In so many ways, 2021 was a repeat of 2020: a multitude of problems identified – yet very little lasting widespread, intentional movement towards change.
This has definitely been true for racism in America.
Regardless of more white people suddenly buying the books, reading said books at their book clubs, and attending anti-racism meetings at work after the country’s racial reckoning in 2020, racism didn’t go away in 2021 — much like it didn’t suddenly reappear in our “post-racial” world in 2020. It’s just gotten more divisive, thanks in part to the increasing political division in this country.
As a result, we notice that a sort of fatigue has settled into place now, where people who were lining up to proclaim how anti-racist they were are suddenly radio silent, preferring to disengage rather than to struggle with how to make lasting impact. And in the face of white supremacy propaganda hitting all time highs, with increased claims from Republican pundits and politicians of racism spreading against white people, and 28 states restricting or considering restricting education on racism, bias, and the contributions of specific racial or ethnic groups to American history, this is a big problem.
As professor and author Cass R. Sunstein says in How Change Happens, when social norms lead people to silence themselves, even an unpopular status quo can persist - for example, racism. And by putting our heads in the sand and allowing ignorance or even denials that our country was built on the backs of enslaved people, that our founders were land-owning, people-owning white men who preferred to hold onto all the voting power, that we’ve had racist policies against those of Asian descent before 1900, that discrimination against Black people was institutionalized in the GI Bill, in bank lending policies and in home ownership, that interracial couples were not allowed to marry until the 1970s and still face challenges today, and more, we are denying our country’s true history – to our own peril. These policies and histories have repercussions that are affecting all of us as Americans today, and are being written about – along with COVID-19, and our growing national divide – in the history books right now.
Here’s why this matters: each of us is being presented with a timeless struggle: do we stand up for humanity and make things better for everyone? Or do we lean into individualism and grasp onto whatever rights and freedoms we feel should be ours, and further deepen this divide?
If we want to tell our grandchildren that we stood up for humanity, the answer isn’t to ignore racism, no matter how tiring, scary, and difficult it may be. In fact, it’s the opposite: we need all of us to intentionally work towards change.
And the question that we often get asked when we say this is: how do we intentionally work towards change when it comes to uprooting racism?
Listen, learn and act.
Before you decide how you’re going to show up in this work, it’s important to listen. This involves both: (1) listening to yourself by being honest about not only what you believe, but what your areas of blindness are (in particular, your biases) and accept that we all have areas of growth; and then (2) actively listening to stories of people who represent different perspectives than your own. Doing this work not only gives you an understanding of what your starting line is, but also allows you to build empathy and connect with why you are interested in doing this work.
Once you’ve gathered that information, it’s important to learn. Learn the history that we didn’t all learn in school, so we know what we should be taking into account when considering the best course of action in each situation. And, along with learning, we need to continually be asking questions – the first one being “why?” It’s the ability to ask questions, to critically think about why neighborhoods are segregated, or why generational wealth doesn’t look the same for all Americans, or why we assume that some people are Americans when we assume others are not, that will get us to a deeper understanding of each other, and a clearer understanding of the path forward.
Finally, it’s important to take this one step further: get out there and act. Do something with the listening and learning that you’ve done. One straightforward way to do this is to intentionally engage your own spheres of influence. Ask heart-led questions and start conversations around the dinner table to interrupt a racist relative’s off-color joke; in your workplace to question the racial composition of the managerial class, or the impact of the current referral bonus policy; at the school board meeting about how Thanksgiving is taught, or how Black history shouldn’t be relegated to one separate month of the year; at neighborhood meetings about the way NextDoor is being used to report “suspicious” behavior that unfairly profiles people of color. Once you ask, actively listen to what people are telling you in response, and find that common human thread to interrupt patterns of hate and discrimination. It’s the intentionality of the little changes that can have the biggest impact over time. Remember: we can do hard things, and the ripple effects can be powerful. Let’s get out there and do this together.
Sara Blanchard and Misasha Suzuki Graham are the authors of "Dear White Women: Let’s Get (Un)comfortable Talking About Racism" (The Collective Book Studio; Available now).