Do The Work

Note: I’m taking next week off from blogging. It is that time of the year where Seattlites and parents try to eek out the last bits of summer before the return to school schedules. Stay safe.

Mural near Franklin High School, Seattle, WA | Photo copyright Erin Okuno

At least once a week I hear someone say something along the lines of someone needing to “do their work” around race, this is code and shorthand for the person hasn’t done a lot of thinking or have a deep understanding about race. I remember nodding along when colleagues more woke than me would complain others, especially white people of privilege, hadn’t done their work around race. I nodded like I was part of the club who understood. In the back of my head I knew I was an imposter and didn’t fully understand what it meant. Over the years through being in spaces and conversations with people that have done their work around race, I decoded the term and continuing to do my own work around racial awareness, learning, understanding, and healing.

This post isn’t a super deep post or racial justice manifesto. My one hope for this post is it can help people just starting out on understanding race what we mean when we say “do the work.” Use this as a crutch to understanding what that means and as a way to start out.

What does “The Work” mean

My version of the term “work” around race includes learning, understanding, reflection, analysis, and healing around race. In order for a person to do their work around race means having to actively take part in all of these steps. A person can’t read a book or watch a documentary and say they have now done their work, that is one step but not the destination, or the end of their work. They should also reflect and spend time thinking about what it means for themselves.

Several years ago, I read the book The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. It is a hefty book and it took me multiple borrowings from the library to finish it. I read it because many people recommended it and I wanted to learn more about the African American experience, something I didn’t grow up learning much about. As I read the book it started as more of an intellectual exercise – read the history, connect it to events I learned about over time, and so on. I put the book down for a while and came back to it, this time I was more ready to grapple with the complexity of the stories included. Including reflecting on the migration story on my own ancestors (my brother calls it the “coming to America” family story – it involves pineapples and sugar cane). By the end of the book, I had a better analysis of historical racism, African American migration in the US, understood the strengths of the African American community, and trauma that happened to African Americans. This was work I needed to do on my own and to connect with to show up as more of an ally and accomplice to social justice work. I also know this one book isn’t going to teach me everything about the African American and Black experiences.

Reading this one book, is a step, the deeper work requires reflection and grappling with emotions and noticing the layers of harm, damage, and hurt that we’ve inherited, perpetuated, and participate in everyday. If you stop at just noticing but not grappling with the harder stuff, then you’re no help to the racial justice movement and as I heard on a webinar: “You may be woke, but you’re still in bed.”

“Get Out of Bed” — Analysis

I’ve also seen people begin to understand race and they show up in meetings speaking proudly and loudly as warriors and champions for people of color, but when you listen to their words they haven’t stopped to fully contextualize or analyze how race and polices and practices impact Black and Brown people. Analysis and deepening our understanding of how policies and practices impact POCs differently is an important part of race work. This is also a much harder step to take, since impacts are felt different by race and ethnicity, education, socio-economic status, disability, etc. Doing “the work” means also understanding personal privilege and realizing how to “show up,” and how to be an ally. Being woke, means also getting out of bed to show up in helpful ways. It sometimes means putting yourself out there, it means being uncomfortable, sometimes it may mean even personally putting your body on the line to protect a Black or Brown person.

“Don’t Burden Black and Brown People”

Black and Brown people get asked all the time by sometimes well-meaning people and sometimes ignorant or aggressive people to explain why they aren’t racist, how they can’t be wrong, and how they are good white people. If you are doing the work, you’ll understand the fakequity in my statement above. White people, in particular, y’all need to do your work around race in ways that doesn’t burden Black and Brown people. Find friends, especially white people, that are more experienced in understanding race and explain why you want to learn about race. Be willing to acknowledge your white and other privileges.

If you do ask a Black or Brown person to explain race and racism, you better be prepared to believe them. No asking follow up questions where you try to poke holes in their stories or justify the experience. As people of color we’ve lived through racism and when it isn’t believed that is just one more experience to add to the tally. As my friend said several times today “Believe Black women, just believe us.”

The work never ends

The good news and hard news is “the work,” never ends. You don’t get a woke badge after you read 10 books and know 10 Black and Brown people. The work also requires continuous learning, reflection, healing, and being in relationships with others. Work on those things and you’ll make good headway on “the work.”

If you need some tips on how to start “the work,” check out the 2020 and 2019 Fakequity Pledges, or the 2018 list of things to do and not do. They have some ideas for ways to deepen thinking and force us out of our comfort zones. Please keep in mind these were written pre-COVID19 so some of the ideas like dining out (unless it is take-out) or traveling should not be done right now.  

A few different reading list are on Fakequity as well, start here, for list with more children and young adult books check out these two lists Reading for Pride and Justice 2019 and 2020.

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