May 25 marks the one-year anniversary of George Floyd's death, when the video footage of a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds ignited a global movement for racial justice. Many refer to the summer of 2020 as a "racial reckoning," where protestors around the world assembled in the midst of a pandemic to protest the violence and oppression of systemic racism.
For many white people, the summer of 2020 represented a collective awareness to the insidious, pervasive and embedded racism evident in this country. And on June 2, 2020, millions of people participated in a mass social media movement. During #blackouttuesday, Instagram users posted a black square to their social media feeds and pledged to “do better”; they committed to learning, to accountability and to allyship in support of racial justice.
But as Janaya Little, a culturally responsive educator, said of #blackouttuesday, “The point of the black square was to speak to racial justice on a global level, but I don’t even know what it accomplished.”
So, the question remains: What did those black squares actually achieve? Did all of those well-meaning allies actually do anything in service of racial justice? Or did they just revert to the status quo?
To continue your work in service of racial justice, here are some action items to keep in mind.
1. Take stock of what you’ve actually done
This requires some radical self-honesty. How did your commitment to social justice shift after #blackouttuesday? Or rather, did it shift at all? Did your black square prompt tough conversations with family and friends about racism and white supremacy? Did it encourage you to buy books and listen to podcasts to learn more about the history of racism in the country? If you are white, did it prompt you to adjust how you move through this world in a meaningful way in order to be more attuned to systemic racism? Or does the black square continue to languish on your social media feed amid pictures of your dogs and pandemic baking experiments?
“When I saw all the black squares, I thought that was a trend — and that’s being polite," Little said. "I don’t want a square; show me some proof (of your action).”
In order to move forward, we must honestly assess what we’ve been doing … and that means we have to be honest with ourselves about whether our pledge to fight for racial justice has manifested or whether we have more work to do.
2. Recommit to your learning and unlearning
If you grew up in the American public school system, chances are slim that you’ve learned about the history of systemic racism in a meaningful or nuanced way. Most K-12 curricula erase the stories of BIPOC communities and prioritize a one-dimensional narrative of America’s exceptionalism, which results in many people not learning about the deeply embedded history of racism. As white people, our responsibility is to unlearn this one-dimensional history.
And in this process, white people will learn what it means to be a part of this system. Too often, white people think of racism as something that happens to other people who look different and not how it's harmful to others and ourselves.
"Start thinking about what it means to be white, because it’s dehumanizing to another person and it’s dehumanizing to you. And that’s what is the most dangerous," Little said. "You can’t connect with other human beings because you’re aligning yourself with power and privilege.”
3. Decide what “doing the work” means and dive in
There are a million and one ways that allies can show up to “do the work” in service of racial justice, but too often, the question that stops them in their tracks is, “What does ‘the work’ mean?”
The Anti-Racist Roadmap, a free downloadable toolkit, describes the work as “shift(ing) resources and power to Black and brown communities and uplift(ing) the work that’s already being done.” This could take on myriad forms: it could mean donating your stimulus check if you don't need it, offering free babysitting to community organizers, doing pro-bono resume review for first-generation college students, using your social media platform to amplify BIPOC artists, having challenging conversations in your neighborhood book club or joining your local NAACP chapter.
“Doing the work” can take on a whole host of forms, but the key is to pair learning with action. It’s not enough to just read books and listen to podcasts on racial justice; at some point, we have to apply that learning. We have to show up and take action.
4. Research and advocate for policy change
Systemic change in service of racial justice can’t happen without changing policies. This means that we have to research and understand the policies that augment racial disparities in this country and work to amend them. Research police reform and familiarize yourself with the difference between defunding and abolishing. Learn about qualified immunity. Call and write to your local senators and ask for their support of bills that you believe in. Protests and activism must yield policy change in order to shift the balance of power.
5. Talk among yourselves
One of the most critical things that allies can do in service of racial justice is to talk among ourselves: about race, about racism, about white supremacy, about police brutality, about all of it.
“White people need to start positioning themselves in (the racial justice) space, even if it’s hard. Because racism — and ableism, sexism, homophobi, all the -isms — are all harmful to them as well," Little said. "White people have to stop making it an 'other' problem and start making it a communal concern.”
It means that white people collectively have to keep talking about racism — about how it works, about why we hadn't “seen” it earlier, about how we are insulated from thinking about it and, perhaps most critically, about how we participate in and uphold it. That means we have to practice radical honesty and vulnerability in conversations with our white family members, our white friends, our white neighbors. It means we have to hold ourselves and others accountable to learning. It means we have to reassess our place in this world and re-envision a racially just world that we’re moving toward.
“It’s not the work of BIPOC people to do this labor. White people need to sit down and identify how these things have been harmful, not just to other people, but to them as well," Little said. "You also need to be accountable to your place here. Because when you do that, you stop looking at people who are different than you, you stop thinking, 'Oh, you’re the victim,' and instead you realize that you can do something. You’re as human as the other person.”