Since the racial justice uprising sparked in June 2020, I’ve talked with many white folks who are waking up to the realities of racism.

In my conversations, I’ve heard several people say something that troubles me:

White folks need to do the inner work of antiracism before we can do the outer work.

While there is a nugget of wisdom here, I believe this is a limited view. Here’s why:

A few years ago, at a Fundamentals of Facilitation for Racial Justice Work training at the Interaction Institute for Social Change, I learned this:

There are four levels of racism:

  1. Internalized: Our biases, assumptions, prejudices, etc.
  2. Interpersonal: How we interact with other people.
  3. Institutional: Policies, procedures, and practices at our workplaces, schools, places of worship, etc.
  4. Structural: Governmental policies and laws.

As this model shows, to dismantle racism, we white people must transform our beliefs and behaviors rooted in racism.

If we don’t, we’ll replicate patterns of harm we wish to dismantle.

That’s why I urge white folks to read Me & White Supremacy, by Layla Saad and My Grandmothers’ Hands, by Resmaa Menakem.

And yet…

As Ibram X. Kendi demonstrates in Stamped from the Beginning, racist thinking did not initially create racism. Instead, people in power created racist policies—starting in the 1600s—and these policies gave rise to racist thinking.

Because of this, to dismantle racism, we can’t just change our thoughts.

We must change policy, and we must redistribute wealth and power.

Thinking nice thoughts and treating your neighbor kindly is all well and good, but racism will continue to flourish if that’s all you do.

It is not enough to dismantle the racism within you. As white people, it is our responsibility to dismantle the racism outside of us, too.

Now, I believe that most white people who say that they need to do the inner work first know all this on some level.

Where I believe they go wrong is in thinking that inner work has to happen before outer work.

This type of thinking is rooted in perfectionism, which, as Tema Okun identified, is a characteristic of white supremacy culture.

You do not need to have rid yourself of all racist thinking before you:

  • Redistribute your wealth (whether that looks like giving $5 or $500 or $5 million).
  • Make phone calls to your legislators.
  • Speak at your city council meeting.
  • Bring up the hard-to-have conversations at your workplace, school, or place of worship, even if you don’t have all the right words yet.

You don’t need to be a “perfect anti-racist” before you take action to create change.

That’s impossible.

One thing I’ve learned from Resmaa Menakem is that we have three options. Our actions can be either antiracist, overtly racist, or complicitly racist. If we are not engaged in tangible actions to create change, then we are complicit.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I imagine that if I were Black or Indigenous or Latino or Asian or anyone without white privilege, I wouldn’t care what books you read.

I would care where you were investing your money and your time.

Far too often, white folks do the “inner work,” feel better about themselves, and stop there.

Far too often, I hear white people say: “But I don’t feel called to be an activist.”

To that, I say: We do not need to like taking action.

Do I enjoy knocking on doors or speaking at city council meetings? Honestly, not that much.

But that’s beside the point. Not everything needs to make us happy or comfortable.

But as a white person, I believe that we have a responsibility to call our legislators, redistribute our wealth, show up for justice. Whether we like it or not.

Besides, as someone who works in the realm of personal transformation, I’ll tell you this:

Inner work is far less effective without an outer context.

As my teacher, Ana Forrest, says, “Never waste a good trigger.”

Unless we’re in the ring, showing up, getting triggered, feeling uncomfortable, then you’re only learning about racism in the abstract. And we’re still complicit.

Outer action creates an arena for powerful inner transformation (if you rise to the challenge).

Don’t get me wrong. Please do the inner work now. But:

Don’t wait for your insides to be copasetic before you show up.

Make phone calls. Make contributions. Make some noise.

Both. And.


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