Listen. Take responsibility. Let yourself be changed.

Logan Weaver, Unsplash

The current cry for racial justice sweeping our world is a phenomenon emerging from generations of pain, alienation, betrayal, cruelty, and the unconscious perpetration of power (to name just a few antecedents).

One of the most beautiful things about the human spirit is that it carries an unalterable divine knowing of its own sovereignty. So when humans create systems that delineate “haves” and “have-nots,” “more-thans” and “less thans,” something — that unalterable knowing within — rises up to declare the absolute preciousness of their own personhood.

This rising up takes courage and vulnerability; it is a radical declaration of self worth.

We are in a time where we have the privilege (and yes, I am using that word deliberately) to experience this rising of the human spirit on a global scale. No longer relegated to denuded, neatly-packaged theoretical constructs like “cultural competency” that you may encounter in a professional development meeting or a grad school classroom, we’re seeing a move toward universally-recognized humanity literally spill onto the streets. Unbound, in many ways unarticulated, the cry is visceral, primal, powerful. It says, “we are here, we are human, we are equal, and we demand to be heard.” This ringing cry is permeating our spirits as well as our bodies.

Many white people, as is often the case when confronted with true vulnerability and power, are extremely uncomfortable right now. They (we) are exhibiting a lot of behaviors, mindsets, and actions that reflect their (our) own disjointed and ambivalent internal responses. By and large, we holders of privilege are trying to figure out how to respond to this global phenomenon.

I am White. I have had the privilege of being White my whole life. For the past few weeks I’ve been sitting, watching this movement unfold, taking in different perspectives, stories, and responses, and this article is what emerged from my witnessing.

This is my best response to the unspoken question of how best to be White right now.

Step 1: Listen

Many People of Color define the relationship between Whiteness/White people and themselves as abusive. I find this to be an extremely helpful way of framing the discussion. Considering the vast history of overt and covert violence, betrayal, persecution, marginalization, and gaslighting perpetrated on People of Color in this country, categorizing the relationship as abusive strikes me as both accurate and concretizing.

When an abused person stands up to claim their worth, set boundaries, and define new parameters for a relationship, it is an act of unutterable courage and vulnerability. Predictably, one of the most common reactions from the abuser is either violent backlash or an insidious — often unconscious — campaign to undermine their new confidence. The abused person is suddenly, unilaterally, changing the rules. The old habits of power and dominance don’t work any more. The abuser often receives this move as manipulation.

One of the most healing things the abuser can do is to allow the lived experiences of the abused to flow freely into the space between them without the need to defend, protect, fix anything, change anything, say anything about their “intentions,” or make the other wrong. On a national and global scale, what this means is that White people should read, listen to, and seek out the accounts, stories, reflections, and perspectives of People of Color.

Some of these accounts — many, in fact — will be inflammatory to you. You will be tempted to argue or defend yourself or make the other person wrong. But the fact is, if we’ve committed to a reckoning, we don’t get to cherry pick what is palatable to our sensibilities. We have to allow all of what we receive to be true, real, valid, and alive. We have to allow these stories, painful as they are, to come to light.

In this instance, I’m reminded of a bull in a china shop. For generations we, the bull, have been blithely crashing into the delicate structures of others’ worth and humanity. Destruction, both seen and unseen, follows in our wake while we remain relatively unscathed. The bull, it should be added, has acted both from deliberate malice and from complete unconscious regard to its own dimensions.

The most powerful thing the bull can do in this analogy is to commit to stillness. It needs to admit that its every move can cause a disastrous ripple effect in the whole ecosystem it’s sitting within. It must choose instead to lie down. To stop thrashing. To listen and be guided. To not move again until it knows how to navigate the space it’s standing within without breaking everything.

Step 2: Don’t Ask PoC to Absolve You

This is not their job. With all of the commitment and energy it takes to declare sovereignty in the face of generations of oppression, to add the burden of granting us forgiveness is just another exercise of privilege.

I’m going to say something that may be incendiary, but it’s truly the only way forward that I can think of.

White people need to take responsibility for their own unalienable sovereignty and forgive themselves.

Let me explain.

The way we treat others is a direct projection of our own internal state, and our internal state, in turn, reflects how we see the world. As such, the oppression, violence, and cruelty inflicted by White people, not just individually but as the architects of a system of domination, provides a revealing window into our psyche. In short, we are terrified, and we’ve let that terror define how we construct the world.

All that we create is a reflection of our level of consciousness. If we believe ourselves to be broken, we will perpetuate that brokenness in all we do and say. Our current systems are built on the premise of separation between “self” and “other” because we see the world as a cruel, scarce place where we need to fight for survival.

Make no mistake. This mindset is a choice.

Our only “original sin,” as I see it, is actually an erroneous belief that each of us is somehow other than fully whole and unconditionally worthy to be on this planet. In our pain, we’ve carried this erroneous belief forward and infused it into our societal structures, our conditioning, and our daily lives. The result is a superficial system of domination that expends unfathomable energy fighting our true nature as equal human beings.

Instead of creating a zero-sum reality where some are “worthier” than others, we could just as easily decide that the world as an abundant place with plenty of room and plenty of resources for everyone’s needs.

However, to create wholeness outside of ourselves we must first believe ourselves to be whole. And this only comes with forgiveness. Self-forgiveness is a radical act that knits together all of the parts of us that we believe are separate, broken, or unworthy.

In dialogue with People of Color, when we bring a need for absolution to the table, it makes the conversation all about us again. This need obscures the point and prevents us from truly co-creating something new. Only by fully accepting and forgiving ourselves can we come to the conversation in a way that’s open, clear, and ready to listen fully.

Step 3: Let Yourself be Changed

In a recent episode of “Code Switch,” hosts Gene Demby and Shereen Marisol Maraji asked “Why now, White people?”

It’s a great question. Police violence is nothing new. Gene pointed out that Philando Castile was even murdered in Saint Paul, the twin city to Minneapolis. It was virtually the same context. So why are we seeing White people erupt now?

I highly recommend the episode, which covers this question in more depth, but the underlying thread throughout was a skeptical pushback on the altruism of the moment. “Is this going to last, White people?”

Going back to the characterization of the relationship between Whiteness/White people and PoC as abusive, this is a fair question. How often does the abuser promise really for real this time to change, and then renege as soon as it’s convenient? PoC are having to ask the question, “are you really in our corner, or is this just a convenient, temporary outlet for blowing off steam?”

The only way this movement is going to take root is if we let ourselves be fundamentally changed by what we’re witnessing, experiencing, and participating in. This is why the most vital thing we can do in this moment is not to act, but (going back to step 1) to listen and to get ourselves aligned internally. We need to listen, not just to the words, but to the underlying emotions of pain, rage, frustration, bitterness, and grief that are the result of generations of injustice. We have this window to connect deeply with our fellow humans and let their stories change us irrevocably.

This moment in time is not about us. This means that the most powerful thing we can do is to cede the space we normally occupy to allow for new voices, new stories, and new paradigms to emerge.

A Note on Privilege

Privilege is a highly loaded term. It’s become highly pejorative lately and been weaponized as well- used as a shaming mechanism for those who carry it.

My take on privilege is slightly different. A result of systems built on a foundation of scarcity and domination, the fact of its existence is simply a reflection of the fact that we have work to do as a species. While this also may seem like an incendiary statement, I don’t see privilege as something to be denied or ashamed of. We inherited it with our skin color and our systems of oppression. Instead of denying this fact or shaming ourselves, which doesn’t help anyone, my question is, “what are we going to do with it?”

My call is for us to become responsible stewards of privilege. We need to take ownership of the fact that it exists, that we have it, and that that confers on us tremendous responsibility for as long as it’s ours.

By which I mean that, ultimately, to become truly responsible stewards of our privilege, we need commit ourselves to ushering it right out of existence.

If we’re truly committed to this new reckoning, we have to be willing to see it all the way through. To hammer this point home, in case you weren’t clear on the endgame of a movement like this, it involves equalizing privilege entirely so that our systems reflect our sovereign equality as human beings.

There should be nothing radical in this statement. It is nothing more than the intention our founding fathers and mothers seeded in our very own constitution. That these same founders didn’t live up to their ideals doesn’t detract from the naked power of their words. Our energy in this case is much better served, not by deriding them as hypocrites, but by taking up the mantle they put down to create, truly, a legacy of unconditional equality.

For further reading, one of the best books I’ve ever read that delineates a way out of hegemony is Teaching Truly: A Curriculum to Indigenize Mainstream Education by Four Arrows (Don Trent Jacobs). While centered on education, this book clearly articulates a higher-consciousness approach to systems change.

For more information on my work please visit www.deeppractices.com

Kate Newburgh, Ph.D, top writer in Leadership. Leadership development: www.deeppractices.com.

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