November 16, 2018
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Ending racism: What white people can do

Contributed photo | BDN
Contributed photo | BDN
Heather Denkmire is a writer and artist who lives in Portland.

Ending racism depends on rearranging and reorganizing the institutions that perpetuate it around just and fair values. The same goes for just about any sort of oppression.

But while real change must happen on the institutional level — government, education, medical — at the same time, we have to start smaller.

In “ Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us,” author Claude M. Steele describes how “ stereotype threat” affects everyone. That’s when someone, perhaps subconsciously, starts to confirm negative stereotypes about his or her group through his or her actions. For example, a black student performs more poorly on a standardized test than he otherwise would have because he is aware people expect black people to post lower scores.

For white people like myself, who believe racism is a problem and who desperately want to be non-racist, the more we care, the more we may seem to prove a stereotype about ourselves.

When I stopped trying to have only pure thoughts, I moved out of the self-centered and intellectual areas of racism and into the search for concrete actions I could take toward real change. Just as Steele recommends, I needed to use self-talk — reminding myself of several simple facts — to get past my fear of confirming the stereotype that “white people are racist.” Then I could move on to take real actions that make a difference, no matter how small, in changing our racist systems.

We white people who want to destroy racism must take a two-pronged approach in our actions. We must get past stereotype threat by using internal self-talk. Then we must educate ourselves about the real-life — not merely intellectual — experience of those most affected by racism. Through that education, we can take action.

Begin by noticing whether you avoid situations in which you’ll be around people who are different from you. Be honest with yourself. It’s not wrong to feel comfortable with people who seem “the same.” But it’s important to leave your comfort zone. Go places, join groups or participate in events where you’ll be around people who look or seem different from you.

If you feel anxious or worried you might say or do something that seems racist, tell yourself, “I can learn something here.” Follow that with something along the lines of “we all put on our pants one leg at a time.” Perhaps it will seem insultingly simple, but a simple thought such as “we share a common humanity, we have brothers, sisters, children, parents,” or “everyone here decided to come here right now, and we have that in common” can help you get past that anxiety.

A very basic thought like that can set you at ease and reduce the stereotype threat so you can focus on being present rather than feeling like you need to prove yourself not racist.

Outside of the interpersonal communications, educate yourself about the experience of black- and brown-skinned people. Don’t ask them to explain racism to you. Instead, read the words already written. Use a critical eye in everything you see and read.

When we view the “cat calls video,” in which a white actress walks through New York City for 10 hours and experiences seemingly endless catcalls, do we even notice how it is framed to show brown-skinned men as the more offensive perpetrators of the harassment? When Ferguson protesters are described as thugs and rioters, but the Keene, New Hampshire, Pumpkinfest violence was “ normal college rowdiness” did we call in our complaints? Did you know racism in Maine continues to dominate state and tribal conflicts? Have you read the good, the powerful and the ugly of the blacktwitter hashtag?

Addressing your inner dialogue is a start; taking action in person is even better. If you won’t make time for activities that require your physical presence, consider a donation to groups that make it their mission to combat racism.

No, you won’t rid yourself of racism if you are white in America. But, yes, something is better than nothing. Your life will be richer for trying.

Heather Denkmire is a writer and artist who lives in Portland with her two young daughters. After a few challenging years, she is growing her small business, where her team helps nonprofit organizations win grants. She can be reached at column@grantwinners.net. Her columns appear monthly.


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