How To Fight Racism in Your Town

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S1: If someone’s house is on fire, you don’t say I’m going to have first sit down and look at the nature of fire, right? You’re going to say, what do you need me to do to help put out this fire? That’s where we are right now. It is an emergency. And I really need white America to treat it as such because it’s killing us.

S2: Welcome to How to. I’m Charles to you. As the U.S. continues to grapple with the killing of George Floyd and other incidents of police violence with lives taken for no good reason. Many of us are wondering how to fight the systemic racism that’s been a part of this country for so long. One of those people is Chris from Austin, Texas.

S3: This is something that I, you know, I’ve cared about all my life since I realized there was a problem. Even in recent weeks, I’ve been getting, you know, a deeper, deeper education. I’ve always considered myself to be, quote, on the right side of things. But a lot more of us white people are waking up finally and and and maybe willing to look inside and take some responsibility. And if it’s not going to happen now, Wednesday going to happen.

S4: Chris is a musician who works in the hospitality industry. He’s the dad of two boys who are 16 and 12 years old. And he wants to know how to fight racism in his home town, in his own neighborhood.

S5: You know, I live in a really white part of town, which as we moved to this part of town, it’s a little bit more conservative. And a friend of mine said, Chris, man, I don’t know if you can take it in that neighborhood and was psyched when we got here that across the street is a black family and like, oh, good.

S4: Chris grew up in a relatively segregated town named Texas City, which is near Galveston.

S5: You know, there certainly is a black part of that town. And I lived kind of right on the edge of it, you know, and people weren’t dropping the N-word all the time, but it was certainly around. One of my mom’s mantras about the town for various reasons was, you know, it’s not all right to stay here, don’t you?

S6: It turns out Chris’s mom attended Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957.

S2: That’s the same year that the school became notorious as a battleground for integration.

S7: The white population are determined to prevent colored students from going to the school. Their children attend picketing the school. They clash with the police.

S3: So she was there when the National Guard came in. She actually got into trouble for being friendly with. At least one of the Little Rock nine, a gentleman named Ernest Green.

S4: And Chris says that story is central to how he thinks about race and how he’s tried to raise his sons.

S3: It’s a family value. It’s a product of who my mom was. I don’t know when we began having that conversation with the kids. It’s something we talk about all the time.

S4: And that’s mostly what Chris has been doing the last few weeks, talking, calling out racism on social media, which he says is pissed off a few of his friends, but he feels like he should be doing more. And this is impulse I think a lot of us have right now. How do we harness this moment? How do we turn the anger and the dismay we see at these protests into real change? Where do we begin? On today’s episode, we’ll talk with someone who’s thought about this a lot and she says each of us has more power to change things than we think we do.

S8: Stay with us.

S6: Back in 2012, Ijeoma Oluo was working in the tech industry and digital marketing.

S9: When she heard the news about Trayvon Martin, Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, was shot down by a white neighborhood watchman who claimed self-defense and has not at this point been arrested. And it’s caused a public outcry.

S10: I was grieving and terrified. And what I noticed is that living in Seattle, this kind of liberal space where people are fairly well off. That’s also majority white people. I had grown up with people who said they loved me. He played known for a very long time, had nothing substantial to say. And we’re really trying to ignore what was happening. And this was unusual for an area of it’s very politically active, you know, for an area that had something to say. If you forget to recycle one week, you know, and I would be heartbroken and trying not to cry at work. And I would, you know, go sit in my car and send some tweets about what I was feeling. And then I would get this, you know, a call from the magazine saying, do you want to talk about these threats? You sense and have been a full time writer and speaker on these issues ever since Ejima went on to write the bestselling book.

S6: So you want to talk about race and is the daughter of a Nigerian immigrant father and a white mother from Kansas. She grew up with people constantly asking her about her race from a really early age.

S11: Friends and neighbors were constantly confused about my skin color. I’m constantly wondering how I could exist with a white mother. You know, even pre-school kids were asking me, you know, what made me brown, what made me black?

S12: The first time I was ever called an N-word, you know, called a nigger was eleven.

S11: And that was by an entire school bus full of shit, which was quite traumatic and scary.

S6: Then you mentioned that, that the killing of Trayvon Martin was kind of his turning point for you at that time. What did you feel like you were feeling and experiencing that your white co-workers weren’t?

S12: I was experiencing the outrage of one of our babies being stolen so violently. And what I was seeing in a lot of white America was just, oh, that’s really sad. You know, something should be done. There was no sense that this child was connected to them in any way. There was no sense that this could happen to them. Or anyone they loved in any way. You know, my brother was on tour opposing musician. And he was on tour with a majority white band at the time, travelling all across the country. And he is actually in Austin, south by Southwest, and a bouncer physically attacked one of his pen mates.

S11: And my brother pushed the bouncer off of him and he got punched in the face and handcuffed by the cops, even though he was not an instigator. And he’s a six foot six tall black man.

S12: And I remember. Thinking of what happened to this baby and thinking, how are they perceived, my brother? In these towns, you know, is he safe and trying to call him every day? And I was living in this space of grief and terror. And I would go on mine and my friends would be talking about the shoes they buy, you know, or their trips to Disneyland. It was coming up, you know, I was sitting next people and they were they were living a completely different reality for me.

S4: And so, Ijeoma, like Chris, started to feel optimistic when she saw the protest start and saw so many different people of all colors come out together to demand change. But she still worried because for that change to be real, it has to be sustainable. It has to outlive this one angry moment.

S5: Yeah. You see something horrific and you react to it. And then like to go there 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. And so there’s a bunch of fear there. And that’s for people who do care and do want to help. I’m thinking something we got to do is we got to get better at discomfort.

S1: I think that it’s important for people to recognize that the discomfort they’re feeling is nothing compared to what people of color and especially black indigenous people in this country face every single day. And if it’s killing us, if this system is killing us, the least you can do is be uncomfortable about it. You can handle it, could absorb that information and then move past those feelings of guilt and fear and and move towards action.

S4: This is our first rule, taking on racism might feel overwhelming, but don’t stop. Don’t become paralyzed because you don’t know all the answers or because these conversations are hard or because you’re worried that taking the initiative might offend someone. The only way that things get better is if we all try to do something that’s slightly uncomfortable.

S13: 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 FOID was murdered not by just one man. Right. 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.

S11: There are the voters that politicians care about when you’re voting for city council members and they have power over police and they have power over reform. Your mayor has power over reform and 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. How am I supporting an environment that makes the sort of brutality.

S12: OK.

S6: Chris, when you think about that and you look around at your environment in Austin, what jumps out at you?

S3: I don’t know that. I don’t know, like how I would change the environment when I hear people say I just don’t know, I still don’t know.

S14: 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 two voices of color and especially to black and indigenous voices in your area. So 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, you know, send the amount of arrests, suspensions and expulsions in these schools. Can we figure out how we’re going to support that?

S15: Here’s our next room. Take a closer look at the systems and institutions that surround you and ask yourself, what do people of color see here that I’m not seeing? If you’re struggling to figure it out, go online or seek out organizations or even friends or colleagues who have spent time thinking about this. The information you need to be effective is out there. You just have to look for it. Chris, let me ask you about that. So you said that your your neighbor across the street. Mm hmm. That is is an African-American family, is that right? That’s right. Have you ever asked did you feel like there’s racism in this neighborhood? What do you think we should do about it?

S9: You know. I haven’t. Why is that? There’s a couple of things.

S3: I’m a friend of a friend wrote an article, a black woman in the local paper the other day. And she she said, you know, hey, white America, here’s some things you can do. And one of the things that she said that I think was kind of important is, you know, I’m not your black tour guide to make you feel like a better person. And neither your black friends educate yourself and that sort of thing. I sometimes feel like I don’t want to burden my neighbor with, hey, make me feel better as a white guy kind of thing. I do. I actually thought to send him, you know, even just an email saying, hey, I don’t want to take up your time, but I want you to know I care. And here’s what I’m doing. And I guess one of the things that I don’t know how to do is get invited to the conversation. You know, I care about making things better. I don’t know how to get in the room.

S6: Did you mean how do we find that balance so that it’s not we’re not burdening some black family to become the the standard bearer who has to answer all the white questions? But at the same time, we become part of the solution and we do figure out where the structural deficiencies are that we can make a difference.

S16: So a couple of things I would say. Yeah. Don’t, you know, don’t go over to your neighbor and say, I’m so sorry.

S17: And I’ve had people come up to me, you know, that I and so many black people right now are saying I’ve I’m hearing from every white person I’ve ever encountered in my life right now. And it’s a lot. But letting your neighbors know, right. If they’re the only black family in the block, just a simple note saying, hey, I know things are really rough right now. Here’s my phone number if you need me or if you think of anything that you want me to do for you. Here it is. Right. Letting them know just that you’re there. I think it is a great gesture and just leave it at that.

S6: And then look for places where you know that your voice will make a difference.

S16: It may be uncomfortable to think I’m gonna 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 not only am I gonna go, I’m gonna bring a friend and we’re both going to ask him. We’re going to let them know that this matters. But 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. And 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 part of what makes it uncomfortable.

S4: Here’s another rule. Start with local conversations. You can raise concerns that you have about racism and amplify the issues that, you know, people of color in your community are concerned about.

S18: But then what do you do when you encounter resistance to those conversations? We’ll talk about that after this break.

S6: We’re back with Chris. And our expert, E.J. Yoma, a Luo, one of the reasons I was so interested in having this conversation about race is because I’m a white man who lives in a fairly white part of Brooklyn with my family. And we recently put up this big banner that my kids made on the fence in front of our house that says Black Lives Matter. And a few days later, we started getting hate mail. Like actual mail with stamps on it and everything, telling us to get out of the neighborhood. And I should stress. I think it’s just coming from this one crank who lives on our block. A lot of my neighbors have signs just like ours. It’s a very progressive area, but it got me thinking. So each Yoma for someone like Chris who moved into a conservative neighborhood, for listeners who are sending their kids to to de facto segregated schools. Do you think we have an obligation to take more 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? I’m going to insist that they go to another school because it has a larger population of people of color. How much responsibility do you think or obligation do you think we have with our choices for ourselves? To try and undo systemic racism.

S16: You know, 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. I really believe that people will do a lot to try to get you to just stop talking about they be the person. They’re like, fine. You know what? Fine. We’ll add this, you know, to this meeting. Fine, fine. Well, we’ll have a meeting about changing their school rules, if you will. Just stop showing up here. Right. Like, be that person. That’s how you make systemic change. So you start locally, you start small and you think this is a smaller part of the system, but it is its own system.

S3: And this is where I’m going to do my work that’s starting to open some things out for me. Yes. Like I am, you know, I’m already bugging my friends with this idea of white responsibility. And, hey, you guys wake up and getting a little bit more prickly about stuff like that.

S18: This is our next rule. We should be that annoying person, the one who keeps speaking up and puts a sign on their fence who keeps agitating for reform. And we should find other people who are like us so that we can all be annoying together. Nobody has ever made anything better without, at least in some small way being a pain in the ass.

S17: Start seeing what you can do to take the teeth out of white supremacy in your area. I’ve seen so many, even in my progressive neighborhood of people saying suspicious man, you know, walking down the street and it’s just a black man going for a walk. This is how people get killed and so challenged that.

S6: But 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, like me, this dad could have much impact on a police force tomorrow.

S14: Chris should be researching how many people of color are sitting in his city’s jails. And he needs to be looking at how many complaints are being filed against officers in the area. He needs to look at how many children are being referred to jails from schools. I think it’s really important to recognize how much power we actually have collectively.

S16: You know where I live here in Seattle, we were part of a protest that lasted, you know, probably a year where our city wanted to build a new precinct. And what we said was, no, you haven’t finished fulfilling, you know, the promises you’ve made for reform. And we showed up at meeting after meeting, and we were handed quite a few defeats before you were handed a victory. And 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.

S6: Chris, do you think you could do that?

S3: Absolutely.

S9: That’s that’s, you know, a I’m taking all these notes and and it’s the wheels are turning and I’m starting to see a lot more than, you know, like maybe one of the problems up until now is that I think more globally, but like to break it down into smaller, doable steps is starting to make a lot of sense to me.

S15: And this leads us to our next rule. It’s really useful to set distinct, measurable goals for ourselves, focused on one task, like monitoring your neighborhood Web sites for racial profiling or were meeting with your school principal and do that until you accomplish something. And just educating yourself. That’s not enough of a goal.

S10: You know, right now, a lot of people are saying, well, I’m at the beginning. I need to just find out what’s happening, that my arms around this and you can’t just say, I’ll see what happens. You have to find a goal where I can make a measurable impact right now.

S6: Let me ask on that, because we’ve been talking about. Racism that’s fairly easy to see. Systemic racism, that’s fairly easy to see. And of course, there’s also just a tremendous amount of systemic racism that’s harder to see, right, disparities in pay disparities and in employment opportunities. Chris, do you ever say, hey, this is this is my salary. I want you guys I know just to make sure that you’re getting the same salary.

S3: I haven’t had that question, but I have seen something that I do remember seeing about that I was working in a restaurant that was pretty white and I got a friend of mine a job there. I helped him get a job there. He was black and he didn’t get treated the same as we did. And he didn’t last very long. He got fired for doing something we all did, you know, like maybe having a drink on the job or whatever it was that he was being watched. So I have seen that sort of disparity there. And I was horrified. And and basically what he said when he got fired was Semana told you. So I’ve seen that.

S6: Let me ask you, Chioma, like, how how important is that? If I’m if I’m working in an industry, how useful or important is it for me to say my name is Charles, I’m a white man, does my background, I earn this salary and I want to put that out there, because if my colleagues who are of color or women, if they’re getting paid less, the first thing they need to know is, is what the disparity is. Is that important, an important step?

S14: It is. And I would say, you know, it’s important to be open and honest about what you benefit from. Right. And you won’t even know necessarily that is a benefit you have to take stating what your reality is. So then the question is, what can I do to let my employer know that that is something that they are responsible for as well?

S6: This push to be more open in our workplaces. This is a movement that’s occurring in lots of different industries right now. And we know that it undermines structural discrimination. We should talk more openly about our salary and our perks, because it helps make sure that everyone is being treated fairly. And if you like, Chris, if you see your colleagues of color being treated differently, call it out. Team up with co-workers to challenge it. You know, Chris had mentioned about his mom in Little Rock, and that was a seminal moment for the civil rights movement. And yet here we are 60 years later, and there’s still so much to be done. Look, should we believe that things can actually get better?

S1: Absolutely. Absolutely. I would say that the reason why you think things can’t get better is by design, because the systems in power that benefit from white supremacy wants you to think this problem is too big. They want you to think that you can’t do anything. But even when we will get like the Montgomery bus boycott, where people came together and did some real work day in and day out that took a year over a year of boycotts, but it made real change. When you look at Freedom Summer and the goal of registering by people to vote, we look at time and time again. Bus loads of people of multiple races coming together and saying, we’re going to register people to vote. We are going to change. We’re going to do this. These are sustained efforts with concrete goals that people dedicated themselves to and came in time and time and time again. We’re going to keep chipping away at this until we get it. You can absolutely move mountains that way.

S18: Thank you to Chris for reaching out to us about this important issue and to Ijeoma Oluo for helping us all learn how to tackle racism head on. You should make sure to look for her book. So you want to talk about race. Do you have a problem that’s been bothering you? If you do, you should send us a note at how to add Slate dot com or you can leave us a voicemail at six four six four nine five four zero zero one. How TOS executive producer is Derek John, Rachel Allen is our production assistant in marriage. Jacob is our engineer. Our theme music is by Hannis Brown. June Thomas is senior managing producer. And Alicia Montgomery is executive producer of Slate podcasts. Gabriel Roth is Slate’s executive director of Audio. Special thanks to Kevin Bendis. I’m Charles Duhigg.

S19: Thanks for listening.