Racism isn’t history, but history does offer perspective.
By Craig and Marc Kielburger
We got to thinking about Black History Month when we were talking to Dr. David Campt, creator of the White Ally Toolkit.
We realized how rarely white people recognize our privilege in treating the month—and the centuries-long fight for equality—as history. It’s not history for the people who are still living it, fighting income disparity and racial profiling. And yet 52 per cent of Canadians don’t believe that racism is a serious problem. That’s more than half, which is staggering.
The march of progress has always been slowed by skepticism to the urgency of racial justice. We’re ready to deal with racism as a piece of history more than an issue of our time. Today we recognize that Martin Luther King Jr. marched for freedom from oppression. In 1963, King fought an uphill battle to gain mainstream support and convince white people that the issue mattered.
We remember “I have a dream.” We forget that King also said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
Campt wrote the book on coaching white allies to speak up, so we asked him for his thoughts. He said a few things that really struck us.
“It’s easy to think of times in which the situation was so stark and the crimes were so heinous. It’s easy to make it victims versus oppressors.”
In other words, don’t use the worst moments of history to minimize the impacts of racism today. As allies, it’s not enough to compare ourselves to historical oppressors and give ourselves a pass. Maybe we should look to the people who fought for equality and ask if we’re doing enough.
“White people have always had choices about whether they involve themselves. Are they an oppressor? Are they a bystander? Are they an upstander fighting for racial justice?” asks Campt.
Finding ourselves in history involves learning from black luminaries and leaders, but Campt also suggests studying the history of allies.
“There were always way too few white people fighting for racial justice, but there were always a few. We don’t lift that up enough.”
We never thought of it of that way. Black History Month isn’t (and shouldn’t be) about celebrating white allies, but white people do need to recognize the spectrum of roles they’ve played throughout history. Maybe, with better role models, we’d have fewer silent bystanders when racism rears its head at work or the family reunion.
One of the biggest contributions white allies can make is talking to friends and family openly about race, even when it’s uncomfortable, says Campt. That means listening to views you might disagree with and responding calmly and rationally. The goal is to leave the conversation with the other side considering a new perspective—not winning an argument or burning a bridge.
“White people have put themselves on the line, have died,” says Campt. “If they did that, you can talk to your uncle when it’s hard.”
Racism isn’t history, but history does give us tools and perspectives to fight racism today. Look back to learn how to help others move forward.