Right now, we’re at a pivotal moment in history. The viral video footage of the horrific murder of George Floyd at the hands of police was so tragic, that people are unable to turn away. In addition, the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, and the questionable responses from police has caused millions of people to recognize the injustice that Blacks in America, and around the world, face as a result of systemic racism, in a much deeper way than ever before.
The protests in all fifty states and in numerous countries show that people are ready for social change. But, for many people, it can feel overwhelming. The issues themselves are massive, and deeply ingrained. What can one person do to make a difference?
Here are some ideas to get you started:
1. Embraced Discomfort
Reflecting on these issues is difficult. It requires a willingness to be honest about considering the parts of yourself that you might be ashamed of, or that you feel are morally unacceptable. As a result, often, when people are questioned about their perspectives about race, their first inclination is to become defensive or avoidant. While that might allow you to feel better in the moment, it won’t allow for the deeper work that will enable you to process your attitudes about race in a way that can truly create social change in the world.
Robin DiAngelo, the author of “White Fragility,” notes that White people have historically had the privilege of being able to turn away from these sorts of issues. As a result, many have not developed the “racial stamina” needed do the hard work required to fully appreciate and consider what people of color have been trying to tell them for years about racism. Resolve to tolerate the discomfort that you will likely experience as you learn more about these issues. Mindfulness and deep breathing can be very helpful in this regard.
2. Identify the Ways in Which You are Biased
You’ll notice that I didn’t say consider if you are biased; instead reflect on the ways in which you are biased. Realistically, we all have biases. We perceive the world (and others) through our own individual lenses which have been shaped by our upbringings, experiences, and messages from society as a whole. Becoming aware of your biases is incredibly important if you want to guard against acting on them blindly. If you want to make a difference and participate in social change, you first need to reflect on how you look at society as a whole.
Cognitive psychologists suggest that we all put people into categories, because it helps us to be able to deal with the influx of information around us. With all of the stimuli that we are exposed to on a daily basis, our brains need to use this mental shorthand to process everything going on around us efficiently. This process of sorting isn’t inherently a bad thing. However, it becomes problematic when we don’t realize we are doing it, because we can become unaware that we are making generalizations. In addition, it can also become harmful when we make generalized value judgments about members of other categories.
Recognize that it is possible to be a “good” person, and still have racist thoughts or behaviors. Ibram Kendi, the author of “How to Be an Anti-Racist” argues that “racist” isn’t something that you permanently are or aren’t; instead, it’s something that can change moment-to-moment, based on your actions. Again, if you can embrace the discomfort that can go along with recognizing that you entertain biases and can behave in racist ways (even though you might be well-intentioned), then you will put yourself in a position to actually do something about them and therefore participate in social change.
3. Educate Yourself
If you want to truly make a difference, it is essential to educate yourself about systemic racism and how it affects communities of color. Although you might be inclined to ask a friend or colleague of color to do this, tread lightly. While there are some who might have the emotional bandwidth to help you, many are dealing with a significant amount of trauma right now, and are exhausted. Instead, turn to some of the online resources that are out there. This widely shared document, with numerous anti-racism websites, books, and programs, is a good place to start to advocate for social change.
4. Go Beyond Performance Allyship
Performance Allyship is behavior that, even though well-intended, might be motivated more by making the ally feel good about himself or herself, than by a desire to truly help the cause and make a difference. For example, if you post a black square on your timeline, and that is the full extent of your anti-racist behavior, you might feel virtuous for having done so, but it is likely to have minimal impact on the Black Lives Matter movement and social change. To move beyond these acts, you can:
- Listen with empathy. When people of color are communicating about their lived experiences and it makes you uncomfortable, resist the urge to dismiss their opinions or avoid the topic. When you listen to understand, as opposed to defend, you just might be surprised at how much you learn, and how much your resulting world view can change.
- Speak up when others are racist, even when you feel scared, and even if it’s something small. Jennifer Harvey, author of “Raising White Kids: Bringing up Children in a Racially Unjust America” notes, “Every time we fail to interrupt racism, we under-do our own capacity to sort of grow the kind of flourishing anti-racist world that everybody deserves to live in.”
- Share links about donating to causes, supporting black businesses, and signing petitions.
- Protest peacefully. This can help you to have your voice heard, while also meeting other like-minded individuals with whom you can multiply your future efforts.
Civil rights icon, Rosa Parks said, “To bring about change you must not be afraid to take the first step. We will fail when we fail to try.” Commit to trying to make a difference today, and every day, to do your part to help our world to change for the better.