The murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minnesota and the ensuing wave of protests serve as a painful reminder of how deadly and prevalent racial injustice remains, not only in the US, but across the world. They highlight in a most gut-wrenching way the scope and implications of white supremacy and the degree to which our social, political, and economic systems are saturated with it.
As the streets fill up with clamours for justice and change and social media feeds display black squares for Blackout Tuesday, many white and white-passing individuals struggle to figure out ways in which to support the movement. But in order to truly uproot the plague of white supremacy—white and white-passing individuals must completely transform our approach and understanding of racial injustice and acknowledge our responsibility to not only condemn but actively fight against institutional discrimination and racism. Here’s where we can start.
While there’s a tendency to associate white supremacy with overt acts of aggression and violence against racial minorities and membership in hate groups such as the KKK, racism is exhibited in far more nuanced and covert ways.
In an essay for the New York Times, Ibram X. Kendi, a professor, award-winning author and director of the Antiracist Research & Policy Center, shares that, “We learn early the racist notion that white people have more because they are more; that people of colour have less because they are less. I had internalised this worldview by my high school graduation, seeing myself and my race as less than other people and blaming other blacks for racial inequities.”
Such deeply-embedded conceptions about race affect white people, too, and are manifested in myriad ways, such as discrimination in employment, silence in the face of aggression against minorities, white parents self-segregating schools, victim-blaming—just to list a few.
It is important to recognise these forms of covert racism and engage in honest and ongoing self-reflection to see in what ways each of us is affected by these centuries-old racial biases.
Most history lessons taught in high school and higher education institutions give the false impression that the end of slavery and the Jim Crow laws marked the termination of systemic, state-sanctioned racism in the US. This is far from being the case. It is important that white people educate themselves about the ways in which white supremacy has permeated and shaped our systems of government and social institutions.
This includes, among others, biases in criminal justice legislation and enforcement (manifested in mass incarceration and criminalisation of minor offences), gerrymandering and other voter-suppression tactics, discrimination in education funding and provision of healthcare services and proper infrastructure in predominantly black and Hispanic communities.
It is also important to understand that violence—physical, verbal, institutional—against people of colour takes place on a daily basis in the form of racial profiling, arrests, humiliation, deportation, etc. The outburst of rage we witness following a murder case like that of George Floyd is a collective expression of pent-up, corrosive and generational hardship and pain.
As opposed to turning to people of colour for answers, white and white-passing people should immerse themselves in the extensive volumes of black literature in which African Americans describe and analyse their experiences in their own words, through their own lenses.
Such literature dates back to the days of slavery (with books such as the 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave written by former slave Frederick Douglass), and extends throughout the decades, with novels such as Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and more contemporary research about manifestations of systemic racism—such as Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Corow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
This post, for instance, includes lists of books, podcasts, movies and shows that deal with racial injustice and centre black voices:
Amplifying the voices of black people, as opposed to continuing to centre white voices in the battle against racism, is another crucial step toward racial justice and equality, seeing as one of the major hurdles to the eradication of white supremacy is the perpetual highjacking of the narrative around racism and oppression of black people by white individuals.
In the age of social media, uplifting black voices can involve sharing information created by black people or centring around black narratives on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, as well as clearing the virtual stage for black individuals (i.e—cutting back on art and lifestyle posts during times of heightened tensions).
Furthermore, as white and white-passing individuals, we should be mindful of what types of black voices we highlight; is it exclusively those of educated, powerful black leaders? Is it only posts of cis folks we share? If so, do they truly speak to the overall experience of black people in America?
Engaging with your local community is key in dismantling white supremacy since this is where a significant portion of systemic racism is manifested. Among the actions you may take is contacting your local police department and inquiring about their body-camera policies and de-escalation training. You should also contact your local government representatives and demand they take concrete action for racial justice. You may also research local groups and organisations operating in your area to uplift, support and protect black people.
Taking action online is another form of engagement that can help erode systemic racial biases and aggression. Consider donating to or supporting the fundraising efforts of organisations that fight for racial equality, tackle police brutality, and work to promote the safety and prosperity of black communities. Such groups include the Minnesota Freedom Fund, the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, Black Visions Collective and Reclaim The Block. You may also sign online petitions such as Justice for George Floyd on Change.org and #JusticeforFloyd on act.colorofchange.org.
Acknowledging white privilege and calling out injustice aren’t worth much unless they are backed by consistent action to obliterate systemic racism. The state of our national psyche and systems of organisations call not only for white allyship but white leadership in the movement to terminate racial injustice.
White and white-passing people must take on the complex and highly-nuanced role of utilising our status and access to resources in order to shatter the walls surrounding our fortress of privilege while taking our cues from and uplifting black individuals and groups. This cannot be achieved by occasional outbursts of compassion following a tragedy that gains national attention, but only through long-term, persistent engagement, ongoing research and rigorous self-reflection.
Shakerah Penfold has created something I haven’t seen before. As the uncertainty of our times is caused by a myriad of factors—be it unprecedented Brexit proceedings, politicians showing their prejudice across national TV or the rise of hate crime towards minorities—this hostile air can make communities feel polarised and divided. The @AskAPoC Instagram account is a space on the internet where that gap shrinks. This account is where you can ask a question regarding race or stereotypes and be answered by Penfold and the @AskAPoC community. And all it costs is one British pound.
Screen Shot magazine sat down with Penfold to discuss how in an era of being either ‘cancelled’ or ‘woke’, asking unfiltered questions works.
On a daily basis, Penfold works performs a charitable service by pairing vulnerable people with volunteer opportunities. The founder of @AskAPoC describes herself as not having a penchant for long walks on the beach, but one for dismantling racial stereotypes and “fighting the patriarchy before breakfast”. A southerner “lost up North”, Penfold was inspired to create @AskAPoC when she saw a @trueblacksoul post asking white people to ask a question that they have always wanted to know the answer to. Realising this could be a regular conversation and somewhere she could direct people in her workplace (especially when they asked her 21 questions about her hair), @AskAPoC was born.
“So it’s a pretty basic concept whereby curious people can send a question anonymously to the page and it’s answered by myself, and/or the community that the question is aimed at,” explains Penfold. Those who want to ask a question, have to first donate to the charity founded among Penfold and her friends called Food For Thought SL. The money from platforms such as @AskAPoC goes to building sustainable development projects in a village called Robuya in Sierra Leone. After the money is donated, you can then direct message the account and Penfold will share the question and her answer and then give it up to the floor (the @AskAPoC Instagram community) to chime in as well.
Though the questions are largely asked by white women and answered largely by women of colour, the audience for @AskAPoC is diverse, and Penfold and her team don’t know what the race of the quizzers are unless their question reveals it. Was she afraid of creating an echo chamber with her views front and centre? “I wish!” says Penfold over email—I can almost hear her passion over Gmail. “The page is called @AskAPoc, meaning that only people of colour need to answer. However, we still get a LOT of non-people of colour answering and taking up space so there are no chances of an echo chamber.”
With accounts such as @AskAPoC, it’s important to remember that people of colour as a whole are not a monolithic group. Even the phrase ‘people of colour’ is debated on widely, as it implies that white people make the norm and everyone else the are ‘others’. “In fairness, even without that input, people of colour are all raised in different societies and cultures so there’s always conflicting answers. I say go with whichever answer feels right to you,” adds Penfold.
Having experienced racism in the past, and having had to explain why macro and microaggressions are not acceptable for Z, Y, and X reasons, I know the emotional toll racism can take first hand. Therefore, discovering @AskAPoC, I initially thought it’s only fair that the minimum should be to donate to a charity first. But then I thought, why is it always the work of women of colour, and especially black women, to undo ignorance? The intellectual, social, and mostly emotional labour Penfold and her community do regularly is not a small task, especially as the @AskAPoC community grows.
“Sometimes it feels emotionally draining, especially when non-people of colour are in the comments trying to justify or push their own agenda,” says Penfold when I ask if this all feels too heavy to carry. The founder also mentions how yes, there are frequently asked questions that are disheartening such as “Why can’t I wear my hair in braids?” and “Why can’t I say the N-word?”. “However, it’s always balanced when I get emails saying how much someone loves the page and how much they have learned from it”. What Penfold really teaches through @AskAPoC is to spot the intention behind a question. Not all of us live in cosmopolitan cities nor do we all have the same experiences; therefore, being considerate within the @AskAPoC community is imperative, and it works both ways.
It’s also a space to understand how valid black and brown reactions are regardless of the intent.
I don’t believe that people of colour can undo a systemically racist system that continues to undervalue us by the spreading of information only, especially if those stories fall on defensive and deaf ears. Nor do I think we should expect that this is a task for people of colour to undertake on their own. However, what accounts such as @AskAPoC do is allow an open conversation to take place, and, essentially, share hope in what can feel like dire times.
Though black and brown bodies and minds have every reason to be angry at the mistreatment of their communities, their marginalisation also tends to evoke profound compassion, knowing what it’s like to be pushed aside. It’s this empathy that has taught Penfold and her community so much about humanity. “People are so willing to be educated and people like to help others learn. I think that’s beautiful, especially in the world we live in. I love how a community of people of colour who may have faced so much ignorance in their lives have not hardened their hand, but draw on those experiences to try and stop it happening to their fellow sister or brother.”