(June 17, 2020)—The Statement. Email after email these days from retailers to service providers to nonprofit organizations are making explicit statements that Black Lives Matter. Why haven’t I pushed for the organization I founded and still lead to make such a statement?
Because I believe there is an important statement that must come first. A statement that takes more effort and personal investment to make publicly. A statement that is an essential starting point for substantive change and healing.
Here it is: I am a racist white American. I have participated in and benefited from white supremacy.
White Americans are socialized to white supremacy. To be—however unwittingly—white supremacists. So, I could even say that I am a white supremacist.
Nine months ago, I was at a symposium for conservation nonprofit leaders, in a session dedicated to educating attendees on equity, diversity, and inclusion. After the session, in a personal meeting with John Wallin, VP of the host organization, Conservation Lands Foundation, I told him how uncomfortable I was with the conversation in that session, in which “people like me” were referred to as “white supremacists.” I said, “That’s the term for the people who carried tiki torches and marched through Charlottesville.”
John recommended that I read White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. So I did. Right there on the page, the author noted that white people usually associate “white supremacist” with—among other searing and familiar images from America’s history—the white nationalists with the torches in Virginia, and as a result “take great umbrage at the term white supremacist being used more broadly.”
You can see why I paid even closer attention to what she wrote next.
“White supremacy is a descriptive and useful term to capture the all-encompassing centrality and assumed superiority of people defined and perceived as white and the practices based on this assumption. …White supremacy in this context does not refer to individual white people and their individual intentions or actions but to an overarching political, economic, and social system of domination.”
I began to see the world quite differently. And myself quite differently.
Having reached an age when I can no longer disclaim that I am an elder, I know all too well how difficult personal change is. Addressing racism will clearly involve fundamental changes in social institutions. But how will the white majority respond when those transformations no longer afford them the priority they are so comfortable with? As I reflect on the fact that affirmative action programs have led some white people to respond that they are being discriminated against or are even oppressed, I worry.
How do I counter that? With firm personal determination. And a real hope that our society might embrace the same.
As a nation, we need a firm determination to move forward with the Black Lives Matter movement. It has gathered a critical momentum that an abundance of earlier cases of racial violence did not achieve and sustain.
George Floyd’s murder was so horrific that nearly all who see the video are appalled. In a recent Los Angeles Times piece, African-American journalist Erin Aubry Kaplan makes a statement that merits careful attention by those of us willing to start addressing white supremacy:
“Also horrifying to watch was the way Derek Chauvin’s fellow officers, sworn to protect and serve, stood by like witnesses at an execution. This is perhaps where well-meaning white Americans…those who would never call themselves racist, at last saw themselves and cringed: not as the ones committing the act, but as the ones standing by in silence when the act is committed.”
If all that beneficiaries of white supremacy do is publicly proclaim that Black Lives Matter, but don’t address our own selves and how we help perpetuate racism, then we risk becoming the silent witnesses at the execution.
Nonprofit organizations are vehicles for change. Sometimes change must start as personal change. And this seems to me to be one of those times.
To help create a more just society, to achieve racial justice, white Americans (I) must acknowledge white privilege. White Americans need to understand the pernicious soup we’ve (I’ve) bathed in since childhood and how it has all too often blinded us (me) to the harm we (I) do.
That first step needs to be seismic. It needs to propel us into redressing this legacy. Into shaking the old foundation to dust. Into helping set a new foundation.
William H. Doelle
President and CEO, Archaeology Southwest