COVID-19 Reflections, An Accountability Call to White People

Written by: Diana Noriega, Assistant Executive Director of Anti-Racism and Equity at Good Shepherd Services

Over my lifetime, I have been challenged by white fragility and all the many ways whiteness shows up in spaces, communities and within myself. Of course, I did not develop consciousness around what whiteness and white fragility meant until I attended a predominantly white institution (PWI) for college. I knew that I would be steeped in whiteness and undoing the impervious nature of white supremacy culture when I agreed to take on a role leading anti-racism and equity work in a nonprofit led largely by white women. But this month, particularly the past two weeks, it feels especially challenging to hold space for whiteness.

Over the past two weeks, I have been triggered by whiteness. It has brought to the surface all kinds of internalized racism, which for people of color looks like grappling with feelings of inferiority including imposter syndrome. I started to question my entire career and everything I have aligned with and advocated for. As a person of color, I have learned how to become gentler and coalesce around white fragility and whiteness. It is the game of survival in a white construct. I also know, right now, I have been much more direct about naming racism and inequities.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, whiteness has been more present and pervasive. People are reacting to fear and the difficult circumstances we are all in and engaging in their default survival mechanisms right now. When survival mechanisms are informed by how you have been socialized, and that socialization is rooted in oppressive constructs, you are inevitably going to run the risk of using oppressive survival mechanisms.

None of that is different for me. I must manage my fear, anxieties and much more. However, the disproportionate rate at which people of color are being impacted by COVID-19, the inhumane murders of Black lives, the radical difference of policing in Black and brown communities in New York City, the Amy Cooper Central Park incident, made it a terrible week for me to cope with and manage whiteness.

Cornel West once said, “justice is what love looks like in public.” That has been and will always be my goal — transformative love. To help get to that goal, it is important to call people in for accountability.

White people, here is my direct loving accountability request for you, please do your work without requesting people of color do it for you. Do not ask people of color to carry the emotional weight of sharing their stories and how this moment is impacting them to make you feel more attuned to your emotions and “empathy”.

Anti-black racism is deeply rooted in the fabric of the United States. Center the voices and experiences of the Black community.

If you are going to ask people of color to do any teaching or to help you develop a deeper understanding about racism and whiteness, pay them (that does not imply employees of color already on your payroll, unless their role is uniquely designed to do that work). That is labor intensive work because it is not just about mastery of facilitation, it always comes at the cost of spiritual and emotional labor for people of color. If you are going to host any trainings for yourself, commit to also paying for and supporting trainings and spaces for people of color.

Join a white accountability affinity space. Dr Kathy Obear just began hosting a national one. In New York City there is also an Undoing Racism white accountability hub for white leaders. There is also a Constructive White Conversations group you can consider joining. Make sure people of color also have access to racial affinity spaces. As much as you need it, they do as well.

Healing spaces for everyone are important right now. Create them. Healing spaces for people of color and staff who do not make significant wages to pay co-fees are especially important right now. Invest monetarily in funding mental health supports for staff or Employee Assistance Programs that are offering free short-term counseling.

Check in with your friends and staff of color, especially your Black friends and staff. Explicitly name the truth of what is happening in the United States. Listen courageously. Ask them what they need right now and be ready to act on what they need. If you are a white leader of an organization or a white supervisor, do not just listen without being ready to do something. Someone might say we need mental health days. Be prepared to provide that. If you are not ready to act, you can create false hope and, without sustainable and consistent action, you risk breaking down trusting relationships with staff of color.

Do not claim to understand the lived pain of racism. Do not conflate racism with sexism or another form of oppression. They are different experiences and can minimize someone else’s pain. Merely state, I will not pretend or claim to understand what this feels like. Again, listen courageously.

Manage how your whiteness shows up. Be willing to do the hard work of going within and learning more about the ways in which you personally uphold whiteness and a white supremacist structure and culture. Hold the mirror up to yourself.

Stop distancing yourself from other white people to help you cope with your personal guilt. The dichotomy of good white people versus bad white people is harmful to undoing racism. That will make it really challenging for you to see how you replicate harmful ideology and practices. It creates a cognitive dissonance. Everyone is on a lifelong journey. We are all unlearning this system and the ways in which we help reinforce it. No amount of training will ever get you to the endpoint of learning how to undo racism within yourself, your life, and this system. Accept that truth and the journey will become easier.

Do not wallow in guilt; it is counterproductive for your well-being and health as much as it is for the undoing of racism and people of color. Merely take accountability for what you do. Do not lean into defensiveness, a potential reaction for white people coping with shame, guilt, and internalized racism. In setting up community agreements, some people use the term ‘trust intent, acknowledge impact.’ Trusting intent can create the room for justifying and minimizing how you are practicing racism and the harm you create. That creates more harm for people of color. It can also lead to people of color limiting the expression of their emotions because they end up, again, having to do the emotional labor of making their pain acceptable for you to hear. Again, acknowledge impact. Show up differently and do what is within your personal power and privilege to undo racism.

Demonstrate humility and accept that you will make mistakes on this journey.

Be mindful about saying you are for anti-racism and social justice and using the right language (intellectualizing the concept) but not applying it to how you show up, lead and interact with colleagues and communities of color. Your actions must align with your words. That is the difference between being knowledgeable and being wise. Wisdom requires that you have internalized a concept by putting it into practice.

Be a co-conspirator, do not engage solely in what can feel like performative allyship. In Louisville, Kentucky this weekend, white people formed a line of defense in front of Black protesters. That is co-conspiratorship.

Hold other white people accountable. Do not just do it in moments of major political distress. Do it when you see a microaggression happening in the workplace. Do it if you witness harmful workplace practices that reinforce inequities.

Call and email your elected officials and request that people and the police be held accountable for their actions that support and reinforce racism. There is power in your vote and advocacy. There is power in collective advocacy and alignment. Do not support candidates who are great at one issue (i.e. women’s rights, environmentalism) but who have sketchy racial justice records (i.e. bail reform, public education funding). Be sure to vote for candidates who denounce racism not just in word but who have clear policy commitments and a history of supporting anti-racism.

Publicly denounce racism. Release a public statement. Use your social media handles to educate, inform and hold elected officials and others accountable. Tag elected officials. Tag people of influence. Help anti-racism and justice work go viral. Be bold and brave especially if you occupy multiple positions of privilege.

Donate money to causes that support the undoing of racism, if you can afford to.

Teach your children how to be anti-racists.

Let people of color lead and follow their lead accordingly. The people closest to the pain and experiences of oppression are the ones best equipped to lead.

Our collective humanity depends on our ability to live transformative love and justice every day, not solely when it is convenient for you. Lilla Watson states, “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” We all have a role to play in undoing racism and oppression. Kendi writes, “The opposite of racist isn’t ‘not racist.’ It is ‘anti-racist.’ What’s the difference? One endorses either the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist, or racial equality as an anti-racist. One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an anti-racist. One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an anti-racist. There is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist.’”

Being an anti-racist is a daily commitment. It will not be easy. It will challenge you to grow and push beyond your comfort zone. Play your part and help us create a just and humane society for all people.

In Solidarity,