Dear white people: What is ‘the work’ and how do we do it?

E.C. SALIBIAN

In his recent “Dear White Led Organizations,” blog post, Calvin Eaton, founding director of 540WMain, echoed the sentiments of Black activists since at least the 1960s when he asked white-led organizations to “do the work and do better as you do the work” before reaching out to Black persons or Black-led organizations for dialogue on racial justice. 

“In your haste to jump into these conversations you can recreate systems of oppression, harm, and toxicity that have long been tenets of white supremacy,” Eaton wrote.

Eaton’s blog gives helpful suggestions on how to start “the work,” including some of the books listed below.  

In this piece, I’d like to talk primarily to white people about “the work”—what it is and how we might approach it. I’m speaking not as an expert, but as someone on the learning curve, maybe like you.   

What is the work?

I offer writer Ibram X. Kendi’s definition of racism: “a powerful collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity and are substantiated by racist ideas.” 

So, it’s not simply a personal prejudice or moral failure. Racism is woven deeply into our systems of education, criminal justice, housing, health care, and economic function. The work is to dismantle it both inside ourselves and out in the world. 

For me, that involves understanding my own whiteness. I was born in Morocco of Armenian parents—a background with its own cultural richness and painful history. Growing up mostly on Long Island, in a multi-lingual immigrant family, I thought I was dark-skinned—not as dark as the Black kids in my school, but not as white and right as the white kids. My childhood sense of my own difference was somehow racialized. Eventually I understood that in this culture I am considered white, but it wasn’t until I stood as an adult at a department store makeup counter in Eastview Mall that I realized with a shock that my foundation color is “fair.” Fair! I also noticed that lighter foundation shades had names like “nude” and “natural”—reinforcing a light-skinned norm. 

My “natural” skin no doubt had something to do with why, although my grade-school teachers thought I was odd—one of them asked me if I lived in a tent before coming to America—at least they recognized I was smart. My Black classmates were not so fortunate.  

What is whiteness? How did all the Irish, Italian, Polish, Armenian, Ashkenazi Jewish and other immigrant groups become “white”? When and why? In the Fresno, Calif., of a previous century, signs on rental units in the more affluent parts of town reportedly said, “No Orientals, no Blacks, no Cats or Dogs, no Armenians.” My Italian-Armenian cousin in Boston just texted me an 1888 “No Italians Allowed” note about contract labor. 

Armenians, I recently learned, became “white” in 1925, after winning two landmark court cases. Before that, we were classified as “Asiatic.” Applying for citizenship, an Armenian petitioner had to present himself to the judge for “visual scrutiny,” writes historian Aram Ghoogasian.

So, how did our eventual acceptance into this club of whiteness serve the power structure? How does racism intersect with other elements of identity such as class, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation? 

In her essay “White People: I Don’t Want You To Understand Me Better, I Want You To Understand Yourselves,” Ijeoma Oluo writes:

“People of color have been begging you to see what you are doing and why. We’ve been begging you to see what you came from and the true legacy you have inherited. We’ve begged you to see your boot on our necks as long as it’s been there

“Find yourselves white people. Find yourselves so that you can know what whiteness is. Find yourselves so that you can determine what you want whiteness to be.”

Since March, I’ve been holed up in my apartment, enjoying the privilege of working from home to avoid COVID-19. One of the things that got me out was a sense of moral obligation to join in the Black Lives Matter protests. I crept out masked, badly in need of a haircut, and tried to maintain six feet of distance. It’s chilling to think that risk might have been less than that of a Black man going out for a jog in his neighborhood. 

I vowed to do more, and better, from now on—because the cruelties perpetrated by racism hurt my heart, and because I can’t unknow what I know. 

SURJ ROC 

With all of this in mind, I recently attended an orientation meeting of Showing Up For Racial Justice Rochester, or SURJ ROC. Formed in 2016, this local chapter of the national organization SURJ is a white ally group that organizes and supports white people to combat racism. 

Why a white group? 

People of color have sent a clear message that it is white people’s job to educate and organize other white people to end the racism that white people created. 

Interest in SURJ rose dramatically during nationwide protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police officers. The SURJ ROC email list grew from approximately 700 in early June to more than 1,200 by the end of the month. Facebook followers doubled to approximately 600. 

The SURJ project site White People 4 Black Lives states that “white folks can play a progressive and supportive role in amplifying the voices and demands of Black people, moving the white community to take a more active and participatory stance for racial justice, and apply strategic pressure on institutions to change racist policies.” 

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