What Is To Be Done

A little over a week ago, I had the honor of attending the New York Film Festival premiere of 13th, a documentary directed by Ava DuVernay that confronts the issues of race, incarceration, and justice in the United States. As one of the talking heads (a historian’s life goal, to be honest) in the film, I was intellectually aware of the phenomena, statistics, mindsets, and events the film addresses. But it wasn’t until I viewed the film–a relentless, unflinching, prophetic indictment of the structures of racism and inequality upon which our entire society rests–that I truly felt what I had before only known. In the activities that accompanied the premiere–including this historian setting a new standard for awkward walks on the red carpet–a sense of urgency seemed to pervade the proceedings. Yes, there was celebration; 13th is the first documentary to open the NYFF, Ava DuVernay is also the first woman filmmaker of color to earn that distinction, and the film is a Netflix production and will thus have a huge platform for its vitally important story. So celebration was certainly in order. I was proud to participate in those celebrations, and deeply humbled to have been asked to participate in such an urgently powerful work of art. But there was urgency, too. Now that this story is out there, in all of its raw, agonizing, poignant glory, what next?

I got to meet an amazing group of people.
I got to meet an amazing group of people. Also, rare photo of me in a suit.

That’s the question I got the most at the post-premiere party. What now? Hundreds of people who’d been at the premiere, seen the film, and felt the massive emotional impact it created wanted to know what to do with all of that energy, that outrage, that anger, that sadness. And what was interesting is the ways in which people chose to express that to me. I talked with dozens of people at this party, whites and people of color alike, and quickly noticed a difference. African Americans and other PoC tended to congratulate me and the others who were part of the film, then share how important it was for them that this story was being told in such a powerful way, by such a talented filmmaker, on such a significant platform. There was a grim sadness about the film’s subject, but also a note of triumph that the film ends on such a powerful note of hope and that it could change the conversation. I quickly realized, though, that it was almost exclusively whites who were the ones asking me what do I do now? In one particularly striking exchange, I was cornered by a group of four or five affluent, white middle-aged couples who were clearly impacted by the film. What can we do? They asked. You’re a historian, you were in the movie; tell us what to do. What do you mean? I asked; that’s a pretty big question. I began to talk about how honestly reckoning with our past, as the film so powerfully asks us to do, was perhaps a start. Then, I continued, empathy is a crucial part of this equation; injustice that doesn’t affect us personally is still injustice happening to real people, and we need to be in empathy and solidarity with them. No, no, no, one admonished me. What can we do NOW? I didn’t know how to answer that, and the conversation awkwardly died.

I’ve thought a lot about that conversation since then. What was I supposed to say? OK, they seemed to say, y’all have dropped a massive load of uncomfortable truths on us tonight. Tell us what to do now so we’re not uncomfortable any more, so that we can say we’re helping.

And then I realized that I should have told them they needed to ask someone else.

As a white, cishet, male college professor, what do you do now is not my story to tell. It’s not my answer to give. I’m not saying that in an attempt to abdicate moral or social responsibility, not at all. What I’m saying, and what I wish I would have said to my group of interlocutors, is that I can’t tell you What Is To Be Done, because I don’t have the experience, perspective, or knowledge to do that in a full and just way. Put bluntly, don’t ask the white guy how to end structures of privilege and oppression that were built and are still maintained by whites. I cannot get out of my whiteness enough to really see everything that needs to happen. I have some ideas, grounded in both my training as a historian and my commitment to a just and peaceful world. And I’d like to think that I could offer a set of prescriptions to strike at the root of the pervasive racism–and its unholy offspring, the carceral state–that afflicts us today. But those ideas and prescriptions are still the product of a context which has not equipped me to fully see the manifold ways, and the vast extent to which, the structures of white supremacy have affected people of color. My answers would thus be limited at best. It’s voices of color that we (and I use “we” to refer to “white people”) must listen to. And those voices, again as 13th so eloquently shows us, have been trying to tell us things for centuries. Listen to them instead of asking the white academic to tell you to vote a certain way, or donate to a certain group, or to read a certain book to “fix all this.”

Having said that, I need to be clear to my fellow white people: listening to people of color does not mean expecting them to solve these problems. It is not the job of the oppressed to redeem the oppressor. There’s an interesting parallel here, I think, with the debate swirling around San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to protest structural racism by taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem. So much of the reaction I see from whites, even those who may sympathize with Kaepernick in a general way, is basically asking OK, fine-what’s HIS solution to the problem? Kneeling is easy; he’s copping out by not telling us how he’d fix it. So repeat after me: It. Is. Not. The. Job. Of. Those. Experiencing. Injustice. To. Change. The. Behavior. Of. The. Unjust.

It’s not people of color’s job to stop racism. It is the job of those of us who benefit from racism and racist structures to stop racism. It’s the job of racists to stop being racist. Literally no one else can do that. Those who protest injustice, who call out racism, who point out the ways in which white supremacy and privilege have profoundly shaped our country throughout its history–they’ve done their job. They’ve peeled back the layers of complacency and dishonesty to show the problems that exist. They’ve forced uncomfortable truths and tough personal work into the national conversations. They’ve held institutions like schools, media, and (especially) law enforcement accountable for their structures of inequality and the ways in which those structures have operated against people of color throughout this country’s history. They’ve done their job, and done it much more extensively, and often under dangerous, thankless, and often downright brutal conditions, than anyone has a right to expect.

For those of us who identify and who are identified as white, listening to what people of color have been saying to us means not just the quotable MLK-peace-and-love bromides, but the hard stuff, too. It means listening to the way these truths personally implicate all of us without immediately moving to well, I’m not a racist or (far worse) you’re the real racist. It means being aware that one does not need to be an overt racist to have benefited from racist structures and to be complicit in those structures’ perpetuation. It means genuinely, honestly, willingly, compassionately, lovingly, and readily listening. That’s what being an ally is. Being an ally isn’t becoming the white savior or taking the lead in every conversation about race and privilege. Being an ally is creating space and protecting that space for the marginalized, the oppressed, the unheard, the oft-ignored. It means using one’s privileged position for the benefit of those less-privileged. It means calling out, indicting, condemning, working against racism and injustice even when no one around expects you to, and even when that would work against you. It means, in other words, not being Billy Bush when Donald Trump does his thing. It means inviting other voices to share, and indeed control, the platform. It means understanding that your voice is a helpful voice, but it certainly doesn’t have to be the only or even the loudest voice.

For me as an individual, that means doing things like taking an intentional approach to the curriculum in my courses. What readings do I assign? Whose voices do my students hear? How do I empower my students to find and use their voice in the classroom? Am I working to effectively promote democratic access to higher education? Am I an advocate for meaningful and effective teaching and learning? It means voting–not just in presidential elections, but in local contests that arguably matter even more: municipal government, judges, school boards–and supporting candidates and organizations who seek to expand the sphere of justice and civic participation. It means being honest with myself when I wrestle with difference, whether it’s race, class, gender, or a combination thereof. It means cultivating compassion and empathy for the lives of others, even when it hurts or is uncomfortable or makes me sad or defensive or angry. It means taking the opportunities to put those principles into practice when they come, whether that’s a film project or a personal blog or something else. And lately, for me, it means embracing the experiences I had with being a part of 13th.  Meeting, talking, and being a part of panels with people like Ava DuVernay, Khalil G. Muhammad, Jelani Cobb, Malkia Cyril, Lisa Graves, and Ashley Clark has been an amazing, humbling experience. These are all brilliant, committed, passionate people who live their convictions in their film-making, scholarship, teaching, activism, and writing. And I’m a better teacher, scholar, writer, and person for having been in their company.

So what next? What is to be done? The work, it seems to me, is evolving and ongoing. It’s an empathetic and honest commitment to checking my privilege and to being the best ally I can and need to be. It also means admitting that I really struggled to get these thoughts out in the way that I wanted, admitting that I worry about this post being seen as “white guy trying to be artificially woke” or as a way for me to write things so I don’t have to actually do them. It means telling you I’m afraid that it seems too squishy or too patronizing or too name-droppy or too faux-liberal. It’s also way too long at this point to have served as an effective “I-shoulda-said-THAT” answer to the clutch of concerned liberals at last Saturday’s party. But it’s out here, and these are my words, however imperfectly phrased or insufficiently comprehensive. They represent, at least, my commitment to–and public accountability for–anti-racist work and my commitment to justice as a way of being in the world.


13th is streaming on Netflix. The film’s official Twitter feed is also a source of information and further reflection on race and incarceration in the United States. I hope you watch it and reckon with its message. We have work to do.

Note: Yes, the title of this post is also the title of one of Lenin’s key works. But it’s also the title of Nikolay Chernmyshevsky’s 1862 novel, which he wrote while in prison, and which is a viscerally passionate call for revolution. It’s to that sentiment, and the conditions which produced it, that this post’s title nods to.

6 Replies to “What Is To Be Done”

  1. When I read things like what I just read I always get a weird, uneasy feeling. The source of the feeling probably stems from the guilt or uncomfortableness I occasionally feel as Black person who has benefited from racism and racist structures. It’s not a feeling that will probably ever go away, even if or when race relations improve in this country.

    I have benefited from racism and racist structures because of the color of my skin, which is the same color as a lot of White people with a tan (which happens to also be the reason for my skin color, it’s several shades lighter during the winter months). White people find it hard to form the same opinions they may subconsciously form when interacting with Black people when interacting with me, because it’s hard to form those opinions when you’re interacting with someone who is the same skin color as yourself. I have benefited from people not having preconceived notions about me.

    I have also spent the vast majority of my life in a White world. I went to predominantly White schools, lived in predominantly white neighborhoods and I have zero Black friends as a result of this. I am related to all of the Black people that I know. Due to these circumstances, my thoughts sometimes mirror those of some White people when watching or reading news stories involving Black people. I find myself wondering why the people in the stories didn’t make different decisions or thinking that if they knew what and how White people were thinking of them, they would change their behavior.

    It is at times like these that I feel guilty or ashamed of my thoughts, even though I know they have been influenced by the world I have lived in. I then start thinking of ways and things I could do to improve things, to start making things better, much like the people that cornered you. The problem is that all of my ideas stem from my place of privilege and would most likely be met and viewed as such. Why would any Black person listen to any idea I have? I have never lived life as a “Black Person” and as such I don’t truly understand the problems that the community faces. I know the problems, but I can’t truly understand things that have never happened to me, problems I have never faced.

    I live in a world between worlds and I always will. I’ll never be White enough and I’ll never be Black enough. I will probably hear the question “What are you?” until the day I day, from White and Black people alike. In terms of prejudice or racism (if it can be called that), I have dealt with more from Black people than I ever have White people. I have only dealt with uncomfortable White people once, in a diner in a small town in Wisconsin. If these remain the extent of the problems that I have to deal with, I am fortunate, because I know that it is not what the majority of Black people will have to deal with during the course of their life.

    When I read this, it finally dawned on me that when trying to figure out what to do, I have been vastly overthinking the issue and looking at the wrong community. I’m in a position of privilege and instead of feeling guilty or ashamed I should use it. I have the ears and attention of the people who need to alter their thinking and views and should take the opportunities when presented, to enlighten them. There are so many things that I can do that I never though of, because I was looking at things all wrong, because I was letting my environment color my viewpoint. I would have never looked at things from this perspective without having read your words, I thank you, so very much. @kenyadenola

    P.S. Most likely there are grammatical and possibly spelling errors and I hate proofreading.

    1. Thank you so much for this, Kenya. Your thoughtfulness and honesty are amazing and inspiring to me.

  2. I came to your site, as a white person who has been haunted with the question “what do I do” for years. I came with the possible intention of emailing you (cornering you much like those WP at the after-party) to see if you had any insights.

    We are in disagreement regarding a few things in this post–I think think listening to POC is important, of course, but I’m deeply befuddled as to why more white people aren’t concerned with dismantling white supremacy, especially as we venerate the warriors of civil rights movements. I’ve come to the conclusion that the dragon to slay is the collective delusion that white supremacy is no longer an issue. I see this as an immediate action WP can take within their communities.

    Though, to your point, ‘listening’ to POC though seeking out media, and staying with it even when it is painful, has taught me a lot. Two posts from Hari Ziyad (they/them) come to mind. One from their website RaceBaitr http://racebaitr.com/2016/03/31/white-people-no-place-black-liberation/ and the other was a post on Everyday Feminism http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/11/not-an-ally-but-turncoat/.

    The second article linked above addresses (in the context of feminism) how they as a male refers to themself as a ‘turncoat’ instead of ally, to acknowledge that their important work can only occur within the operation of the oppressors’ team. They are far more eloquent than I, so I encourage you to read the original source.

    In any case, if anyone is interested in brainstorming further, I think about this regularly and invite collaboration.

    1. Sarah, Thanks so much for the comment and the links. I think we agree more than it might appear, as I think it’s absolutely on us as white people to dismantle the structures of white supremacy. It’s something a lot of folks get instantly defensive about, because the phrase ‘white supremacy’ conjures up images of the Klan and whatnot, but it is a structure that has shaped almost every aspect of our history. Until we reckon with it on those terms, we can’t do the work that needs to be done. Thanks for coming by the blog and for your thoughtful comments-much appreciated!

  3. I cannot imagine the full range of emotions Black people experience. But, I do see the PTSD. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/09/100908102058.htm Do you think addressing communities as a whole with this in mind could be beneficial?

    In regards to your fears, there is a language to some white allyship that comes off very narcissistic and self-serving. Our people like to brag about what they are doing to “help” others. For example, they use the pronoun “I” alot- you do not come across that way to me, and seriously, thank you. I have seen white men shut down Black women on threads and wear their misogyny like a white hood, and it does not ease any stress, or illustrate points (other than white male cishet privilege) effectively. You are saying what a lot of us are…simply… “Listen.” I am watching 13th now (pausing to take notes since I homeschool my son), and am learning so much. We built this screwed up system, and I often wonder if this is what it felt like in the years before Rome fell. Thank you for being a part of this.

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