Following my recent post naming this moment in history as white America’s wake up call, I received comments and inquiries from people asking what exactly they can do to contribute to racial justice. This is a great question and one I plan on addressing soon. But before I share that, I want to outline eight core assumptions I hold when working for racial justice.
I am starting here because these mental models inform the action and recommendations that I’ll offer. Without an understanding of how I see race and privilege, I think it is easy to then misunderstand what it is I am calling us to. With the intention of creating mutual understanding and identifying our shared foundation- or points of divergence- I offer this list.
1. There is inherent dignity in every human being
Core to my engagement in social justice work is a belief in the value, beauty, light, and love within each person. In fact, my understanding of injustice is any system— be it psychological, organizational, social, or structural— that denies this. With that, as I engage in racial justice, it is out of a belief that my black and brown sisters and brothers are worthy of equal celebration, respect, safety, and power.
[Author’s note: In truth, I believe in the dignity of every living thing, but I’ll save the ecological questions for another day—not to suggest they aren’t interconnected]
2. There are multiple types of power
This assumption developed over time from many theologians and philosophers. Starhawk perhaps outlines it best for me when she defines three types of power: power within, power over, and power with (Truth or Dare, 1988). To me, this captures the capacities we as humans have in terms of relationship. I understand power within as the dignity I spoke to above: an inner light within each human. Power over is our dominant cultural paradigm, where that light is shoved down with pressures of identity-performance while said identities are placed in hierarchies of us/them, superior/inferior, privileged/oppressed. Power with is that which we are working towards. In practice, it is solidarity, though I like to think that it is also transcendence and a deep interconnectedness that moves to a lens of I-in-We.
The practical application of this assumption is that when deconstructing racism or any other system of power, it is the hierarchy that is the issue. White supremacy is the root of race-based oppression while white privilege is another thing (that I’ll get to shortly).
3. Everything is connected
I really mean everything. But for the purpose of this discussion, this assumption manifests in a concept known as intersectionality. Which basically means that our experience of each of our social identities— and thus access to power or experience of subordination— is intertwined. I cannot separate my experience of my whiteness from my experience of being a woman because my life happens at the nexus of both my racial identity and my gender identity (a nexus, then, of privilege and marginalization). This assumption has a lot of implications for how we seek justice. It means we cannot talk about issues in isolation. In addressing white supremacy, we must also look at other systems of oppression from patriarchy to ableism to heterosexism.
4. My way of being in the world is racialized
I believe that any social identity we hold— race, gender, socio-economic status, ability, sexuality, religion, etc.— impacts our lived experience. From the ways of being in the world that we are taught and allowed to the way that others perceive us, identity matters. When doing racial justice work, this means that I start from a place that sees myself as white— both in how I take up space and how others might interpret and experience that.
My whiteness, and our relationships, are not power neutral— they are contextual. The current context is one of white supremacy, where white is treated as the norm, thus rendered invisible. The assumption that my way of being in the world is racialized offers a counter-narrative, then, to the idea that race is something only “others” have.
5. I can’t understand marginalization that I don’t experience
As I talk about these issues, it is with the perspective that I can’t know what it is to experience life as a person of color. Given this limitation and the existing power dynamics in our society, I will be blind to some of the ways that racism shows up. This assumption places me in the seat of a learner. For me, it means honoring experiences that are communicated to me with the humility that comes from knowing that it will never be mine to endure or fully comprehend.
6. Trust is earned
Of every mental model outlined here, I can best pinpoint the exact moment that I came to entertain this one. I sat in the audience of a panel discussion about women of color and white women working together in academia. A woman of color on the panel shared that she has never encountered a white woman whom she felt she could trust. Dismayed by the statement, I noticed a sea of heads around me nodding in affirmation. The room was packed; and every woman of color I could identify and observe was in agreement on this one.
I am not saying that this is every person of color’s experience. What I am saying is that because of white supremacy, at the intersection of assumption 4 (my way of being in the world is racialized) and 5 (I can’t understand marginalization that I don’t experience), being a safe place for people of color— or any marginalized group in which you do not have membership— is not a given. In my experience, it requires work: a demonstration of consciousness, an honoring of difference, an interest in hearing people’s story, an investment in working for change, and —perhaps most significantly— an ability to stay in things when they are uncomfortable. I suppose my assumption here is that trust is earned and should be worked toward in relationships. Earning it might also require recognizing that despite the work I put in and how close to someone I feel, sometimes I still won’t be the person my friend wants to talk to about these things (see the assumptions above and below).
7. I will make mistakes
Because of the blind spots that exist in my experience of the world, I won’t always engage in a way that promotes justice. In fact, I continually catch myself contributing to the very systems I seek to change. From perpetuating micro-aggressions to leaning into dominant ways of being, mistakes are an inescapable part of the process. Knowing this and befriending this guides the way that I pursue justice. Some of the work that is required in earning trust is the ability to own when you get things wrong and the willingness to apologize for those times. Letting go of a desire to be perfect and embracing a desire to do and be better is a significant act when our society continues to downplay or deny white supremacy, often to protect white people from the discomfort and hurt feelings of facing themselves as oppressor.
8. There are multiple ways to use my white privilege
Privilege is merely a product of hierarchical power, meaning it is not in and of itself the issue nor necessarily a “bad thing”. In fact, to the white folks reading, I think it is good if your experience is one where you feel safe— if law enforcement is an entity you feel protected by. For anyone with membership in privileged identities, if you are able to make a living wage, maintain your individuality, or be heard and taken seriously in a meeting— let’s celebrate the ways your dignity is upheld in our society. The real issue is that anyone is denied these things based upon identities they hold.
The start to this assumption, then, is that privilege- though a product of injustice- is neutral. How it is used however, is another thing. Though there are likely more, I see three core ways that privilege is engaged:
- Someone can “lean into” their privilege. They can use it to take over that meeting, define history around a certain group of folks’ version of it, or maintain ignorance or apathy about injustice impacting marginalized groups. When I catch myself in this way of using privilege, it is often in over-asserting my voice and not creating enough space for the experience of others.
- People can experience what I am going to call “privilege paralysis” (which I’ll write more about soon). Essentially, they feel aware enough of existing power dynamics to not want to lean into their privilege. Subsequently, they avoid any action in fear of perpetuating injustice. When I find myself in this place, I am normally being overly-cautious in a relationship that actually just needs more trust and direct conversations about race.
- Alternatively, people can be conscious of their positionally as someone with privilege and seek to use their power to create positive change. This work requires that privileged folks practice new ways of being that are vertical, inclusive, nondual, and honoring. As someone conferred power based on my skin color, I can use it to reorder the current power dynamic. I can raise up other voices and ask questions that if someone of color did they might be dismissed as being “too sensitive” or “playing the race card”. Additionally, I can speak up when some folks might not feel safe, or simply have the emotional energy, to do so. There is a balance to this, too, so that my pursuit of using my privilege in this third way does not become a new iteration of the dominance listed in the first.
The heart of this assumption is that with privilege comes a choice of how to use it.
I think it is this choice that leads us to the recommendations for action that began this post. For today, here is how I make meaning of racial justice. It is not a comprehensive list and it is certainly evolving. I am no expert; just a learner in this lopsided world— perhaps a dreamer who believes in what humanity is capable of co-creating.
My hope is that this space is always invitational and can serve as a catalyst for further reflection and dialogue. With that, if your assumptions differ, if you are challenged by mine, if you think I’m off on something, I welcome you to share it in the comments below. Better yet, create your own assumptions list; I’d be eager to read it.