On the day after the election, I reached out to my white friends. Through a series of text messages and posts, I asked them a simple question:
White people: What is your plan?
I know what you may be thinking. No, I am not white. It is therefore not my burden or my responsibility to expend my energy in this way, right? I know. But this message couldn’t wait.
I was tired of continuously being assaulted by my country, yet being the one expected to spring to action alone. It was very clear: White people handed us Donald Trump. White people did this. And maybe (hopefully) not my friends — but certainly their cousins, their uncles, and their friends. As I’ve publicly expressed this truth, the predictably problematic refrain of “not all white people…” returned again and again.
Of course not all white people voted for Donald Trump.
But of the white people who voted, six out of 10 did. And chances are, nine out of 10 white people know them. And at the end of the day, 10 out of 10 white people benefit from white supremacy.
So my question to my white friends was not a call to wage war on white people. It was me interrogating whether they were ready to join or increase their effort in the war against white supremacy, a system that benefits few and destroys many. Understand: White supremacy is as much about mindless habits of white privilege as it is about active beliefs. It is about impact, not simply intent.
My question was really an assertion: Never should the majority of the burden to end oppression fall on the oppressed. White people must be the primary ones to deal with what white people cause. People of color have enough work to do for ourselves — to protect, free, and find joy for our people.
We got us.
Do you have y’all?
If your answer is, “Yes! I want to get started,” scroll down for instructions. If you still need convincing, read on.
People keep telling us not to be so upset over losing an election. Besides the fact that we actually didn’t lose, here’s what you must understand: We’re not sore losers. We are, rather, afraid of history continuing to repeat itself at our expense.
Of course, not everyone who voted for him is actively racist, sexist, or xenophobic. Most people who voted for him were not active Klan members or neo-Nazis, though, lest we forget, the Klan did find their candidate in Donald.
Listening to many Trump voters, they simply wanted change. My friend and brilliant writer Clint Smith described one such encounter — the woman said she wanted someone who would “shake things up.” When pressed about Trump’s dangerous rhetoric, her response? “Sometimes he just doesn’t think before he speaks.”
A vote for Trump may merely have been a vote for change.
But your change is our catastrophe. And your ability to ignore the catastrophe is evidence of blinding privilege.
If he doesn’t think before he speaks, will he think before he acts? Before he institutes national stop and frisk or guts the Affordable Care Act? Before he casts out hard-working people because of their religion or nation of origin? Before he nominates judges who take away my control of my body or before his vice president advocates for conversion therapy?
One needn’t be an active white supremacist to be a danger to us. For years to come, the future will look different for people of color than it does for white people. Ignoring or deprioritizing that basic fact is more dangerous to me than a white hood could ever be.
Chances are if you’re reading this, you didn’t even vote for him. You may even be finally realizing that what marginalized people have been saying for years is true because now you’re in the same boat — or at least realizing you’ve been wading in the same dangerous tide we’ve been swimming against for generations.
But know this: Whether you actively engage in the violent culture of hate or merely step out of the way to give it permission to persist and room to grow, you are complicit.
And white people, you give permission to this culture every day you do nothing more than have “conversations on race.” You don’t get to just have conversations anymore. You don’t get to just wear a safety pin and call yourself an ally. You don’t get to just talk while the rest of us fear for our lives because discrimination, rape culture, and xenophobia just won the White House.
Too often oppressed people are told to exhibit an inordinate amount of grace and patience while white people are “on their journey.” And it’s true: No one is born woke. We all have work to do and we should respect where people are. But as Dr. King reminds us, too often “wait means never,” and your journey may cost someone their citizenship, their religious freedoms, or their lives.
My grace extends to where your responsibility begins. And it is your responsibility to know, see, and urgently help dismantle a supremacy that creates winners and losers through complicated, shrouded rules built on a basic desire to preserve power.
Let’s be clear: White supremacy harms all of us. It strips humanity from its victims and its beneficiaries. You don’t need to intend to perpetuate white supremacy for its impact to be felt. It shows up in the implicit bias of the officer, the teacher, and the shopkeeper. It shows up in the health outcomes for the hood and the educational gaps for the nation. It shows up as hate when children should be too young to feel that way and fear when we’re old enough to know better.
White supremacy is beneath us. It cannot persist if we seek equity and liberation.
And because it benefits you, white people, you have the primary power to crumble it.
So I ask again: What is your plan?
Hopefully by now you’ve been convicted enough to make one. But perhaps you need some places to start:
Learn to observe supremacy
You’ve been excusing Uncle Jim’s racist jokes because he’s old and from another era. You’ve been avoiding wondering whether your boss invited you instead of the more qualified woman of color because you make him more comfortable. You’ve stopped using the phrase “white supremacist” because your editors prefer the more passive, permissive “alt-right” that doesn’t anger white readers.
You haven’t done these things out of malice — because you may not even see them as acts of white dominant culture.
Thus, before you confront supremacy, you must first learn to see it. You know it when someone paints a swastika. But can you see it when it shows up quietly and pervasively throughout culture? Observing the quiet, subversive supremacy is hard when it’s been both natural and convenient for you during the span of your lifetime. Learn about microaggressions — and spend a day counting the ones you see. (For extra credit, ask a friend of color to do the same. Chances are you won’t come up with the same number.) Unpack your invisible privilege knapsack, develop your understanding of your racial identity, and read what it means to wake up white.
Already done this? Great!
But that’s just step one.
Learn to confront supremacy. Become an accomplice — not merely an ally.
In “No More Allies,” Mia McKenzie reminds us of the danger of taking one comfortable step and awarding ourselves the title of ally, then turning right back around and being dangerous. Many of our so-called allies espoused complex, seemingly revolutionary democratic rhetoric on social media all day. But if you chose to opt out of reducing harm and protecting my real life in the name of your abstract political philosophy, you are not my ally. When the “apocalyptic productivity” you advocated or allowed comes, the productivity will protect you while the apocalypse destroys me. You are not creating a safe space for me or other marginalized people.
Keep your safety pin.
The work of freedom is messy, dangerous, and intentionally uncomfortable. Here’s a simple test: If the action step you’re taking isn’t really costing you your comfort, chances are you’re not doing enough.
I can walk past you and see your safety pin, but will you stop, film, and intervene if you see me being pulled over or assaulted? I can listen to your progressive chatter at the water cooler, but are you protecting Planned Parenthood and a woman’s right to choose? You can tell me my life matters on Twitter, but will you show me my life matters when I need you to wait a day asking me for data because the election results have made me physically ill? Or that my queer co-worker matters when their colleagues misgender them? Or that my undocumented students matter when they need real protection?
Getting in the way to protect the vulnerable, building something new that empowers the marginalized, and endangering yourself to shield others are the acts of an accomplice. We need no more allies — we need accomplices.
Become a resource, not an overseer
Many of my friends wrote to me that providing funds, talent, or support to people of color and our organizations would be their immediate next steps. This is an important step that many can take and many organizations will be thankful for, but only if it remains respectful.
I cannot tell you how many offers I’ve received for help that come with a list of commands for exactly how we should do our work. White people who ensure people of color have access to capital we have been historically cut off from can be helpful — but if your offer of support comes with a need to set my agenda, that’s not support; that’s control. And that’s you giving me more of what we’re fighting against.
Still need ideas?
The question I asked my white friends resulted in several dozen responses on and offline. My friend David came up with a starter plan that includes staring down hatred — and vowing to never become desensitized. My friend Justin has upped his urgency organizing white educators to confront supremacy and offers a helpful (and funny) guide to handling supremacy on Thanksgiving. One friend plans to become readmitted to the bar to help fight inevitable deportation cases pro bono, while another pledged to talk to those in his own intersectional community: “I’m going to challenge my white LGBTQ friends more, regardless of who they voted for. We took this for granted, and I’m responsible.” Take a look at even more responses from folks just like you, making a decision about where to start doing white folks’ work.
Nothing I have suggested here is comfortable. That’s because freedom work isn’t comfortable. It requires a daily struggle of difficult choices and exhausting actions. But every moment we choose comfort over the truth, freedom work loses ground. We’ve lost enough ground; we can’t afford anymore. Act or don’t act. Both are a choice, and both have consequences. For the sake of the republic, my people, and our collective humanity, I hope you choose to share your plan and get to work.
Brittany Packnett is an activist, educator, and public thinker from St. Louis. She is co-founder of Campaign Zero, shares the No. 3 spot on Politico’s 2016 list of 50 most influential, and was named Time magazine’s 12 New Faces of Black Leadership. Above all else, she’s proud to be the unapologetic black woman her family raised her to be, and the fellow fighter for justice that this time demands she be.
First Person is Vox's home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at firstname.lastname@example.org.