Actually, it’s past time.
There’s really no excuse for those of us with privilege, particularly those of us with the other oppressive “P”--power, not to take a stand against structures that perpetuate racism in our society. It is not nor will it ever be easy. It will be a journey that requires courage, resilience, and humility.
Hard as it may be to admit, there is a binary choice.
Option A: Use your privilege to elevate the voices of our BIPOC friends and neighbors and use your power to make meaningful change.
Option B: Be a part of perpetuating racist structures.
This is the stark reality. It’s the choice that faces all of us who have unearned privilege and even more so those of us that also have power in addition to privilege.
If you find yourself “shutting down” faced with the starkness of the choice, if rising up inside of you are even tinges of defensiveness, disbelief, or confusion as you read the words above, please know you are not alone. Such responses are normal, expected even. They have been increasingly felt the last 12 months, as more and more of us with privilege and power--white people in particular, men especially, those with ample resources all included--have faced the hard reality that our society is anything but “post-racial” and that we have a lot to do to dismantle existing structures.
Like many of you, I have been on my own journey of coming face-to-face with this reality and my own complicitness...and it has been hard. My “bumper sticker” morality isn’t enough. It doesn’t give me a pass. I realize I must do more. I realize that we can all do more.
Individually, we are all at different places on this journey. It doesn’t so much matter where you are; what matters is where you are going to be tomorrow. Judgement...or more accurately: judgemental-ism...doesn’t motivate change. What motivates change around challenging subjects is listening, empathizing, questioning, and pushing back without attack. I offer this blog in that spirit.
One of the first steps in the personal journey toward being an antiracist is understanding the language of privilege and the words and ideas important to this moment.
BIPOC refers to…
BIPOC is a fairly new term that stands for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. As a term that combines several different groups of rightfully aggrieved populations, it is limiting in its generality. However, it has arisen in our current political lexicon when referring to those groups in general that are not white and continue to experience disenfranchisement as a result.
Privilege is not what many think it is...
Many people, especially those with privilege, incorrectly assume that this term is about money or wealth. It is not--at least it is not in the context of anti-racism efforts. Privilege refers to your lens. If you are white, there are things you simply will never experience because of the color of your skin. For example, the fact that you have likely never experienced housing or employment discrimination because of the color of your skin is a privlege. When you enter a store and are not immediately followed by security simply because you are white, you have experienced a privilege. Privilege in the context of race is simply not experiencing negative impacts because of who you are, impacts that others who are not white do experience. As a result of this privilege you simply don’t and can’t understand what our BIPOC friends and neighbors experience “on the regular” (as our kids would say). This is privilege.
As an example of how this privilege plays itself out with tragic consequences, in May a white former pastor in Florida ran over 2 miles through a neighborhood carrying a television and was not stopped once, while Ahmad Arbury, a black man, was murdered by white vigilantes who claimed he was carrying stolen items from a home under construction (he was not). When teachers in our school district attend their three-day orientation as employees, we begin with this simple yet powerful video about privilege followed by a discussion of the privilege’s impact on how students experience school and how staff unconsciously treat students if they are not intentional. Understanding privilege is essential to a journey toward antiracism.
We’re not inclined to give up our privilege...
Recognizing your privilege is important in helping to dismantle racist structures. Those of us with privilege are often loath to acknowledge it. The first reason is understandable and innocent enough. Folks hesitate to admit because they don’t want to be considered “racist,” thinking wrongly that admitting something that is true is a reflection on them. It’s not. It is a reflection of the systems we’ve allowed to be created around us.
The second reason folks are hesitant is a bit more insidious. Admitting our own privilege, unfortunately, puts us on the hook for doing something about it. When we recognize that our privilege is unintentionally or intentionally putting others at a disadvantage, we also are faced with the reality that we must sacrifice our privilege so that the marginalized can benefit. You see, human nature is to see resources as limited, thus we are consciously and unconsciously always jockeying for better position and more resources. If systematically those resources are given more freely and abundantly to white people--which they are--then by definition the systems are racist. Thus, white people must relinquish that privilege as a necessary function of dismantling the system. Ouch. We all have a choice to make. If you’re white, maybe you’re not there yet, but if you want to be an anti-racist...it’s part and parcel of the process.
Being “not racist” is not enough…
Unless you’ve read Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist (which I highly recommend) or have listened to and read other thought leaders discussing antiracism, you may assume on its face that to be “not racist” is the same as being “antiracist.” It’s not. Kendi argues that to simply say you are not racist is to give a pass to the existing systems that clearly marginalize people based on the color of their skin and advantage white people. Kendi also argues that BIPOC individuals can be racist, too. Kendi’s argument is that if we are to dismantle inequality, it’s not enough simply to be “not racist;” we must be actively “anti”-racist lest the systems that benefit a few at the expense of many are allowed to continue unabated.
Kendi argues, as do many other thought leaders, that the term racism has evolved to become synonymous with violence and hate, when in actuality the term broadly describes a systematic preference for one race over another. This intentional extreme-ification of the term racism complicates the conversation, but also provides “coverage” for those that prefer a middle ground. In an interview last year, Kendi shared, “Racists hold that certain racial groups are better or worse than others, while an anti-racist expresses emotions that the racial groups are equals. There is no middle ground. We either support systems and policies that promote racial inequality – with enthusiasm, or by our own passivity – or we actively fight them. So, the term ‘not racist’ not only has no meaning, but it also connotes that there is this sort of in-between safe space sideline that a person can be on, when there is no neutrality. We’re either all being racist or anti-racist.”
Again, this may be a place in your journey you have not yet arrived and that’s okay. However, when using the label antiracist, it’s important to know what definitionally you are saying--that you are actively working to dismantle racist structures.
Being an ally means…
If you aren’t ready to engage in antiracist work just yet, I hope you are willing to serve as an ally of our BIPOC friends and neighbors. To be an ally means that you are ready and willing to stand alongside BIPOC individuals and hopefully use your privilege to protect their human and civic rights even though you are not a part of the same marginalized group. Franchesa Leigh--a black, female, millennial social media “influencer”--offers this short, helpful, and even entertaining video with five tips to being an ally. Check it out!
Of all the steps allies can take, the one I most want (and need) to abide by is the “shut up and listen” mantra. I even hesitate to write this blog when there are much more powerful voices of color that are sharing these messages. However, I’m also moved by the same powerful voices of color that remind me that I must use my place of privilege and power as a white, male public school superintendent to do my part to dismantle the systems that marginalize BIPOC friends and neighbors.
Wherever you are in your journey, I hope you are moved to push yourself toward understanding and empathy just a bit more. This is not easy work. It takes courage--individual and collective. But for the sake of our children, we all must heed the call. If it’s not uncomfortable, you’re probably not doing it right.
For those that live in the Bay Area who are reading this blog, I invite you to participate in Menlo Park City School District’s upcoming speaker series “Race, Prejudice & Policy: A Conversation on Segregation and its Legacy on Education Around Menlo Park.” In this series we will...
All events begin at 6:30 p.m.; further details and Zoom links are available at www.mpcsdspeakerseries.com.
Erik Burmeister is the Superintendent of Menlo Park City School District in the heart of Silicon Valley.