The days after November 8th have been deeply revealing about the belief system of white supremacy in the United States. And I’m not referring to the easy-to-spot white supremacy of the neo-nazis quickly placed in Trump’s cabinet, or the immediate Trump effect felt at the schools I work in every day. The white supremacy that got caught with its pants down after the election was the white supremacy of the half of the nation that voted against Trump.
As I mentioned, white supremacy is a belief system. Like being raised in a Christian or Muslim home, being raised in a white supremacist nation informs our values and behaviors from the moment we are born. It shapes our traditions and institutions and it impacts how we interact with our world every day. With that said, I consider myself to be an apostate- one who formally rejects a belief system they once belonged to. I like the word apostate because it requires that I admit that I was indoctrinated in white supremacy, and in order to shed it, I am required to consistently and explicitly reject the values and behaviors of this belief system I know to be false. It also requires that I challenge the rituals, customs or practices that uphold this belief system. With that said, I humbly offer the following suggestions to other white identified folks who are looking to dissent the dogma that places whiteness at the center of human achievement.
- Be an apostate, not an ally. There is already plenty of critique about the use of the word ally to name white identified folks as supporters of people of color. I’ll just briefly add that I don’t like the word ally because it implies need on the part of people of color, not on the part of white folks where the real need lies. An ally implies separate but equal. It suggests a hero complex. Apostate, however, places emphasis on the rejecter. It begs questions like; how, in our everyday experience, do we act as heretics in the language of white supremacy embedded in the politeness and colorblindness protocols of our homes and places of work?
- Be heretical. Apostates are heretical. It is the way we dissent from a commonly held belief system through language. With this in mind, use the heretical language that names white supremacy where it lives in our daily discourse. Most of the time I refer to white supremacy instead of white privilege. I will not refer to neo-nazis and white supremacists as the alt-right. I am white, not Caucasian. When white people say racist things around me, I have a list of responses I’ve already thought of and used so I’m not caught off guard searching for the right words.
- Consider the impact of post-election shock. If we are truly shocked by the outcome of the election, then we have been ignoring the state-sanctioned population control of people of color. Being shocked means we haven’t internalized a word Black Lives Matter has been saying for over four years, even as we have been reblogging and retweeting their news. It seems to me the only kind of appropriate shock for this election’s outcome is the shock of the life-long smoker being told he has terminal lung cancer. Of course it is shocking to hear he is going to die. But he smoked three packs a day his whole adult life. If he’s honest with myself, I should have seen this coming.
- Don’t skip holidays to avoid your Trump-supporting relatives. Fellow apostates, this is where we are needed the most. It is so important that we have these urgent conversations with the members of our own tribes. Many allies began looking outward on November 9th. I urge us apostates to look in. If you have projects in communities of color but cannot face your Republican uncle, you are, albeit unknowingly, upholding white supremacy. There is a lot of information floating around right now about how to talk to your Trump-supporting relatives. Try the strategy that speaks to your heart. My preferred method is to center conversations around shared family values. Let values be your lighthouse when the sea gets stormy. “I know we care about helping people in our family. That’s an important value for us, one passed down by Grandma Patty who survived the famine back in Ireland. I wonder if we couldn’t see people who are suffering at the hands of police brutality as deserving the kind of compassion and understanding Grandma was talking about.”
- Consider deeply the safety-pin you are wearing. I have encountered countless responses to the safety-pin movement and many of them are positive. I will offer that for me, the safety-pin message seems to place the white body at the center of the conversation about the physical well-being of black and brown bodies, which as a concept, upholds white supremacy. It symbolizes the hero complex that many liberal white folks engage with. If a person of color is potentially unsafe due to racial violence it is the moral imperative of all of us to act. With or without safety-pins. Outside of this, however, people of color have had to think about and act on their own physical safety for their whole lives in ways that white folks cannot possibly understand. It is deeply flawed for white folks to think they have much to offer here. Additionally, the physical safety of many people of color can be, and often is, threatened by the presence of white people. I cannot speak for any person of color. But I can assume that a safety-pin does not erase the centuries of trauma that white bodies have inflicted on black and brown bodies and replace it in an instant with unconditional trust.
- Be wary of fetishizing your friends and colleagues of color. Right after the election, a young white woman I work with called me in tears. She had been wearing a safety-pin and a black colleague told her she didn’t agree with its message. The young woman was distraught, because other people of color seemed to be supportive of her decision to wear it. She was confused and upset. A black person disagreed with her verbally, when other black people had expressed gratitude and support. How could this be? In her fervor to act as an ally to people of color, she ceased to see the people of color in her world as unique individuals with differing thoughts, ideas and perspectives. When we white folks listen to our friends and colleagues of color, we should notice if we are placing them, or their words or actions, in a proverbial glass jar for display. As apostates we must reject racial fetishizing. This is a grotesque form of othering, and it upholds white supremacy in a very insidious way. Real friends don’t always agree. Productive colleagues challenge and motivate one another with honest, inquiry-based dialogue. I asked this young woman to tell me what she thought of the safety-pin. What did it mean to her? Why was she wearing it? Through these questions we were able to see that she hadn’t thought about it very deeply and she came to a new conclusion about it. And this, I believe, is the essence of being an apostate. The apostate turns the inquiry inward.
Erin Dunlevy is an educator and restorative justice trainer with over 14 years of professional experience in NYC public schools. Her work has focused on developing and implementing strategies for addressing institutional oppression within school systems. She continues to work as a consultant throughout NYC schools to help further the work of dismantling racism and white supremacy.
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