Mistakes We White People Make
My teenage sons watch a YouTube series called That’s Cringe, where Cody Ko and his friend Noel Miller watch people doing and saying things that are so awkward, so uncomfortable that they’re almost unbearable to watch. So this week when I saw the celebrity “I Take Responsibility [for racism]” video fill up my Twitter timeline, I felt like Cody minus the YouTube audience. If you haven’t seen it yet, it features some of our favorite white actors (shrouded in black and white) owning their racism, mostly in an overly dramatic or “extra” (a word my teens taught me) actor-y tone over some very serious music. Even as I write this, I am physically cringing thinking about it.
Don’t get me wrong — I love their enthusiasm, and I personally know that some of those celebrities are backing up their words with action (Hey, Ilana Glazer!). But it’s too soon for most of them on that video to be saying anything publicly except that they are listening and learning and that their fans and followers should join them on the path to antiracism.
One of the first things I learned in my antiracism journey is that intent does not equal impact. (That’s a good life lesson in general, too.) I’m sure those celebrities meant well (intent), but there is a very fine line between authentically showing up against racism and white saviorism (impact). And white saviorism — which is when we white people “help” people who are not white in a self-serving way — is an easy trap to fall into when you haven’t been patient as you deconstruct the racist narratives that you have internalized all your life.
In my twenties, I was a high school English teacher in Camden, New Jersey where all the students were Black or Latinx. I thought I had done the work, I thought I understood, but looking back, I most definitely had not. I remember picturing myself (cringe) as Michele Pfeiffer in the 1990s film Dangerous Minds, a movie that deified her character and focused on her journey of self-discovery instead of that of her students. I’ve since internalized that it takes a long time and a lot of learning and self reflection to authentically approach antiracism work without that white savior rearing its cute-but-dangerous Michelle Pfeiffer blond head. I don’t believe that those celebrities in the PSA actually intended for their performance to be just that — performative. I’ve seen them use their platforms productively by turning their Instagram accounts over to Black activists, authors, and academics, sharing content that desegregates our deeply segregated social media networks, and giving money to Black-led organizations. Missteps are inevitable, but one thing that prevents many of them is slowing down, listening, learning and acting before you start speaking.
They make a lot of promises in that PSA and say what they will or won’t do, but what if they just did those things instead? Instead of saying they will “take responsibility” or won’t “explain away police brutality,” what if they just took responsibility and didn’t explain away police brutality? Instead of declaring they won’t “turn a blind eye” or “allow an unchecked moment,” what if they simply led by example? “Standing against hate” is much more effective than an on-camera pledge to do it.
When they said “We are done watching them die. We are no longer bystanders,” I wanted to yell You are done? What does that even mean? How “savior-y” of you to decide that you are done watching Black women and men die at the hands of police.
Despite the painful mistake of the PSA, I, for one, am heartened to see that so many white celebrities and influencers are newly awakened to the reality of systemic racism and their role in dismantling it. I have been hoping and pushing for that since I started making a list of the few white people who were publicly speaking up. NBA coach Steve Kerr, who has consistently used his platform right where he is, was first on my list and can serve as an example to all of us.
When white people with large platforms tell their fans they’re learning and ask them to do the same, it matters. When they share resources that are helping them and back up their words with action, it matters. And when they use the power and privilege right where they are — in their homes, schools, workplaces, and communities to help change the systems that have allowed for and ensured their safety and success while doing the exact opposite for Black America, it makes a difference. I hope they will keep it up, minus the PSAs.