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#ICantBreathe and #RunWithMaud: Privilege & Activism in 2020

Updated: Jun 1, 2020

Being an activist today requires more than just speaking out - it means facing our fears head-on while increasing your stake in the movement. For whites advocating for racial equality, that means either get in or get out.

The recent injustices with #GeorgeFloyd and #AhmaudArbery has me charged and thinking about what I can do, what my place as a white person is in this movement, and what I can do to make the most impact. Activism has changed pretty significantly in the past 50 years, and as such it’s made the question “Where to begin?” a daunting one. Should I protest? Call up a local politician? Post on social media?

The truth is, there are many ways to protest, and I’ve realized that trying to determine which of them is “better” isn’t the right approach. Donating to a cause, being on the front lines at a protest, spray painting a message on a wall, or joining a local community group are all ways to engage, each with different pros and cons depending on the circumstance and intent. Whatever you choose, it may seem obvious that the best way to campaign for social change is by choosing what feels most personal to each of us. For whites who believe in racial equality though, understanding the reasoning behind this choice is even more critical, as it ultimately has the ability to empower your activism to another level.

Increasing The Stakes

A friend of mine and founder of Abernathy Magazine, Willie Jackson, wrote a fantastic piece entitled “Don’t be an ally, be an accomplice,” talking about the importance of having “skin in the game” when it comes to taking action. In a nutshell, he spoke about a necessary evolution of the term “ally” to “accomplice,” where the core difference of how much one has at stake ultimately has a significant impact on how much one contributes to the movements they aim to advance.

Jackson recognizes that often many allies do more harm than good without realizing it, with a key issue being that the impact isn’t felt by them, since they’re not truly part of the movement. In Jackson’s words, “...the work of being an accomplice might cost you something. Perhaps your comfort or social standing, or maybe even your safety. Real advocacy and comfort rarely go hand in hand.”

I call myself an activist for the causes of #ReducingGunViolence and #RacialEquality, but when considering Jackson’s words, I began to think on what further ownership looked like for me. “Skin in the game” means recognizing my responsibility and contributing to the movement while having real personal risk and sacrifice. Risk means something that instills fear, and both fear and risk are predicated on sacrifice, something that can only be done when true loss is faced.

“How much one has at stake ultimately has a significant impact on how much one contributes to the movements they aim to advance.”

What this means is that when it comes to activism and change-making, the best guide for how to become a real advocate might just be the one that faces our fears the most. Scared of going to jail? Go protest on the front lines. Worried about not having enough money? Make a donation that feels real. Concerned about what your friends will think? Publish an article and post to social. Whatever it is, it needs to be personal to you.

In other words, having something to lose and facing our fears in the movements we choose to take action in both reinforces our convictions and makes us more effective in our change-making.

For myself, I know that of the “7 Basic Fears of Man” (listed by Napoleon Hill), the one that most truly resonates with me is a fear of criticism. Heck, it’s why I’m writing this blog post. Public scrutiny for saying the wrong thing scares the bejeezus out of me, because of how tough it is to pivot when you say the wrong thing. And in the racial conversation, “skin in the game” is an especially poignant choice of words.

"...having something to lose and facing our fears in the movements we choose to take action in both reinforces our convictions and makes us more effective in our changemaking.”

For the longest time I was led to believe that my role as an ally in the racial conversation meant not doing any talking, instead of listening and responding when prompted. The voices that should be heard are those being oppressed (and not heard). Anything other than that would seem to put me in the group that’s doing the oppressing, and not listening, right?

Well... yes and no.

Joining The Conversation

It wasn’t until I watched a fantastic Ted talk by author and anti-sexism educator Jackson Katz that I better understood what my role as an activist should be, specifically in the movement for racial equity/justice. In the talk, Katz claims that while domestic violence and sexual abuse are often called "women's issues," these are intrinsically men's issues. In his own words:

“Calling gender violence a women’s issue is part of the problem. This is one of the ways dominant systems maintain and reproduce themselves, which is to say the dominant group is rarely challenged to even think about its dominance. It’s one of the key characteristics of power and privilege — the ability to go unexamined, lacking introspection.”

What he said next hit me like a ton of bricks.

“Men are being erased from a conversation that is centrally about men.”

Wow. This truth hit hard. Both in the incredibly important issue of gender equity, and for me, in racial equality.

My role as a white person experiencing privilege means that I have to say something. I need to be part of this conversation. As someone who is benefitting from systemic racism every day (whether I like it or not), I’m in the best position to make real positive change. The group in power has to be part of both the conversation and the solution. Or as it is so eloquently put in Spiderman, “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility.”

And more relevantly in this case...

With Great White Privilege Comes Great Responsibility.

Let that sink in for a moment. For some of the white people in the audience, I can only imagine that reading that caused a visceral reaction. First thoughts may include “I’m not benefitting” or “We all have problems” or even “I don’t have the time, ability, or capacity to help others. I’m struggling myself”.

Ok, so that’s true. In this global crisis everyone is experiencing a suffering that was unexpected. Our neighbors, friends, and family are increasingly asking for support as issues of income inequality, the injustices in the climate movement, healthcare access, and more are being exacerbated by the pandemic. Hardships like loneliness, mental/physical health struggles, and unemployment are the lowest hanging disaster fruit that are cropping up to the surface in piles and garnering more attention now than ever.

However, the recent surfacing of the Ahmaud Arbery video, and Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and George Floyd murders remind us of the immense privilege that whites have solely by virtue of the color of our skin. It’s easy to forget that there are things we don’t have to worry about because of that fact: being stopped by the police due to racial profiling, being shot down in cold blood, and being victims of a criminal-justice system intentionally designed to uphold white supremacy. Many don’t think about the fact that minorities across the country are experiencing all of the effects of the pandemic twice as bad, coupled with racism, profiling, and systemic biases and violence. So imagine everything you’re experiencing and then some.

Now while I’m advocating that whites have an inherent responsibility to think and do more for their BIPOC peers., it’s also not that simple. While there are some great illustrations (below) that capture the essence of our societal dysfunction, how to best shift from an equity mindset, to an equality mindset, and ultimately to a justice mindset, is a challenge in itself.

As the saying goes, simple isn’t always easy. Going from “Affirmative Action” to “Systemic Barrier removal”...that’s what activism is all about. It's why we need to get involved now — because it's clear that the situation is getting worse. We whites need to rethink our values and to work on acting more effectively, starting with putting some skin in the game. Literally and figuratively.

So What Now?

With this ideology in mind, it shouldn’t take long to determine a few action items after some healthy reflection. For myself, the reality is I’m not a lawyer, I’m not a policy maker, and I’m not a celebrity or someone of status. Am I single-handedly going to change gun laws and end racism? No. But there are people and organizations that are doing phenomenal work, dedicating their lives to these movements, that can shift the tide: the ACLU, NAACP, Alliance for Families of Justice, The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, ACTIONPAC, ADL, Everytown for Gun Safety, Black Lives Matter, just to name a few. The moral of this story is that supporting these organizations is necessary, it doesn’t matter how. While money goes a long way, using your voice, spreading the message, and volunteering can be other ways to start. What matters is that you do something.

So for those that read this and still need some direction on being a real activist in the cause, here are some ways to start (that I’ll be doing):

  1. Educate Yourself: While there is no end to the amount of knowledge we can receive, making it a priority to learn about key figures, some basic history, and what is happening today around this movement is critical. While Google can sometimes be our best friend, asking actual people is just as important. We’re libraries.

  2. Broadly Raise Awareness: Tell everyone you know (and don’t know) about these injustices. From the hilltops, from social, via email, and in a big sign on your front door. Consistency, creativity, and quantity is the thing.

  3. Empower Others: Inspire others to feel similarly and challenge them to be active in the movement in their own way. #Leadbyexample.

  4. Clarity on action: Be clear on what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. The clearer you are, the easier you’re making it for others to follow suit.

  5. Provide Solutions and Actions: Constructive criticism is nice, but if you’re going to suggest an alternative, stand behind it by actually helping put that solution in place. Otherwise, get out of the way.

  6. Give: While there are many ways, doing it in your own way, and until it hurts, is what counts.

Keep in mind, this will undoubtedly look different for everyone. That’s a good thing! It means our efforts will be more well rounded and more likely to succeed. For myself, donating and spreading awareness about great organizations and individual’s work feels like the right place to begin.

Now the question remains, “What will you do”?

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