In early June, Kimberly Jones, a Black social justice activist and co-author of racial inequality commentary book “I’m Not Dying With You Tonight,” went viral with a fiery speech about the George Floyd riots and the ongoing racial injustices Black people have faced in America. The first time I saw it, the last line stuck in my mind: “They are lucky that what Black people are looking for is equality and not revenge.” But as I go back through it, another line stands out to me: “At this point, the only way to catch up in the game is if (White people) share the wealth.” Jones was referring to monetary wealth here, but it extends to other forms of capital: social capital, legislative power, etc. And she’s right: if POC organizations and communities want to continue to make in-roads against White institutionalized structures, we need other White people in power to help dismantle those systems.
This is why I find it so discouraging to see more and more fellow people of color lashing out at White people, both on social media and in person. I’ve heard unironic statements like “I hate White people honestly” or similar comments from classmates and people I consider to be friends of mine. And of course this kind of hate (and make no mistake, it is hate) is righteous, incensed by a history of oppression and institutionalized racism by White people. But I’m here to ask my fellow POC to put the pitchforks down and offer a hand instead, because our movements seeking responses, rights, and redress for POC and other marginalized peoples are better served with White people on our side, not against it.
A few key numbers to look at when it comes to representation in the United States:
- The current 116th US Congress is 79% White, according to data from the Brookings Institution.
- In July of 2019, the US Census Bureau estimated that 60.1% of the United States population was of non-Hispanic White origin.
- Of the 50 acting state attorneys general, only six identify as minorities. Of the 50 acting state governors, the number of self-identifying minority leaders drops to three.
These are just a few statistics, but the gist is that White people still hold many positions of power within institutions and the traditional legislative power structures.
Institutional legislation and cultural shifts are not always tied together, but they stem from the same place in theory: the will of the people. And with over 60% of the US being White, if minorities are to find a greater voice in both cultural and legislative environments, we need to welcome White people to join us, rather than making them the enemy. What do you think a White person reading a thread on Twitter of blanket attacks on White people feels? In some form or another, probably attacked. Scared. Defensive. On a hair’s trigger, ready to lash out.
The way I see POC attacking White people now echoes tactics White people have used to attack POC and minorities in the past, and this kind of whiplash only creates a self-perpetuating cycle of retribution. How can one decry White oppression while using the same discriminatory practices — overt or covert racism, public shaming, and discrimination based on skin color? To paint all White people with the same brush ignores the efforts of those among them that are fighting for change and pushes all of us further from progressive legislation and local change by antagonizing necessary allies.
So what are our next steps as POC? I think the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), a non-profit organization centered around revising education standards around the world, lays out a clear progression for how systemic change can be created. It lists six stages: Maintenance of Old System, Awareness, Exploration, Transition, Emergence of New Infrastructure, and New System. Right now, I believe that the murder of George Floyd by police and subsequent protests has brought about a large amount of Awareness and Exploration in a sizeable portion of the population, with some small but significant steps toward the Transition stage, especially when it comes to legislation in certain parts of the United States. We’re at a tipping point, but to push us past that tipping point into the New Infrastructure and New System stages of systemic change means we need everyone on the side of POC as much as possible — which means, yes, educating, convincing, and leveraging the social, cultural, and legislative abilities of White allies as much as anybody else.
Every one of us can contribute toward that goal of POC visibility and rights — it can be proactive (via donations, protests, and other support for social/legislative movements) or contributing to softening the edges of the movement, making it inviting and letting neutral or opposing parties see that we are just people, too. The most common way I see opponents of POC movements attempt to counter them is by sharpening age-old dehumanization strategies. Instead of ignoring or marginalizing POC, they’ve turned now to treating protesters and social justice movement leaders as lawless, nameless masses terrorizing the country. Looking at statements by President Trump or Vice President Pence, for example, and their recent fixation on the “Radical Left” is a good example of the kind of fear mongering that has worked so well in the past.
Our job in the POC community is to disprove these notions about us. Make it a point to be calm, civil, and fact-based if you get into a political or social justice oriented debate. While not all of us can make large donations or create massive waves on social media, all of us can be mindchangers, even if it’s just one person you run into on a bus or your next door neighbor. Often, as a POC, it can be a struggle just to be heard. However, to be heard, we need others to listen, and making our messages and movements not only convincing but welcoming is essential to winning hearts, minds, and most importantly, enduring systemic change in the long run.
Why races are capitalized in this article, a discussion with NYU professor and philosopher Kwame Appiah: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/06/time-to-capitalize-blackand-white/613159/
Further Watching & Reading:
Hasan Minhaj, “We Cannot Stay Silent About George Floyd” (A message to POC): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i_FE78X-qdY
Photo: Win McNamee / Getty Images / 2020 Getty Images