"Interrupting Anti-Blackness": How White People Can Fight Racism

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NYC action in solidarity with Ferguson. Mo, encouraging a boycott of Black Friday Consumerism. Photo from a Black Lives Matter march in NYC, photo from Wiki Commons.
By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly Black Lives Matter organizer and Portland resident Adrienne Cabouet lives a life painfully inundated by racism. Cabouet says she's routinely, and sincerely, asked by white strangers how many kids she has, or whether she works at Walmart. When she moved into her SE Portland apartment complex, one where few other people of color reside, and couldn't access the laundry room, a fellow resident called the police on her. "For some reason, my pass key wasn't working," Cabouet says. "I was standing in the hallway with a laundry hamper, wearing slippers, and someone said I was an intruder." Cabouet's had her body and hair touched so often on the bus, she says, she no longer asks people to stop—which they never do—but instead just stands and moves. After being followed by employees during a visit to a Lloyd Center makeup counter, Cabouet reported the incident to a manager, who tried to convince her the employees were "just being nice." For white, liberal Portlanders, overt racism might seem like something from the past, or that happens other places, but not here. Cabouet contends, however, that what she's endured—the profiling, criminalizing and gaslighting—happens every day to people of color. And she'd like white people to help put an end to it. Like many anti-racism activists, she's put out a call for white people to talk to other white people about racism, to use their privilege to help eradicate racial discrimination. "When I picture it happening, it's like interrupting anti-blackness," Cabouet says. "We live in a society that doesn't value blackness. That criminalizes blackness." Cabouet says she would have welcomed a person speaking up on her behalf, for instance, during any on the incidents she described above. "I would appreciate the backup," she says. "People don't listen to me. People make you feel crazy when you speak up as a person of color, because they don't believe you." She noted she related to the recent Daily Show sketch in which African-American correspondent Jessica Williams hired a "Helper Whitey"—a white man who repeated exactly what she said in social situations, and was understood and taken seriously by the white people she came across, in a way the comedian wasn't. Cabouet understands it can be difficult at first to talk about racism publicly. She describes herself as a "recovering black friend," who used to laugh at racist jokes in order to go along with her largely white peer group in school. She also notes the phenomenon of "white fragility," the manner in which white people display discomfort and denial when the topic of racism is raised, in order to maintain the unspoken equilibrium of white racial dominance in our culture. "It took me years to become confident interrupting racism, and say, 'That's fucked up,' when it happened," Cabouet says. "What accelerated the process was finding people like me I could organize with." A local group doing this sort of organizing work is the Portland chapter of SURJ—Showing Up for Racial Justice. For Asher Freeman, organizing with SURJ helped them move past intellectually opposing racism and begin taking action. "Previously, I spent a lot of time reading and having one-on-one conversations with other white people in an academic way," they say. "I found myself drawn to learning the language and not making mistakes. Looking back, I felt like that drive made me complicit in white supremacy. In joining SURJ, I wanted to take risks." Fellow SURJ organizer Joslyn Baker also joined from a desire to be actively involved in anti-racism work. "As a white woman, I felt aware of my own privilege as long as I can remember," Baker says. "SURJ has filled a need for me to be with like-minded white people, who are willing to be uncomfortable around this topic." Baker and Freeman both agree that shaming white people who make racist statements is not an approach they favor, preferring instead to meet others where they are on the matter, and attempt to broaden their perspectives. "When people say things that are racist, I try to understand," Baker says. "I try not to debate or argue. I say, 'I'm not sure I understand. Can you explain?'" "Racism is in the air we breathe as white people in the U.S.," Freeman adds. "It helps to recognize it's in all of us. Sometimes I just attempt to reframe something a person says. If they're commenting about African Americans in a criminal context, I might say, 'Huh, as a white person, I've never had that kind of experience with a police officer.'" With time, interrupting racism in this way can come to feel like a calling, Baker says. "Meeting people now who see the protesters in Ferguson and say, 'I don't see why they're so mad,' I say to myself, 'Oh, this is an opportunity. That was an invitation.'" SURJ runs on a cohort model. Members who join the cohort attend one three-hour meeting a month and agree to participate in one racial justice event monthly, as well. Freeman says SURJ is focused on assisting, and following the lead of, people of color-led racial justice organizations. Currently the group is lending its energies to the Portland Parent Union, an organization focused on addressing racial disparities in discipline practices within Portland Public Schools. It's also seeking to assist the breakfast program started by the Portland chapter of the All-African People's Revolutionary Party. Freeman says they're grateful for the sense of agency they find through organizing. "One thing groups like SURJ do is take the identity of white, anti-racist organizers and make that available to white people, so that the only response to being white, with regards to racism, isn't guilt or shame." Baker encourages white people to remember that, while talking about or interrupting racism may be uncomfortable, it's safe. "White people can choose to tag out of these discussions whenever we want, and we go back to just being white. It's a luxury," she says, adding with a laugh, "As a white woman who's 49, I have a lot of privilege. The worst thing I can be called is 'bitch,' and I've been called 'bitch' so many times." Cabouet recommends white folks organize with others in groups like SURJ or Ferguson PDX, both of which collaborate with Black Lives Matter. "It's good just for your emotional outlook, because the immediate aftermath of raising your consciousness is alienation, unless you find people to support you." She also implores people not to reflexively ostracize or "unfriend" family members or friends who express racist sentiments. "It's important not to give up on other white folks," she says. "If you say, 'Forget it. You're too racist,' you're making us have to deal with it." Cabouet identifies as African, an identity she says helps her reclaim self-definition. "Blackness is an identity that was given to us," she says. "It's not who we are," a point she says is encapsulated in the famous Malcolm X quote, "A cat can have kittens in an oven, but that don't make them biscuits." Freeman says they organize from a need to respond to the injustice they feel around them. "I'm personally impacted by the racism around me, and that I don't want to be complicit in, like the church burnings," they say. "That's why I do the work. It's not charity work. It affects my humanity." Cabouet says the work of fighting racism eventually becomes a reward in itself. "Just keep building relationships with other organizers," she suggests. "Be outside the system and constantly judging it. The more you do it, the more you'll want to do it. Once you reach a certain level of consciousness, you never go back."