A Juneteenth for the Rest of Us: Opportunities for Activism that Middle Class White People Can Seize Right Now
Although I’ve moved my personal library more times than I want to count, one organizational quirk persists: I always keep the African-American authors together in one section, segregated in a separate-but-equal space — currently left of T. C. Boyle (appropriately enough) and directly above Hemingway (justly so). A more equitable arrangement would sprinkle them among the rest of my fiction, non-fiction and poetry, in more-or-less alphabetical order. But — Melvil Dewey be damned — there is a method at work — as a matter of access, this system works better. It also serves as a reminder — as “woke” as I might imagine myself to be, there remain areas where I still practice segregation in my mind.
My A-A authors’ section isn’t as large as it could be, but I’ve thoroughly read and re-read these books. They’ve shaped who I am. Decades ago, in high school, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man set dynamite to my caucasian-centric reading list and taught me how to focus and obsess over each word to bring my sentences to life. In recent years, James Baldwin’s works did what they do best, teaching me about myself as a person; as a man; as a white man. In learning from him what it means to be Black in America — on the outside, looking in with love and rage — I learned how to love and yet hold my rage against the religion of my youth and my ostracizing family.
David Bedrick, ethnically Jewish, has written forcefully about race issues, so he goes in the A-A section as an honorary member. In Revisioning Activism, he raised a question that demands to be asked again and again: Why, as many white liberals often do, should we go to the Far East seeking enlightenment from the foreign-language texts of Buddhism when there’s a cornucopia of spiritual elders right here on our own soil? A priesthood custom-built in and for America, speaking our mother tongue. You know their names: Armstrong, Coltrane, Jay-Z, Baldwin, Martin Luther King Jr., Chris Rock, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Cornel West. If America is going to heal its many divides and find forgiveness among the left and right, North and South, this is the church we should be attending. Chances are, you’ve already joined the congregation — in your playlist, on your Kindle and beyond. But then, the next question is: Are you really listening or just grooving along? Because this church has always been an active one. Can I have an amen?
154 years ago today, Juneteenth, brought an end to slavery. An elimination of some hellish conditions. But after all these years, too many of our fellow citizens of color merely endure a higher circle of hell. We need to work to end that. Yes, I’m for reparations — the country is due for a big redistribution of wealth anyway. But we can do more. Operating on the assumption that you, dear reader, are White and would like to up your activism game, here are a few ideas.
Activism’s many forms
Sure, we can tweet out pithy quips on Juneteenth and plant Black Lives Matter signs in our lawns. Better, we can promote equity at the voting booth. But let’s get creative here. For instance, why not put the leaders mentioned above in their place: as the Elders of our collective American soul — listening to them with joy, yes, and also reverence? Let’s make a shift from being passively entertained to activistically listening. What else can we do?
What skills do you and I have that are worth sharing? Last year, Leo Daedalus and I volunteered to do a rebranding project for In4All, an Oregon non-profit that brings together businesses and education to engage students that have been historically underserved (read: usually with darker skin tones) in creating a future of limitless possibilities. We weren’t alone. We had the full engagement of their board and a host of others, all volunteering their skills as administrators, marketing managers, artists, designers and more.
From them, I learned how to be a better activist — specifically when it comes to my (white male) contribution to race-related issues.
The In4All board is currently mostly white, and for that they’ve taken some heat. However, as Executive Director Elaine Philippi says, “Many of our board members have a personal connection to some of the barriers our students navigate; poverty, immigration and English as a second language are a few examples — and many of them have committed their life’s work to disrupting the systemic barriers impacting marginalized groups.”
Philippi adds that “we’re striving to better represent our students’ demographics” — yet, that current seeming disparity isn’t stopping them from doing what they can today to fulfill their mission. The point is, don’t wait for the unicorns to show up. Perfect opportunities don’t exist. Jump in and do your best. As my case study shows, what they’re doing works.
And note the wording four paragraphs up: these students are creating a future of limitless possibilities. They don’t need anyone to create the future for them, thank you very much. Sometimes, just getting out of the way can be an act of activism.
Opportunities are right in front of us
Fact: By third grade, kids of color are less likely to be called on in class when they raise their hands. Regardless of the curriculum, the lesson they’ll likely learn is that they don’t have a voice. If you work with kids in any capacity — daycare also comes to mind — give the kids equal airtime. That’s activism.
Fact: By sixth grade, most white people assume that teens of color aren’t interested in math or science. Why not assume nothing, ask them what they’re interested in—and then listen? Prepare to have your assumptions smashed. That’s bilateral activism.
Fact: By high school, many adults assume that young adults of color don’t want to go to college. They see the hoodies or the tats, not the person behind them. You get the point. Be an activist.
Too often, these kids suffer the same disregard we give to the Elders mentioned above: we smile and play nice and then stop thinking about them the moment they’re gone. That’s our loss. Because another lesson I learned from In4All is that, in failing to support them, we, as a nation, are missing out on the benefits. When it comes to social awareness and a sense of justice, these kids are savants. If you want to fix what’s wrong with America, they’re the ones to do it. I’d love to see a law enforcement and judicial system stacked with them. Not to mention, uh, the Senate.
It isn’t all about you, so just get going.
Whatever gifts you have — coding, lettering, even just extra time on your hands — why not make them available? You never know where it will go. This article is a bit of activism. Someone else might knock it as virtue signaling, or White Guilt-tripping. I get that. There might even be some truth to it. But I’ll see that accusation and raise a countercall of White fragility.
There’s only one caveat: the value of our activism increases in inverse proportion to the recognition we receive for it. (Hey, if you’re from the alt-right and you hate this article, hit the “Applause” button and suppress it!) Maybe that’s why I’ve never once heard a Black or Latinx person say, “Hey White Person, thanks, you saved me!” I hope I never do. Yet, too often, White Saviorism hides just beneath the surface of many well-meaning efforts. I have to cop to that myself (that’s why I keep my books organized the way I do).
To the extent that we can put those savior impulses away, and we simply make whatever we have of ourselves available, meaningful and impactful opportunities for activism will open up before our eyes in ways that we could never predict.
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