I came of age in Atlanta in the 1980s and early ’90s. My all-white neighborhood espoused many of the racist values of the Old South, but I was fortunate to attend an extremely diverse school (thanks to a county busing program) where I formed relationships with Black children that challenged those values. I had amazing Black teachers who did their best, in spite of a largely white supremacist curriculum, to teach me a few things about my country’s history of slavery and segregation. I was also exposed to powerful literature by writers of color, like June Jordan and Nikki Giovanni, in addition to critical race theory and post-colonialism, in both college and grad school. Why, then, did it take me until well into my thirties to become what I would call an antiracist? I’ve heard racism described as a virus quite a bit lately, and the analogy makes a lot of sense. But for me as a white person, fighting racism has felt a lot like a continuous, exhausting experience of battling an addiction.
As with any addiction, the biggest hurdle keeping me from overcoming my racism was denial. I often used my upbringing and education as evidence that I wasn’t a racist, and I spent valuable energy defending my mental status quo rather than being open to real change. It’s hard for us white folk to accept, but if you’re white in America you are almost certainly somewhere on the racism continuum. Being on the racism continuum doesn’t equate with being a KKK member. You can be an intelligent, caring person and still have racist views and behaviors because you are surrounded by white supremacy—and you receive benefits from helping to uphold white structures of power. Acknowledging the problem was a first (difficult) step that allowed me to lower my defenses and open myself to criticism and change.
Once I’d admitted my problem, like many addicts I was still prone to inaction. I knew intellectually about the destructive nature of white supremacy, but I did little to intervene. I was afraid to talk, teach, or write about race because I was afraid of ruffling feathers, making mistakes and looking foolish—and also afraid of doing damage with my white ignorance. I saw racism as a problem that primarily impacted people of color, so I felt they should be the ones to take the action. Of course, the truth is that racism was created by white people, is perpetuated by white people, and white people must take part in dismantling it. And at a certain point, I realized that white silence itself was a big part of the problem. The first real conversations I had about race did not go as smoothly as I would have liked and my first poems about whiteness and race went the way of the electronic trash bin. I listened, got feedback, revised, and became a stronger antiracist. None of this growth would have happened had I not been willing to start the conversation.
Like any addiction, there is no magic silver bullet that will eradicate racism forever. Working against racism has, for me, required constant vigilance, listening, and effort. Being indoctrinated with white supremacy from an early age means it can feel like a comfortable norm to fall back on. But surrounding myself with positive role models—antiracist people, books, culture—has made this work much easier.
One of the ways I’m still struggling to be a better antiracist is in terms of advocacy. I have taken steps to change hearts and minds—including my own—but real change must also impact policy and law. Education and the arts often drive the cultural change that, in turn, drives political and legal change. Without actual antiracist laws on the books we aren’t going to move past white supremacy. As an introvert I’m not always comfortable putting myself into a public sphere, but I’m trying to do better. Showing up at protests, calling lawmakers, and donating money to groups like the ACLU and BLM are ways I’m trying to be an advocate and ally.
As a white person in America, I didn’t choose white supremacy—it was waiting to claim me from the moment of my birth. However, I can choose to actively resist its claim, and I can continue to hope that the lessons I’ve learned the hard way might help create a future where antiracism, not white supremacy, is the birthright I pass down to my own children.