In her new non-fiction book Untamed (which I’ve recommended here), Glennon Doyle writes: “In America, there are not two kinds of people, racists and non-racists. There are three kinds of people: those poisoned by racism and actively choosing to spread it; those poisoned by racism and actively trying to detox; and those poisoned by racism who deny its very existence inside them.”
As we find ourselves as a nation taking stock of the ways in which systemic racism has denied black and brown and indigenous people their freedom, their land, their rights, their safety, and their very lives, it is important that each of us takes stock of ourselves, the ways in which we tacitly comply with systems of power and oppression, and the ways in which we benefit from these systems. This is a time that calls for deep reflection.
I’ve spent many years reading and writing about race and policing for law firms, and have written about racially biased algorithms and other civil rights violations. For those of you who don’t know, racially biased algorithms are artificial intelligence programs used by judges that send black and brown men and women to jail in higher numbers compared to white men and women. Prosecutors punch in information about the person and crime, including demographic information, and a recommendation about sentence length, probation, and other matters is churned out. Because the data that has been put into the system is racially biased, the sentences that come out of the system are racially biased as well. Why is the data racially biased? Black and brown Americans are more likely to be imprisoned and policed than white Americans. Racial bias in policing forms the foundation of the data. Flawed data leads to further flawed decisions, and the cycle continues. Finally, after all these years, lawyers at the New York Law Review are challenging these algorithms, claiming they violate the equal protection clause; I’m thrilled.
Though I’ve been writing about civil rights issues for years, I’ve found glaring gaps in my own reading. In recent weeks, I’ve been closely reading White Fragility by Robin Diangelo and poets like Claudia Rankine, Reginald Dwayne Betts, and Danez Smith. I realize that now is a time to support writers of color and also to conscientiously make space for new perspectives and ideas.
But as we take stock, we also need to make room for the reality that what we discover may not always reveal our better angels, but require a tougher self-assessment. Glennon Doyle’s Untamed offered an interesting chapter on racism that highlights some of the challenges that white women might face as they learn more about racial disparities and systemic challenges facing people of color. Doyle writes about how she had hoped that the election of Donald Trump might be a moment for the nation to take a moral inventory of itself. How “this nation–founded upon ‘liberty and justice for all’–was built while murdering, enslaving, raping, and subjugating millions.” She hoped that the election of Donald Trump would lead Americans to “admit that liberty and justice for all has always meant liberty for white straight wealthy men.” Doyle had hoped for a moral inventory, but she writes, “I’d forgotten that sick systems are made up of sick people. People like me.”Doyle’s story about how she became “racially sober” is an important lesson for us all, especially for those of us white women hoping to show up for Black Lives Matter and to protest police brutality and systemic racism in a way that makes a real difference.
Doyle writes: “In order to get healthy, everybody has to stay in the room and turn themselves inside out. We all need to address our own situation, our own privilege, and the ways in which we have benefitted from systemic racism, but we need to do so in a way that doesn’t harm the movement or interfere with black voices that need to be heard. We enter race conversations far too early and we lead with our feelings and confusion and opinions. When we do this, we are centering ourselves, so we inevitably get put back where we belong, which is far from the center.”
In recent weeks, people in cities across the nation have taken to the streets protesting the murder of George Floyd, calling to defund the police, calling for greater police accountability, and calling for an end to systemic racism. I watched as Instagram blacked out on #blackouttuesday, and thought about how sometimes good intentions can have unintended consequences. Black Lives Matter leaders were concerned that the blackout would drown out the voices of those using the Black Lives Matter hashtag to keep people up to date about the movement.
As a part Puerto Rican, part Cuban woman with my green eyes and light-brown hair that bleaches toward blonde in the Hawaii sun, I have enjoyed my share of white privilege. I have had the benefit of being able to inhabit two worlds–the world in which I grew up–a predominantly Latino and hispanic neighborhood in Miami, where my closest friends and their parents had immigrated from countries across South America and the Caribbean, and as a woman who was able to “pass” as non-Latina and inhabit white spaces when I went off to university (though not quite white enough to fit in everywhere).
The truth is that we all have racial obligations to one another, obligations than extend beyond who we are in the present. The poet Claudia Rankine writes in her book-length mixed-media poem Citizen about this as our “historic selves” and our “self selves” where you “mostly interact as friends with mutual interest and, for the most part, compatible personalities; however, sometimes your historical selves, her white self and your black self, or your white self and her black self, arrive with the full force of your American positioning.” This is where we need to acknowledge that our position in this society is shaped by forces beyond us, and that we benefit or are held back by these forces depending on who we are.
The tragic murder of George Floyd has been an opportunity for me to look inward at the ways I can personally contribute to justice. I have spent time meditating on the ways in which I have contributed to and benefitted from a system that confers rewards upon those who inhabit white bodies, while punishing and disenfranchising those who inhabit black and brown ones.
I think about times I’ve had mental health crises. If I looked less white, would the police have been so nice to me during those wellness checks? Or, would they have drawn their guns instead? I was given the benefit of the doubt, when I probably would have been Baker Acted and locked away in a mental health hospital, or worse, shot and killed.
In Untamed, Glennon Doyle writes about how she committed herself to reading every book possible on race in America. Doyle writes: “I felt ashamed as I began to learn all the ways my ignorance and silence had hurt other people. I felt exhausted because there was so much more to unlearn, so many amends to be made, and so much work to do.” The lesson I take from Doyle’s experience is this: read black writers, read those writing on race in America, take the lead from Black leaders, be willing to be humble and guided right now, but speak up when you see injustice.
For the white people confused about what to do right now, I think it’s okay to sit with that discomfort, and to consider that maybe it’s time to do some reading before speaking, more listening before shouting.
Some of my freelance writing clients are law firms and for the past several years I have been writing about police brutality, systemic racism, and the ways in which people of color can use the civil court system to seek justice when the police are violent. This is not the solution but for a long time I thought it was a solution that held those in power accountable. I once believed that if the police were sued enough, that they’d get rid of officers who abused Black and brown citizens. But now I see that the man who knelt on George Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes had a history of complaints against him–18 in fact. And that other officers involved in the murder also had been sued in the past for police brutality. The solution must go deeper than civil courts and laws.
The injustices and flagrant abuse of power we’ve seen in the way law enforcement is run in America is not new. Only now have we reached our reckoning and our breaking point. I think we need to defund the police and put the money into providing a free university eduction for all. We need to invest not in policing, but in community.
Part of the process of becoming “racially sober” means understanding that in the process of being an ally, we might sometimes say or do the wrong thing, and get corrected for it. Doyle writes: “Every white person who shows up and tells the truth–because it’s her duty as a member of our human family–is going to have her racism called out…She will need to learn to withstand people’s anger, knowing that much of it is real and true and necessary. She will need to accept that one of the privileges she’s letting burn is her emotional comfort.”
Showing up means showing up with vulnerability and humility. Doyle writes: “We show up and then, when we are corrected, we keep working…We have fallen into the trap that becoming racially sober is about saying the right thing instead of becoming the right thing.”
The conversation must start within. We must show up, but must show up with humility, which means we must yield to the voices of those who know more than we do. For my part, I plan to keep reading, and writing what I learn and see.
About the Writer
Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University.
She is the editor of Sphinx Moth Press.
Janice runs an online poetry workshop. Learn more about it here.