Stop with the Messages of Condemnation — Tell me What You’re Doing

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Sign: “All We Wanna Do is Break the Chains Off” from Freedom School Seattle Day of Service and Action event in Rainier Beach. Photo by Erin Okuno

Five days ago, on 12 August, violence erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia. White nationalist and white supremacist marched in protest of the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The rally was one of the largest white nationalist protests in recent history. The night before at the University of Virginia white supremacist marched carrying torches, yelling “white lives matter” and “blood and soil.” Images of defiant white men holding flaming torches filled news feed and scared many. The next day Saturday brought more violence as a car was used as a weapon. Heather Heyer, a white woman there as part of a counter protest, was killed and many other injured.

Trump responded with a controlled statement about the violence. He condemned the violence and called for unity. Many felt his statement didn’t go far enough condemning white nationalist. On Tuesday, he went off-script blaming “both sides” for the violence. We won’t unpack why that is problematic here since many others have done so in other news analysis.

Today many people of color are feeling tired. We know this routine:

  • Something bad happens to People of Color.
  • It explodes over social media.
  • Rallies are organized. Elected officials, organizations, and companies make statements about how we must stand together in unity/solidarity/community. This week they also condemned the violence and messages of the white supremacist.
  • White people go back to business as usual.

I’m not trying to make light of the evil and hatred that happens to pocs, especially to our African American/Black, Latino, and Indigenous kin. I am trying to make a point that something has to change and messages of unity and condemnation are becoming meaningless.

Stop with the Messages of Condemnation – Stop Centering Yourselves Again

The problem with these statements and rallies is NOTHING CHANGES. Messages of condemnation and support are a different form of white silence. This is the formula for a statement of support/denunciation:

“The [fill in the blank crappy event] was harmful to [impacted community]. We call upon all Americans to stand together in this time of trouble. [We believe statement.] We [fill in the blank org/company/elected official name] won’t back down.”

The problem with the current crop of statements, especially around the violence of this last week, is they don’t point to action and changes. Or in some cases, especially statements from elected officials and companies, they call upon others to act. The deflection of responsibility and pointing to actions they are taking is a less egregious form of white silence. It is saying “look at me, I stand with you” but I’m not going to make myself uncomfortable in the process, they are saying I’m innocent and I don’t have to change. The statements say “I see you,” I want to affirm you, I’m a good person for noticing racism, I am doing things on my terms where I don’t have to challenge myself. White people have the luxury of being silent the status quo allows white people to deflect responsibility.

I don’t want to read another statement about how much you care. Show me and prove you care. Make yourself uncomfortable and act. If you wonder why people of color don’t trust white people and historically white led organizations it is because white people don’t always act. My colleague Amber Banks studies trust and how it is formed. Through her research, she found actions are necessary to build trust in communities of color.

Doing Something Uncomfortable

Before you write a statement stop and think about others. Ask yourself are you issuing a statement to make yourself look good, feel good, and feel like you are doing something that challenges you and your organization? If you are putting forth a statement to point and acknowledge a moral injustice save your time, I don’t want to read it. What I want to read and see is how you are using your power, influence, and privilege to disrupt whiteness and the current dynamics.

While we may not be able to single-handily stop the white nationalist movement, we all have a responsibility to force institutional and systemic racism to change. We also have to remember actions will look different for all of us. An African American colleague and friend she said she’s been stepping back and practicing self-care. For her, this is uncomfortable because she normally engages in work around race, but right now she needs to focus on her own well-being. As an Asian American, I told her part of my work is to realize my privilege and to pick up some of her work so she can safely and comfortably practice self-care. For our white allies, your job is to find your own ways to disrupt whiteness in your jobs and personal lives.

Personal actions are important and we need to act in ways that make us uncomfortable. If we stay comfortable it means we’re not pushing, we’re not thinking harder, and we’re not challenging ourselves to disrupt the current situation. I would rather hear about what you and your organization are doing to protect, uplift, and center people of color than hearing how you condemn the actions of others.

Here are some actions you can take instead of just saying you condemn white supremacy:

  • Work on being ok with conflict – Healthy conflict is needed to disrupt and challenge people’s assumptions and actions that favor white people.
  • Center communities of color – Focus on communities of color and allow them to take the lead. This means checking your assumptions, timelines, and desires for a project and allowing the community to say what they want.
  • Condemnation – If you still feel the need to condemn an action then do it and do it the full extent of your powers. For corporations and nonprofit back it up by saying what you will do – are you organizing and mobilizing in a new and different way, are you willing to refuse to do business with the offending party, etc.

Posted by Erin Okuno

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