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Dismantling Racist Systems: A Shared Responsibility

In the past week, I’ve had three friends tell me that the way I talk about social justice makes them feel judged, talked down to, and strains our interactions at times.

And damn, that one hurt.

It hurt because the last thing I want to do is to make the people I care about, feel like they’re walking on eggshells or unable to speak their minds around me. I am lucky to have friends who make me feel that they care to listen to what I have to say, and I’m disappointed that I haven’t been able to reciprocate that in the past. I’ve experienced the power that one challenging conversation can have in getting the ball rolling in the way we confront our racial identities, and I just want to be part of that process. I want to grow alongside my friends and become less ignorant about the ways that we may be perpetuating the systems of oppression surrounding us.

It also hurt because there’s definitely truth to what they said. Constructive criticism can be a humbling, hard pill to swallow, and I’ll be the first to admit that I can be really stubborn when faced with my own biases. Sometimes I do forget how difficult and uncomfortable it is for my white friends to reflect on the privileges inherently tied to their racial identities, especially when considering the rarity of these dialogues.

I’ve had people tell me this year that they’ve never had a friend who talks candidly about these matters before they met me. To be an impactful leader, I need to be more empathetic towards the fact that our lived experiences heavily shape our blind spots and thoughts, our actions and inactions. It’s so important to acknowledge our differing starting points in order to have productive and meaningful conversations about race, and I’m holding myself accountable to be more cognizant of this in the future.

But I think I’m hurting most because I wish my friends understood the pressure and unfair burdens that are consistently placed on people of color (POC) to educate our white peers. In predominantly white institutions and social circles, these pressures are only heightened. Sprinkle in the added expectation of wording things perfectly, and we quickly reach a tipping point.

Being labeled as “the one who cares about social justice” is empowering, but also so incredibly alienating.

I have the voice and knowledge to call out actions rooted in stereotypes and harmful bias, so I do it. I speak up because I’m passionate about advancing racial equity, because I trust my friends, and because I know that there are black and brown lives being taken as a direct result of our collective ignorance. I speak up because I feel — and have been shown — that few others will. And regardless of how exhausted I am of acting as the catalyst for these dialogues, I continue to do it again and again, because I care. It’s a mentally and emotionally taxing merry go round. When I do let my mind wander to thoughts like “I’ll let this one go” or “it’s just a comment, they didn’t mean it” I’m met with almost immediate internal turmoil and guilt.

I consider my own fatigue, and then I think about the toll that it would take on every fiber of my being, to feel like it’s a crime to exist.

I spent the past year in an environment where my fellow classmates of color and I repeatedly experienced microaggressions*; both in and out of the classroom, and in unexpected social situations. Every time these classroom instances were brought up to those in leadership positions, we were met with dismissive comments and repeated inaction. I am not trying to make excuses for the way I’ve come off in past. My tone of judgement and condescension were wrong, point blank, and I appreciate my friends for calling me out on that. But it’s important to understand the context of continuous distress, invalidation, alienation and frustration which underlie this aggressiveness. For anyone reading this who has been in a similar position, I feel you, and your emotions are so valid.

I’ve always been a passionate person. I once went on a first date with a guy and he asked me if I really care about social issues, because my “face lit up when you started talking about it.” I don’t think this part of me will ever change. But these recent conversations with friends helped me realize that this cycle of being the educator is unsustainable. I’m realizing that, just because I have voluntarily taken on that role in the past, it’s not my job.

I can’t keep being the one in the friend group “who cares about racial justice.” And POC can’t keep playing that role for our country. As Dr. King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” This is not a “them” problem. It’s a problem of humanity and every single person has a shared responsibility to help end it.

So this is a call for action to my white friends:

If you’re feeling helpless, I hear you. It’s difficult to know what we “should be doing” right now. The landscape of social media and our digital world complicates things even more. Do we post? Do we share? Do we hashtag? Are these efforts genuine?

Whatever you’re doing on social media to spread awareness and express solidarity is great. It’s encouraging to see people utilizing these platforms for positive social change.

But please, don’t stop there. Here are some things you can do to make a difference.

Read, watch and listen to resources that challenge you to think about your race. Educate on how you can use your privilege and social capital to be an ally. Learn about systemic racism. Here’s a good place to start. Start conversations with your white peers about content from the aforementioned resources. Use your voice. Attend protests. Pay attention to local elections and support candidates who champion criminal justice reform initiatives, like ending cash bail and addressing discriminatory sentencing practices. Read about voter suppression and other barriers to civic engagement which disproportionately affect non-white communities.

If you’re checking in on your friends of color, don’t get offended if they don’t respond — they’re under extreme and unimaginable distress. And if you can’t think of anyone in your immediate network who you might consider reaching out to, that might be a reason to reflect on the racial homogeneity of your social circles.

And if you’re in a position to donate money, these organizations are doing incredible anti-white supremacy work and they need our support — the Minnesota Freedom Fund, NAACP, ACLU, your local Black Lives Matter chapter, United Negro College Fund.

Remember that nothing speaks louder than inaction. By choosing to do nothing, you perpetuate the pressures on POC to fight the fight alone, and collective inaction is precisely what has gotten us to this point.

The ball’s in your court.

And to my black friends and all POC:

My heart hurts for you. I can’t empathize with the pain felt by the black community, but I hear you, see you, and I stand in solidarity with you. I support you, and I’m thinking of you. I’m sorry that we as a society have failed to show up so many times.

What we’re seeing in the media, what happened to Christian Cooper, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, are not stand alone instances. It’s something much deeper, and it reflects the interconnected foundations of racial oppression which underlie our justice system, our healthcare system, our education system… the list goes on. These systems continue to widen gaps in wealth inequality, uphold barriers to educational attainment, stifle social mobility, and explain the disproportionate lives of black and brown people being taken by COVID-19.

It shouldn’t have taken a global pandemic — a situation which has confined us to our homes and forced us to acknowledge the ongoing reality of what it means to be black in America — to spur public outrage.

But it did.

And now we have to capitalize on this opportunity to be better, and do our part to dismantle these systems.

Notes: While this article focuses on racial equity for the most part, I recognize that this progress cannot be made without serious efforts to achieve economic justice, environmental justice, LGBTQIA justice, and other intersecting spaces.

*microagressions — I’ve heard a lot of people talk about how this word can act to minimize these experiences; if anyone has suggestions for a better word, let me know!

Big fan of creative storytelling. Passionate about creating intentional solutions to tackle complex social issues.

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