By Lynne Evans
For my fellow white advocates and activists: we have to collectively shift away from the language of “letting” - because here is a not-so-secret to share: they’re leading with or without us.
In full transparency, I am going to talk from a “we” perspective as these are not just scenarios I have seen first hand, but have complicity been involved in.
We exist in a system that puts us as the default (and those of us with uteruses a bit below that), so until restrictive laws surface that threaten to impact us, we aren’t typically moved to action. Most of the time, not even the jarring influence of horrific photos, videos or stories of injustice do we feel the call to get involved and do something. Our own experience is often what causes our concern, but we consistently overlook organizing that is already being done by marginalized folx.
Inspired to get involved we are ready to accomplish big things, we sign up to volunteer or create space ourselves, but then productivity seems to halt. One of the outstanding causes is a tendency to fixate on the idea of perfection, creating ridiculous barriers and diminutive stipulations that combine with a sheer lack of urgency to accomplish anything impactful. Most of these issues aren’t significantly burdening our day-to-day while in the meantime marginalized communities need real solutions. Like right now. Pregnant people, birthing parents, and their children aren’t going to care about the internal debates on branding, what they need is racial and culturally competent care. Chances are sky-high that black womxn in our community have been shouting that from the rooftops while we were gazing at logo variations.
The second is that it challenges our systemic perception of power dynamics. Instead of facing our implicit bias, an immense need to deflect is induced and a domino effect takes place. We tone police, question their ability to manage the organization, claiming “It’s their fault I’m uncomfortable talking about race, so had they been nicer to me I would absolutely acknowledge racism!” Even worse, we flee when it no longer centers us. This isn’t always in the removal of oneself from our position, but more commonly, neglecting effective communication altogether. The capacity to do so is a glaring example of our white privilege because y’all know who doesn’t have the ability to step back or #selfcare? Black womxn. NBWOC. Queer folx. They will continue creating solutions as they had before we decided to show up. So this idea that we are somehow “letting” them lead isn’t reality whatsoever.
We should be actively asking “May I follow?”
That is not to say our privilege cannot be used to redistribute power in positive ways, but our involvement should not be the focus. Yet, the phrasing of “letting” or “allowing” centers our role as the reason they have the mic, a seat at the table or whatever analogy we use. We then wash our hands clean of having solved our racism because we took one class, we “allowed” a few womxn of color in our organization, or gave them our role, thus giving way to a rationalization of our history of harmful behavior. If a womxn of color is consistently having to take time to explain racial inequity and why what we said at the board meeting was racist, etc. - we are taking up valuable time that could be put to better use in serving her/his/their community or the precious commodity of time for themselves. A plethora of reading material exists with a quick search that can help us self-educate, there is really no justification not to be aware and to actively engage our fellow white people.
The complicated (but not-so-complicated) part is our fragility; the idea that we should be educated but in a tender kind of way where information about racism is palatable. But here’s more truth: discussing racism, our complicity, complacency and how we profit from those systems is divinely distressing and that’s a really good thing we need to lean into. If we’re lucky, we’re directed to a designated white accomplice that can take the time to expound, unpack, and hold us responsible; but people from marginalized groups do not owe us that energy to unburden us from our inability to connect to their racial trauma. We are not entitled to their explanation, as this has remained to be their existence. Nor are they a monolith, so seeking out counterarguments in order to passive aggressively discredit them is a microaggression.
We are there to listen, to learn, and dismantle white supremacy, but first our ego has to diminish. We will make mistakes and say the wrong things but we have to be willing to humbly grow, learning that intent does not negate impact. However cognizant we think we are of inequity and injustice, we can only be authentic when we are willing to be consistent and above all, accountable. Only then are we granted trust, because it is not enough to acknowledge systemic racism; we have to be anti-racist and anti-oppression.
We must challenge ourselves with these questions:
Am I here to do anti-racism work even if I am not given praise?
Am I here to truly serve community or only serve self?
Am I a hindrance or a help?
Is my involvement better served monetarily or with tangible actions?
And when you decide to move on: did I leave my community organizers better then when I began?
Our level of knowledge and behavior is within our control and we must come to the realization that being asked to know better and do better is faith and trust that we’re capable of growth. To credit what my dear friend Cessilye Smith of Abide Women’s Health says “Consider it an honor, because it is a continual fight.”
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Lynne Evans is Vice President and Co-Founder of Re+Birth Equity Alliance residing in Washington D.C. with her husband and two children.