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Dear White Liberals

I was 18 the first time someone called me racist. I was sitting at a table in my first year college dining hall, and she said, “You are racist. I am racist. We are all racist.”

I don’t remember what the conversation was about before this, but I took this statement as a personal affront. I knew I wasn’t racist. I won the “flaming liberal” award in my high school. I went to protests. I supported Democrats. Indignant and feeling the need to distance myself from anything resembling a racist, I told her: “I’m not racist. There’s a big difference between me and the KKK.”

Clearly, I just didn’t get it.

Several years and multiple metaphorical slaps in the face later, I finally began to understand what that college kid meant. She wasn’t assaulting my personality or identity. Instead, she was making the point that racism is so deeply ingrained in so many institutions in our society that it’s pretty much impossible to exist within it without developing racial biases. These biases, in turn, lead us to do and say things, often unwittingly, that buttress the existing system which benefits some while disadvantaging others.

This concept is not new, but it has gained prominence in our collective consciousness in recent years as our country has engaged in a renewed racial reckoning in response to several high profile police murders of Black individuals, over-policing incidents, and attacks on “Critical Race Theory”. The definition of racism has moved away from a focus on the individual, where one person holds beliefs or prejudices against others based on their race, to a systemic one that considers the policies, practices, and institutions that uphold the status quo. In light of this definition, “being racist” moves away from casting judgment on an individual, towards understanding how someone’s words or actions can uphold existing racist ideas or systems.

This isn’t the first time white liberals have been called out as a barrier to progress. In April, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King raised the alarm while sitting in a Birmingham jail cell warning that “the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.” He goes on to explain that the white moderate is more focused on “the absence of tension” than “the presence of justice.”

While it is hard to imagine our friends and neighbors being more dangerous than the KKK, as King points out, the impact of inaction in the face of racial injustice can be even more insidious than acts of overt racism. Despite the well established racial disparities in almost all aspects of our society–education, employment, income and wealth, housing, healthcare, representation in government, arrests and incarceration–many people still deny the existence of systemic racism, absolving themselves of the need to address it. Further, even among those who agree that there is a problem, few are willing to take meaningful action to lead to change, especially if that change might disrupt the current system which is working well for them.

A useful idea has emerged that posits that being “not racist” (i.e., I am nice to everyone and think everyone should be treated equally) is no longer enough. It is akin to doing nothing, to being complicit in maintaining a system that benefits some people and continues to harm others. Instead, we must be antiracist, collectively acknowledging the harm that existing policies and practices cause and actively working to change them. History has demonstrated that without this type of dedicated effort to work towards change, we will continue to live in an unfair and unequal society.

I’m still a bit embarrassed by my reaction 30+ years ago, and that is appropriate. We need to be able to hold a mirror to ourselves and acknowledge our shortcomings. But that embarrassment from my reaction then should not stop me from doing the work now. At that time, me saying “I’m not racist” simply meant that I had not yet learned about and had yet to understand the nature of systemic racism. Nor had I started the process of examining my own biases, understanding where they were coming from, and actively engaging in unlearning those ideas.

I didn’t know better. That’s ok. This stuff is hard and complicated. But what is not okay is putting our heads in the sand and pretending that racism will simply go away if we ignore it. Instead, we need to equip ourselves with the knowledge and intention to do better. As Maya Angelou famously said, “Do the best you can do until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

I am trying to do better; the road is long and there is always more to learn. I hope my fellow white liberals will join me on this journey.

Laura Towvim, Newton Upstanders Core Team


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