Unlearning Racism Newsletter – Week 1

Week of June 1, 2020

WHO WHAT WHY

WHO, WHAT, WHYHi friends! Welcome to Unlearning Racism, a weekly newsletter and corresponding dialogue about racism, the way it impacts our world, and what we can do to become better accomplices to communities of color. Our names are Ellie and Emily and we are two white women and life-long friends trying to figure out how to be the best supporters of our friends and neighbors as we can be. Ellie is a middle school teacher in NYC (though soon relocating to Denver, CO) and Emily is a 3rd year law student in Columbia, SC, hoping to practice as a public defender.

Chances are, if you’re reading this, you have felt devastated by the deaths of Breonna TaylorAhmaud ArberyTony McDadeGeorge Floyd, and so many others killed by racist violence. Chances are, you’ve felt kind of stuck. Maybe a little guilty. Maybe frustrated with your loved ones who don’t “get it”. Maybe you want to speak up or do more and you just don’t know how. Maybe, this is your first time really thinking about race and you have a lot of questions you want to ask but don’t want to come off as inconsiderate or have your intent be questioned. Wherever you are in this journey toward anti-racism, this space is for you.

This newsletter will come out on Mondays so you’ll have all week to read, prep, and think of questions for our Sunday evening discussions. Even if you can’t make it every week, aren’t ready for a full group conversation, or don’t have time for every article, we still would love for you to learn with us. 

WHY ANTI-RACISM?

There is no such thing as being “not racist.” We live in a culture and a society that has racism so deeply embedded into its very foundation that it’s impossible to simply be “not racist.” Sorry, it’s not your fault, but we’re all pretty racist. We absorb messaging our entire lives that tells us that certain people are “safer” than others, are “smarter” than others, are “more articulate” than others.

Some examples of racism that we (Ellie and Emily) have personally perpetuated without even giving them much thought:
* Moved my purse to the other shoulder or clutching it tighter when walking by a black man.
* Overly explained a Latina friend to another white friend even though the Latina friend had made perfect sense and was far more concise/articulate than I was.
* Literally begged my high school English teacher to let us have “Cowboys and Indians” day during spirit week so I could wear a Pocahontas costume. Yep. Woof.
* Assumed that my black coworker lived in a low-income area or came from poverty. Celebrated Cinco de Mayo in a sombrero and mustache.
* This list could go on forever. As much energy and effort as we both put into fighting white supremacy in our careers and personal lives, we have still perpetuated it; and honestly, we still do without meaning to all. the. time. 

Which is why anti-racism is so important.

Anti-racism is a practice, rather than a destination. It is a series of daily choices to stand up against racism everywhere you find it, starting with yourself. Anti-racism is an active process that works to identify and eliminate racism by changing systems, organizational structures, policies, practices, and attitudes, so that power is redistributed and shared equitably. We don’t wake up one morning as “anti-racists,” we make anti-racist choices (to stand up against an uncle’s racist comment at Thanksgiving, to listen to the experience of your black classmate before inserting your own opinion, to contribute to a bail fund, to buy from a Black-owned business rather than Amazon, to check your own racist thoughts).

Why not just diversity?
Diversity assumes that the people in the group already have equal power, aiming simply for group representation from various places. Diversity is great; there is certainly power in groups being represented, but we don’t live in a world where there is an equal playing field for all members. Diversity without anti-racism won’t prioritize the voices of people of color, won’t make the space safer for people who have traditionally been marginalized, and won’t make that playing field more equal. We don’t just want representation of our friends who are black, indigenous, or people of color, we want them to be safe, healthy, and cared for in all spaces.

WHERE DO WE BEGIN?

At the time we’re writing this newsletter, there are SO many posts on social media about race, tackling white supremacy, and how to support our friends of color. And it’s so encouraging that people are talking right now! But anti-racism requires constant hard conversations, not just immediately after tragedy. So this week, we’re starting with ourselves.Expectations for this group (readers AND Zoomers):We are all imperfect people. Expect that everyone is doing their best until they give you reason to believe that they aren’t.Give yourself some grace. Unlearning the racism you’ve been taught your whole life is a form of work. No one has all the right answers or has a perfect track record on tackling racism… But also:White friends, this isn’t about us. Most of us reading this newsletter are white. I’m just going to say this now: our feelings are less important than black, indigenous, and people of color’s (BIPOC) lives. It is okay to have an emotional response; it is okay to need to process that with others; it is not okay to blame, correct, or word vomit your white feelings about whiteness all over your friends who are BIPOC. That’s why this group exists.There will be feelings! Whatever you’re feeling is valid. That doesn’t mean you’re off the hook for working through your own white guilt.Know what you need and ask for it. Need more resources on a particular topic? Great! Need to talk through a racist thing your mom said and work through potential responses next time? We’ll try our best to help. Need to talk about something you did that was pretty racist and want to just figure out where that came from/how to grow from it? We can chat. We don’t have all the answers but better for us to seek out answers and process together than to go it alone.Don’t opt out. Every single one of us have something to give in the fight against racism. When it gets uncomfortable, that’s where you’re growing.This is ultimately about protecting lives. As important as dialogue is, we are doing this work to preserve and protect our neighbors. We will ALWAYS push for meeting immediate needs, whether that be showing up for a protest with a basic medic kitpaying a bail fund (protest or not protest-related!), calling out your racist relative, or voting white supremacists out of public office. Reading about white supremacy is crucial but taking direct, tangible action against it (at the direction of leaders in the communities most affected) is our ultimate goal. 

WORDS OF THE WEEK

Each week in this newsletter we will be talking about one historically loaded word/term that we might be all-too-used to hearing, and one word/term that might help us make more sense of our work as anti-racists. 

Word we are unlearning: 
Ghetto

What’s the history of this word?
Per Webster’s dictionary, “ghetto” is defined as a part of a city in which members of a particular group or race live usually in poor conditions. NPR says the term was first used to describe a city block of substandard homes where Jewish people were restricted to live in 16th and 17th century. The term disappeared for years until Nazi Germany created them again, forcing Jewish people to live in ghettos on their way to taking them to concentration camps. In the United States, “ghetto” took on a new, but similar meaning (as black people were systemically forced to live in low-income, poorly resourced housing projects). “Economic considerations, race prejudice and cultural differences combine to set [black people in the US in the 1930s and forward] apart.” That “racist prejudice” included laws and lending practices, from redlining to restrictive covenants, that were explicitly designed to separate white and nonwhite city dwellers.”Ghetto” became the default term to describe urban slums after white flight left black Americans in poor neighborhood blocks. The term “ghetto” came to be a subtler way of saying something was bad, messed up, or unfit to be used by relating to these low-wealth Black neighborhoods. 

Why would I want to avoid using it?
Relating something that refers to a racial minority (Jewish people or Black people) to something bad or uncool or messed up is racist. When we use words like “ghetto” when we really mean “broken” or “poor quality,” we are contributing to the belief that there is something inherently wrong with being poor or black. Saying someone or something is “ghetto” marks them as of inferior quality. 

What are some words I can use instead?
When describing objects: Unreliable! Poorly made! Battered! Rough around the edges! Worse for the Wear! Unkempt! Ragged!

When describing people: honestly, just don’t. Resist the urge to label people with words like “ghetto”. Rather than replace the word that you most likely mean as an insult, think about where your inclination to use that word is coming from and what you really mean.Is this a bias against someone that comes from something beyond their control? (their race? their socioeconomic status?) Is this related to something they did that you found unpleasant?Either way, we bet you can think of a better, more specific word, that doesn’t carry the weight of a white supremacist legacy with it. 

Term we are learning:
White Supremacy Culture

What does this term mean?
In the words of critical race scholar, Francis Lee Ansley, white supremacy is the “political, economic and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings.” 

In layman’s terms, white supremacy culture is the idea that white people and the ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions of white people are superior to Black, Indigenous, and People of Color and their ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions.

Ok but I signed up to get this email, surely I am not a white supremacist…
We all live in a white supremacist culture in that white people and their ideas, beliefs, and norms are taken more seriously; white people and their cultural norms are what our leaders and friends think is most appropriate and acceptable. From the first books you read and movies you watched as a child, to the media’s messages about who is more likely to be a hero and who is more likely to be a criminal now, we are inundated with information about who is “deserving” and who is not. White supremacist culture makes us subtly less likely to believe a Black person is in pain, more likely to promote white people at work, and more likely believe that black children are older and less innocent than white children, among one million other things. We are not calling anyone here a “white supremacist” (at least I really, really hope not) but instead making note of the system and culture that we have all grown up in. 

Ok now I feel uncomfortable because I REALLY am NOT a white supremacist and I feel like you are calling me one…
Right, we hear you, it is really painful and sometimes awkward to come to terms with the uglier parts of ourselves and our culture. This isn’t a space for blame. BUT, a house fire doesn’t put itself out when you decide you won’t let it bother you, it just continues to burn. White supremacist culture, and the ways that we have each internalized it, isn’t going to dissolve one day without us acknowledging that it is there and taking steps to resolve our own internalized racist beliefs.

You’re not alone in feeling frustrated or uncomfortable. But these are growing pains. Working for a better world will require some discomfort. Our discomfort is worth it if it means a safer, healthier, more prosperous world for our friends and neighbors of color. 

RESOURCES AND THE LIKE

We recognize that there are one million resources floating around this week and we hope that we can keep that energy going. However, burnout is REAL. Information fatigue is REAL. We would rather read one thing every week and constantly work toward being anti-racist leaders than to try and to it all at once and get burnt out. Sustained work to be an anti-racist requires constant processing. It is okay if you read one article and have to sit with it for a while. It is more important to stay involved and keep the heart work going than to “know everything” all at once. 

So, each week we will have ONE primary reading and 2-4 supplemental readings. We encourage you to read all of them but know that some weeks that will be more feasible than others. However, in order to participate in the dialogue, it is really important that you are at least reading the primary reading. 

This week’s primary reading is:
* White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh

This week’s supplemental readings are:
* Whistling Vivaldi (Excerpt) by Claude M. Steele
* White Supremacy Culture by Tema Okun
* What Is White Privilege? Basic Analysis and Definitions by Sharon Martinas  

This week, we’ll see anyone who wants to join us to talk about “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” or any of these resources and the past few weeks on Zoom this Sunday, June 7 at 7:00 PM EST. ZOOM LINK HERE

We have read ALL of your responses (thank you!! We, too, are so excited to be doing this!) and are forming the conversations this summer around your suggestions. If your ideas aren’t addressed at first, we PROMISE we are laying the foundation to get to them soon! 

Here is a rough schedule of what we’ll be focusing on for the next 4 weeks:
* Addressing our own internalized biases and unpacking what whiteness means in our own lives.
* Having hard conversations with family and friends about race.
* How to be an accomplice to Black, Indigenous, and People of Color without making it about ourselves
* Addressing the white savior complex

In the meantime, forward this newsletter to friends who might be interested or reply to us with any pressing questions or concerns you have about race, the way we talk about it, and how to be a good accomplice. And we would love to see or hear any resources you have collected! Until Sunday, we love you, we’re thankful for you, and we’re excited to be on this journey with you.

In solidarity,
Ellie and Emily

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