I’m a White Person Who Wants to Fight Systemic Racism. Where Do I Start?

If dismantling white supremacy doesn’t feel uncomfortable, you’re doing it wrong.

Protesters hold signs during the Hollywood talent agencies march to support Black Lives Matter protests on June 06, 2020 in Beverly Hills, California.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images.

Dear Well-Intentioned White Guy,

I know you’ve always considered yourself “on the right side of things.” You probably brushed up on your anti-racist reading list. Or posted that black square on Instagram then wondered if you should take it down. Maybe you tried to talk to your kids about racism, after your son said he doesn’t even notice race. You know there’s certainly more that you could be doing, should be doing—but where do you start? On this week’s episode of How To!, Ijeoma Oluo, author of So You Want to Talk About Race, has an honest and, yes, uncomfortable conversation with our listener Chris, a white dad in Austin, Texas. Ijeoma urges Chris—and all of us—to notice the systems of injustice at play at the local level, in your neighborhood or your school, that affect people of color. Then, add your voice to Black-led efforts that are already in place. Educating yourself is not enough. These tips are designed to help you actually make a difference. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Chris: I live in a really white part of town, which is a little bit more conservative. I have always considered myself to be “on the right side of things.” But in recent weeks, I’ve been getting, you know, a deeper education. A lot more of us white people are waking up finally and maybe willing to look inside and take some responsibility. I’ve been pissing off my friends on Facebook [with posts calling out racism]. If it’s not gonna happen now, when is it gonna happen?

You see something horrific [such as the videos of police brutality] and then you react. As white people, that’s a scary place because we’re gonna have to take responsibility. And a lot of us are afraid to approach that. For people who do care and do want to help, I’m thinking we gotta get better at discomfort.

Ijeoma Oluo: I think that it’s important for people to recognize that the discomfort they’re feeling is nothing compared to what people of color in this country face every single day. If this system is killing us, the least you can do is be uncomfortable about it. You can handle it. You can absorb that information and then move past those feelings of guilt and fear and move towards action.

The truth is, is that the power that is granted people does not get handed to someone else when you don’t act on it. You just become a willing participant in whatever is being done. George Floyd was murdered not by just one man. He was murdered with three other cops standing guard in front of a crowd of observers because those police knew they were safe to do so. So when people look at what happened to George Floyd and say, “I didn’t have my knee on his neck,” it’s important to look at what questions they’re asking about the criminal justice system. They are the voters that politicians care about when you’re voting for city council members. They have power over police and they have power over reform. You’re not asking about this, but they are seeking your vote and they’re tailoring what they do to what they think you want to hear. You have power and responsibility that you aren’t exercising. And so you need to start looking at your environment and say, “How am I participating? How am I supporting an environment that makes the sort of brutality OK?”

Charles Duhigg: Chris, when you think about this and look around your environment in Austin, what jumps out at you? 

Chris: I don’t know. I don’t know how I would change the environment.

Ijeoma: When I hear people say, “I just don’t know,” it means they’re not very familiar with the systems around them. So one of the things you can do is to start listening to voices of color in your area. Every school district has Black parents who are desperately trying to make that school district more equitable and less abusive towards their children. Parents are begging and pleading for support from white people in the community to help stem the amount of arrests, suspensions, and expulsions in these schools. Can we figure out how we’re going to support that?

It may be uncomfortable to think I’m going to go talk to a principal. It may be uncomfortable to think I’m going to go to a city council meeting and I’m going to ask about what’s being done for the income disparities amongst races in my area. But I’m not only gonna go, I’m going to bring a friend. We’re going to let them know that this matters. That’s where your power lies and you have to flex it. Black parents would love to be able to sit in front of a principal and talk about the way their kids are being targeted and be heard as more than just an angry Black person. They’re not right now. White supremacy only goes away when it’s intolerable to white America. And so you have to be a part of what makes it intolerable. You have to be a part of what makes it uncomfortable.

Charles: So Ijeoma, for someone like Chris who moved into a conservative neighborhood, do you think we have an obligation to take a more extreme step to say, “Look, I’m not going to move into that white neighborhood. And I’m not going to send my kid to this mostly white school”? How much responsibility do you think we have with our choices for ourselves to try and undo systemic racism?

Ijeoma: The answer isn’t to say I am pulling myself out of white neighborhoods because then all you’re doing is leaving a higher percentage of people who don’t care in those spaces. It’s important to say, “I’m not going to be comfortable here and I’m refusing to let anyone be comfortable here until this changes.” I truly believe you can annoy people into making lasting change. Just start showing up. Be that person. That’s how you make systemic change. You start locally. You start small. And you think this is a smaller part of the system, but it is its own system. And this is where I’m going to do my work.

Chris: That’s starting to open some things up for me. I am already bugging my friends with this idea of white responsibility, [but I can get] a little more prickly with stuff like that.

Ijeoma: Start seeing what you can do to take the teeth out of white supremacy in your area. Even in my progressive neighborhood, I’ve seen so many people saying, “Suspicious man walking down the street,” and it’s just a Black man going for a walk. This is how people get killed. So challenge those spaces where people feel comfortable with this.

Charles: There’s a tremendous amount of systemic racism that’s harder to see, right? When we start talking about policing, when we start talking about redlining, and we start talking about structural racism that goes back decades, what can I do? It doesn’t seem realistic to believe that one person could have much impact on a police force.

Ijeoma: I think it’s really important to recognize how much power we actually have collectively. Where I live here in Seattle, we were part of a protest that lasted probably a year when our city wanted to build a new precinct. What we said was, “No, you haven’t finished fulfilling the promises you’ve made for reform.” We showed up at meeting after meeting, and we were handed quite a few defeats before we were handed a victory. Not only did that police precinct not get built, but at least half of the money ended up going towards low-income housing in communities of color.

The reason why you think things can’t get better is by design—the systems in power that benefit from white supremacy want you to think this problem is too big. They want you to think that you can’t do anything. But when we look at the Montgomery bus boycott, that took over a year of boycotts, but it made real change. When we look at Freedom Summer and the goal of registering Black people to vote, busloads of people of multiple races came together and said, “We’re going to register people to vote. We are going to make change.” These are sustained efforts with concrete goals that people dedicate themselves time and time again. We’re going to keep chipping away at this until we get it. You can absolutely move mountains that way.

To hear Ijeoma tell Chris what to say to the one Black family on his block, listen to the episode by clicking the player below or subscribing to How To! with Charles Duhigg wherever you get your podcasts.