Charlottesville protestor, August 11, 2017
I have been engaged in struggles for justice since childhood. The early part of my career was in the immigrants rights movement, the latter part in workforce development.
In 2014 I had a major AHA moment.
I realized that racism is the root problem of almost all other problems in our society and that unless and until we overcome our racism, all of the time and resources we expend trying to solve other problems is futile.
I also realized there are many white Americans like me, who grew up in nearly all white communities, where our understanding of people of color and racism was almost entirely formed by our parents, peers, and the media.
I began a new career as an antiracism educator.
Here are key lessons I have learned since then that are particularly relevant today as we reflect on #Charlottesville:
1) Most white Americans have no idea what racism is, because we learned what racism is from our white parents.
If you’re like me, Mom and Dad taught you that Martin Luther King was great. Racism is terrible. And the way to not be racist is to be colorblind and to never mention race.
“Because of the very successful-and wonderful-civil rights movement, opportunities are now distributed evenly in our society.
Some families- like ours- work hard, and that’s why we have our lifestyle. Other families choose not to- and that’s on them.”
This explanation of racial inequality is also inaccurate, harmful, and racist.
It allows white people to believe we are not racists, while simultaneously believing that we are superior “hard workers” and people of color are inferior and “unwilling to work hard.”
In other words, we are white supremacists who think racism is wrong and has nothing to do with us.
This explanation thrives in all white spaces like the community where I grew up, as well as in the all white spaces I see too frequently as an adult in professional and social circles in very diverse cities.
And in the workplace. #GoogleManifesto
“Diversity is important, but we are not going to lower the bar.”
As I like to say, the #1 creator of racist ideas in America isn’t Steve Bannon, it’s white parents, maliciously or not, repeating the same misunderstanding of race they learned from their parents to their children.
If you believe that white people’s status in society originated from our hard work and has nothing to do with our whiteness, and people of color’s status in our society is due to their not working hard and has nothing to do with our racism, you may as well be marching with tiki torches.
2) America was founded on a racial hierarchy that we have never, as a society, reflected on nor overturned. We keep perpetuating it, while claiming it does not exist.
#ThisISUs, #ThisHasBeenUs since 1619.
This was us in 1776:
“….the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.”
- The Declaration of Independence
Here we are in 1787:
“Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.” — The Constitution
Here we are in 1930:
This is how we showed up in 1942:
And in 2001:
President Trump and his acolytes marching in Charlottesville are not an anomaly, they are a continuation.
They are a reflection of us-all of us white people who harbor racist beliefs.
3) White people who are concerned about Charlottesville: it’s fine to march in solidarity, but our real work is on ourselves.
In the wise words of Margaret Wheatley,
“Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful.”
A more productive way to express our outrage is to look ourselves in the mirror and ask, in what ways do I harbor racist beliefs? How can I transform myself, my relationships, and my spheres of influence to stamp out racism? What are my children learning from me about how to relate with people of other races as equals? How can I change the lessons they learn by observing me?
Take an hour, print out Audre Lorde’s 1980 essay “Age Race Class Sex: Women Redefining Difference” (and while you’re at it, make a donation to the Audre Lorde Project) and reflect on what she says is our problem, that “we have no patterns for relating across our human differences as equals.”
And figure out what you can do to make things right within your mind, your workplace, your kids’ school, your house of worship, your community. Find others who share your beliefs and work together to make change.
We have alot of work to do. It would take the average black family 228 years to accumulate the net wealth of the average white family in America- roughly the duration of chattel slavery.
4) Tech companies in particular are responsible for giving the alt right a powerful platform and profiting from it.
Are Google Facebook Microsoft Apple Twitter etc. going to take a stand and cut off hate groups, or continue claiming they are neutral free speech platforms?
None of this is easy folks. But I know this for sure: dismantling white supremacy is in the intelligent self interest of white people. White supremacy only serves the tiny fraction of the elite.
When we recognize each other’s humanity and work together across difference as equals, we can build a society that works for everyone.
When we allow hate to flourish, we are headed towards another civil war.
Which side are you on? Now is the time to decide and ACT.
Karen Fleshman is the founder of Racy Conversations.
Her mission is to build and support a community of people committed to love, learning, accountability, and action on race in America.