Fellow white people,* I’m going to break the ice for you: We’re all racist. That is how it is. If you’re thinking to yourself, “Oh no, I’m not racist, I am a good (white) person,” I want you to pause and take a step back.
Admittedly, I’ve told myself some version of this for years, ignoring the truth that I am a white, young, cisgender** womxn who has grown up steeped in our racist society in the United States. Because of that, I have internalized and absorbed certain biases, behaviors, and overall worldviews towards BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color).
As white folks, whether we’re aware of it or not, we’re invested in maintaining and holding up racist systems as they directly benefit us. We have internalized these racist, unjust systems, like it or not, throughout our upbringing as white folks in this country. We are invested in not seeing the way structural, institutional, and interpersonal racism shows up in our society. Simply put, we benefit greatly at the oppression of BIPOC folks.
That truth felt uncomfortable for me for a while before I was able to understand it.
I am committed to doing the learning and unlearning it takes to be in allyship with BIPOC, but I am far from perfect and continue to make mistakes along the way. Some of my white friends and family members tell me I’m “woke” or that I’m “turning into a radical activist,” but doing the learning required to fight alongside people experiencing racism is what we should all be doing, and it should be neither overly lauded or feared. We all make mistakes along the way, but in the words of Maya Angelou: “We do the best we can with what we know, and when we know better, we do better.”
“We do the best we can with what we know, and when we know better, we do better.” ~Maya Angelou, American author & civil rights activist
I’ve been learning a lot on my journey to be a co-conspirator fighting racism and have had to learn (and unlearn!) a lot of my own biases and defensive instincts. I’ve been called out by BIPOC in my life when I did or said something racist – and even though these were things I did unintentionally and unconsciously, they caused real harm to BIPOC in my life. Being called out or given feedback when you cause harm is very uncomfortable, and for most people with dominant identities, a natural instinct is shame, self-flagellation, or denial.
It’s helpful to take a deep breath. Realize that this feedback is a gift. BIPOC in your life may refrain from giving feedback – because our society prioritizes white comfort so much, that when we as white people experience discomfort, we tend to minimize the harm we caused, deny it, act out of defensiveness, and focus on intention (instead of impact).
When we as white people are on the spot, our walls go up and we say, “Oh, I am so sorry. I didn’t mean that at all! I would never hurt you like this. You know I’m not racist.” This recentering on your intention doesn’t hold space for the impact of harm.
Again, start with a deep breath and avoid trying to comfort yourself automatically if you feel hurt or uncomfortable. Remember, BIPOC in your life are taking home a lifetime of these “tiny paper cuts” (aka microaggressions) of our constant racist behavior and remarks that cut very deep and are damaging, physically and emotionally.
Offer a sincere apology. Sincere apologies contain “I’m sorry” or “I apologize” without the inclusion of “but” or “if.” For most folks, that is the end of the apology, and quite frankly, that is not good enough. Again, this could be a sign that your defensive walls are creeping up, and you want to retreat into your comfort zone once again. I encourage you to notice this and not stop there.
If you are committed to accepting responsibility for your impact, learning from your mistakes, and becoming a better ally, here are some tips on how to give an authentic apology:
- Say “I hear you” and mean it. Validate the harm you have caused.
- Say “I’ll reflect on that” – and do it! Where are these racist thoughts/beliefs stemming from? Be real with yourself; feelings of discomfort/shame/guilt are okay and necessary to fully realize the impact of our racist actions on BIPOC.
- Say “I appreciate you giving me this feedback” or “Thank you for telling me.” Realize how brave this person is giving you the gift of their feedback. This is not a personal attack on you as a “good” or “bad” white person. This is about BIPOC folks making us aware and accountable for our racist actions and behaviors, which we continually perpetuate on BIPOC in our normalized white supremacy culture.
- Say “I understand I may have caused harm” and own the impact of that.
- Say “I am going to spend some time thinking on this” – then do it! Show that you are making yourself accountable for your actions.
- Ask clarifying questions, but remember that this is not the time nor this person’s job to educate you on why your actions were racist and harmful.
Interested in learning more? Check out the resources below!
- Franchesca Ramsey’s YouTube video on Getting Called Out: How to Apologize
- Luvvie Ajayi’s Ted Talk, Get comfortable with being uncomfortable
If the goal is to minimize harm to the BIPOC folks in our life, then we as white folks need to learn to recognize the many ways we cause harm (intentionally or unintentionally). This will take a lifetime of unlearning and undoing, but we need to do it. It starts with you. Be accountable for racism in your words and actions, and help fight back against the normalization of white supremacy in our culture. It won’t go away unless we actively dismantle it.