I’d like to start this article by acknowledging the privilege I have because of my skin color. As a white woman it is simply a fact that the color of my skin allows me to move through life benefitting from racism whether or not I see it. This post is actively anti-racist and made with the intent to combat the oppression faced by BIPOC and the privilege of whiteness. I urge you to go far beyond this post, follow the educational links I include (and further) and listen to Black and POC leaders and activists for what to do and how to help. It is very important for white people to listen to BIPOC and take our lead in this fight from them. White people need to support and include, not ‘save’ BIPOC (avoid white saviorism) and in breaking down racism we will build a more just and better world.
So far in 2020 the only event large enough to break through the constant Covid news has been the Black Lives Matter movement. Momentum for change in the United States around police brutality and racism has punched through every other conversation, and continues to enact change and conversations past initial protests and social media trends.
In the months since George Floyd’s death sparked protests across the country and the world we have seen this anger create real, impactful and important change and start conversations. We see legislation (like the Breona Taylor Law, CAREN act and police reform bills) proposed and instituted across the country, with protests often leading the way for these changes. We see Instagram feeds and stories flooded with resources and calls for justice, and the ever-changing 24-hour news cycle has been covering these events as they unfold.
But in this fast-paced world we call the twenty-first century, will we be able to sustain the current momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement? The answer needs to be yes. It is now a matter of how.
How do you join the movement? How do you encourage others to do the same? How do you make lasting and impactful change? Where do you even start?
Well, the easiest place to start is education. Read and watch anything and everything about racism in America and in understanding how it works you will learn how to dismantle it. Learn the history of American racism, starting with slavery all the way back in 1619. Learn the stories of enslaved people, the racist laws and organizations that started then (like the legacy of the police) so that you can see how and where they still exist today. Understand the nuances of the civil war and the fact that the Emancipation Proclamation is not straightforward as you might believe (think Juneteenth). Understand the function and lasting impact of the Jim Crow Laws. Do you know who and what Jim Crow is? If you think the answer to that question is the person who made a bunch of racist laws you would be… incorrect. Google it.
Then take a deep look at the Civil Rights Movement (following this link you will find a comprehensive look at what led up to and the events of the Movement). It’s more than just Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., more than the Civil Rights Bill of 1964. Do you know what that bill says? Follow this link to read it.
After the passing of the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 racism in America became much more covert. Legislators and other people in positions of power disguised it as ‘protection’ for Americans. Take the War on Drugs as an example (just one example among countless). Yes, drugs are dangerous, but when we examine the laws that criminalize drugs, they are written to target people of color. Let’s look at the prison sentencing around Cocaine. In the 1970s and early 80s crack cocaine emerged and quickly became popular in cities across the nation. Unlike powder cocaine, small amounts of crack cocaine could be purchased for as little as $5 making it easily accessible. There was little known about this new drug and many wrong assumptions surfaced around its increased addiction and psychosis tendencies as opposed to powder cocaine. The drug quickly came to represent the drug and violence crisis in America making legislators anxious to take action against it. As a result the Anti-Drug Act of 1986 was expedited through Congress with many problematic sentencing mandates. This, coupled with institutionalized racism in the justice system, meant that black Americans became the targets of this new act. This act instituted a 100:1 ratio of punishment meaning that for every five grams of crack cocaine a person would need to be found in possession of 5,000 grams of powder cocaine for similar penalties. Even here prison sentences continue to be disproportionate. While 5 grams of crack cocaine results in a minimum of 5 years and a maximum of 20 years in prison, “powder cocaine or any other drug remained at no more than 1 year in prison”. The racial inequality of these minimum sentencing laws is found when we examine who is being sent to prison for these crimes. White people use both crack and powder cocaine at much higher rates than (click here to see an article detailing the data), black Americans. However prison demographics show that black americans are bay far the largest group sent to prison for crack cocaine possession. These disproportionate sentences perpetuate harmful stereotypes that strip these American men, who happen to be black, of their constitutional rights (think voting rights) and socio-economic opportunities (think social services designed to help economically disadvantaged families) in the name of the War on Drugs. Black women were also disproportionately affected by this act. While rates of incarceration for all women increased 400%, rates for black women increased 800% (these statistics come from the same ACLU report I reference above). This law has been in place for 34 years, the data shows its ineffective tactics, so why has little action been taken to rectify it? This is how systemic racism works, even if the legislators are not actively racists, there are laws that need to be changed in order to reflect their anti-racism.
More examples of this covert racism are redlining, majuarana sentencing, racial profiling, the school-to-prison pipeline and the sex abuse-to-prison pipeline. I could probably fill an entire page with similar racist legislation, legislation that leads to disproportionate harm towards people of color, but I’m sure you’ll discover these racist rules as you begin to educate yourself. Which brings us to today. Racism is in your everyday life, whether you want to admit that or not. It’s in the movies we watch (remember #Oscarssowhite?), the magazines we flip through (see Anna Wintour’s statement about diversity at Vogue), the books we read (think about books you read for English class and the ones displayed up front at bookstores). What do you see and think of? In mainstream media it’s a lot of white faces and tokenism. It’s not your fault that you’ve consumed these messages. That’s on the companies that curated them for you. But it is up to YOU to recognize these patterns, and to actively seek to fight them in your head and future choices by diversifying what you consume.
Here is where all that educating you’ve been doing starts to take effect and allows you to join the fight for racial equality. Now you can see where racism is seeping into your life and actively challenge it. Try this: think about the last three TV shows or movies you watched. What were the demographics of each show? Let me guess: mostly white, with token POC fulfilling stereotypical roles? So it needs a little diversifying? There’s a super easy fix: if you have Netflix, you also have the internet. Search for diverse shows, and then actually watch them. This is one tiny step toward an anti-racist life!
Now think bigger. Sign petitions, email your local and state politicians, and VOTE (if you can). Not just in presidential elections, either: if you want change in your hometown and your state, you have to vote in legislators in your town, district and state who want that change too. Get out there and protest: it’s your First Amendment right to do so peacefully. Or, if that’s not your style, donate to organizations making real change, post to your Instagram story, check microaggressions and have uncomfortable conversations with friends, family and even strangers.
So you see, not only is racism ingrained in every part of your life, but you can help stop racism in all those same spaces. Do not let yourself be intimidated out of being part of real change because you don’t know where to start or it seems overwhelming. If you do that, uh-oh! Your privilege is showing! Don’t freak out, though: all you have to do is recognize it, deal with the discomfort, and keep going. Just like other parts of life, it is okay to make some mistakes: it is how you deal with those errors that counts.
Whether you’re 15 or 85, it’s not too late to start learning (about anti-racism) and unlearning (racism). Here is a compilation of resources to start your education and activism right now (this is by no means a complete list, it is in fact very short, go and find so much more too). Enjoy!
What to read:
Blackpast is a database of the history of black people in America
NAACP, an organization to be familiar with
Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi
The Color of Law A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein
A ‘Forgotten History’ of How the U.S. Government Segregated America on NPR, interview with Richard Rothstien about his book
So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijoema Oluo
White Negros by Lauren Michele Jackson
How to Be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kandi
The Fifth Season Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
Real Men Knit by Kwana Jackson
Beloved by Toni Morrison
The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
What to watch:
13th, a documentary on Netflix
Roots, the 1977 short television series
Check out the Black Lives Matter collections on streaming platforms like Netflix and Apple
When They See Us on Netflix
Black AF on Netflix
Homecoming: A film by Beyoncé on Netflix
Insecure on HBO
Pod Save the People (podcast)
Where to donate:
This is a compilation of organizations to look through, everything from bail relief funds, national organizations and black owned businesses
Instagram accounts to follow:
Viola Davis – @violadavis
Shit You Should Care About – @shityoushouldcareabout
The Slacktivist – @theslacktvists
The NAACP – @naacp
When We All Vote – @whenweallvote
ACLU – @aclu_nationwide
Brittany Packnett Cunnigham – @mspackyetti
Black Lives Matter – @blklivesmatter
Petitions to sign:
Here is a list of 30 petitions all together in one place