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For Your Consideration – and Action

I’m offering you a reflection from Michael Boucher, a white man who is highly respected in both the white activist community in Rochester, and among many Black leaders.  He grapples with the challenges to us as white people, the cry to step up, to spend our selves and our privileges in the service of dismantling systemic racism.
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“This is a longer post and aimed at my white friends:
Two things really caught my attention this past week:

One was a repost from Protest Therapist @ihategender (posted by Nanette D. Massey) that said: ‘Too many aspiring white allies think racial justice is about diversity, inclusion and multiculturalism. No, no, no sweetie. This is about overthrowing power that benefits you, disproportionately often exclusively. Are you ready to sacrifice access, entitlement, innocence?’

The other was Tre Johnson’s article in the Washington Post “When black people are in pain, white people just join book clubs”.  In the article I read, “This isn’t the time to circle up with other white people and discuss black pain in the abstract; it’s the time to acknowledge and examine the pain they’ve personally caused. Black people live and die every day under the burdens of a racism more insidious than the current virus that’s also disproportionately killing us. And yet white people tend to take a slow route to meaningful activism, locked in familiar patterns, seemingly uninterested in really advancing progress…. They’ve shared the preordained “amplifying” social media post that just reads “This,” followed by a link to something profound from a black voice.”

The chaos we see now stems in part from the chaos foisted upon us for generations. The injustice we protest isn’t rooted in just police killings; it lives also within housing and school choices; social and professional networks; the defunding of nonwhite organizations; the demotion and firing of black employees; the microaggressions and slights that happen at dinner parties, restaurants, cafes and concerts.

I’d like to think that well-meaning, invested white people are really gathering to talk about books to instruct themselves on how they can do more and do better, but it’s hard to believe that that’s really what most of them are working toward. You’ve had access to instruction about black humanity, freedom, mobility, happiness and health since we were brought here. It stretches as far back as slave songs and Phillis Wheatley poems and carries through Black Lives Matter activism. You’ve had your chance to say “This,” over and over again. Now act.”

As I have watched large masses of white people get more interested in the work of racial equity/activism in the past few weeks, I am haunted by the words above because of how much they ring true. I DO think that more white people are waking up to the racial realities that have existed for hundreds of years in new ways and I do not want to discourage a process that works to draw them in more deeply. I know that my own journey has been one of gradual awakening, and I am not trying to shame anyone for waking up when they do…

Yet I think many white people – myself included- keep trying to do the work in a way that preserves our position. White supremacy and privilege have told us as white people that we can “have it all.” We can have a racially just world and still maintain our position, privilege and status. Yes, we’re willing to “share” it. But we’re not willing to fundamentally give it up (as a collective).

Frederick Douglass might as well be talking to us (as he said to his listeners in 1857 – right here in Canandaigua, NY) about those who “profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation.” Most white people I know want change without significant waves. We want it to come in a way that maintains a status that keeps us comfortable and do all the things we’re used to doing. Yes, we may favor some changes, but we like the system the way it works because it works for us. And even if we may not favor the system, most of us seem to want a slightly more benign version of it that does “less damage” and yet operates under the same basic rules (that we know work for us as white folks).

Week after week at the protests that I have attended in downtown Rochester, I have heard amazing organizers like Iman Abid, Ashley WanderlustHeart Gantt, Stanley Martin and Stevie Vargas and powerful teach-in speakers like Adrian Elim Danielle Dee Ponder keep stressing the fact that something radically different is required – especially from white people. The black community in particular has been in PAIN for centuries (as have been native communities for even longer), and the white power structures have conceded almost nothing because of it. Nothing. In fact white people even developed systems to show how black people did not even feel pain like white people do!

It has only been through agitation and interruption – at the micro or macro level – that change has come and it has always been those most affected by the pain who led the charge.

Agitation and interruption.

I know that those words do not land easily on me, in part, because of how I was raised (to be nice and respectful). But I also know down deep that they do not land easily on me because almost nothing in my experience as a white person wishes to have the system that directly benefits me get agitated or interrupted because it is a system that centers our skin, our ideas, our bodies, our interests, our knowledge base, our ancestors, our way of communicating, our children, our music, our property, our way of loving, our way of organizing ourselves – and the list goes on.

And so when we’re confronted with the idea that we may need to sacrifice access, privilege and entitlement, I think most white people recoil. We want others to have it too, but we don’t want to lose any of ours. We’ll go to protests, even call out family members, but reorganize our neighborhoods? Fundamentally change our schools? Alter policing and justice systems? Change economic systems that by and large benefit us (or already have so we’re a little more open now that we’ve made our money)? Give up private property?

I think we’re deeply conflicted because we want to be good people and yet we also want what we have become accustomed to (which we know requires us not to be good people) and have invested ourselves in. White supremacy lied to us and we bought the lie and built a world around it. White people all knew and have known that people were left out in that system, but we kind of accepted that there would be “collateral damage” I guess and figured it was OK as long as it didn’t impact us that much…but it did and it has.

And so here we are, with a greater number of white people mobilizing and awakening. That’s a good thing. I do think we are seeing more clearly – as white people – that racism has been tearing this nation apart since the days of genocide – and tears something deeply in us if we do not address it. Yet if we’re not doing the spiritual work to make us ready and willing to actually change the power systems that benefit us, we’ll lose steam quickly, retreat into privilege and lament how little changes.

I don’t even know who I am writing this to. Maybe just myself. I know that I need a reminder every day and that’s why I keep going to protests lately – to remember. Yes, we need to study. Yes, we need to learn. Yes, we need to reflect. Those are all actions, and we need other kinds of action as well. Some that will require much more from us. We need to strengthen each other as a collective to take bold moves, keep the heat on and go further than we have gone. It will require us, as Alcoholics Anonymous says, to change “people, places and things, “ ask tough questions of each other, hold elected officials accountable and hold ourselves accountable for shifting power.

And I have found that the ideas emerging from the communities and leaders that have been historically left out of the power systems that benefit me as a white person are the ones that seem to hold the most promise for something different. But these will cost me more in every sense of the word…Or so I think. Maybe white people are finally starting to count the costs of leaving things as they are. And that is too high a price to pay.”

(Full disclosure:  Mike is our son-in-law, married to Lynne Staropoli Boucher.)

Please join us responding, and by defining how specifically you will work to eliminate racism and racist systems in your spheres of influence.  You can “Reply” below.

 

24 thoughts on “For Your Consideration – and Action”

  1. This is what really resonates with me from Mike’s post:

    “Yet if we’re not doing the spiritual work to make us ready and willing to actually change the power systems that benefit us, we’ll lose steam quickly, retreat into privilege and lament how little changes.”

    Mike’s post gives me a lot to think about. But what I’m really seeking now are concrete ways for me to act. Thanks, Frank, for sharing this.

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      1. I, too, have been thinking about Mike’s reflection.
        Upon a reread, here is part of what he said that was somewhat humbling (jolting?) for me to explore:
        And so when we’re confronted with the idea that we may need to sacrifice access, privilege and entitlement, I think most white people recoil. We want others to have it too, but we don’t want to lose any of ours. We’ll go to protests, even call out family members, but reorganize our neighborhoods? Fundamentally change our schools? Alter policing and justice systems? Change economic systems that by and large benefit us (or already have so we’re a little more open now that we’ve made our money)? Give up private property?

        This is uncomfortable to consider because it’s embarrassing, at best, to admit that I’m comfortable with my comfort! But, something else to further reflect on…most folks, myself included, are willing to open their hearts, neighborhoods,and wallets to help with what WE deem as improvement for the lives of nonwhites. But, if we’re always doing so on our terms, coming from our perspectives of what WE value,..then, are we subconsciously being arrogant by saying “Live like us” . It is interesting to note Mike chose the verb “reorganize” our neighborhoods rather than “welcome” or “expand”. His action word involves a more personal radical change on the part of white people.

        Jane’s reiteration of his thinking that the spiritual work is so important. True self/societal reflection can be almost scary at times….but, it’s so important.

        Thank you for this forum to explore these ideas in a safe environment.

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      2. Re: Mike’s comment on doing the necessary spirituality work in order to advance our actions against systemic racism, may I suggest taking the JustFaith program on Engaging Spirituality?? Doing either social justice work in isolation or just practicing spirituality apart from the other half of the pair is burnout for the one and lack of engagement in the Lord’s work for the other. Seeing many Catholics step outside of the church doors to be the hands, feet, eyes, ears and smiles for the Lord is a wonderful invitation to become engaged in what really matters. Most are already engaged spiritually. It’s the connection of the two that brings us to life and really makes the difference.

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  2. this is heavy stuff and difficult to read. I feel I have long way to go in fully understanding our black/brown brothers and sisters. I am working on understanding-joinned UCLM Need to read more

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  3. Can I share this on Facebook page?

    Hi Mr Starpoli. Read your son in laws words. Thank you for sharing on your blog. Our family, the Vargas family, is mixed status and mixed race. My two younger kids are both Mexican and White (the reality of my white ancestry is mixed German/Irish/English early settler and Native American). We all know love and try everyday. Mikes words are well received. Thank you. Karen Blood-Vargas

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  4. Jane and I have changed how we share our wealth and talent now and over time. We do this at the individual and organization levels. Our White Privileges are huge and we will help to make change happen.

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  5. As I have come to know him to be, Mike is spot on. Part of our white, privileged position is that we get to make a choice over whether we want to and have the courage to give up a “piece of the pie” or not. The very fact that we get to think on that and make choices is one of the core fundamentals of white privilege that far too many whites do not comprehend. At the end of the day, having a choice is an illusion and there truly is really only one direction to take if indeed “…liberty and justice for all…” is something we whites, both as individuals and collectively, truly want to get on board and help drive to fruition.

    The following is a link to a web page for an organization called “Network in Solidarity for the People of Guatemala” (NISGUA. My nephew who now lives in Guatemala, was initially drawn there to be part of NISGUA’s program called “Guatemala Accompaniment Project” (GAP) for which there is a link part way down on the right. My purpose for sharing this is to obtain input from those who wish to provide it on the virtue of a similar program here in the US in solidarity with blacks. https://nisgua.org/

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  6. I have always thought that skin color was the least reliable vehicle for assessing character. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words in his March on Washington speech in 1963 states that “people should be judged on the content of their character not the color of their skin.” Take away skin color and what do you have left?? As Scout Finch says in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Just folks.”

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    1. Thanks Anne. You might want to look up the current perspective on “To Kill a Mockingbird”, though. Like “Gone with the Wind,” which was even more blatant, it’s loaded with racist overtones, including the hero white man saving the hapless Negro.

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      1. I taught Mockingbird for most of the 17 years I taught high school English. Just like Twain’s Huck Finn, it has and will be subject to critical judgement..not all of it positive..and this is a good thing in my opinion. I find it interesting that it was judged the #1 book out of 100 in the America Reads contest on PBS 2 years ago. It is read by most American teens in 8th, 9th or 10th grades. While there is good reason for some of the criticism, I still feel that it is a book which introduces the devastating consequences of racism to young people in a way they can identify without the brutality they can pursue on their own in their own reading if they wish to pursue the subject of racism. Hopefully with the BLM movement going on right now, there will be even more interest in this kind of research by young people. BTW: Atticus Finch, while considered heroic by many readers, is also a flawed character in that he too has prejudices.Chapters 9-16 in the book carefully examine the prejudices of white as well as black people in the novel. I would be happy to give a presentation of this novel if anyone is interested. It is, in my opinion, a masterpiece for its handling of the subject of prejudice.

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  7. Hi Frank. Feminists Choosing Life of NY has what is called a Sunday Salon….these are named after Victorian Era gatherings in parlors to discuss politics, culture and religion. FCLNY has done these for about 16 years. They are intimate gatherings usually in people’s home (no more than 8 people) over wine and cheese. Because of our intersectional mission, connecting all publicly sanctioned violence, these often have centered around abortion, but other issues as well. We try to have equal numbers of opposing points of view. I am wondering if you (and perhaps Michael, your [terrific] son-in-law) would come to a Sunday Salon (which by the way are rarely held on Sundays.) Carol

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    1. Carol Crossed has introduced this blog to me and I would love to join this dialogue. I had the privilege of knowing Mike and Lynn many years ago when she was at St. Louis Church….saw them last year at a concert!
      I read Mike’s article and it gave me much to think about. His comment about white women joining book clubs is spot on and, yes, I’m one of them! I’ve been at BLM rallies and have participated in interdenominational church efforts to end gun violence, among other things. I believe there is so much common ground that we can work together on and I think that’s a good place to start.
      One thing I’ve struggled with in my reflection on all of this is wondering if in wanting to “help”…am i just saying….”be like me.” And, yes, Mike is correct that for radical change to occur….white people will need to do more than donate money and sponsor book drives for the city schools. It’s very uncomfortable for me to reflect on these things.
      I am starting to read the book (not for book club!) White Fragility. I have been told it is a difficult read so that is my challenge for now. Thank you for the opportunity to dialogue.
      Peace!

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      1. Welcome Meg. White Fragility is a good start. The fact that it might be uncomfortable is exactly the point. We need to move into action despite discomfort. And your suspicions about “helping” are also well-founded. So welcome.

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  8. A lot to reflect on. I have been doing the reading for over 2 years, and where am I? Ready to rally, except for the pandemic and my older age. Writing to legislators. Yes. Getting other white folks to read White Fragility, have done some. Paying towards tuitions for black children….
    I will be marching for NY Health with Metro Justice in Rochester… but I know there’s more. I will have to keep my cool with people who say they are not interested, or the history disturbs their sleep (Gotta listen and love them!?) I am now listening to all WXXI programs on Black History which is new to me. And still thinking about Action!

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