Just Tell Me What To Do

Just Tell Me What To Do

Just Tell Me What To Do

For White people who want to know

For 15 years, my husband and I traveled around the U.S. and facilitated workshops and dialogues about racial justice. We made detailed notes and regularly updated our materials based on the questions people asked. Over and over, in every part of the country — in workshops, over coffee, in emails and phone calls — we heard White people asking some version of this question:

What should I do about racism?

It was expressed in many different ways:

  • “I want to help, but I don’t know how.”
  • “I want to help, but my life is so complicated/I’m too old/I don’t get out much.”
  • “This is all new to me; just tell me what to do and I’ll do it.”
  • “What do you/they want from us anyway?”

Often this question was asked of us or another White person in the room who had experience with anti-racism initiatives. We had lists of many different ways to engage, based on a person’s circumstances.

Sometimes this question was directed to a Black participant in the workshop. Their answer depended on a number of things; the sincerity of the person asking, the feeling in the room, and the quality of the relationships were important factors.

Mostly the answer depended on how that particular Black person felt about the question.

Often they were tired of teaching White people about race.

In this case, they might say something like:

  • I shouldn’t have to be the one to tell you this. Ask another White person.
  • I’ve been telling White people what they need to do for my entire life, and no one’s listening. I’m done.
  • I’m exhausted by this question.
  • I feel exploited by this question.
  • Not today.
  • Haven’t you been listening for the past two hours?
  • Google it.

If you’re Black, do these responses seem familiar? Do you have any others to add?

If you’re White, do these responses seem frustrating or unhelpful?

Do you want to respond with “How am I supposed to know what to do if you won’t tell me?”

If you are a White woman, maybe it will help if I share what I do when I don’t know how to react to something a Black person has said. I take race out of the picture for a minute and pretend it’s about gender. In the above example, I would frame it like this:

I’m engaged in an open, honest conversation about sexism, chauvinism, and misogyny. I’ve been triggered several times by people’s comments. I’ve shared my own experiences with oppression and discrimination. At some point, a man (it has to be a White man for this to work) asks me, “What am I supposed to do?”

My response is likely to be, “Really? You’re kidding, right?” Not very gracious or helpful. But I know me, and that’s probably what I would feel like saying.

So the truth is, as a woman who has been hurt by sexism my whole life, I understand why a Black person would respond unsympathetically to a question like that. And how I react to their response is the same way I would want a man to react to me. I would want him to say, “Oh. I get it. Okay. Thanks.”

Sometimes they were willing to teach a White person about race.

Maybe the question was asked of a Black person who was ready to offer suggestions. When that happens, dear White readers, PLEASE TAKE NOTES!

And now I’ve come to the main point of my story and the reason I wrote it in the first place.

Here is an explicit answer to “What should White people do?” It was shared following the Charleston church massacre, described as follows by the website This Day in History:

“On the evening of June 17, 2015, a mass shooter took the lives of nine African American people at a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The massacre at a historic Black church deeply shook a nation already jaded by frequent gun violence and heralded the return of violent white nationalism in America.”

Three days later, a Black friend, Dr. Phillipe Copeland, wrote a Facebook post in the form of a thank-you letter.

June 20, 2015 
“To those of you out there who demonstrate on a daily basis that there are #ManyWays2BWhite I want to say thank you. To those of you who fiercely speak up, stand up and act up to counter white supremacy I say thank you. To those of you who demonstrate in action a deep and abiding love for black humanity without apology or equivocation I say thank you. To those of you who put your privilege to work to dismantle the system that unjustly grants it simply because of your skin color I say thank you. For those of you who welcome and honor black grief and rage no matter how bad it makes you feel, I thank you. For those of you who struggle for justice honorably without fear of loss or desire for reward, I thank you. You offer living proof that neither demography nor history are destiny. You are the kind of white people this world so desperately needs. Thank you for being who you are. It does not go unnoticed.”
~ Phillipe Copeland (quoted with the author’s permission)

What you choose to do with Phillipe’s message is, of course, up to you. As for me, I copied it onto my phone, with specific phrases bolded:

  • fiercely speak up, stand up and act up to counter white supremacy
  • demonstrate in action a deep and abiding love for black humanity without apology or equivocation
  • put your privilege to work to dismantle the system that unjustly grants it simply because of your skin color
  • welcome and honor black grief and rage no matter how bad it makes you feel
  • struggle for justice honorably without fear of loss or desire for reward

This is what White people should do. This is how we can help. These actions are as vital now as they were in 2015. Consider how you might share them with others who are not sure how to show up in the struggle for racial justice.

Gratitude to Phillipe Copeland for his potent words and his friendship.

************

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Tags:
No Comments

Post A Comment

thirteen − four =