A while ago, I was sitting with my friend, Gioncarlo Valentine, who is a photographer and an essayist, and a person I trust to have thought deeply about living as a Black man in America. I was asking him how a white person like me might become an ally.
“Money,” he told me, his voice suddenly brusque, as if losing patience with a smug, dishonest child.
“Yeah,” I said. “But if I want to …”
“Money!” he said.
“Money? To who? To where?”
He rolled his eyes, and then rolled off a list:
“The Okra Project, Baltimore Bloc, a Baltimore bail fund. You can donate to Black trans people directly. Money is the only real contribution you can make. The rest is performance art at best, racism at worst.”
Okay, I thought. Fine. I agree. Money goes a long way to help. But what about demonstrations? What about a Black Lives Matter yard sign? What about those black squares people were posting on Instagram earlier this summer for “Blackout Tuesday”? Does any of it accomplish anything without money? Could it be that the model I was taught as a middle-class white American — to be cordial to my neighbors and basically leave everyone else alone — had not resulted in decency but in racism?
Let me be up front about who I am so as not to be cute with that question. I’m the kind of college writing instructor who each semester makes sure my students are exposed to writers of color. I help run a writing prize in an understaffed, underfunded West Baltimore high school that is almost exclusively Black. I’m a well-intentioned, liberal, vegan with a couple of Black friends.
And yet here I am, a racist?
It’s not a claim I take lightly. But maybe it’s time for the admission to come more freely. Because of course the problem is that America has created an oppressed group of people, and of course the root of that problem is racism. But what is not as obvious — what, in fact, gets tamped down reflexively because the label and the problem carry the same name — is that if I don’t claim my own racism, I’ll do less to fix the part I play in it.
So, let me claim it, on the record.
I’m racist. And here are some of the ways:
- I take comfort knowing my community is being policed.
- I feel deeply secure living within my country’s legal system.
- When one grocery store in my neighborhood is out of the oat milk I like, I drive to the other grocery store that sells the oat milk I like.
- I moved to a suburb because of the local elementary school’s high rating on Zillow.
- My wife and I bought our house in part because of a financial security created by our parents having saved money by buying homes. (And their parents before them.)
- I can avoid the “dangerous” parts of the city.
- Part of my stimulus check went toward gift certificates at local restaurants.
- During the stay-at-home order, I was more bored than scared for my health or the health of my family.
- I’m able to work from home.
- I blithely asked my Black friend how I might become an ally.
In a vacuum the items on my list might seem innocuous — working from home during a pandemic is no more hurtful than a drink of water. But it’s been race that has tracked alongside the percentages of front line workers, and so in some ways it has been race that has predicted who is comfortable at home and who is suffering the anxiety of exposure. More sharply, it is race that has predicted who has lived and who has died. So, if working from home during a pandemic is like drinking a glass of water, it’s only if right down the street people are dying of thirst.
Three miles away from me, there are residents of an underserved Black community who are unable to consider the options I take for granted. I imagine it comes as a belittling and dehumanizing reminder that just on the other side of the Beltway there are people able to make easier and freer choices.
When I participate in the items on my list without thinking of my neighbors who cannot, or who participate in them with different, often steeper consequences, then I’m behaving in a racist way. When I participate casually, I participate callously.
For me, announcing my racism is easy (and let’s face it, I could add that to my list, too…).
Is it the first step toward becoming an ally?
That and money.
Benjamin Warner is a novelist who lives in Catonsville. His Twitter address is @realBenWarner.