A 12-Step Approach to Anti-Racism for White People

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Shawshank Redemption beckons us; the Big Book gives us a path

“And if youve come this far, maybe you’re willing to come a little further.”

That one line Andy writes to Red at the end of Shawshank has a lot of resonance for me, right now, as a white person.

That line is my hope for many white people who now appear to acknowledge that racism is real, that Black Lives Matter, that we are all part of what happened to George Floyd and countless others since 1619.

Are we finally willing to come a little further, closer to accepting that these atrocities have to do with us? Because it’s our responsibility to dismantle structural racism. The racism that is really, truly, built into our institutions.

It’s us. We the People comprise these institutions. We keep them running. We can change them.

But, hope is never enough. Positive thoughts, prayers and worry — praying for what you don’t want to happen — are not enough. Hashtags and signs are not enough.

The hardest, most necessary, work is facing ourselves.

So, if you’ve gotten as far as Step 1: Admitting you and I are part of the problem of racism, take a moment to rejoice in your awareness.

I mean it.

Now, if you’re willing to go a bit further, here is why you should:

  • A deeper understanding (and relief) that anti-racism is not about white guilt. It’s about putting our feelings aside to learn more about ourselves, others, and our systems through listening and helping.
  • Significant growth as a human being.
  • Being told “no,” that in fact, you don’t understand.
  • A recognition (and sadness, anger?) that all you’ve been told and assumed is not true.
  • New relationships with awesome people who will challenge you.
  • New relationships with people you don’t find personally awesome but you get over yourself to do the necessary work.
Photo by Tim Johnson on Unsplash

Rejoice! This is work. Not unlike a total reinvention, a spiritual awakening, a massive weight loss, or quitting a bad habit, anti-racism work is an investment in you, your family, and your community.

But awareness is never a one-and-done. It’s a daily commitment, a mindset change. And we will never be through with self- and social awareness, seeing just how complicit we all are in this system, but that is a beautiful thing.

And like every beautiful thing, awareness is fleeting. It takes diligent practice.

So don’t stop at Step 1. If you do, you will likely hurt yourself. There are many steps to treating a pathology, which is what racism is. Stopping at Step 1 is like opening Pandora’s box and being so overwhelmed that you lock it back up because it’s too much.

But you know what you saw. You remember that experience, that jolting awareness that we are all in this together. All of that and more needs processed and sorted and shared.

Anti-racism is not a project to be managed in Summer 2020.

Step 2: Trusting a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to equality, then wholeness. That Power, for me, is Community. And in particular, it’s listening to Black voices, reading books and posts, and discussing ideas on how changed structures and systems could improve everyone’s lives. It’s not having to lead and being a good team member.

For some, Power and God are one and the same. For others, it is collective power, perhaps divinely inspired, but a power powered by love, nonetheless.

In other words, we must forget about a deep deep white cultural myth: that we individually can overcome obstacles.

White culture is notoriously individualistic. We congratulate one another on our amazing lonely feats of continuous improvement and success. But we don’t do anything alone. Even being called a “white person” can be construed as an insult because we like to be known for our outstanding specialness.

Step 3: Made a decision to turn our attention to the care of God (collective power/love). In order to live according to this power, we must actively listen. It doesn’t matter that agree on everything. This is where a lot of white people fall through the cracks, intentionally. We are not used to not being heard and agreed with.

Just listen without rebuttals, without defensiveness, without feeling shitty, without judgment toward yourself or others. Listen and learn something.

Step 4: Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

You have your own; I have mine. Here are some of them:

  • What opportunities to learn about and help my community have I passed up or am passing up now?
  • Have I tuned others out because I was too uncomfortable to hear them out? To get to know them?
  • Have I assumed things about people, proposed policies and new systems based on prejudice or fear?
  • Have I followed orders that have harmed others because my position in my organization was more important?
  • Have I discouraged my children to build or maintain relationships with people of color?
  • Have I been a Karen or Amy sympathizer? What about them might I want to protect or defend?
  • Have I declined to speak up when my voice might have mattered?
Photo by Metin Ozer on Unsplash

Steps 5–7: Admitted to ourselves, God, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs, that we are ready to grow, to get better at this thing called real community collaboration by valuing and supporting Black voices.

Again, admission is key. It’s a relief. It helps us unpack that impossible bundle of white guilt, and to see we can’t carry it around and be effective at the same time. We need both hands and all our faculties to do the work of anti-racism.

The dicey thing is that we will not be able to remember but a fraction of our histories, because we humans (all races) are excellent at blocking out our more stellar mistakes.

For me, remembering how I treated a woman named Rita who reported to me back in the 80s, very early in my career, the specifics of which are so deeply buried or forgotten that I’m still trying to recall what actually happened.

Why did I terminate her, the only person of color in our department, without trying to build a real relationship? I know that I feared her. I feared the fact that she put up with zero fakery and that she knew I was not an effective manager. I was absolutely in way over my head. I was overeducated and under-experienced in matters of humility, trust, and leadership.

At the same time, I want to look back at myself, a 20-something HR supervisor, with a bit of compassion. Compassion for my naive and unshakeable belief that climbing the corporate ladder was the way to go. (It was not.)

Steps 8 and 9: Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all. Rita, I cannot remember your last name. But when I do I will try to locate you and apologize. Unless to hear from me would harm you further (Step 9).

By attempting these two steps (both doozies) we are not asking for absolution; we are informing someone that a) I believe I hurt you in this way, b) I am sorry and I’d like to make amends if possible, and c) what might those look like to you?

We might start by asking for a conversation with someone we remember shutting down in the past, or someone who argued with us and we grabbed our fragility coat, turned on tears, instinctively making it about our feelings.

Also, a little warning. The “shame” we feel may be pathologically entangled with our fear of their rejection. The other person can always say piss off and if they do, we need to be okay with that. Your feelings will heal. The important thing is that they now know that you know.

Photo by Ilyuza Mingazova on Unsplash

Our growth doesn’t depend on how well we are liked. Or forgiven. Here’s a way to approach Steps 8–9:

“Hi, I wanted to reach out to you and let you know that I am sorry for how I reacted when you tried to give me feedback at work. It’s become very clear to me now that you had some important things to say that I dismissed. I’d like to call you or meet so that I can hear what you wanted to say, in full. I don’t expect you to teach me about racism, but I wanted you to know that I’m trying to dismantle my own.”

Step 10–12: Continuous personal inventory, owning up to our actions (or lack of) and taking time for conscious community contact, then sharing our more aware (never woke) perspectives with others.

The biggest growth moments for me are also the ones that include some pain but also love. In the form of feedback. The moments when my Black friends and co-workers have told me what’s up. Called me on my shit.

So let me explain, briefly, that what I’m not talking about is them educating me about racism. I can read. I can listen. I can travel beyond my white bubble. And it’s my responsibility to do those things.

What I’m talking about is having close friends who won’t let you get into a car after you’ve had more than one drink. The friends who tell you it’s time to move on from an unhealthy relationship with a lover. The friends who will intervene when they think you are on the wrong track, the ones willing to say things like,

“You are ineffective when you respond like that. You’re trying to manage her feelings. Just sit with it. You need to learn to sit with a lot of painful things.”

“It sounds like you’re way too invested in what so-and-so thinks of you. You know not all Black people are gonna like you.”

And they’re right. Also, a lot of white people — a few may be family — aren’t gonna like you either. At least for a while.

We’ll be okay.

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