Help! What Do I Do With Black Pain? (Or Seven Steps To Taking Personal Responsibility)
Full disclosure: This post came out of multiple conversations with many different people. And it contain affiliate links.
The Struggle Is Real
A well-meaning friend (maybe even me) recommended a popular book to read. Most often, that book is Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and you got halfway through it. The idea is to give people an understanding of an experience they would never have. Coates' writing is sharp and easy to understand- this book allows all kinds of people to experience his perspective as living as a Black man in America. It is much more challenging than people expect since it's recommended over and over again. Try as you might, you can't finish it or even talk about how you feel to those around you. Your world has so many issues that you've been carrying around and now, you're carrying the pain of Black and Brown people.
You've heard the statistics and you care about finding ways to end inequality. In a weird turn of events, you have discovered your Whiteness. It's as if you were awoken from a deep sleep and you can't un-see the discrimination that is happening all around you. This then leads to a whole list of questions you dare not ask a soul:
- Am I a terrible person?
- Is this really how bad it is?
- Why have I never noticed this before?
- What do people of color want from me?
My short answer is a very solid nothing.
I do not expect the average person reading Between the World and Me to single-handedly undo all of America racism. I (we?) don't want anything from you personally. Let me be clear: it is not your personal responsibility to solve the race relations of America.
It is your personal responsibility to take personal responsibility.
"Antoinette, what does that even mean?" If you're still asking what you can do in a time where more and more people are waking up White, I have some steps for you to consider. It's not as complicated as you think, and as I outline each step, it will make perfect sense. Here are the seven things you can do once you have discovered Black pain:
1) Don't Look Away (at least not forever)
Let me stop you right there. Before you start to accuse me of making you watch violence against People of Color (POC), that's not what I mean. I don't agree with forcing anyone to watch ANYTHING that would give them nightmares, trigger PTSD, or otherwise upset them. What I do mean is that I don't want you to abandon the cause because it's overwhelming. This is some deep shit we're all dealing with, and it's hard to watch and digest. But when you decide to ignore "politics" or the news because you don't want to deal with it, that's walking away from the people who experience racial or sexist discrimination. I know that sounds harsh, but you can't help if you don't know what's going on.
Take a moment and turn off your auto-play feature on social media, so you can read the content without the violent images. Take those media warnings seriously when prompted. Choose reputable news outlets, and only one or two, so you aren't inundated with information. Unfollow some your social media pages that are noise and opinion-based content used to get people riled up. And finish the book. It's not meant to make you feel guilty or at fault; it's being used as an educational tool. So read the book and move on to step two.
2) I Can't Hold On To Your Guilt
POC shouldn't have to hold onto your White guilt. If you don't know what I mean, I'm talking about the feelings of fear and regret you express that have nothing to do with the person you're talking to. The guilt is meant to unload or dump onto that person so you feel better. Feeling guilty about slavery is not helpful or even logical. If we have to start every difficult conversation devoted to how guilty you feel, we're all wasting a lot of time. We already know.
Are you more hurt that someone will call you racist than dedicated to changing your offensive behavior? Are you worried about your image as the oppressor? Instead of trying to pawn off your guilt, take some time to understand why you have it in the first place. Once you a better understanding that your guilt is in your way, you can move on to step three.
3) Believe POC and their experience/expertise
I once had a friend tell me I was making up numbers when I mentioned the rates at which Black men are stopped by police. Instead of accepting that my experience was valuable, she found ways to say that I was making it up. After she did some minor googling for herself, she learned that I wasn't exaggerating. And this happens all the time. Another friend watched a store clerk follow me around their store, and she asked me why someone would do that. I answered it happens all the time. Remember: proximity to people of privilege don't give POC more privilege.
These were moments of discovering your Whiteness- that the world you live in is fundamentally different than the one I live in. It can be difficult to believe someone's story when it seems that none of the facts add up. This step is an easy fix once you see that no one is living in a fantasy world- neither you nor your Black friend. Plus I find that once you get past step two, you don't assume that our experiences are to make you feel guilty.
4) Keep Asking The Uncomfortable Questions (but understand that you aren't entitled to answers from Anyone)
Have you been trying to corner your work acquaintance at the water cooler to ask her how bad her childhood is? That's racist. Expecting her past life experiences to mirror Ta-Nehisi Coates and to offer validation to a book you're reading is extremely rude. The same goes for striking up a conversation about whether your other co-worker is wearing a weave- it's none of your business. Because you discovered that women of color wear extensions/braids/twists or that Blacks are living in poverty at a higher rate than any other ethnic group doesn't mean that you are entitled to discussions from anyone.
There are many people open to discussing race and racial issue with anyone who asks. They are willing to stop what they are doing or have been trained in some way to help others understand how actions and thoughts are racist. There are more books than I can count about racism and how to combat the complex web that is white supremacy. This site is one way that I do it. But know that your casual work acquaintance or your local grocery clerk doesn't own you answers on how to be less racist. Also, finish Between the World and Me, then google "books on racism" to help with your next read.
5) Determine Your Personal Responsibility
You are not responsible for solving the race problem alone. Neither am I. There are enough of us that if we work together, we can improve all our lives. But where does that leave you? Well, what part of the problem are you complicit in? What is your day job and how do you perpetuate white supremacy? What kind of relationships do you have with POC? How do you conduct yourself when presented with criticism about your actions or words that are racist?
Only after you have taken a very real look at where you fit into the world of discrimination can you start to do something. One friend I know works in Real Estate, an area where discrimination against POC is too common. They can make sure that Black families aren't being taken advantage with higher mortgage rates or turned away. I have friends in many different levels of the education system. They can include their students in meaningful discussions about race and inclusion. It is your personal responsibility to take personal responsibility, which leads me to step six:
6) Find a cause and donate/volunteer
Go out and do something. Find one or two causes that speak to you, that are known to help non-white people, and give them money. That's the most important charitable resource that many are reluctant to give. Money buys more equipment, helps fund research, and pays people salaries to help them, in turn, take care of their families. It keeps the lights on and the refrigerators full, both at home and in the resource centers. It's shown that the last things most people need are your old clothes or broken iPhones, so before you do anything else, set up some way to give money to the issues you want to help solve. Even very small amounts can help improve a cause. Don't discount what a dollar can do for someone else.
This includes donating money to individuals like myself and others that are providing these resources. Reading, researching, and spending time talking to you is work. I know it may not seem like it, but this passion of mine takes a lot of my time and energy. You can also follow Black educators like Clint Smith, Francesca Ramsy, and Kat Blaque on social media, each doing the work to explain and dismantle racism. There are SO MANY PEOPLE DOING THIS WORK that you should never feel like you don't know what's going on or how you can be part of the solution.
Volunteering your time is equally important. One social media group is using their resources take the pressure off people of color when their racist friends start debating them on Facebook and Twitter. LA-based publisher, World Stage Press, has a member donation program that puts books by Black authors in local schools. These are just two examples of many who are doing the work to fight systemic racism and giving place people a voice to speak or the space to rest. I've found that no matter your passion, providing resources can help organizations achieve their goals.
7) Keep Shutting Down to Your Racist Friends and Family
It will not happen overnight but this part of the personal responsibility journey may feel like the most challenging. If you do nothing else, keep talking to your racist friends and family to correct them when they're wrong. So what if Grandma is never gonna change, you can let her know that we don't call people "colored" anymore. Don't back down when an acquaintance defends a racist policy or tv show or even a bad joke. Let people of color in your office and in your communities see that they can depend on you to stand up for them. Let your racist friends know that you won't allow them to degrade other people for laughs. We don't get any joy out of having these hard talks with the people in our lives, but you'll feel better knowing you're willing to stand up for your beliefs.
Don't forget to use those beliefs to vote for better legislation. Unlike trickle-down economics, social programs like Affirmative Action or The Equal Pay Act helps everyone. Those incentives ripple out to Whites and men. Your racist friends are heading to the polls, and you should too.
I know this all feels tough and overwhelming; but if you are even asking "what can I do?", you're on the right track. I've spent my entire life navigating racism with the tools given to me by my ancestors. You have fewer tools and more responsibility. I hope you can use this list to as a way to make a greater impact in your community and eventually the community of others. Practice self-care and keep resisting. Take breaks and be sure to take over for someone else who needs a break when you can step up. You got this.
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About the Author
Black & Bookish is the brainchild of Antoinette Scully, educator and lover of all things bookish. She is on a quest to fill your bookshelves with beloved authors of the African Diaspora. When she's not hanging out on line, she's living it up as the mother of two rambunctious girls and wife of a local filmmaker.