To white people, from another white person

By Molly Barnes
|
04 / 30 / 21

To white people, from another white person – 

I’m white, and I grew up in a predominantly white and wealthy neighborhood in Northern California. I’ve worked hard to retrain my brain out of the “progressive” color-blindness I was taught growing up. I’ve both learned from formal trainings on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and listened to the stories of many of my Black, Latinx, and Asian friends; about the instances of being stopped by police when I wasn’t, of having fewer opportunities than I was defaulted, of living with less access than I was fortunate to have. I’ve had the privilege to learn about systemic racism through the stories I’ve heard, read, and seen, rather than experienced myself.

At the beginning of my career, I taught in a high school in Los Angeles, where all of my students were Latinx or Black. After George Floyd was murdered last summer, I reached out to my students to show solidarity and love. But what could I really give them? Words of support fell short, as another father murdered – Daunte Wright, a 13-year-old boy murdered – Adam Toledo, a 16-year-old girl murdered – Ma’Khia Bryant. What’s the impact of demonstrating solidarity if this nightmare plays out again and again – for years, decades, centuries?

My fiance is a Korean woman. Being queer, we’re never sure where we’ll be welcomed and where we won’t. We want to always have an escape plan, just in case we’re targeted by someone who doesn’t like us because we love each other. We can try to hide our true selves in hostile territory, passing as straight when it isn’t safe. As the COVID-19 pandemic began, we tracked with little surprise the anti-Asian sentiment building across the country. But in early 2021, scrolling past story after story about another act of violence against someone who looks like the woman I love, just for looking the way she does, our fear living in the United States bubbled over.

We can almost hide that we’re gay, but she and her family can’t hide that they’re Asian. We went to a Korean grocery store together a day or two after the Atlanta shooting, and you could feel the collective grief in the building, spilling out of the aisles, out of everyone’s hearts and into a big messy puddle on the floor. We all knew it was there, and just looked at it, helplessly, mourning and scared. 

My mourning, as a white woman, is different and will never be the same as my students’ or the Black community or the Latinx community.  It will never be the same as my partner’s or the Asian community. We have to ask ourselves, especially as white people who can’t truly understand the depth of this pain, what does this do to the minds and bodies of those in this constant fear? Trauma – inherited, experienced, understood – like this generation after generation?

Journalist Marissa Evans wrote about collective Black grief: “Grief in this country has always had an equity problem, and 2020 has only amplified the issue, as Black deaths have come in back-to-back blows, from the coronavirus, police brutality, and the natural deaths of those we look up to most. Each new death, each new example of an old injustice, renews our grief, sending little shock waves of sorrow. We are in the middle of a Black bereavement crisis, and we do not have the privilege or time to grieve.”

Working in philanthropy, we discuss amongst ourselves and with our clients what to give and how – how frequently, how much, when, where. We look at broken systems that only benefit the few (in most cases those who look like me), and we look for scalable, sustainable solutions that could result in systemic change to benefit more (in most cases, those who do not look like me). We discuss the informed redistribution of large amounts of resources, knowing that in many cases those resources were a result of exactly the systems we hope to change. It’s easy to get lost or caught up thinking about how to change or reimagine a system and forget about the fact that we as individuals power that system. The system wouldn’t work without people to run it and people to push through it, people to lift up and to hold back. 

Something I was taught as a teacher was to listen to and trust the needs of my students, and let that guide my work. I was also taught to focus on my locus of control: think about what I had the immediate power or influence to impact and change, and then spend my energy there, authentically and abundantly. We as white people need to deeply listen to and trust the people of color in our lives, in our places of work, in our schools and in our communities. We as white people working in philanthropy need to deeply listen to and trust the people of color leading in this work and those in our grantee networks. Give them our ears, give them our trust, and then give them our support through our resources and our influence to make the changes they need.

We each wield power, given to us by these systems. And now is the time to use it, share it, and redistribute it. In this moment as white folks, we must ask ourselves again what can we really give – what can we give up, and what can we give out, and what can we leave behind, and then we need to give it. And give it now.

Here are some places to consider giving in this moment, if you are able: 

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