Appreciation and Accountability
Statement of Appreciation and Accountability
As a white man, trying to be a strong ally to people of color in the struggle against racism — and to free myself from the system of white supremacy that I believe compromises the humanity of us all — I am especially grateful to those mentors and inspirational figures who have played such an important role in my life, and have made my journey thus far possible.
These include activists and community organizers, educators (both formal and informal), writers, artists, and just average everyday folks. All of them have taught me, guided me, and struggled with me as I have sought to become a more effective advocate for justice, a better writer, a more thorough critic of white supremacy, and someone capable of acting in real solidarity with those who are the targets of systemic injustice every day. Most of those who have taught and inspired me have been folks of color, reaching back to my childhood. Others have been white antiracist allies who I have met along the way. They include persons I am fortunate enough to call my friends, and others whom I’ve never met, but whose writing and work throughout the years have served as a source of strength and insight for me and so many others.
First and foremost, I wish to thank my dear friends at the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. Introduced to the Institute while I was living in New Orleans, it was because of their analytical framework, their personal kindness, their genuine regard for whites struggling to undo white supremacy in ourselves and society, and their never-wavering commitment in the face of injustice, that I came to see the possibilities for real social change. Ron Chisom, Diana Dunn, Barbara Major, Marjorie Freeman and David Billings (and these are just a few of my Institute friends, but they were specifically the persons with whom I had the most contact back in the day), have made an indelible contribution to my life and to my work. As time marches on, and no matter what attention I receive for my contributions to the struggle, I hope that others will always understand that none of us stand on our own in this work. We all stand on the shoulders of others. And without the shoulders of the giants at the People’s Institute, I would hardly be able to stand at all. I only hope that I will do justice to their vision, and that I can honor their work by way of my own.
I also wish to recognize the example of the brave men and women of SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), whose work played such a prominent role in breaking the back of formal apartheid in the United States, and shows us the way forward as we seek to address its less-formal but all too real manifestations today. Growing up in Nashville, one of a few “Ground Zeros” for the birth of the student movement, I have long been inspired and reinvigorated by their efforts. Over the years, I have come to count several former SNCC activists as friends — both folks of color and white allies — and have drawn insights from their words, advice and example.
Finally, I have to acknowledge the towering literary and analytical contributions of James Baldwin, to my own understanding of racism. Baldwin’s genius, his linguistic elegance, and his crystal clear analysis of how racism and white supremacy compromise the humanity of all persons, white and of color, have proved unmatched by any other writer or commentator before his birth or since his passing. Though a fierce critic of American society, often viewed as bitter by those with less vision, Baldwin was, in fact, fervently of the belief that we could do better, be better, and “achieve our country,” in deed rather than just word. Far from cynical, Baldwin believed in redemption, if not in a next life, certainly in this one. But only if we worked for it, only if we committed to becoming fully human, rather than trapped by our social conditioning and racial categories. I cannot read or re-read Baldwin enough, and I think his words rank among the most important that any aspiring antiracist, white or of color, could possibly digest as we engage in this struggle.
Thanks to my connections with the People’s Institute, I have long been engaged in a dialogue with others (and with myself, internally), about the concept of antiracist accountability. What does it mean? What does it look like, generally, and for me specifically? How can we/I maximize the extent to which we are accountable to others, especially those who may be impacted, for good or bad, by our work? Though there are no definitive or “right” responses to these questions, they are important to ask, and important to answer, however imperfect or incomplete those answers may be.
Accountability, in an antiracist context, means engaging in “the work” (whatever that work might be, from organizing to educating to providing some social service, to parenting, as just a few examples) in a way that is responsive to the needs and concerns of people of color, communities of color, and their interest in the eradication of white supremacy. It also means being responsive to the needs and concerns of other whites with whom we may be struggling or working. In all, accountability is about openness, and about “checking in” with others whose insights on your antiracist efforts may be more incisive than your own. It’s about taking constructive criticism seriously, integrating insights provided by others into your own work, and following the lead, direction, and advice of those who have the most to lose from antiracism work done badly: namely, people of color.
Obviously, accountability can never be perfect. For one thing, there are many different individuals, organizations and communities of color, and they will not always agree as to the direction in which antiracist work should go, let alone how white antiracist allies should engage in the struggle. But by listening to as many different voices as possible on these matters, and by forging real relationship with individuals, organizations and communities of color, it becomes easier to know whose voices are themselves rooted in structures of accountability, and thus, especially important to heed. Accountability should never be an excuse for inaction or paralysis — so, in other words, it is not a matter of vetting every action one takes through a committee of some sort before taking a stand or engaging in antiracist efforts — but it does mean being prepared to acknowledge when you screw up, apologize for mistakes, and commit to doing better next time.
For me, I have at least two separate lines of accountability to consider. First, as a writer, I feel it necessary to do a few specific things so as to ground my literary efforts in structures of responsiveness. I must write not only “my truth” (which is the first job, and frankly, compulsion, of any writer or artist), but do so in a way that:
1) Reinforces the words and work of people of color;
2) Gives credit where credit is due to those persons of color who have, in a given instance, provided key insights made visible in my work;
3) Steers readers to the works of people of color and encourages them to continually go deeper in their own analysis of racism, and
4) Is most likely to produce the kind of effect needed to build more allies, rather than provoke greater hostility to antiracist efforts.
Furthermore, I feel it critical to always leave my writing open to change and re-direction when concerns are raised by persons of color or other white allies, as to the helpfulness, tone, focus, or content of my writing. In the past, for instance, I have made changes in several essays — and indeed, completely re-wrote my first book, White Like Me — to address concerns raised by other antiracist activists and educators about their content.
As a public speaker and educator, I also strive to be accountable and to root my efforts in structures of responsiveness. First, I listen to the concerns raised by individuals, organizations, and communities of color as to the issues they feel are most pressing, and most in need of being addressed, and seek to make those concerns my own. Second, I then seek accountability to other white allies (and whites generally) by taking those concerns and developing an analysis that can be shared, which examines the flipside of oppression: namely white privilege and how it operates and implicates us in that system.
Because people of color are understandably focused on combatting racism as a first-order survival issue, it is somewhat impractical to expect educators of color to focus substantially on the ways that white supremacy also injures whites, and surely not to give this the same amount of attention as is given to racism’s impact on people of color. In an attempt to be accountable to persons of color engaged in this struggle, I feel it is my role (and the role of other whites) to speak to this matter, so that people of color can concentrate their antiracist leadership and efforts on those matters that most directly impact them and their communities. In this, I am trying to follow the advice and direction offered to white activists by many persons of color down through the years, from Malcolm X (near the end of his life), to black and brown SNCC activists in the late 1960s, to activists and educators of color whom I meet every week around the country.
Accountability as a public educator also means promoting the work of organizations led by people of color, and white ally efforts as well. For me, I try and connect whenever possible to grass-roots organizations in the communities to which I travel, and arrange for them to have a presence at my speeches, to promote their work and to speak to those who attend the event about their local efforts.
As I strive to be increasingly accountable to others in this work, I welcome feedback, insights, advice, criticism and direction from others. I may not always agree with this feedback — and accountability does not require that I do so, nor relinquish my own judgment to the judgment of others — but I will always listen to it, and seek to grow from it.