The Role of White Co-Conspirators in Dismantling Systemic Racism

Written by Andrew Greenia
Edited by Daisy Han

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

This statement from Lilla Watson and other Aboriginal rights activists from Queensland, Australia (1970s) is a powerful provocation to examine how we individually and collectively approach social justice work. When it comes to dismantling white supremacy, the pursuit of collective liberation rests on knowing that while People of Color are the targets of this oppressive system, white people - like myself - are also infected by false internalized notions of superiority. Thus, white people who are striving to be co-conspirators in racial justice work must not only be allies who recognize the impact of racism on People of Color, but also active agents of change that realize their own stake in eradicating white supremacy.

Still, even with this understanding of bound liberation, social justice work necessitates being in partnership with and yielding to the leadership of People of Color through solidarity, accountability, and dialogue. As I engage in racial justice work, I frequently encounter a dilemma where white people center whiteness by continually directing attention to their own experiences or minimizing the contributions of People of Color, even as we seek to decenter whiteness. By centering our own involvement and obscuring the voices of People of Color, white people often approach social justice work in ways that mirror the histories of colonialism and domination that anti-racist work seeks to subvert. Does this mean that white people do not have a role to play in dismantling systems of oppression? No. But, the ways in which we approach this work is critical.

   Andrew Greenia & his family

Andrew Greenia & his family

For example, if I, as a white person, am operating from a place of guilt, as reflected in the “Disintegration” status of Helms’ (1995) White Racial Identity Model, then a single-minded devotion to shedding my whiteness can supplant my commitment to investigating my internalized superiority. Being a white co-conspirator means understanding that the work of undoing racism is not about you, and it involves you.

When Audre Lorde (1984) said, “The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house,” she illustrated how strategies to dismantle racism require a resistance to white supremacy culture and an imagination for new ways of being in the world. At Embracing Equity we uphold the definition of racism from Dr. Beverly Tatum as “a system of advantage based on race, where white people are advantaged and People of Color are disadvantaged.” Given this definition, and operating on the fact that we live in a racist society, People of Color often must navigate the defensive moves that white people make when our racist actions and beliefs are challenged.

Coined by Dr. Robin DiAngelo, “white fragility” is characterized by emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and by behaviors including argumentation and silence. These behaviors effectively serve to reinstate white racial equilibrium, prevent any meaningful cross-racial dialogue, and actually serve to protect racial inequality. Therefore, white co-conspirators need to identify and interrogate the ways in which we seek to preserve our comfort and center our own whiteness.

Because racism is embedded within four interlocking forms of oppression – internal, interpersonal, institutional, ideological – white people must unlearn the belief that white supremacy exists only in interpersonal, explicit actions. Instead, we must operate within the understanding that we cannot opt-out of being beneficiaries of white supremacy given its pervasiveness in systemically coded or implicit means. How then do white people approach working in solidarity with People of Color to dismantle white supremacy?

   Andrew Greenia questioning what it means “2b WHITE”

Andrew Greenia questioning what it means “2b WHITE”

Here are three principles that we at Embracing Equity would like to invite white co-conspirators to use in their practice:

(1) Doing Our Own Work

While engaging in dialogue across race is crucial for my learning as a white person, expecting People of Color to be solely responsible for my learning is burdensome, laborious, and ultimately an extension of my white privilege. This does not mean that listening to People of Color is not an important piece of white racial identity development; and, it does mean that we should not expect to learn from every Person of Color all the time. (Note: If a white person is seeking to initiate a conversation in which a Person of Color is being asked to give of their self to benefit a white person’s learning, I would encourage white people to seek consent before beginning the conversation, which means those involved agree to an action based on their knowledge of what that action involves and its possible consequences and also have the option of saying “no.”) Therefore, this means we must utilize praxis through processes of reflection and action by consuming books, articles, and other media, especially those produced by People of Color. This also includes establishing reflective practices such as journaling, breathing exercises, and therapy in order to investigate one’s racial biases and embrace wholeness in response to the dehumanization furthered by systems of oppression.

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In doing so, here are some kinds of questions we encourage white people to reflect on as they engage in social justice work:

  • What is at stake for you in dismantling white supremacy?

  • Who are your people? To what communities do you belong?

  • What continues to be true in the world if you are not actively involved in dismantling white supremacy? What injustice does your complicity perpetuate?

  • When choosing to not challenge white supremacy, what hidden commitments do your actions reflect?

  • How is your work accountable to People of Color? Are these lines of accountability explicit? If not, how will you establish accountability?

  • Did a Person of Color ask you to get involved in the anti-racist work you’re doing? If not, how is what this person is asking of you accountable to People of Color?

  • Are you using materials developed by People of Color in your work? If so, are you giving credit to whomever created these materials?

  • How are you expressing your personal understanding of white privilege and white fragility given your lived experience as a white person? If not, what characteristics of white supremacy culture are present in preventing you from doing so?

  • How are you elevating People of Color’s understanding of white privilege and white fragility in ways that white people are unable to given their lived experience? Are you acknowledging this explicitly? If not, how will you?

(2) Building Relational Trust

The pervasiveness of white supremacy culture can lead to the tendency for white people to develop transactional relationships with People of Color instead of relationships of reciprocity. This leads to the value of relationships being reduced to what they produce rather than placing inherent value on the process of building relationships.

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At the heart of relational trust is relationships rooted in elements of empathy, dialogue, gratitude and accountability. These relationships value intellect and emotions (“I think” / “I feel”), curiosity (“I notice” / “I wonder”), and collaboration (“both/and”). Some examples of building relational trust include storytelling, inviting and providing both critical and complimentary feedback on a regular basis, and explicitly naming power dynamics and racial oppression to demonstrate awareness and understanding. In the absence of relational trust, white people are unable to engage in community building that challenges our comfort and white fragility.

(3) Developing a ‘Positional Practice’

Also known as the “get your people” principle, this principle insists that white co-conspirators recognize how their positionality informs their role in anti-racist work. I refer to this as a “positional practice,” which considers one’s own intersectional identities in relation to those with which they are working in partnership in order to inform role and responsibility.

This practice translates to a white person’s ability to take action in ways including a) leveraging the privilege resulting from their group membership, b) centering the leadership of People of Color, and c) recognizing the compounding dynamic of People of Color’s labor in social justice work given their daily navigation of oppressive systems. Some examples of a positional practice include interrupting microaggressions, disrupting “locker room talk” in homogeneous environments, holding space for other white people in the early stages of their racial identity development, or thoughtfully assigning particular parts of a collaborative project in regard to the content or labor involved. (Note: This principle is only effective when relational trust is present as these actions are never to be at people of color, but instead in solidarity of and with People of Color.)

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Being a white co-conspirator means being in constant, consistent action. Identities such as “ally” or “white co-conspirator” are neither static nor self-ascribed; rather, these words ought to be seen as verbs that only describe one’s identity to the extent to which People of Color experience them as true. If you are a white person looking to put these principles into practice and deepen your capacity to engage in racial justice work, I would strongly encourage you to consider signing up for Embracing Equity’s online cohort-based learning or in-person workshops here. We have also been developing curriculum for “Embracing Identity” that is specific to raising white consciousness. This guided process of critical reflection and community building are an essential step in cultivating an identity as a white co-conspirator.

As I continue navigating my own role as a white cis man in racial justice work, I am humbled to be invited to work alongside and learn from such dynamic Leaders of Color at Embracing Equity as Daisy Han (CEO) and Britt Hawthorne (Director of Communications). Through facilitating online cohort-based learning and in-person workshops I hope to continue building on this organization’s potential for supporting leaders in their racial identity development and modeling how multiracial organizations can thrive when intentionally working across difference.