We Can’t Disrupt White Supremacy and Anti-Blackness Without a Mirror

By Xiomara Padamsee

Two notes for readers:

  1. At Promise54 we’re navigating a tension. First, we feel a critical need and desire to amplify Black voices (always, and in particular right now). And, our people are tired so we’re all pitching in to disperse the burden where possible. One of the ways I’m pitching in as a co-conspirator is by writing one of our blogs this month. Check out the other June blog by my colleague Vanessa Douyon, “50 Actions Your Org Can Take After Posting About BLM.”
  2. This blog includes reference to verbal abuse, abuse of power, and physical violence against Black people in this country. Please proceed (or not) with intentionality and self-care.

The maps look almost identical – then and now.

One is the map that Abraham Lincoln consulted in 1861 which shows the counties with the most enslaved people. The other is the map created by researcher Raj Chetty in 2013 to depict economic mobility in each neighborhood in America. It shows a swath of red — representing the deepest downward mobility, where young people end up much worse off than their parents — stretching through the southern and southeastern U.S., from Shreveport, La. to Virginia and the Chesapeake. As writer Gareth Cook pointed out: “Set the documents side by side, and it may be hard to believe that they are separated in time by more than a century and a half.”

Virtually the same words from presidents – then and now.

In 1785, just 16 years before becoming President, Thomas Jefferson wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia, “Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry” and “the blacks…are inferior to the whites in the endowments of both body and mind.”

231 years and 41 white Presidents later, Donald Trump shared his beliefs about Black citizens, “It’s just, like, a total catastrophe, the unemployment rates, everything is bad — no health care, no education, no anything, no anything…What have you got to lose? You can’t do worse…” These beliefs were not new for Trump who in 1973 on a coffee break from a deposition related to the Justice Department housing discrimination lawsuit against Trump Management Company said, “you don’t want to live with them either” to his interviewer.

Countless murders of Black people – then and now.

The Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission defines a racial terror lynching as, “the unlawful killing of an African American by white mob violence, often with the apparent complicity of state and local officials, intended to incite racial terror and subservience to white supremacy.” The Equal Justice Initiative reminds us that these gruesome murders were public spectacles complete with thousands of white audience members. Therefore, the only difference between the lynchings of 4,743 humans, 73% Black, in the United States between 1882-1968 and the murders we protest today is that in many cases the “white mob” perpetrating the murders under public watch are police officers.

Police endorsement of violence against Black people is another consistent theme. We saw it in the 1921 Tulsa race massacre when white authorities deputized white perpetrators, amplifying their violence by providing them with firearms and ammunitions until ultimately nearly all residents of the Greenwood district were arrested, over 1200 homes were burned, 800 people were injured, and 100-300 Black residents died. We see police endorsement today in cases of Black folks being murdered without prosecution as in the example of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25 year old Black man who was followed and murdered by a white father and son with police turning a blind eye for two months, likely because of the father’s long time work as an investigator in the local DA’s office.

Violent police response to peaceful protests – then and now.

In the spring of 1963, Birmingham activists began lunch counter sit-ins, marches on City Hall, and boycotts of downtown merchants to protest segregation laws. Over the next couple months, peaceful demonstrators were met with high-pressure fire hoses, baton beatings, and police dog attacks.

Fast forward 57 years, in May of 2020, Trump tweeted that if Black Lives Matter activists had attempted to breach the White House fence, “they would have been greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen.” Meanwhile, in less than 3 weeks, 19 protesters have been killed (as of now), over 10,000 people have been arrested, the US military has been mobilized against its own citizens, and police have been documented using pepper spray, rubber bullets, teargas, batons, vehicles, horses, and their own bodies as weapons against peaceful protesters – leaving many of those who make it out alive bloodied, in hospitals, and with permanent injuries.

So, will this time be different?

The common denominator between then and now is white supremacy generally and anti-Blackness specifically. These belief systems are insidious because they have been deeply embedded and normalized over hundreds of years in our socialization, generation after generation, and many of us continue to ingest and spread them today – even unintentionally. To stop the cycle, we must hold a mirror to our own thinking and behaviors to find, interrogate, and disrupt these deep-rooted beliefs inside ourselves.

 “The heartbeat of racism is denial. The heartbeat of anti-racism is confession.” – Ibram X. Kendi

White supremacy and anti-Blackness show up in our personal lives. For example, when we comment to our children about the looks or intelligence of a white or light-skinned person, we teach that white folks are more beautiful and smarter; when we lock our doors at a stop light when there are Black or Brown people outside, we reinforce for those in our car that Black and Brown people are dangerous; and when we choose to quietly continue eating instead of confronting racist statements at the dinner table or mindlessly scroll by racist memes posted by friends or family, we are complicit in sharing and amplifying white supremacy.

Another unfortunate truth: no one is immune. As a non-Black, queer woman of color, it is just as critical that I look into the mirror to interrogate my own internalized white supremacy and anti-Blackness beliefs.

I must acknowledge the pervasiveness of anti-Blackness and white supremacy within my own Latinx community despite one quarter of Latinxs in the US identifying as racially Black. I must own the frequency with which I have heard Blackness referred to in the diminutive (as in “morenita,” “negrita”), reinforcing that Black folks are less than. I must acknowledge the subtle (and not subtle) ways that I was encouraged to “mejorar la raza” – code for being encouraged to marry lighter because of a desire to climb intergenerationally closer to aspirational whiteness. And while I’d rather forget the memory of my 28 Black and Brown Latinx students all crowding around to touch my hair while exclaiming, “¡Ay maestra, que bonita!” on the first (and only) day I wore my hair straight into my 4th and 5th grade bilingual classroom, I must admit to my own subconscious internalization of the pelo bueno vs. pelo malo dichotomy (coded language equating straight hair to good versus curly hair – especially tight, thick curls – to bad). For years, when I wanted to dress up or feel particularly beautiful or confident, I’d blow out my hair, emulating whiteness. Coded language and cultural norms around exuding perfectionism and confidence in public – as in “la ropa sucia se lava en casa” – serve to keep these, and so many other, anti-Black and white supremacy sentiments anchored in place by discouraging us to admit them out loud and interrogate them together.

On a professional level I must acknowledge that I have spent most of my career as a student of white supremacy culture – and my degree came with honors in perfectionism, urgency, and either/or thinking. I pointed to my own success within meritocracies as evidence of their validity as opposed to a testament to my own skill at assimilating, covering, and individualism. I allowed majority white leadership teams to parade me around as an “exception” without interrupting the underlying “rule” that Black and Brown people are less than.

A lot of the work that Promise54 does is designed to help our partner organizations identify and disrupt the myriad ways that white supremacy and anti-Blackness show up at work. Here are some of the examples we see again and again:

  • In the majority white leadership demographics of the “educational equity” space today which demonstrate a continued belief that white people are better critical thinkers, leaders, and problem solvers and white people are needed to save less capable Black and Brown people.
  • Every time we hire a white staff or board member with the justification that a person of color with the requisite skills “isn’t out there” and every time we justify our white leadership teams by pointing to the overall diversity of our staff (primarily at junior levels of power and influence), we double down on deep rooted beliefs that white folks are more intelligent or more capable.
  • Each time we default to solely highlighting formal, academic credentials or affiliations in how we introduce ourselves, refer to others, or evaluate those around us, we demonstrate our flawed assumption that unless a largely white elite institution has deemed us worthy, we mustn’t be.
  • We perpetuate white supremacy culture when we continue to lean on “meritocracy”-based promotion and pay systems when the people with the power to make decisions about who has “merit” or how “merit” is defined are entrenched and uninterrupted in their own implicit bias and white supremacy culture beliefs and behaviors.
  • When we describe Black and Brown people and communities as impoverished, poor, needy, at-risk, vulnerable, high-crime (and so many more like this) on websites and marketing materials, we normalize the fallacy that inequities are inherent versus systematically created, reinforced, and institutionalized.
  • When we question whether confronting racial injustice, advancing DEI work, and dismantling white supremacist structures in our organizations will create lower quality work, less effective operations, impede impact, or cause a distraction from the “real work” for children, families, and communities, we expose our false mental model that quality and effectiveness depends on the continuation of white supremacy.

So as many of us go all in, right now to demonstrate our outrage – marching, yelling, sitting in, laying down, cleaning up, donating, writing, speaking, watching, posting, amplifying, adding “in solidarity” to our signatures – we MUST acknowledge that ‘all in’ requires us also to turn the mirror toward ourselves and our organizations. We must look into the mirror slowly and deeply to interrogate our own upbringing, beliefs, fears, insecurities, comfort, privileges, leadership, and safety. We MUST dig out the roots of white supremacy which live within each of us by dusting off our mirrors so that our children and grandchildren are not writing about history repeating itself.

Wondering how? Check out my colleague Vanessa Douyon’s blog, “50 Actions Your Org Can Take After Posting About BLM.”

tagged diversityequityinclusionleadershipmanagement, black lives matter