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How can white people combat racism? (Hint: It takes more than social media posts)

Do some supportive posts — like solid black images with the hashtag #blackouttuesday — do more harm than good?

Protesters gather during a demonstration in Parliament Square in London on Wednesday, June 3, 2020, over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. Protests have taken place across America and internationally, after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck while the handcuffed black man called out that he couldn’t breathe. The officer, Derek Chauvin, has been fired and charged with murder.
Matt Dunham, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — In reaction to the killing of George Floyd and the ensuing protests of police brutality and racial discrimination, social media has been flooded over the past week and a half with posts by individuals expressing disdain for inequality and support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

While many non-black people, including celebrities, have struggled to find the right thing to say in their responses and grappled with criticism from the black community and other supporters, black educators like Anthony Hazard, an associate professor in the Ethnic Studies Department at Santa Clara University, say people should not be focusing on how social media posts affect their public image, but rather on the cause itself.

“White folks might pause and consider that any pressure they might be feeling to speak out pales in comparison to the actual violence and death being experienced by black people right now and throughout history,” Hazard said. “Just listening to black people is a show of enormous support. But what should also occur is making an effort to read widely, to think through what race is, how it’s been constructed over time in the North American context and how it continues to work as a system of power.”

Trying to call for unity on Saturday, Ellen Degeneres posted a since-deleted tweet that said, “People of color in this country have faced injustice for far too long. For things to change, things must change.” Twitter-users criticized her for being too vague and for using the broader term “people of color,” when the current movement is focused on black people.

Also over the weekend, celebrities like Kendall Jenner and Cara Delevingne tagged a long list of fellow famous people in a Black Lives Matter Instagram chain as a way of bringing attention to the movement. But some fans called the stories “useless” and “tone-deaf.”

On Tuesday, influencers debated whether solid black images accompanied by the hashtag #blackouttuesday potentially did more harm than good by clogging up important information channels. Still, thousands participated in the virtual moment of silence and break from sharing personal content, inspired by music executives Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang.

Jonathan Jackson, executive director of the Community Access, Recruitment, & Engagement Research Center at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, said those who receive feedback on a post shouldn’t take it personally, but should rather accept it as a learning experience.

“Many of us who want to do better or do something positive, are being pressured to say something, but gosh, we don’t want to say the wrong thing,” said Jackson, who is black. “There is an implied pressure to get it right, to be perfect and not make any mistakes, and that’s where you go wrong.”

In any case, he said, it’s not possible to get it exactly right.

“The journey to learning another person’s perspective, especially when that person or population or community is disenfranchised, marginalized or oppressed, is a lifelong journey. Nobody’s good at it.”

Jackson’s advice for people who feel like they don’t know what to say or do is to start with Google, study the history of racial injustice and read articles and books written by black people.

“I do hope that people do some reading and they feel really uncomfortable and maybe they continue to feel like they don’t know what to say,” said Jackson. “Because that will encourage them to listen.”

Acknowledge the suffering

Many non-black people have attempted to express hope and positivity in this time of turmoil with happy images and platitudes about peace and equality. But in the face of immense suffering, people like Lisa Evans Dame feel these posts are dismissive.

Dame, who is white, lives in Sandy and does nonprofit work, was bothered by a post from a friend that quoted Martin Luther King Jr. saying, “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend” in trendy blue and black lettering.

“It minimizes the hurt being felt by the black community in my opinion,” Dame said. “Martin Luther King Jr. had many other speeches and messages that were stronger, but they make white people uncomfortable.”

Dame said a lot of messages on social media make the poster feel good, but don’t accomplish much. Her way of trying to be part of the solution was to share a link to a petition for a police reform bill.

Trish Burke-Williams, an adviser at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio, said posts professing peace and harmony are examples of redirection. Like comments that “not all cops are bad,” or “all lives matter,” these messages miss the point and fail to acknowledge the entrenched problems of racial discrimination and police brutality, said Burke-Williams, who is black.

But saying something overly optimistic, or wrong, is better than saying nothing at all — if a person is open to feedback, Burke-Williams said.

“Just because it’s hard and you don’t know the right way to say it, doesn’t mean you don’t acknowledge what’s going on,” Burke-Williams said. “All you have to do is say, I see it, I hear it.”

Additionally, posters should prepare for a conversation, because not all black people see things the same way, Burke-Williams said.

“My viewpoint doesn’t represent anyone else’s but mine. It’s not a general black viewpoint, but my personal experience and personal lens,” said Burke-Williams. “If someone comes back at you, don’t take it personally. I might be OK with you saying something, but someone else might not.”

Increase learning

On Saturday, author and teacher Layla F. Saad posted a strong message on Instagram, “Stay out of our DMs.”

She explained that black people like her are burdened by white people who repeatedly ask them to explain racism and tell them what they can do to help “as if we are human versions of Google.com.”

“We are tired. We are scared. We are grieving. We are pissed off. And we do not owe you anything,” Saad explained in her post. “Take your well-meaning, well-intentioned selves to the resources we’ve already created and do the work there.”

On the surface, this message may seem to counter advice from those like Jeanetta Williams, president of the NAACP Salt Lake Branch, who said, “People need to have more open dialogue with people who don’t look like them.”

Jackson explained that non-black people can learn from and listen to black voices without creating emotional labor for them in a time of grief. It’s not appropriate to bombard black acquaintances with questions right now. In reaching out to show support for black friends, non-black people need to check their motives and be sure that they are not doing it for their own benefit, Jackson added.

White people and others can read centuries of content written by black people. In addition, they can engage with those who have already volunteered to speak on the subject, said Jackson.

“Just because someone has brown skin, that does not mean their life experiences are obligated to you,” Jackson said. “When we say listen to black people and their voices, we mean listen to the voices of those black people who have volunteered to offer the public their expertise.”

If a person’s social circle is not diverse, Williams suggests they get out and get involved in community events. Attending a demonstration or volunteering to help register people to vote are ways to authentically connect with people of different ethnic backgrounds. If you are a white person who tries to strike up a conversation about current events with a black person at the post office or grocery store, respect that person’s boundaries and don’t be offended if they don’t want to talk, Williams said.

What really helps

“To be part of the solution white folks must engage in the labor of educating themselves and white people in their lives, and taking action,” said Hazard.

Hazard recommends reading books like “White Fragility: Why It’s so Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” by Robin DiAngelo, andThe History of White People,” by Nell Irvin Painter. The Atlantic and The New York Times have also published anti-racist reading lists.

Jackson says the No. 1 thing he recommends is that white people talk to other white people about racism.

“If there is a sense of frustration, a sense of hopelessness, a sense that the problem is too overwhelming, and you don’t know what to do, then congratulations. You’ve just spent five seconds feeling like a black person,” Jackson said.

Finally, there are ways non-black people can act now. Williams said that for $30, anyone can become a member of the NAACP. People can also choose to contribute to the organization’s scholarship fund. Others may choose to support social justice organizations, donate to legal funds or relief efforts, join a protest or contact legislators.

“True support comes from a place of honesty, and decentering oneself,” said Hazard. “Center black people and try to embrace what they are feeling.”