Being a force against racism is not about charity. It’s not about coming to the rescue of a beleaguered group. It’s not about making us feel good about ourselves or soothing our guilt. And, at the end of the day, it’s not about people of color. It’s about us Old White Dudes. White men wrote our nation’s foundational principles. And when they did, they codified White privilege or, more specifically, White male privilege. Consider who wrote those founding documents. There were fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence, which, as we were taught in grade school, reads in part, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Note that of the fifty-six white signers, the majority—forty-one—were enslavers. In the minds of our Founding Fathers, only White men were created equal. Black men and all women were not worthy of those same unalienable rights.
From that original seed evolved a system designed to preserve and defend that privilege, often at any cost. The system is stacked against the achievement of equity because, to this day, Old White Dudes dominate our system of government. Take, for example, the US Senate. In the history of that body, there have only been eleven.
Black senators. Today that number is three out of 100. And since the US Supreme Court was established in 1789, 108 out of the total 116 justices have been White men.
Yes, we have made progress with Barack Obama being elected president twice and now with Kamala Harris as vice president. But the overall numbers do not lie. That’s why it’s no surprise we are seeing a rash of bills at the state level designed to limit voting access and suppress voter turnout, primarily among people of color. This is another means by which the White male-dominated establishment maintains White privilege and power.
Again, I understand you haven’t done anything overtly and purposefully racist. But that does not excuse you from not doing something to mitigate its negative impact. We have been complicit in our silence and inaction. Doing nothing is an act in and of itself—an act of omission. We’ve been complicit in not standing up and accepting personal responsibility to work at dismantling a system of White privilege from which we have benefitted. This is about our core being as humans. It’s about taking responsibility to work to right a wrong. It’s about first healing ourselves. And a first step is to look in the mirror and acknowledge that White privilege is real. And then we’ve got to step up and do the hard work. We can do better. It’s like that cartoon where Pogo looks into the mirror and sees that “the enemy is us.”
“We cannot change the hypocrisy upon which we were founded,” writes Nikole Hannah-Jones in The 1619 Project. “We cannot change all the times in the past when this nation had the opportunity to do the right thing and chose to return to its basest inclinations. We cannot make up for all the lives lost and dreams snatched for all the suffering endured. But we can atone for it. We can acknowledge the crime. And we can do something to set things right, to ease the hardship and hurt of so many of our fellow Americans…None of us can be held responsible for the wrongs of our ancestors. But if today we choose not to do the right and necessary thing, that burden we own.” (Hannah- Jones 2021, 475)
She continues, “[W]e must make a choice about which America we want to build for tomorrow. The time for slogans and symbolism, and inconsequential actions has long passed. Citizens inherited not just the glory of their nation but its wrongs too. A truly great country does not ignore or excuse its sins. It confronts them and then works to make them right.
“If we are to be redeemed, we must do what is just: we must finally, live up to the magnificent ideals upon which we were founded.” (Hannah-Jones 20212, 476)
Sometimes it is less about what you do or say than what you didn’t say or do. The times you didn’t step up or do something are the times that haunt you. Why didn’t I say something? Why didn’t I speak up, step up, or do something?
In some ways, the struggle for racial justice is like grassroots, guerilla warfare—family to family, friend to friend, neighbor to neighbor, block by block, and community by community. Like a rock thrown into a pond that sends ripples in all directions, your voice can similarly echo. If you show the courage to say or do something, there will be others who, because of your courage and actions, will also step up. Many people who want to do the right thing simply need a bit of inspiration to take that first step. In stepping up first, you provide cover and give them an example to follow.
In short, it is not enough simply to deny being racist. Instead, we should actively denounce or oppose various racist notions, regardless of how widely believed. Racist words, slurs, slogans, memes, and beliefs must be vigorously challenged and called out. Repeatedly. Not stepping up to say something says an awful lot. Silence is complicity. Which means silence is no longer an option.