Dear white people: What is ‘the work’ and how do we do it?

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In his recent “Dear White Led Organizations,” blog post, Calvin Eaton, founding director of 540WMain, echoed the sentiments of Black activists since at least the 1960s when he asked white-led organizations to “do the work and do better as you do the work” before reaching out to Black persons or Black-led organizations for dialogue on racial justice. 

“In your haste to jump into these conversations you can recreate systems of oppression, harm, and toxicity that have long been tenets of white supremacy,” Eaton wrote.

Eaton’s blog gives helpful suggestions on how to start “the work,” including some of the books listed below.  

In this piece, I’d like to talk primarily to white people about “the work”—what it is and how we might approach it. I’m speaking not as an expert, but as someone on the learning curve, maybe like you.   

What is the work?

I offer writer Ibram X. Kendi’s definition of racism: “a powerful collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity and are substantiated by racist ideas.” 

So, it’s not simply a personal prejudice or moral failure. Racism is woven deeply into our systems of education, criminal justice, housing, health care, and economic function. The work is to dismantle it both inside ourselves and out in the world. 

For me, that involves understanding my own whiteness. I was born in Morocco of Armenian parents—a background with its own cultural richness and painful history. Growing up mostly on Long Island, in a multi-lingual immigrant family, I thought I was dark-skinned—not as dark as the Black kids in my school, but not as white and right as the white kids. My childhood sense of my own difference was somehow racialized. Eventually I understood that in this culture I am considered white, but it wasn’t until I stood as an adult at a department store makeup counter in Eastview Mall that I realized with a shock that my foundation color is “fair.” Fair! I also noticed that lighter foundation shades had names like “nude” and “natural”—reinforcing a light-skinned norm. 

My “natural” skin no doubt had something to do with why, although my grade-school teachers thought I was odd—one of them asked me if I lived in a tent before coming to America—at least they recognized I was smart. My Black classmates were not so fortunate.  

What is whiteness? How did all the Irish, Italian, Polish, Armenian, Ashkenazi Jewish and other immigrant groups become “white”? When and why? In the Fresno, Calif., of a previous century, signs on rental units in the more affluent parts of town reportedly said, “No Orientals, no Blacks, no Cats or Dogs, no Armenians.” My Italian-Armenian cousin in Boston just texted me an 1888 “No Italians Allowed” note about contract labor. 

Armenians, I recently learned, became “white” in 1925, after winning two landmark court cases. Before that, we were classified as “Asiatic.” Applying for citizenship, an Armenian petitioner had to present himself to the judge for “visual scrutiny,” writes historian Aram Ghoogasian.

So, how did our eventual acceptance into this club of whiteness serve the power structure? How does racism intersect with other elements of identity such as class, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation? 

In her essay “White People: I Don’t Want You To Understand Me Better, I Want You To Understand Yourselves,” Ijeoma Oluo writes:

“People of color have been begging you to see what you are doing and why. We’ve been begging you to see what you came from and the true legacy you have inherited. We’ve begged you to see your boot on our necks as long as it’s been there.

“Find yourselves white people. Find yourselves so that you can know what whiteness is. Find yourselves so that you can determine what you want whiteness to be.”

I was extremely fortunate that one of my teachers in college was activist and scholar Angela Davis. At the time, she was writing “Women, Race & Class,” and would sometimes read us passages from her work-in-progress. The experience for me was a revelation: Finally, someone was explaining to me the world I was seeing! (I wrote her a gratitude poem, which mercifully has been lost to time.)    

Since the first rally on May 30, many have joined Black Lives Matter protests in the city of Rochester and its suburbs.

Since March, I’ve been holed up in my apartment, enjoying the privilege of working from home to avoid COVID-19. One of the things that got me out was a sense of moral obligation to join in the Black Lives Matter protests. I crept out masked, badly in need of a haircut, and tried to maintain six feet of distance. It’s chilling to think that risk might have been less than that of a Black man going out for a jog in his neighborhood. 

I vowed to do more, and better, from now on—because the cruelties perpetrated by racism hurt my heart, and because I can’t unknow what I know. 

SURJ ROC 

With all of this in mind, I recently attended an orientation meeting of Showing Up For Racial Justice Rochester, or SURJ ROC. Formed in 2016, this local chapter of the national organization SURJ is a white ally group that organizes and supports white people to combat racism. 

Why a white group? 

People of color have sent a clear message that it is white people’s job to educate and organize other white people to end the racism that white people created. 

Writes Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jonathan Capehart in the Washington Post:

“Dear white people, please read ‘White Fragility’

No white person asked to be born into systemic racism—yet here we are, embroiled in it even as life slams us with everything from parking tickets to cancer. We need space to find ourselves, express our thoughts, process our feelings, make mistakes, learn and grow. 

Racism by its very nature blinds white people to its presence; it normalizes a very sick state of things. So, we might be shocked to discover what should have been glaringly obvious—that people of color have been very unsafe here for a very long time. It might make us feel guilt, anger, sorrow, shame, perhaps an impulse to personalize and deny. “I’m not a racist.” “I don’t see color.” “My family never owned slaves.” 

What we say and do in our slumber or coming out of it is wearyingly predictable. People of color deserve not to have to hear it all again—those defensive protestations of innocence that haven’t much changed in the decades I’ve been hearing them. Likewise, people of color are not obliged to help us, express their pain in ways that feel comfortable to us, or relive their trauma to educate us. So, I look to other white people—ones whose maturity I trust—to help me.  

“We need to know how to support one another,” says SURJ ROC co-founder Kathy Castania.  “I’ve been told by people of color, ‘Please don’t bring your tears to me. Find your own white people to support you. Work on yourselves before trying to work with people of color.’”

A surge of interest

Interest in SURJ rose dramatically during nationwide protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police officers. The SURJ ROC email list grew from approximately 700 in early June to more than 1,200 by the end of the month. Facebook followers doubled to approximately 600. 

Until recently, SURJ ROC’s monthly meetings attracted an approximate average of 15 members, says organizer Paula Hansen, a retired Rochester City School District special-education teacher. But a June 15 orientation meeting drew 55 participants.  

I attended and watched dozens of white faces pop up one by one in their respective Zoom boxes. Some I recognized as longtime local activists. Others were new to me. We were middle age, college age, various genders—reflecting myriad types of difference except for the commonality of being white and moved to engage with this topic. Another meeting a week later drew 72 attendees. SURJ ROC organizer Liz Brown says these rising numbers are not a local phenomenon only. One national SURJ webinar she attended in mid-June drew 5,000 callers.   

A core SURJ tenet is to pursue racial justice as defined by people of color.  

The SURJ project site White People 4 Black Lives states that “white folks can play a progressive and supportive role in amplifying the voices and demands of Black people, moving the white community to take a more active and participatory stance for racial justice, and apply strategic pressure on institutions to change racist policies.” 

Two important takeaways here are the need to actively fight white supremacy—since inaction amounts to complicity—and to do so following the leadership of people of color. Too often, history shows, habits of dominance have led white people even in social justice work to assume control over goals and actions.

“We need to check ourselves and realize our place in such a movement is for support only,” Castania writes. “I personally had to learn this the hard way—during the ’80s and ’90s working with a multiracial group to eliminate racism in the community where I was living. All too quickly the white people, including me, were making decisions and getting out front in our actions.” 

Today, individual activists of color or the organizations they lead will contact SURJ ROC and ask it to mobilize on behalf of a particular effort, Castania says. Other times, SURJ ROC will reach out to its network to ask what is needed. Current initiatives focus on police accountability, ending cash bail and mass incarceration, and issues such as replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day and removing offensive mascots. SURJ ROC also supported the ultimately successful Greenlight campaign enabling undocumented immigrants to obtain drivers’ licenses in New York. 

In addition to supporting antiracism policy initiatives, SURJ ROC supports white people to build antiracist knowledge and skills. It offers workshops, some in collaboration with 540WMain, on the history of racism, interrupting racism, and building racial justice through allyship. 

Facilitators including Castania—also founder of the State University of New York Opening Doors Diversity Project—are experienced at establishing protective parameters in emotionally charged situations. For example, all disclosure is confidential, and it is OK to choose not to share.  

In one workshop I attended, we considered what to do when someone around us makes a racist comment. Focusing on a remark an attendee heard at work, we first checked in with the feelings it evoked in us, then role-played and discussed possible ways to respond. Potential strategies included asking for clarification, since silence implies agreement: I don’t understand, can you explain what you mean by that? Included in a list of pointers sent out after the workshop: Make eye contact/look directly. Don’t attack. Plant the seed (don’t try to convince/win). 

The more you practice, facilitator Castania assured us, the better you get at it.

A highlight for me was the emphasis on “calling in, not calling out.” That approach seeks to move someone out of racist beliefs or behavior through engagement rather than shaming. Of course, if the behavior is causing someone harm, the first priority is to stop the harm. But frequently enough to matter, manifestations of racism can potentially be transformed into teaching moments.   

“We don’t have the luxury of pushing other white people away,” retired schoolteacher Hansen says. “We need to bring them in.” 

SURJ ROC serves an important community role as a resource for white people to learn about antiracism, says Eaton, founder of 540WMain. Always on the lookout for course content to support its educational mission, 540WMain collaborates with SURJ ROC when it makes sense and feels right. 

As a white-led organization, Eaton adds, SURJ ROC must always be ready to confront its own manifestations of racism. Some time ago, SURJ ROC was called out for “toxic” comments made on Facebook by someone on the organization’s executive committee. SURJ ROC is evolving in its understanding of how to lead conversations about race without causing harm.

“They try to be thoughtful. They also make mistakes; that’s just reality,” Eaton says. “It’s a matter of how you move forward.” 

People interested in SURJ ROC can check out its Facebook page, which I’m told is more up to date than the website, which is due to be revamped. You can subscribe to the SURJ ROC mailing list, sign up for an orientation, attend monthly meetings, and choose to serve on a committee (steering, education, action, communication). 

The antiracist power within

A phrase from Kendi’s book “How to be an Antiracist” resonates for me: “Find the antiracist power within.” I like it because it speaks to my own liberation too. It means not being owned from the inside by a system I detest.

I’m not naïve about how hard racism will fight back. But I do believe it can be defeated. We have to do the work. Then, when Black and Brown people no longer live in fear, we can all honestly celebrate the spectacular richness of our multifarious world.     

E.C. Salibian is Rochester Beacon senior editor.

Some local organizations:

Rochester is home to many cultural, service, and social justice organizations whose work supports antiracism. Here is a partial list: 

To learn more:  

Some other useful things to do:

  • Vote. Local and national. 
  • Support minority-owned organizations and businesses.
  • Write to your government representatives.
  • What are you doing to end racism? Share your suggestions in the comment section below. 

12 thoughts on “Dear white people: What is ‘the work’ and how do we do it?

  1. I think y’all got it all wrong: How can “white people [effectively] educate other white people to end the racism that white people created” — when NONE OF YOU (white people) — at least not locally — have the depth and breadth of knowledge and/or understanding to dare call yourselves anti-racist educators. YOU ALL NEED TEACHERS, which is why in many cases (even when you try, and even when you are sincere in your efforts) — you still end up merely being “anti-racist”-mess-makers. Come to school: http://minorityreporter.net/snake-oil-solutions-critique-of-novice-mess-makers-and-those-who-know-better/

    • Thanks for this piece. It’s helpful and informative.
      I, too, am learning every day — as Salibian wrote, “I’m speaking not as an expert, but as someone on the learning curve, maybe like you. “

  2. To echo what Howard said, I am finding that too many white folks are in fact relying on all white spaces for all their racial learning. A slew of studies show that 75% of white folks in the US report only having regular contact with other white folks. All they can do then when talking about race is echo back their own white frames of reference to each other. In my black experience, that’s exactly what they do. This echoing appears as “doing this work” and substitutes for real activism.
    Marketers pay big bucks to a select group of tweens and teens who report back to them what is trending and what is on the twilight to becoming “so yesterday!” among their peers. If you want to know what teens want, asking someone who studies teens will always leave you two or three steps behind interacting with actual teens. And with billion dollar product launches on the line, the question is never “I think that…” or “don’t you think that…?” It is always “what do you think?” followed by a sincere, hungry silence that is more than just an obvious invitation to echo back to the inquirer what a clever marketer he is.
    Yes, black folks get frustrated and tired of being “the go to” guy all the time. That’s mainly because white people ask us the same questions over and over and over, “wearyingly predictable,” as you said. Moreover, they tend to not really be questions about understanding black life. They’re white questions about how to fit something they don’t understand into a white frame (“don’t you think that…?”). 72% are simply one of a myriad of rewordings of “I’m one of the good ones, right?” I’m going to lose a lot of points for saying this but here goes. The popularity of SURJ and other analogous groups has to do with the fact that it’s a space where white people can talk about racism and still have their own whiteness be the center of their discourse. Months ago I attended the same SURJ workshop you mention on combating racist remarks. I kept waiting for when the instruction was actually going to get around to defending black people. Instead I was disappointed to find it all about how to suffer fools and keep your cool while doing it.
    If I want to find out what a quinceañera is about I accept an invitation to one. The learning is in the preparation leading up to it (what’s an unsuitable gift to bring and why, appropriate dress, the proper greeting,…) and the actual experience of being there. The same with a bar mitzvah or a Hindu wedding. I wouldn’t go to these events asking a million questions expecting people to divert attention to the fact that I’m here. I wouldn’t talk everyone’s ear off bragging about and quoting all the books and blog posts I’ve read. I would go, observe, do what I see others doing, and humbly shut the flip up! Offer to help serve punch, maybe. My white friends, I’m afraid you can’t escape us black folks. The only way you’re ever going to invest real skin in the game is to bring yourselves to black spaces. Sorry guys. That’s just the way it is.
    In a lot of workshops I’m leading lately, I continuously hear whites say they’re afraid of being among black people and saying the wrong thing and I’m calling it out for the vestige of white supremacy that it really is–“J’Accuse!” There is a simple mathematical remedy for this fearful situation, stop talking so damn much.
    Buddhist nun Pema Chodron says “we work on ourselves in order to help others, but also we help others in order to work on ourselves.” White people are used to seeing themselves as the smartest one in the room, they come expecting to be heralded as a the leader that has finally arrived. Bring yourselves to us with a true desire to learn something you don’t [think you already] know, and accept the authority of black opinions and black points of view on what racial equality needs to look like, the best way to get there, and what supporting role you could play that would indeed be most helpful.
    And once again I’ve written an entire essay answering someone else’s post while neglecting my own blog so I’m going to cut-n-paste, and kill two birds with one stone. Treat yourself to more of such rants at http://www.NanetteDMassey.com.

  3. It doesn’t appear Ms. Salibian has cited Black scholars such Shelby Steele, Walter Williams, Robert Woodson, Larry Elder, Candace Owens, etc who would not agree with her conclusions about racism. It sounds like she needs a lesson from Shelby Steele’s book, White Guilt.

  4. Understanding US history helps motivate us to initiate anti-racist measures to support people of color. Recommending the ACLU’s “When Heritage = Hate: The Truth About the Confederacy in the U.S.,” an hourlong illustrated you tube lecture by skilled presenter Jeffrey Robinson. Focus on the monuments, slavery as the backbone of American economy for most of our history.

  5. It might be confusing to White people to hear two opposite messages from Blacks: 1. go do your own work among other whites before you come to me saying you’re an ally, 2. you’re only hanging out with Whites and not really challenging yourselves to get out of white frames of reference and make connections with Black people. Perhaps which you do depends on where you are in the continuum of awareness. Black people don’t owe it too us to educate us or take care of our feelings. That can happen among whites. To be true supporters in the fight for justice, we need to develop some actual skills. We’ll never be perfect, but at least we could go into relationship with those who have been excluded from our lives having done some work to wake up.

    • Anais Salibian,

      How is it possible for “white people [to effectively] educate other white people” regarding the historic and ongoing nature, essence, and manifestations of the Tripartite Beast And Illness ( http://minorityreporter.net/the-tripartite-beast-and-illness-of-individual-institutional-and-structural-racism/) —- when NONE of them understand it, nor possess the necessary breath and/or depth of knowledge to educate effectively??? When they do try, frequent they end up being Mess-Makers, e.g., adding to misinformation and chronic confusion ( http://minorityreporter.net/snake-oil-solutions-critique-of-novice-mess-makers-and-those-who-know-better/ ).

      There is no doubt about the fact that — “To be true supporters in the fight for [RACIAL] justice, [white folks] need to develop some actual skills.” At the same time, it’s critically important to acknowledge and understand that acquisition of clear, objectively-accurate, instructive-KNOWLEDGE — is not necessarily the same as “developing some actual [ANTI-RACIST] skills.” In fact, the latter is frequently dependent (to a large degree and extent) on the former.

      Indeed, it’s important for white folks to “at least go into relationships with those who have been excluded from [their] lives having done some work to wake up.” Yet, it’s even more important to realize that just because y’all are so-called “woke” when you enter into relationships with Black folks — does not necessarily, automatically make you an authentic and/or genuine ally.

      It’s also vital to consider WHICH Black folks (specifically) you’re CHOOSING, AND NOT CHOOSING to enter into relationships with.

      • It’s time for the African American community to pay more attention to the writings of Black scholars such as Shelby Steele, Robert Woodson, Candace Owens, Larry Elder, etc.

  6. I have read this article and the comments, one thing I have not heard or read is; For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son; that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16
    I trust most people know this verse in the Bible. Where is God in all of this? Jeffrey Robinson spoke about “truth”, what truth? God is truth, He is the creator of all mankind. A nation without God is a broken nation. My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. Because thou has rejected knowledge. Etc. Hosea 4:6 f Our nation has become a godless nation, no wonder there is so much hatred. We talk today about identities, my identity is in Jesus Christ and the cross he bore for all of us. We are to carry that cross for each other. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way, you will fulfill the law of Christ. Gal. 6:2 I encourage all not to put God on the back burner any longer but to expect answers from Him as we pray; what can I do for Him and my fellow man and woman today with this divide in our country. He created us to love Him and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Matt. 22:37-40 It may seem like He is doing nothing, I assure you He is always at work.

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