The Work

In the wake of the murders in Charleston, in the wake of the constant news of black and brown people dying at that hand of whites, I’ve been surrounded by calls for white people to get engaged in the work.

People of color have been engaged in the work forever. In a fight for their very survival, they have led the work for change and for justice. But its not their job to fix society on their own. White people need to step up and do the work with them.

I was reading one particular essay yesterday, colorfully addressed “To My Fellow Whiteys,” which strongly argued that its long past time for white Americans to get up and get to work. Well, that’s great, except –

I kept scrolling down to figure out what “the work” is. I feel like –

I am ready to get to work, but just what is it I’m supposed to do?

I read lots of lists with titles like “how to be a better ally” or “actions for social justice.” And they almost always leave me feeling flat. I want action, I want change. Advice which basically boils down to “try not to be an a-hole” doesn’t do it for me.

I mean, it’s good advice, but its not enough.

And that, I think, is one of the biggest challenges.

We’ve come to think of social change as something that happens through large movements and policy change.

We know how to get a racist flag taken down.

That is good work, but the work is much more than that. There is so much more work to be done.

Really confronting systemic racism in this country will take more than policy change. There is plenty of policy which could stand to be changed – but that is a symptom, not the disease.

So just what is “the work” that we ought to engage in? Just what is this work that we have to engage in?

It is smaller, it is ordinary. And that’s just what makes it so extraordinary.

The work is about each of us, as individuals. Each trying to be a little better tomorrow than we were today. Each trying to understand each other a little better tomorrow, to appreciate each other a little better tomorrow.

That’s not to say we can simply put large scale change or policy actions aside, but the real work, the hard, gritty, difficult work is improving yourself.

I read an article not long ago where a woman of color reflected on being cut in line by a white woman at an airport baggage check. The woman later apologized, saying “I’m sorry if I cut you earlier. I didn’t see you standing there.”

As author Brit Bennett described, “I spent a four hour flight trying not to wonder about the white woman’s intentions. But why would she think about mine? She didn’t even see me.”

I was struck by that story. That could have been me.

I could have done it thoughtlessly, with no racist intentions or motives. It would have been easy for me. And it would have caused another person anguish.
Regardless of our intentions, that’s not always how our actions are perceived. I imagine that some might argue that the woman who got cut off should simply get over it. That being cut off in an airport is no big deal and you should just forget about it and move on with your life.Well, that’s easy to say when you know the motives weren’t personal.I don’t know what it’s like to be black in America, but I do know what it’s like to not know whether the guy smiling at you is trying to be neighborly or hoping to cop a feel. I know what it’s like to have men talk over you or reject your opinion and not know whether its because you actually weren’t saying anything of value or if its because you’re a woman.It’s exhausting. And for people of color, the microagressions they experience throughout the day can be traumatizing.Getting cut off in an airport once is no big deal. Being discriminated against and oppressed during every hour of every day is.As white people, we have a responsibility, not just to “get to work,” but to understand and appreciate everyone who cohabits this world with us.We have a responsibility to learn, to listen, to do our best to understand another’s experience, to accept their experience as valid even if it conflicts with our own way of experiencing the world. We have a responsibility to educate ourselves and to educate each other. And, above all, at the core of the work – we have a responsibility to be a little better tomorrow than we were today.

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