On June 2, 2020 Corinne Shutack published an article on Medium, “75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice.” Quick on the outrage of George Floyd’s killing, with a long pandemic summer before me, I decided to make a project of the long yet relevant listicle. Over three months, I carefully read Ms. Shutack’s list, hit all of her links, watched all of her recommended videos, and read several of her suggested books. Given my engineering nature, a spread sheet was required. Seventy-five rows by three columns: Action Item / What Have I Done? / Resolution.
By Labor Day Weekend, I had gone through every item on the list. Which is not to say that I completed them all. Rather, I considered and investigated each; acted on a majority of them, and deferred action on ones that feel inappropriate for me/for now. The beauty of a long list is its inherent customization-ability.
I’ve written letters to my local police department, city councilors, state and federal representatives and senators, as well as my governor; inquiring about police procedures, advocating penal reform, bail reform, sentencing reform, parole reform. Reform being the common thread. I’ve watched more Spike Lee, read more Ta-Nehisi Coates and even more James Baldwin. I’ve fallen deeply in love with Amber Ruffin, whose “Amber Says What!” proves that woke can be hysterical while forging common bonds among disparate humans over truly important things: like Stanley Tucci.
But I digress. I joined the Boston branch of SURJ (Stand Up for Racial Justice) and participated in a slew of (online) discussions and trainings about structural racism, my role in sustaining it, and opportunities to lean my shoulder toward bending our arc toward justice.
This being the United States, activism, like everything else, is tied to money. Bye-bye Bank of America and indexed mutual funds, hello local community bank, social investment funds, and deposits in Black-owned One United. Hold steady traditional social service philanthropy, while I fuel organizations with activist agendas. I selected ones that resonate with me; there are plenty that will speak directly to you.
There is certain satisfaction in checking off a list of personal action items in response to the societal canker exposed by the pandemic and systematic racism. I need the education, my elected officials need my opinion, these organization need my money. But if I mistake personal enrichment for real change, I am missing the point. Brandon Kyle Goodman’s worthwhile You Tube video, addresses the difference between reactive and systemic change. Tabulating a list of actions and addressing each is a viable reaction to the ugly belly of our society so brutally exposed over the past four months (four years? four centuries?). Reactive tasks, no matter how numerous, cannot create systemic change. However, they are the catalyst from which systemic change can emerge.
If we do something often enough, long enough, focused enough, we form a pattern. The deeper we track a pattern, the more it seethes into our being, until it becomes integral to us. We each nurture healthy patterns and questionable ones. Good thing I walk 10,000 steps a day, since I gobble a sweet after every meal—I mean even breakfast. The value of studiously attending the list of “75 Things a White Person Can Do…” cannot be found in any particular item. The value accrues from spending time, every day, for three months thinking about people whose lives are very different from mine, trying to better understand how the singular deck of economic and cultural cards that makes my life so satisfying, is stacked against them. The value is in forming a pattern of thinking about—and appreciating—other ways of being. I don’t beat myself up for being a white male. Nor do I pretend that I will be the tipping point of change. But if I keep my pattern going, keep learning and acting as an anti-racist, I will contribute some small part in a shift towards equity.
Kara Springer’s A Small Matter of Engineering, Part II is the featured image of Corinne Shatuck’s post. My initial reaction to the image was discomforting. What makes these four words (white people. do something.) on a black canvas, art? And why is it that white people have to do something? Haven’t white people already done enough—good and bad—in this world? Aren’t we in a mode when white people ought to step aside and allow others take their turn steering? This blogger, convinced the world will be better when the humans do less, had to wrassle with the notion of white people doing more. Until, of course, I realized, we are not being challenged to do more. We are being challenged to do different. And since white people developed the systems under which our society operates, either we take the lead in unraveling them, or face the revolutionary anthems our oppression will deservedly inspire.
Ms. Shatuck keeps adding to her Medium list. By mid-summer it was “97 Things White People Can Do…” Last I checked it was “103 Things White People Can Do…” There are plenty of things I can do to feed my pattern of conscious anti-racism, to make it stronger. Which is what it will take to turn a spreadsheet of action items…into systemic change.