A Letter to Well-Meaning White People

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A rally against school integration in 1959. Don't be these people. Be better than these people.

Dear Well-Meaning White People:

I need you to pick fights.

I am not talking about physical altercations: I am not in the business of inciting violence. I’m talking about calling out your Uncle Ted and/or not letting Grandma slide with that casual racist dig. I’m talking about no longer avoiding discussing the election with your relatives to “keep the peace.” I’m talking about standing up to that buddy from college who works in Silicon Valley and hides his internalized racism under machismo and Libertarianism.

I’m saying that what you may call “manners” looks a great deal like apathy and apathy contributes to getting some of us killed.

Save a life: have an awkward conversation.

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Some arts organizations are doing the work.

I am also a firm believer in picking your battles and not “confusing the battle with the war.” I understand that you can’t confront each micro-aggression or bias-based incident that you witness in real time. However, I am asking you to increase your batting average. I’m asking you to fight more battles that you may not win. I am asking you to push back against people who you know you won’t change. I’m asking you to move the needle the tiniest of increments in a Sisyphean effort to make the world slightly less terrible.

I say “Sisyphean” not because the task is pointless, but because combating racism in your everyday experience is laborious, thankless and frustrating. Anti-racism work is, frequently and improperly, visualized as a train of progress that will eventually get everyone on board if we drive it far enough. In reality, racism is the train. Those doing anti-racist work are people standing on the tracks throwing everything they have at it just to keep that train from going any further.

And while train analogies are cute, racism is not a theoretical exercise. Racism kicks children out of preschools. Racism keeps people unemployed. Racism prevents people from finding the love they desire. Racism kills people.

Sisyphus at least got the momentary satisfaction of getting to the top of the hill before the rock rolled back to the bottom. I am making you no such promises. The work is harder than you think it is and I’m asking you to do more of it.

I’m asking you to do this for a few reasons.

Identification

You know your circle of friends, family and acquaintances. You can identify the racists among them. The marginalized people who have to encounter them do not. That means we people of color have to spend a lot of time and energy determining whether or not we’re safe when we encounter that person. We have to triage every situation in real time: we would much rather purchase our ramekins in peace.

However, if you’re in the habit of addressing your racist compatriots, they may hesitate before spouting their nonsense in public. I am not assuming that you’ll instigate a change of heart. I am hoping that they will be annoyed into silence. Frankly, I don’t care why I’m encountering fewer racist people as long as I am, in fact, encountering fewer racist people.

Alternatively, these racist folks may get more opinionated and vocal in response to your prodding. That has its benefits too. A vocal racist is easier to identify. Once they’ve said or done something “overtly” racist, you’re on much firmer ground from which to call them on their nonsense. And I can be more certain in my avoidance of them. Win/win.

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Practice

Push back against people who you know you won’t change.

Frankly, well-meaning white people, you need the practice. Challenging racism, particularly among people you know, is a full-contact sport that you have to train for. Frequently, white allies wait until a situation becomes so toxic that they have to confront it. That’s the equivalent of only playing football during the Super Bowl. It’s a conversation that requires stamina, resilience and technique. You can’t build those skills in a single instance.

You also can’t wait for racism to come to you. Society is set up in such a way that overt racism may never come to you. White privilege means that you don’t have to see racism if you don’t wish to. I’m charging you to seek it out. Ask probing questions. Push some buttons. Pick some fights.

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Solidarity

You cannot be neutral in the face of oppression. As Bishop Desmond Tutu stated:

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.

Your “neutrality” speaks volumes to those around you. People of color see that you will not support them if they need you. Racists will see that you won’t challenge them. Other “neutral” people may stay silent because they assume you are one of the racists. Showing solidarity with anti-racist causes lets people know where you stand.

Tangentially, showing solidarity does not mean that you have to do so unquestioningly. Disagreeing with the actions or tactics of a person or group does not give you carte blanche to reject the efforts as a whole. You cannot only work against racism and oppression when it’s convenient or self-serving. Do the work because it needs to be done and so that others know you’re there to help and not hurt.

Who knew anti-racism could be so delicious? / Image: Ben and Jerry's
Who knew anti-racism could be so delicious? / Image: Ben and Jerry’s
Righteousness

Anti-racism and anti-oppression work is, simply, the right thing to do. There are no valid arguments to the contrary.

How you do the work is up to you, but whether or not you do it should no longer be up for debate.

Some arts organizations are doing the work. Ben & Jerry’s is doing the work. Kickstarter is doing the work.

You, too, can do the work. Below are some resources that will help you, well-meaning white people, to do the work.

11 Things White People Can Do to Be Real Anti-Racist Allies
Volunteer for White Nonsense Roundup
Guidelines for Being Strong White Allies
How to be a white ally: Fighting racism is your responsibility — start now
Dear White Friends: Here’s how to support BLM without making it about you
How To Be A Better Ally: An Open Letter To White Folks

Well-meaning white people, the world needs you to do the work proactively or get out of the way. Pick a fight; save a life; save the world.

Your friend in the struggle or not your friend at all,

Courtney Harge

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Courtney Harge

Courtney Harge is a producer, director and professional arts administrator originally from Saginaw, MI. She is the Founder and Artistic Director of Colloquy Collective, a theater company based out of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. She has worked for the several arts institutions specializing in institutional fundraising, crowdfunding and fiscal sponsorship. Her artistic focus is on work that complicates the popular narratives surrounding race, identity, culture and community and their collective impact on the art we experience. She holds a Masters of Professional Studies, with Distinction, in Arts and Cultural Management from Pratt Institute and a Bachelors of Fine Arts with Honors from the University of Michigan in Theater Performance. Her credo (#HustlingKeepsYouSexy) is not merely a hashtag; it’s a way of life. On Twitter: @Arts_Courtney