Complicit in Oppression: What I, a White Person, Must Do to Stop It

I have not written for this blog in the past year because I was busy being a newlywed. That silence ends today with a post that doesn’t talk about gluten. It talks about something even more sickening.

This post sprouted from a conversation I followed on Facebook. The conversation was started by a beautiful woman I had the privilege of learning from when she was a student at the university that employed me (and also is our alma mater). I still learn from her, ten years later, as she challenges white people me to understand and confront our own racism and its crippling, killing effect on her and all people of color.

She said she doesn’t trust white people. A large number of her friends admitted their distrust, too, a distrust we white people have earned with our mercurial support for civil rights and equal rights. We show up when it suits us, and when we show up, we twist the whole thing to suit us. We want “credit” for supporting Black Lives Matter with our signs and bumper stickers but where were we in the demonstrations and marches against racist police brutality? We marched en masse for women but our pussy hats all were pink (didja think about the colors of women of color down there?)

I’m angered by the political and social climate in the United States, and particularly frustrated with the leaders who demonize people because of the color of their skin, the name of their religion (or lack thereof), the paucity of their financial resources, the country of their birth, who they love, and the bathroom they use, to name but a few of their weapons of otherness.

I’m encouraged by our uprising against this rule of hatred, by the marches and the protests. Like you, I’ve also written letters and emails, made phone calls to my elected officials demanding justice. And yet, our sisters and brothers of color don’t trust us, don’t believe we’ve got their backs. Our actions, quite frankly, give them ample reason to believe this.

Change, real change when it comes to racism won’t come simply by exhorting someone to pass a law or a raft of laws and then congratulating ourselves for fighting for equal rights. This does not mean fighting for legal protection and legal justice is wrong; we must fight to protect what rights exist and we must push for more, but if laws were enough, if that was all we needed, we would not be where we still are today.

We are here because I am the problem. I am complicit in oppression. Maybe you are, too, however well-meaning and earnest you and I are. My life is inextricably linked to your life, to the lives of everyone on the planet. My sin and salvation, and maybe yours, too, depend on what I (we) do (or don’t do).

Every time I don’t challenge another white person for his or her racist remarks, I am complicit in oppression. Every time I vote for someone who exhibits racist behavior or who says racist things, I am complicit in oppression.

Every time I choose money (a price break, smaller tax bill, greater profit-sharing or higher stock dividends) over human and civil rights, I am complicit in oppression. Every time I accept not having my bags checked when I leave a store while people of color have their bags checked, I am complicit in oppression. Every time I give my money to/buy goods or services from a company that practices oppression and racism, even sneakily, I am complicit in oppression.

Every time I let a racist action by a friend or family member pass without challenge, I am complicit in oppression.

Every time I don’t say, “because it’s the root of the problem” to a white person who says, “Why do you always have to bring up race?” especially when it’s said to a person of color, I am complicit in oppression.

Every time I don’t ask a homogeneous organization what they did or do to be more inclusive or I support a non-inclusive organization, I am complicit in oppression.

Every time I let a white person say, “I’m not racist, but…” and I just smile or nod because I don’t want to fight, I am complicit in oppression.

Every time a white person says, “I don’t see color,” or “I’m colorblind” and I don’t point out that not seeing color means not seeing and not accepting the person in his or her full and beautiful humanity, is demeaning, I am complicit in oppression.

Every time I complain about my seeming oppression as a woman or as a short person or as a person with disabilities (or anything) in response to people of color pointing out ongoing oppression of people of color, I am complicit in oppression.

Every time I use Eurocentric values to judge someone of color, or discount the values of cultures of color, I am complicit in oppression.

Every time I don’t challenge a white person who says, “Why can’t we just move on?” with a dose of reality: we can’t move on if we keep repeating the same deadly sins, even if we dress them up in patriotic-sounding  slogans like “heritage not hate” or “securing our borders,” or being “tough on bad hombres,” I am complicit in oppression.

It would be awesome if a march could lead to a policy change that magically makes everyone equal or eliminates oppression, but that’s not the way it works. What we say and do every day oppresses or frees. We are the problem and will be until we realize and accept we are the problem and decide to do the difficult work of being the solution. It’s not up to people of color to fix white people or to tell us how to fix us. We know what we must do and we must be committed to doing it every day, every time.

I have to be brave enough to lose white privilege if anything is going to change. I have to be the change or the blood remains on my hands and in my soul. It may be the same for you.