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The Lilith Blog 1 of 6

June 4, 2020 Meg Sullivan

Let’s Get To Work

White folks: how many of you have spent the week feeling paralyzed by the question: “What do I do?” I’m not going to answer that for you. Because we each have to answer that one for ourselves. 

Yet whether any of us like it, we are responsible for one another. Your choices are my responsibility. Your silence is my responsibility. And mine is yours. That’s kind of how this white thing works (except spoiler alert: this white thing is definitely not working).

What I will do is share with you some themes I’ve been hearing over the course of my conversations with lots of different white people:

1) Fear of/falling prey to “performative wokeness.” The kind of “activism” we do while scrolling instagram late at night from bed. A bed we sleep in without a shred of fear that cops will bust through our front door and massacre us. “I stand with #.” Is to post to stand? If to post is not to stand, who “should” post? And when? And what? And if I don’t post, have I revealed myself to be someone who is on the sidelines? 

If you are worried that a post feels performative, that’s a really instructive gut check. Is it because you feel new to using your platforms to speak out against injustice? Is it of concern that posting feels like it’s “not enough”? Are you struggling to find language that feels authentic to you? The discomfort here is good. Get specific in the questions you ask yourself about that feeling. Most of the questions will only beget more questions. And any “answers” will probably make you more, not less, uncomfortable. And that’s very important. White people’s comfort is literally why we’re here. Millions and millions and millions of black and brown bodies and spirits have been sacrificed, are still daily sacrificed, “in service” of our comfort. It is one of the central premises of this country’s founding. As such, we must work steadfastly to de-prioritize white comfort (@officialmillenialblack). This is key to white people’s anti-racism work.

As for the question: but do we post? Yes, sure. But if you are focusing your energy on whether or not to post and not rigorously interrogating the hollowness you fear that post carries, you are getting distracted, and I urge you to make a shift. If a post feels hollow to you, it probably is. If it feels like it isn’t enough, that’s because it isn’t. Go ahead and post – and be ready to welcome the self- and external criticism of your “performance.” Be prepared to listen, to learn, and to do much, much deeper and larger work than posting. 

2) Deep fear of engaging with loved ones – partners, parents, close friends – about what we are seeing, some of us for the first time though not because it is new but because we are seeing for the first time. Fear of conversations with people who know us intimately, conversations we’ve maybe or even probably never had, not for real anyway. Fear that someone we love is not where we want and need them to be. Fear that someone is us.

We white people need to develop a shared language about oppression that gives architecture to these conversations. There is a beautiful, painful, poignant, brilliant canon of teachings by leadership of color, expanding every minute, that you and I and all white folks can access, discuss, wrestle with, honor, ingrain. White folks’ self-education is also a key component of anti-racism work. For it cannot be on BIPOC to carry the burden of our unlearning, or to hold us emotionally through that journey.

3) Total psychic paralysis. I’ve been describing the visceral expression of this paralysis as similar to what some of us felt when we first came to really understand the term “flatten the curve” —that there was no saving us, that it was way too late, that we had absolutely not done all we could do, that we’d failed ourselves and our fellow humans. And as a result, that we face grave and irreversible consequences so dire even the greatest optimists could not chart a path to our redemption.

And all these failures while we had the data to show us what was coming, what has long been here. We knew. But we didn’t see. We chose not to see. It is, unfortunately, way too fucking late for white people to become conscious. And yet, we have to work at it relentlessly anyway. We must let consciousness help us thaw from the numbing, deceptive, insanely dangerous escapism that has always defined the white American experience.

4) Shame. Shame about not finding the right words to say. Shame about not doing anything sooner. Shame of our too-little-too-late realization about what it really means to be safe, to be recognized, to be humanized, to exist in dignity. How sorely we’ve taken it all for granted. How complicit we’ve been in securing the spokes of a society that allows for such uneven distribution of justice (what do we call the injustice of unevenly distributed “justice”?). 

It is critical that we do not let our shame morph into self-pity – but instead, let it be our motivating agent. Shame has the power to drive us in unspeakable ways. It is complex and layered; it weaves the personal and the interpersonal and the existential and the political. It grips, and when left ignored, it follows us everywhere. The particular brand of shame we’re facing right now – white shame – stirs unlike other difficult emotions because this one is begging to speak with us. And if we begin to respond to that call, it can become a north star. 

So rather than burying our white shame, let us try befriending it by, once again, asking some questions: What brought us to this moment? And what messages has shame been sent to teach me? Those conversations, which can begin privately in the sacred confines of our own souls, will be deeply instructive in preparing us to respond to the question: “but what do I do?”

These themes are not the only ones weighing on our collective white conscience, of course. But I have now heard them over, and over, and over again. And that means we need to work through them together, rather quickly, so that we can direct our energies (and money, and organizing, and unlearning, and campaigning, and protesting) towards supporting movements led by people of color. All of them. Unconditionally. Not only ones with platforms we support unequivocally. Yes, I mean that as an unveiled call out to folks in my Jewish community who still hold conditions for supporting the movement. But that is not what allyship looks like in the face of black genocide. And yes, I mean to use the word genocide.

White people have an enormously important role to play in dismantling white supremacy. Let us be in this work together. Yes, you, whoever you are reading this. Let us commit to daily practice. Let us hold each other accountable, let us just hold each other, let us carry each other through. It is the very, very least we can do, while readying ourselves, as quickly as possible, for the work we must do.

In recognition of just some of the thinkers, creatives, and visionaries whose teachings are reflected here: James Baldwin, Indiya Moore, Rachel Cargle, Layla Saad, Amanda Seales, Ijeoma Oluo, The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond.

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Meg Sulivan is the Director of the JCC Harlem, and the Founder of Project Harmony Israel: An initiative of the Hand in Hand Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel. Meg is a trained practitioner in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution. She’s a lifelong New Yorker.