Show Up: A White Person’s Guide to Responsible Activism | News Feature | Indy Week
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Show Up: A White Person’s Guide to Responsible Activism 

A Duke Graduate Student Union rally held Thursday

Photo by Alex Boerner

A Duke Graduate Student Union rally held Thursday

Election night sealed our fate as activists, and we must accept it. The urgency to do something is a momentum we can ride until January and build upon through the next four years. But let's do so with as much clarity as possible.

"How do we become unified activists?" a reader recently asked the INDY. This is a good question for most of us, but it can be exhausting to answer over and over for communities who have been on the ground fighting since they were born. Along with every good intention to help, we also see desperation, confusion, and a naiveté that, while sweet, has been cushioned by privilege for too long.

Instead, we have to learn from people who are doing it right, listen to people of color and our marginalized neighbors (not just nonprofits), and show up in ways that may not be comfortable but are necessary. The guidance of respected voices in the activist community is outlined below.

There is no instruction manual for activism, no cute infographic. But this is a rallying cry for my fellow white progressives in our beloved, conflicted red state.

Take the time you need to grieve.

First, we've gotta get in our feels for a second.

"Right now, we are dealing with grief and its stages," says Dr. Karen Barbee, a mental health professional in Holly Springs and Pittsboro. She encourages everyone to take the time they need to process—and to do so with like-minded individuals.

Jasmine Perkins, who works as a therapist with low-income people in Durham hospitals, says that her African-American patients have been more afraid since the election started.

"Some I was very surprised didn't vote at all, because they felt that all the candidates were worthless. And now the fear that Donald Trump is going to be our next president. I really don't know how great America is going to be, or the last time it was great."

"As a person of color, I can say that people of color are dealing with collective trauma," Barbee adds. "If we don't, as a country, remember where we came from, we're going to repeat it."

Sit with your shock. But don't wave it around as consolation.

We should all be shocked that a demagogue has come to power, manipulating nearly half of the population into either looking past his hateful rhetoric for their own self-interest (economic or otherwise) or embracing it for the same reasons.

"Most people have been shielded from the breadth of atrocity of everything that's been happening," says Zaina Alsous, a Durham activist and a Muslim (see p. 36). "You are not actually free. What you are experiencing right now is this fleeting existence of domination on the backs of people of color. If you actually care about living in a society that is healthy, that is vibrant, where you can actually be free, you need to put your skin in the game and not approach this as 'I'm doing you a favor' or 'I'm doing this to be cute.'"

One beneficial thing about social media in 2016 is the attention it drew to the Black Lives Matter movement, including eyewitness video of black people being killed by police. It's dangerous to assume that we don't live in a society set up to be oppressive to people of color. (Anna DuVernay's Netflix documentary, 13th, is an incredible and painful look at the history of American incarceration.) We cannot view the civil rights movement as a relic of the past. The black and brown voices that we so longingly acknowledge out of context—Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez—feed into our precarious Western perspective that assumes we are a postracial society. Last Tuesday proved, once again, that we are not.

Love is great, but look beyond its luster.

John Oliver said it bluntly on his show Sunday night: "Optimism is nice if you can swing it, but you've got to be careful because it can feed into the normalization of Donald Trump. And he's not normal. He's abnormal. He's a human 'What is wrong with this picture?'"

In response to a planned KKK rally in North Carolina* in December, local white progressives started a public Facebook event promoting love over hate. The plan, though unorganized and unclear, was to march "somewhere in Durham." Such intentions are good but unrealistic. Armchair activism isn't going to cut it now. Neither is the front of uniting without diverse leadership (folks on the Facebook page made comments that included a joke about Martians being welcomed and a serious invitation to Trump supporters).

This is tone-deafness on the level of "all lives matter" or "I don't see color." It doesn't acknowledge that none of the organizers of the event were people of color, and no one from that community was asked if inviting a Trump supporter was OK. Whatever sincerity we have as people of privilege is not rooted in firsthand knowledge of the experience. A reminder: allies are not in charge.

It's not just about race.

"There's reckoning we do need to do, those of us who grew up poor and working-class white people," says Jade Brooks of Southerners on New Ground, a twenty-three-year-old multiracial organization that began in North Carolina. "There's going to be tremendous despair in the time to come. We have to take that seriously. The lack of good jobs and resources in rural communities, addiction, mental illness, and violence in our families, our own experience for being incarcerated for crimes of poverty. We won't be impacted in the same way as people of color. But the promise Trump made that our whiteness will save us is shown to be false. Who will be there? Will we let the Klan be there to offer a different way to our people? Or will we be there to fight for this united front of justice?"

The Not My President: Durham in Defiance Rally Sunday afternoon at Durham Central Park - PHOTO BY ALEX BOERNER
  • Photo by Alex Boerner
  • The Not My President: Durham in Defiance Rally Sunday afternoon at Durham Central Park

So what do we actually do?

Be prepared. There are options beyond two extremes either unifying under a tree singing "Kumbaya" or being completely fatalistic. The middle ground is more realistic and pragmatic.

Hundreds of local organizations are doing this work, and it's impossible to keep track of them all. Activism is a journey. Keep your ear to the ground to see who's organizing small-scale efforts. Take their lead and support them in ways you know you can. Make a personal list of your resources. I've met people who are trained martial artists offering free self-defense classes to communities worried about their safety. Others are offering legal advice, especially as legal observers at a rally. If you speak another language, offer your interpreting skills. If you have a car, offer to drive an undocumented immigrant family to an English class or folks without transport to a rally. If you are a nurse, volunteer your services. Use your existing resources and reach out to existing programs to see where they need support. This is more effective than organizing your own protest without the base for it.

If you have money to give, donate to nonprofits (see p. 44), especially the smaller organizations with fewer resources. Don't know where to start? Durham City Council member Jillian Johnson set up a form to sign up for the Durham Resilience Fund, which will include your pledge and allocate the funds to the communities most in need (bit.ly/durhamfund).

Seek out new, worthy organizations. The Durham Association of Educators (daenc.com), for example, has been fighting for better school resources while actively supporting groups like Alerta Migratoria and Durham Beyond Policing to keep all students safe. S.O.N.G, Durham's FADE Coalition, and SpiritHouse NC all work toward harm-free solutions to community issues related to drugs, gun violence, and others.

And read, read, read. The Movement for Black Lives provides a document for change and progress that many local organizations are using as a model (policy.m4bl.org). Public Books, a site that provides concise resources on various social topics, put together a "Trump Syllabus 2.0" over the summer (publicbooks.org/feature/trump-syllabus-20). It offers links to books, documentaries, and other media that explore the causes of Trump's rise to power against the backdrop of modern America. Maybe a book club is in order?

Lastly, get involved in local politics—really involved. Pay attention to seats opening up on your city council and figure who is the right person to run. Then rally for that. Call your politicians to task. When aligning with a political party, don't blindly follow its candidate's lead because he or she is better than the guy already in office. If you can't figure out that person's history, ask a journalist. If we don't know, we'll figure it out for you.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Show Up!"

*The original version of this story stated that the KKK rally was planned for Raleigh. The actual location has not yet been announced, but it is being organized by a Klan group in Pelham, a community near the Virginia border.


  • Now more than ever, it’s important to listen, not to lead.

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