Me and White Supremacy, by Layla F. Saad

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This is one of the most recommended books for beginning one’s work on antiracism, so I worked through it in June. The book’s content was originally written as a 28-day Instagram challenge, and is thus brief with each chapter being only a few pages. The chapters are all structured similarly, first describing an aspect of white supremacy, then listing ways in which that aspect shows up, explaining why white readers need to look at that aspect, and ending with journaling prompts for the reader to reflect on how that aspect shows up in their own lives.

What is valuable (and challenging!) about this book is how it identifies the different aspects of cultural white supremacy and shows how they interact with each other to form a nearly impenetrable barrier for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). In the first week, Saad covers White Privilege, White Fragility, Tone Policing, White Silence, White Superiority, and White Exceptionalism. Because white people tend to be fragile and uncomfortable about confronting their own privilege, and because white people put their own emotional needs above others, no conversation about race can occur (as well described in this article by Robin DiAngelo on “11 ways white America avoids taking responsibility for its racism”). If we can’t even talk about it, we certainly can’t do anything about it. As she puts it in a later chapter on Color Blindness,

“So often, white people see themselves as “raceless” or “normal”, with everyone else being a race or being other, that they fail to investigate how the idea of color blindness protects them from having to reflect on what it means to be white in a white supremacist society. When you refuse to look at color, you refuse to look at yourself as a person with white privilege.”

The third week’s content around Allyship was especially challenging for me, with its chapters on White Apathy, White Centering, Tokenism, White Saviorism, Optical Allyship, and Being Called Out/In. I uncomfortably resonated with Saad’s statement that “White apathy is the choice to stay in the warm and safe comfort of white supremacy and the privileges it affords” as I have been able to avoid antiracism work thus far due to my privilege and believing that not being actively racist was enough to make me a “good person”. As she adds later in the chapter, “There is no personal gain for people with white privilege to do this work and a lot to lose in terms of privilege and power.” And yet, if those of us with privilege and power do nothing, white supremacy will remain as the default.

I did appreciate Saad’s distinction that “allyship is not an identity but a practice”; in other words, I can’t be an ally, but can only seek to practice allyship consistently. She goes so far as to state that I can’t even judge whether I am practicing allyship, as only BIPOC can judge whether my practices are actually more in the realm of Tokenism or Optical Allyship or White Saviorism. She shares a definition of allyship as

  • Taking on the struggle as your own
  • Standing up, even when you feel scared
  • Transferring the benefits of your privilege to those who lack it

In other words, if your allyship does not involve leaving your comfort zone and taking on risk, it’s probably not a true practice of allyship.

I felt a little lost after reading these chapters as I wanted to get out of White Apathy and practice allyship, but if I try to help Black people specifically, doesn’t that show up as Tokenism or Optical Allyship? And if I’m taking action as part of making myself feel better about practicing antiracism, isn’t that White Centering? So it helped when I got to the following quote at the end of the week:

“You will be called out/in as you do antiracism work. Making mistakes is how you learn and do better going forward. Being called out/in is not a deterrent to the work. It is part of the work. And there is no safety in this work. There has been no safety for BIPOC under white supremacy. … When (not if) you are called out/in, are you well-equipped enough to respond to it in a way that will help you learn and do better, or will you simply give in to white fragility and fall apart?”

I realized that my hesitations and doubts were me falling apart into White Fragility and Apathy and using perfectionism as a reason to avoid doing the work. Instead, the way forward is to start trying things, accept that I will get things wrong, and be willing to learn and grow from the experience. Or as I wrote on LinkedIn, do the work and do it in public.

Inspired by reading this book, I’ve started trying things that are a step out of my comfort zone, but I expect that each step will make it easier to take the next one. If you have thoughts or feedback for me, I aspire to this statement from that earlier Robin DiAngelo article: “I will take [feedback] any way I can get it. From my position of social, cultural, and institutional white power and privilege, I am perfectly safe and I can handle it. If I cannot handle it, it’s on me to build my racial stamina.”

I recommend Saad’s book if you want to understand the many different ways in which our culture reinforces white supremacy. Only by understanding and starting to confront these behaviors in ourselves can we start dismantling the cultural supremacy of whiteness.

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