Jenna Arnold is well-versed when it comes to rallying behind a movement to bring about justice. As a national organiser for the 2017 Women's March in Washington, the largest peaceful protest in history, she is committed to making the world better. This week, she published a book, Raising Our Hands, which calls on white women to resist complacency and to start having the urgent conversations we need to have.
Here, Arnold writes us for us on what white women need to do next in order to do our part in promoting progress.
Everybody is a little unsure about what to do next. Some of us are just coming to the reality of all of the complicated truths that pepper our history books and the reality of our world around us — one in particular: privileged women can be 'well-intended' and still cause harm.
It’s clear though, that now, most people’s ears are more perked to the subject of racial inequality than ever before, opening up an opportunity for us to individually and collectively push through social justice doors we haven’t bothered leaning on in the past.
The challenge is that it's not always clear exactly what the next right step is. But by hesitating, we run the risk that those with currency - be it votes, financial resources, positions of power, or relationships - might slide back into the old generation’s position of complacency.
Many are afraid of saying the wrong thing to a colleague, posting a performative image on social media, donating to an organisation suddenly flush with cash. Those are all fair and valid concerns, and should be continually considered.
However, now is the time to lean in even harder in searching for those frontlines in our immediate lives where we can have significant impact... and I like to say, those frontlines are often right there in that room with you. Here are a few first steps.
Move beyond the debate about whether you have biases or not. I will take the gigantic risk of making a huge generalisation about all of humanity: we all have racial, gender, class, disability, sexuality... and even blonde haired girls with glasses (🙋) biases. The conversation should no longer be centred around do or don’t—that was so three weeks ago; instead, start hunting for your biases, organise them, plan for the next time they show up so you can catch them before they do harm.
By asking ourselves, “How do I feel about a specific demographic?” and giving ourselves a few minutes, we can typically unearth at least a handful of sweeping stereotypes — about sex, but also about race, gender, religion, disability, and class.
We’re generally aware of explicit biases, especially those we’ve collectively been groomed to think are “okay” to have: women aren’t as good at sports, black people are better dancers, the French make the best love (throwing a bone to those who would rather read about sex than bias). Other explicit biases we’re very careful not to share because we know they are negative: Jews are cheap, Asians are bad drivers, Muslims are terrorists.
But there’s another category of bias that is possibly even more alarming: implicit biases. Implicit biases are ones we don’t know we have, and that we sometimes work really hard to convince ourselves don’t exist. Implicit biases can be the same in content as explicit ones (“black people are dangerous”) but differ because they influence our behaviour without us catching them (white people call the police on black people more quickly than on those of other races). Taken together, both biases contribute to the high numbers of innocent people of colour dying by the police. We treat these biases not as beliefs we hold, but as facts about the world, like the presence of oxygen in the air we breathe — except, for some people, they can be deadly.
Part of the next phase of this work is holding ourselves accountable. Always. Even during those inevitable moments when I’m 100 per cent vegan and refuse to buy single-use water bottles, except when I’m at a BBQ festival with my husband and I’m thirsty after my ribs.
Be real with yourself when you mess up, and always strive to do better the next time. Once a nutritionist says, “Hey, Jenna, did you know donuts are really bad for you?” I can’t promise I won’t ever eat another one. But I won’t be able to pretend I don’t know what I’m eating when I bite into one of those glorious fried dough confections.
The most important thing you can do to make sure you stay focused on catching biases and not falling into complacent behaviour is to put systems in place to catch counterproductive thoughts and behaviours. Jerry Kang, the vice chancellor for equity, diversity, and inclusion at UCLA, explains that it’s impossible to “scrub” implicit and explicit bias; we can’t Clorox it from our psyches. Instead, he suggests we have to change our behaviour to accommodate all that we’ve subconsciously been taught.
This work on identifying and catching our biases is like cleaning a kitchen. We know that every day, possibly multiple times a day, the kitchen gets messy, as we use it to prepare meals for ourselves and our family. And so every day, possibly multiple times a day, we have to clean it and put it back together again. Over time, you might build systems to help you expedite the clean-up process, be it the position of the trash can or the proximity of the dish cabinet to the dishwasher. Regardless of how organised our kitchen is, everyday life continues to mess it up. You need a similar approach for catching and addressing your biases and knee-jerk response to apathetic behaviour. Over time, you will become more efficient at sorting through the mess in your head and then cleaning it up. You’ll see the behaviour more quickly and label it as such. Maybe you’ll get so comfortable with the experience that you’ll start to investigate the source of behaviour, study it, and put it in the trash. Keep doing it even when it somehow gets dragged back out of the trash—so many habits that are propped up by our privilege are difficult to discard, and get shoved back into the depths of the cabinets despite our efforts to purge them. Eventually, they might stop showing up, and if not, at least you’ll know how to trash it when it does surface.
The goal moving forward: be anti-hypocrisy. If you really care about racial justice, embrace your imperfection and confront your biases. If you really want to see more economic equity, go out of your way to buy from black business owners. If you really want less systemic harm caused to marginalised populations, go speak truth to those people in power, who might just be at your dinner tables at night, irregardless of the peace it disrupts. Now is the time that we just might take what feels like an impossible chance to push through.
Raising Our Hands: How White Women Can Stop Avoiding Hard Conversations, Start Accepting Responsibility, and Find Our Place on the New Frontlines is available to buy at Amazon.co.uk
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