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 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.
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:
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:
- Alianza Agricola (immigrant farmworkers)
- Baobab Cultural Center
- Black Lives Matter Rochester
- Black Lives Matter
- 540WestMain Inc.
- Enough is Enough (police accountability organization)
- Police Accountability Board Alliance
- Flower City Noire Collective
- #FREEny: Greenlight drivers’ license campaign (successful) and ending mass incarceration
- Free the People Roc
- Interfaith Alliance of Rochester
- Metro Justice
- M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence
- Native American Cultural Center Rochester, NY
- Pachamama Alliance
- Partners in Restorative Initiatives
- Plymouth-Exchange Neighborhood Association
- RCTV Media Center
- Rochester Poor People’s Campaign Truth Commission
- Showing Up for Racial Justice Rochester: (collaborations with Alianza Agricola, FreeNY, Enough is Enough/PAB, PLEX, PIRI, Flower City Noire Collective, Native American Cultural Center, Baobab, REJI, SPARC, Free the People Roc, 540WMain, and others)
- St. Joseph’s Neighborhood Center’s Racial Equity & Justice Initiative (REJI)
- Spiritus Anti-Racism Coalition
- WOC ART Collaborative
To learn more:
- “So You Want to Talk About Race,” by Ijeoma Oluo
- White People: I Don’t Want You To Understand Me Better, I Want You To Understand Yourselves, Ijeoma Oluo
- “How to Be An Antiracist,” by Ibram X. Kendi
- White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” by Robin DiAngelo
- Between the World and Me,” Ta-Nehisi Coates
- An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States,” by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
- Birth of a White Nation,” video of a lecture by Jacqueline Battalora, writer and former Chicago police officer.
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.