An incomplete guide to social justice work for the privileged.

I’ve seen a lot of people asking on social media, “But what do I do about Ferguson?” I wrote this incomplete guide to how people with privilege can “do” social justice. Not because I think I have all the answers, or because I think I can tell people what to do, but because I have been there looking around at the shit we’re all mired in and wondering what I can do.

I owe a major debt of gratitude to many people for shaping my thinking on this issue. I’ve done a lot of shutting up and listening, especially to women of color: Sydette, Trudy, Mikki Kendall, and Lauren Chief Elk (to name just a few). I still do a lot of shutting up and listening, because that’s my job as an ally. (And for the sake of this argument, my complicated racial background is unimportant. If you’re reading this and white, just pretend I’m one of you.)

1. Don’t co-opt the movement for your own. There will come a moment (or many) where you are hurting and angry, scared for what is and what might be. And you will want that to be heard. Go to your own spaces for that. Go to your friends, go to your journals. But do not grab the very people whose pain you are feeling and empathizing with and demand they comfort you.

2. Consciously reject inequality. Do not live in “gentrified” neighborhoods, whitewashed clean of their histories. Do not support businesses that only seek white dollars, or upper class dollars, or male dollars. Do not use facilities that are de-facto “white only” even if they mask it by talking about income or residency.

3. Stop seeing silence as an ally or tool of comfort. When you hear someone talk about “people like that,” challenge them. Ask provocative and leading questions designed to make them uncomfortable with their prejudice.

4. Protest unfair legislation. Refuse to show your ID when you vote. Be a counter-voice to those who try to criminalize homelessness and indigence. Speak out against the felonization of non-violent drug offenses. Put your white body between the machine intent on criminalizing blackness and those it would destroy.

5. Work to abolish the death penalty. Understand that it is a form of psychological torture that is routinely and systemically used to punish and control people of color. Absorb and truly understand that it deters nothing, but allows many things.

6. Found, fund, or volunteer for organizations working to dismantle militarized police forces. If a community organization already exists, volunteer for it. If not, seek community leaders who can help and build something together. Remove your ego from the process, this isn’t about awards and reognition.

7. Bear witness. Use the platforms you have access to to make the world unable to deny racist violence. Do not strip the original authors from these records. Prioritize the stories of people of color and do not editorialize on them. Resist the urge, though you may find it difficult, to diminish the story by attempting to compare it to your life. As a white person the violence you suffer will never be systemically based on nothing more than the color of your skin.

8. Sit with discomfort. Learn not to need reassurance that you are a special snowflake without whom the movement would cease to be. Understand that people react to hurt with anger, but that it is bigger than you. It is not about you. Let go of expectations of comfort. Do not remain in space that is unsafe for you, but learn to tell the difference between unsafe and uncomfortable, and do not abandon the work simply because it is hard.

9. Work against intertwined injustices. Anti-racist work for whites must come with feminist work, with anti-poverty work, with reproductive rights work, with all social justice work. But these things must also come with anti-racist work. A feminism that prioritizes only the needs of upper-class white women is not a liberation. Freedom can never be bought on the back of other people.

10. Stop supporting retributive justice, start supporting restorative justice. Even with your kids. Especially with your kids. Somewhere we decided, societally, that what we should do to people who hurt others is hurt them back. That’s not fucking justice, it’s revenge, and we’ve modeled basically our whole penal system on that premise. Fight it.

11. Support each other. The road is long and hard and you will not make it to the end alone. Support each other in doing the work. When other white people ask what they can do, reach out and bring them in. Teach and nurture them instead of expecting people of color to educate and inform. Carry them through their hard times, and let them carry you.

You may find as you work through this list that you are angry, sad, hurt, and scared. You will start surprised at the amount of violence around you, the amount of violence enacted on those who have less privilege than you. That surprise is also a privilege. Do not take solace in it. Do not use shock to hide from the realities of the things privilege does to protect itself. And understand that when you begin this work…privilege will turn on you, in the name of “protection.”


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