Unlearning Racism Newsletter Week 3 – No “Good White People”

Week 3 – Week of June 15, 2020

Hello friends,

What a week. Thank you again to those who joined us in last night’s dialogue about discussing racism in a way that calls people in, instead of calling them out. Like last week, we’d love your feedback so we can make this dialogue group as supportive and inclusive as possible. Additionally, we realized that some questions might still be a little too uncomfortable to voice whole group so we have made an anonymous question form for anyone to enter any questions they want to see answered in the newsletter or weekly dialogues.

Before we get into the thick of it, we wanted to acknowledge just a few of the huge wins we have seen the past week that have come as a direct result of Black organizers and accomplices standing up and using their bodies, time, resources, and voices to demand change. Protest works. From Breonna’s Law that will ban the use of No-Knock Warrants to Clemson University (our alma mater) changing the name of its Honors College to Minneapolis City Council members pledging to disband their police department, the past two weeks have shown the power of collective action

It’s really complex, though, to be writing this newsletter in celebration of these things. On the one hand, we are so excited about the wins – from the tumbling statues of blatant white supremacists to the major reallocations of city funds away from policing and back into communities. And, on that same hand, we are so excited that so many of you have committed to unpack and unlearn racism with us on a weekly basis. On the other hand, we are working toward a world where we don’t have to have these conversations or these reforms. While it is so invigorating that there are so many other people using their time and resources to learn about and DO SOMETHING about anti-racism, true justice would mean that we wouldn’t have to have these conversations or cheer for these reforms. True justice would mean that Riah Milton, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Rem’mie Fells, James Scurlock, and so many others were not killed at the hands of racist violence. True justice would mean that every community would be full of the resources it needs for its members to thrive. True justice would mean that those in power would prioritize ALL of us.

Until then, we are called to do this unlearning together. And in this moment, we are so thankful that you are here

This week we are talking about shedding our innate desire to be Good White People(™) so that we can be better humans, partners, and neighbors in our collective fight for a more just world

Spoiler Alert: We’re Never Going to Be “Good White People(™).
Writer and scholar Ibram Kendi says, “the actual foundation of racism is not ignorance and hate, but self-interest, particularly economic and political and cultural.” 

So often in our attempts to be Good White People(™), we speak over, exclude, and correct Black and Brown people, and then want credit for it. Over the course of unlearning our racism, we often seek the validation of our friends of color; instead of turning outwards and focusing on supporting and amplifying, we get so caught up on being “good” that we make it about us.

When we do this around our friends who are Black, Indigenous, or People of Color, it can be exhausting for them. We often don’t listen, or act like we hear what they’re saying but internally are more focused on the appearance of being anti-racist than actually making the necessary changes to be anti-racist. When we are introduced to new information, we make exceptions for our own behavior, acting like because we didn’t know, we couldn’t have caused any harm. We deny being part of the problem or rationalize how our good intentions outweigh any harms we might have committed. 

It is human to want to be acknowledged for our work, and unlearning our racism can feel like work because it is work. It makes sense that we want to get some credit for it, but doing this work for credit, rather than for a more liberated future for all of us, can completely undermine the work itself. If the work is about dismantling white supremacy and white people spend their energy on being Good White People(™), it’s still all about preserving whiteness and ego.

Here are ways that we (Emily and Ellie) have made (and sometimes continue to make) the movement about us:

  • Constantly worrying about whether we were liked and accepted in majority Black spaces.
  • Regularly asking ourselves how an instagram post, showing up to a protest, or donating to an organization would reflect on us.
  • Becoming defensive when we felt ignored or like we weren’t “appreciated” for “doing something that we,  white woman, didn’t need to do for our survival”.
  • Refusing to actually listen when BIPOC shared their truths, simply waiting anxiously for our turn to speak, just to show that we “got it”.
  • Asking our BIPOC classmates or coworkers to educate us over and over again and not understanding or taking initiative when they tell us to educate ourselves.
  • Approaching stories told by BIPOC withskepticism, applying our own experiences with authority figures and thinking “wow, they are clearly being dramatic” rather than trying to see it from a different, less privileged angle.
  • Feeling an overwhelming need to somehow clarify, again, that we are “one of the good ones” when BIPOC talk about white people.
  • Throwing other white people and their blatant racism or performative activism under the bus in order to make ourselves feel better about being a Good White Person(™) rather than exploring times that we have perpetuated racism, too.

White supremacy replicates itself selfishly, quietly, and with all good intentions. It allows us white folks to excuse ourselves from conversations that don’t center us, our perspectives, and our needs. And it burns us white people out in the meantime. If we concern ourselves more with being “Good,” than we do with learning so we can be better, we spend our energy preserving our ego rather than preserving Black lives. It is exhausting to be on patrol for your reputation; it is rejuvenating to accept that we are all part of a racist system and that we have all said and done racist things, and to acknowledge that we can and should do better. 

So this week, we challenge ourselves to give up the need for others to see us as “good.” Being known for being “good” white people doesn’t end racism. What disrupts racism is a shared commitment to be better, to learn more, and to call racism out everywhere we see it, starting with inside ourselves. Instead of obsessing over being seen as “good,” let’s focus on being better.


Behavior we are unlearning:
Singing the ‘n-word’ along with songs

Wait… why can’t I just mouth it along with the songs that are on the radio?

There are a million reasons white people cannot say the n-word but we’ll assume that if you’re getting this email, you know in your heart that it’s just an absolute no-fly zone. The only place we seem to make an exception to this (white women, calling us in here) is when we hear it in a song. That stops now. We have all been put on notice that doing this is unacceptable; now that we know better, we can do better

There is tangible racial discrimination that the “n-word” reinforces. This discrimination affects nearly everything about the lived experiences of our Black friends and neighbors. From their mental and emotional well-being to their finances (through persistent employment discrimination, the use of subprime mortgages to stiff-arm Black families into predatory housing situations, the overrepresentation of Black people in the carceral system), it is clear that the legacy of the “n-word” carries with it generations of abuses and myriad ways Black people have been systemically denied resources. All we (nonblack folks) are being denied is the use of a word when we hear a song on the radio

But I don’t mean any harm! I’m just singing along!

Look, I (Emily) would be lying if I told you I hadn’t let this word slip out as I was singing along to a Kendrick Lamar song on more than one occasion, but (see above), this isn’t about me or my comfort or what I “mean” to be harmful! This word wasn’t used to humiliate, antagonize, and justify the dehumanization of people who look like me for centuries, so it isn’t my choice when it is appropriate to use, or even mouth it along to a song. It doesn’t matter that I don’t intend to harm anyone – if that word slips from my white lips, it carries the historic legacy of white people using it to devalue and abuse Black people. It is endowed with hundreds of years of physical abuse, family separations, lynchings, beatings, murders, complete economic upheaval, and the systemic denial of Black people’s humanity for the sake of preserving the myth of white supremacy. It doesn’t matter if we don’t mean any harm.

Words we are learning
Virtue signaling

What is virtue signaling?
To virtue signal is “to take a conspicuous but essentially useless action ostensibly to support a good cause but actually to show off how much more moral you are than everybody else.”

What does that actually mean?
Basically, virtue signaling is when we want to show that we’re invested in a cause but aren’t willing to follow through with actions that support said cause. For example, there was a lot of backlash when the well-intentioned “Blackout Tuesday” trend unintentionally undermined the voices of activists. 

Usually when we virtue signal, our intentions start off as good, but become more about showing that we “get it” than that we are here for the long haul, standing in solidarity. The biggest criticism of merely “virtue signaling” is that there’s no risk involved. We don’t want our “showing up” to become more about showing that we have some sort of moral superiority than it is about contributing to a more just world.

Am virtue signaling?
Part of the nuanced identity of being an accomplice is wading through fears that we aren’t doing enough or showing up enough, and therefore might be tempted not to show up at all. As a rule of thumb, if you are backing up your instagram post or your “Black Lives Matter” profile picture with internal and external actions (signing petitions, calling reps, educating yourself and others, donating, protesting, etc.) then you’re not virtue signaling. Gut check that you have followed through on your end before “signaling” to others in your circle to do the same. If you are, then you’re on the right path to unlearning and being an accomplice. 


This week, Dominique Rem’mie Fells, who worked in fashion and was described as being upbeat and kind, and Riah Milton, who worked as a home health aide and was known for her resilience and optimism, were brutally murdered. Rem’mie and Riah are the 13th and 14th violent deaths of Black trans* women this year. Say their names and then in their names, make a donation to the Marsha P. Johnson Foundation here. 

A WAY TO TAKE (non-financial) ACTION

One of our readers and dialogue partners (hi Maggie!!) sent along Suleika Jaouad’s newsletter that she’s been sending each day of quarantine with writing prompts to fill time and spark creativity. This particular prompt was to write a letter to someone who is incarcerated. Suleika wrote“Two years ago, I reported a story for the New York Times Magazine on the nation’s first prison hospice. Of the 2,400 men incarcerated at California Medical Facility, some are general population, but a significant portion are sick or disabled. Then there are those in the hospice ward, who are dying…” 

Suleika includes this excerpt from Mitchell S. Jackson, a man incarcerated in California, who is encouraging all of us to write to his 2.3 million neighbors in the federal and state prisons across the United States:

Posted this cause I can remember being locked down. And especially during this crisis, I’ve been thinking about what my life would look like behind the walls right now, what it looks like for the millions of humans who are currently incarcerated. It’s unimaginable. My life would be at risk. Their lives are at risk. When I was incarcerated, mail call was second only to visiting hours as the most important part of any given day. The letters kept me connected. They reminded me I had value. They gave me something to look forward to. They helped me exercise my mind. Letter writing led me to the creative writing that eventually changed my life. Writing a letter to someone incarcerated can have all of those effects and more. So write, write, write. Send pictures in the letters. Let them know what’s going on in the world. Remind them of their humanity; you can bet inside those walls someone is reminding them otherwise.”

You can write to an inmate at:
California Medical Facility
Attn: David Maldonado, CRM
1600 California Dr.
Vacaville, CA 95687

We would add: If you plan to write, please read through this guide of Do’s and Don’ts when writing to someone who is incarcerated


Primary Resource:

  • White Fragility and the Rules of Engagement – Robin D’Angelo – 3 pages of telling it like it is and calling all of us into doing better. (Dr. D’Angelo also has a book by the same title; don’t worry, we are not asking you to read a whole book this week)

Supplemental Resources:

And some resources we loved, that wrecked us, or we just feel like are important to share (and don’t have anywhere else to put them) this week: 

  • This Interview with Congressman John Lewis, who will never lose hope (interview conducted by Zak Cheney Rice, aka Emily’s absolute icon’s husband)
    Zak asks: “Have you had a moment where you felt that maybe this wasn’t working?
    And the Congressman replies, “No, I never ever came to that point. You get thrown in jail, maybe for a few days, and then you go to Mississippi, and you go to the state penitentiary, and you find some of your friends and your colleagues. And you get out, and you go on to the next effort. We used to say struggling is not a struggle that lasts for a few days, a few weeks, a few years. It is a struggle of a lifetime.
  • This short, devastating, beautiful article about grief and who gets to tell the stories lived by “unreliable witnesses” by Saeed Jones that should be required reading for everyone who is struggling to make sense of the news. 
    “The past beat us bloody, the present is beating us black and blue then blaming us for the bruises, and the future will either thank us for finally breaking the cycle of trauma or bury even the most basic facts about what happened in unmarked graves.”
  • This episode of Radiolab – where reporter Tracie Hunte listens to Nina Simone and realizes that Nina has summarized so much grief that can be applied in this moment, too
  • This Op-Ed by Judge James A. Wynn, who serves on the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, about eliminating the defense of qualified immunity and allowing individuals to sue state actors who harm them
  • And this really, really great video of Antines Davis, an organizer in Milwaukee, teaching the crowd how to sign “Black Lives Matter” in American Sign Language. (Also this article about the complicated relationship between ASL interpreters, Deafness, and Blackness, and which also explains that in ASL, people are actually signing “Black. Lives. Precious.” & I don’t know about you, but I (Emily) shed a single tear of “hell yes” agreement when I learned that)

We’ll see you again this week on zoom at 7PM EST and in your inboxes with our discussion questions on Friday!  


We leave you with something we read earlier this week that really summed up our feelings about the internal struggle to check our egos at the door while we’re unlearning racism (thanks Yrsa Daley-Ward!)

That’s the thing about “the work”. That’s the thing about deep learning. It never really ends and it requires deep humility… humility does not mean you think less of yourself. It means you think of yourself less. That’s the difference. Recognising that there is so much to learn is the first thing. and that a little bit each day is more useful than binging on a flavour of the month only to discard it once that month is ended. Take a little a day and chew on it. Fully digest, understand, read some more, before reaching for the next bite. We are all learning.  

We’ll see ya Sunday.

In solidarity,
Ellie and Emily

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