By Reed Swier
For the past few months I have felt like I am in one elongated Zoom training, attempting to disentangle white feelings and embedded racist ideologies – including my own. As an equity trainer focused on building culturally responsive and sustaining school systems, my colleagues and I have been scrambling to meet the demands for school-based trainings grounded in antiracism and culturally responsive sustaining education. White people are digging through new (and old) reading lists trying to figure out what it means to be an antiracist, while Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) continue to remind us that this “moment” as we like to call it, is nothing new; that the U.S. in particular, was built on a system of white supremacy; that Black bodies have always been treated as disposable by our police, our schools, and our larger carceral systems.
As a white, cis-gendered, straight man that spends my days pushing for more equitable, racially just schools, I spend a ton of time questioning my own role in this work. How can I honor the BIPOC led fight for racial justice? How do I respond to what appears to be a window opened for white people to (re)commit to becoming better versions of ourselves? What does it really mean to be a white antiracist ally? A “co-conspirator” in the fight for racial justice? The more I engage with this work, the more I realize I don’t have definitive answers, the more I question giving myself – or any other white people – labels like antiracist or ally. It feels more appropriate to place myself as someone on a continual journey to be better. In doing so, I am currently focusing on being more responsive to centering Black voices, decentering my own whiteness, and engaging in active, ongoing self-reflection.
Centering the Voices and Experiences of BIPOC while Decentering Whiteness
Systems of white supremacy are maintained by our false sense of accomplishment as white people. Even when we learn how to say all the right things, if we are still struggling to center Black voices, struggling to listen deeply and actively to Black colleagues and community members, the work of white allyship becomes not only performative but neglectful and often violent. When white people fail to recognize the impact of our power and privilege, spaces that were intended to be antiracist can quickly become microaggressive sites where BIPOC feel silenced, dismissed and invalidated. Our work begins with recognizing these moments as violent, with stepping back to listen intently to voices of BIPOC in our communities and centering the experiences of our most marginalized voices. Yet, so many white people are still stuck being color-evasive, convincing themselves that “not seeing a person for the color of the skin” is how we need to live in this world. These same folks stammer to say “Black” and actively fail to recognize that acknowledging Black Lives Matter does not mean other lives don’t. The move toward racial justice starts with our understanding of the pervasiveness of anti-blackness and then our ability to hold Black voices and experiences at the center of the work.
My effectiveness in trainings is contingent on my ability to balance how I push other white people with how I also just shut up and listen; my ability to stay acutely engaged so as not to invalidate what my co-facilitator or another participant of color is sharing; my ability to lean in to using “I, me, us, our, we” when acknowledging who benefits from white privilege, whiteness and systems of white supremacy. I have to fight my desire to be an expert – which often becomes a manifestation of my own whiteness. And then, when I mess up, which I do, I have to push past the sinking feeling in my stomach and take responsibility for what I did, accepting and appreciating it as a learning moment.
This is work and this work continues outside of my sessions. What kind of space am I taking up in multiracial settings? When do I take it upon myself to correct or call out something problematic a fellow white person says or does? When I fail to do so, how am I reckoning with my own complicity? When do I step aside when offered an opportunity and instead ask if the same opportunity was offered to an individual of color? And when I feel effective in how I respond to these questions, my challenge is to not feel like I have arrived, but rather, to feel like an individual that is continuing to grow.
From Self to Systems
At a certain point this past spring, it seemed as if every so-called progressive white person received “systemic” as our dictionary.com word of the day. Acknowledging racism as a system – rather than an action isolated to individuals – quickly became a learning step for many white people. At the same time, the idea of unconscious bias started trending. White people trying to engage in antiracism began to struggle. Is it about our individual thoughts and beliefs or diving deeper into understanding institutional policies and practices? In these moments of being met with something new and complex – particularly if it’s divergent from white defaults of meritocracy and equality for all – we struggle to move forward productively and in a way that doesn’t continue to force BIPOC to carry the weight of what should be our work.
Antiracism and being an ally to historically marginalized communities can’t remain isolated within individual actions. We have to connect our self work to systemic action. I feel like I am doing the work when I help unearth the biases that white people hold in an effort to disrupt and dismantle the systems of power and privilege enacted and maintained by these beliefs. White participants often share their worry about the pushback from family and friends, specifically citing that the content comes across as too political for “people they know” (often read: themselves). To this I say, this work is political (Shalaby, 2017), and so is our active enabling of a political system that continues to thrive off of the pain and suffering of BIPOC and poor and working-class communities of all races. Real change relies on our ability to tie racism to capitalism and impact a larger political shift toward policies that meet the needs of our most vulnerable communities.
The Work Ahead
Within a month of the murder of George Floyd and after a wave of everyday global protests, endurance quickly became an issue for white people, including myself. For people new to antiracism, just building racial stamina – the ability to sustain dialogue around issues of race and racism (DiAngelo, 2018) – became a barrier. For others, the call for active, everyday work revealed our mediocre ability to hold the burden of changing the system we continue to foster. Meanwhile, while I continue to “struggle” on Zoom, Covid-19 continues to disproportionately kill Black and Latinx people. Police continue to murder Black people. Black Trans Women continue to feel the onslaught of violence from a white supremacist, transphobic society.
It is my job – both personally and professionally – to build capacity in sustaining the everyday journey of white antiracism and allyship, particularly as I engage with my white family and the white participants in my trainings. It is critical that I actively engage in movements for larger political shifts. I also must continue to acknowledge that my own learning has only been possible with the support and mentorship of BIPOC and Black Women in particular. As I enter another week filled with trainings and inevitable Zoom fatigue, I hold the realities my mentors face everyday in perspective and actively reach to grow in my effectiveness as an everyday antiracist and ally.
DiAngelo, Robin (2018). White fragility: Why is it so hard for white people to talk about racism. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Shalaby, Carla (2017). Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom from Young Children at Children. New York, NY. The New Press.
Reed Swier is a Senior Equity Associate at the NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools, where he provides training and technical assistance to districts and educational institutions throughout the country. He has taught in elementary schools in Oakland, California and New York City. As a school administrator and teacher, Reed has supported staff, students, and families by promoting culturally responsive teaching and developing a school culture imbedded in restorative approaches. In 2018, Reed was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Edinburgh, participating in the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching program. Reed holds a B.A. from the University of Michigan, an M.S. in Teaching grades 1-6 from Pace University and an M.Ed in Learning and Teaching from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.