworking is rampant and it is everywhere. My whiteness is so very real and expressions of its perceived superiority are all around me. And, unfortunately, knowingly or unknowingly, I have digested these messages too.
It has taken me far too long to realize it, and the word is very hard for many of us to hear — but white supremacy, or the institutionalization of white dominance and power as Whitney Parnell describes it, is and has nearly always been the law of the land. And whether we want to admit it or not, white supremacy is literally what the United States was built on. Though kids may love it, Pocahontas is not the true story of how our country was founded. White Europeans decimated the Native American population in the name of ‘civilization’ when they landed in 1492, authorizing nearly 1,500 wars, attacks, and raids on the indigenous population, that by the 19th century left only 280,000 Native Americans alive of the 5 to 15 million estimated to have lived here when they arrived. And not only was our White House partially built by slaves, but 1/4th of our Presidents — 12 to be exact — owned slaves and 8 actually had slaves in the White House.
Sadly, I didn’t even know these last few facts, until today, when I looked them up.
That, to me, IS the problem. I took and aced AP History in college. I read constantly and try to watch nearly every documentary or inspiring TedTalk that I can find. But this is the history that most white Americans NEVER talk about. We don’t acknowledge it, we have almost never apologized for it, and we definitely have not paid due reparations for founding a country that for centuries only viewed white males as citizens, as worthy, and as humans. Yet we still really wonder why protestors tore down confederate leader General Willams Carter Wickham on Sunday, and set fire and drowned Christopher Columbus’s statue, on Tuesday?
“No white American ever thinks that any other race is wholly civilized until he wears the white man’s clothes, eats the white man’s food, speaks the white man’s language, and professes the white man’s religion.”
- BOOKER T. WASHINGTON, Up from Slavery
The true history of this country clearly shows that “the codification of racism and disenfranchisement is a feature of our lawmaking — not an oversight,” as Stacey Abraham stated. White American males, many who themselves were slave owners themselves, wrote a constitution allegedly ‘for the liberty and justice for all’ that identified blacks in America “as three-fifths human”, counted “black bodies as property” and viewed “their souls as nonexistent.” Our Supreme Court then solidified these beliefs in 1857, when they decided in Dred Scott v Sanford, that blacks could not challenge slavery, because they were not were not even American citizens.
“In this country, we have thousands of white people who consider themselves aware of the pain racism can cause, and who could never imagine themselves inflicting it — but then do. There are countless white people who consider themselves progressive and “good” on race issues, who scoff at and are offended by actions like Ms. Cooper’s — but who, to their surprise, are capable of similar actions. Any person of color who knows “good white people” can tell you this is true.”
- SAVALA TREPCZYNSKI Executive Director of Center for Social Justice at UC Berkeley Law
So what do I think this means for now? For now, it means that those of us who are white and have yet to face our history, need to take a long, hard, painful, and often shameful look in the mirror and really, truly face up to what it means to be white, and how we have benefitted from it. We have to break our white silence when and wherever we can. We need to realize that, though we may it intend it be a good thing, thinking and saying you are colorblind or “don’t see color” can actually be seen as offensive and counterproductive, because it ignores and discredits the discrimination and pain black people feel every day. We have to see race, see discrimination, and see the inequities in our system, because as Janice Gassum said, “how can you possibly fix something that you don’t believe you actually see?”
As Whitney Parnell rightly suggested, we also have to spend less time worrying if people think we are or aren’t racist and more time learning about how our entire system — schools, laws, housing, employment, prisons — is. We have to get past our sadness, guilt, and defensiveness, and what many call white girl tears, to allow for deep, uncomfortable conversations where we truly ask our friends, families, and coworkers of color if and when we have unintentionally hurt them, so we can start righting our wrongs. And we need to recognize how we knowingly designed and uphold a system that subjugates people of color, disrespects and excludes the voices of the minority, and treat and harm black and brown people with less thought or empathy or concern for their lives, their innocence, or their entitlement to justice because of the color of their skin. Until we collectively face that mirror, experience that reckoning, own up that shame and the history and current abuses on black lives, we are and will still continue to be part of the problem, not the solution.
“The current protests are not simply about race relations. They are not about whether white and black people get along better or like each other more. They are, rather, affirmations of the need for a reckoning, for an answer to the question of why race remains a distinctly divisive issue capable of exposing the gap between the nation’s ideals and its actions.”- THEODORE R. JOHNSON, America Begins to See More Clearly What Black Americans Always Knew
And what does it mean for organization leaders like me who are not people of color or are in other ways members of other privileged identities? If we truly want to be authentic and genuine in our responses and our actions, we must make sure that what we are saying and doing now is truly aligned with how we think and act and make others feel. To do this, we must:
Check-in with our own teams, clients, beneficiaries, and our partners to ask — How am I doing? How are we doing? Are our business models and our actions truly making those with marginalized racial identities feel supported, included, respected, and empowered?
Create spaces and systems where our team members and external partners can voice their concerns when and if we are not.
If and when we have caused harm, we need to listen. We need to empathize. And we need to apologize even if our intent was never to do harm.
We need to listen and learn as much as we can about ourselves, our identities, our power, our privilege, and how it affects all of our interactions and how we are perceived by others. Privilege does not have to be a scary word. Privilege, in Whitney Parnell’s words, is just that aspect of us that is favored, embraced and set up to be able to thrive.
And then rinse and repeat 1–5.
Malcom X quote, screen shot pulled from Library of Congress.I have blind spots. Tons of them. I say the wrong things, think the wrong ideas, and have both unconscious and conscious negative thoughts about those who are different from me on many levels — race, sex, ability, religious beliefs, sexual orientation and more. My coworkers of color have told me before that though I purport to be an ally, through my white silence, I have often abandoned them at their greatest moments of need. I am not perfect. And Emzingo|U is not perfect either. We have and continue to make mistakes, to unknowingly or unknowingly create harm in our model and with our words, to exclude or marginalize voices, and to take up too much space. None of us or our organizations are perfect. And that is OK. What is most important is that we take the time to listen, take the time to learn, see that our history affects every day of our present, and admit to ourselves that sometimes the person that we think we are is different from how others see us or hear our words. And that doesn’t make us a bad person. That makes us human. The problem with blind spots is that we can’t see them. If you and I really want to stop this cycle of racial injustice, then we have to do hard work to uncover our blindspots and be vulnerable and brave enough to ask others to highlight those we can’t see. “It is white people (especially progressive white people) who are responsible for what happens now. Either they work to understand — and change — how white supremacy moves in and through their lives, hearts, minds, and spaces, or they decide they don’t have time, they’re too scared, they can’t deal with it, or, like Ms. Cooper, they linger in the fallacy that they could never be involved in a racist incident… I hope they will become radicalized by this moment and begin to fight fiercely for racial justice; but more than that, I hope they start at home, in their own minds and hearts. As I tell my students: a white person rushing to do racial justice work without first understanding the impacts, uses, and deceptions of their own whiteness is like an untrained person rushing into the ER to help the nurses and doctors — therein probably lies more harm than good. One thing though: don’t ask me how to start. That’s part of your work, too. The answers are all around you if you are willing to look and listen.” - SAVALA TREPCZYNSKI, Black and Brown People have been Protesting for Centuries. It is White People who are Responsible for What Comes Next. I know there are many very well intentioned, “good white people” out there who are reading this and asking — what should I say? What should I do? Where do I start? Well, I will leave you with a few quick steps that have brought me much needed clarity and have jump started my lifelong journey for truly understanding racial injustice and my role within it: Step 1: Do some serious and deep reflection about what societal messages you have digested about yourself, your identity, and your perceived racial superiority or inferiority. Step 2: Ask yourself honestly- even though I am a good person, what messages have I digested about those who don’t look like me? About their perceived racial superiority or inferiority? Step 3: Then ask someone from the other side — how am I doing? When and how have I hurt you knowingly or unknowingly?…what are my blindspots?? Step 4: If and when you are ready to tackle these issues head on — take the 1 month course with daily sections and reflection questions offered by Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor. I will leave you with a powerful quote from Carl Jung that I pulled from Zed Xaba’s powerful TedTalk, sharing her own reflections of the her own internalized oppression as a black South African woman growing up during apartheid. “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life [and impact others] and you will call it fate [or luck].”
Ready to face that mirror like me? These tools and resources have helped me a lot on my never ending journey to truly be an ally and not just a performative activist. REFLECT: Social Identity Wheel Map of Myself (pg14–15) White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack
WATCH/LISTEN: PODCAST: One Murder of Many: Subverting White Privilege to Save Black Lives TED TALK: Designing for a More Equitable World — Antoinette Carroll TED TALK: Recognizing Privilege: Power to all People — Michael Yates Just Mercy 13th Amendment READ: America Begins to See More Clearly What Black Americans Always Knew Black and Brown People Have been Protesting for Years, It’s White People Who need to Decide what Comes Next I Wanted to Know What White Men Thought about their Privilege, so I Asked. Why I’m no Longer Talking to White People about Race Why the Policing Problem is NOT about “Some Bad Apples” Policing in the US is NOT about Enforcing Law its about Enforcing White Supremacy Curriculum for White Americans to Educate Themselves on Race and Racism Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor White Fragility