Learning about the dangers of systemic racism often leads people to ask: What can I do personally to make a difference?
Layla Saad, an East African, Arab, British, Black, Muslim woman living in Qatar, came up with an impressive answer — a 28-day process that she calls a "personal anti-racism tool" designed to teach those with white privilege how systemic racism works and how they can stop contributing to white supremacy in the world.
Her book is called Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor. It began a few years ago as a 28-day Instagram challenge, evolved into a free PDF digital workbook and has now become a New York Times bestseller. (It was sold out at Amazon when we recorded this interview, but Saad reported that her publisher was working to print more copies.)
Saad's process involves defining terms like "white centering" (the belief that white culture, values and norms are the normal center of the world) and "ally cookies" (the special praise sought by some white people for not being racist). She encourages readers to keep a journal and write answers for tough questions like "What negative experiences has your white privilege protected you from throughout your life?"
This is "the work," as Saad describes it: a tough journey that pushes readers to examine the often-hidden mechanisms of white supremacy and systemic racism in our lives. As an African American journalist who has written more than a few times about the subject myself, I had 1,000 questions for Saad, starting with a simple concept:
The word that struck me as I was reading through your book was "discipline." You're asking for discipline from people — to take on a demanding process with no easy answers.
This is about learning how to identify how you're seen in the world and how you see yourself so that you can essentially betray it. So you can say, "I'm not going to play this game anymore. I'm not going to walk on this earth as if I am superior and treat people as if they are inferior to me."
The first exercise in the book is on white privilege. When you hear "white privilege," you may think, "Yes, white people shouldn't be privileged. But that isn't as bad as white supremacy." When you hear the words "white supremacy," you're thinking of the KKK, neo-Nazis and skinheads.
And what I want people to realize is that white privilege is a part of white supremacy and upholds white supremacy. This isn't about generalizing or stereotyping white people as being somehow deficient or defunct. This is about seeing how you were born into a system that automatically gave you these powers and these privileges.
Why is journaling an important part of this?
Without the journaling, it's just an exercise in intellectual stimulation. You stay at the level of mental thought without any heart engagement. There's something about putting pen to paper, writing down what comes up, that unlocks past memories.
I really want people to understand that what we're talking about isn't conscious. You're not consciously in the world thinking you're superior to people of other races. It's deeper rooted than that. The process of journaling brings into consciousness these ways of being and thinking and believing that you're not conscious of. It's that feeling of seeing a black person walking down the street and crossing to the other side and not even thinking about it. The journaling helps unearth that instinct that kicks in at that moment.
Can you describe what "the work" is and how you came up with the idea for the book?
Despite the title and what people initially think when they see it, it's not for the "bad people." It's written for the people who think they aren't racist. Who say they don't see color. Who have black friends. Who voted for Obama. It's written for the people who really think they're allies.
In the book, I quote Martin Luther King Jr. and his letter from a Birmingham jail. He talks about [how] one of the greatest stumbling blocks to progress is actually the white moderate who doesn't see themselves as the problem. But through their silence, through their inaction, through saying, "Wait," they actually uphold white supremacy.
I wanted to write this book as a process for people to walk themselves through these issues and ask themselves, "How does white supremacy show up in my life?" Because white supremacy is playing out in your life and in your everyday interactions with people in your life.
As you begin to switch on the light and see how this plays out within you, you begin to change your behaviors and you begin to influence the people around you. Systems are maintained by people. But systems can also be changed by people.
For example, a school is a system. So if you're a parent and you see that subtle and not-so-subtle racism is taking place at your child's school, then you'll start to take responsibility for these actions if you're opening your eyes to your own racism. You'll start to hold the school accountable to create an environment where all children and staff members feel like they matter.
What do you think is the biggest obstacle or the toughest challenge for white people when they decide they want to take on this challenge?
People get stumped on white exceptionalism.
Can you define that?
White exceptionalism is this idea that I, as a white person, am actually one of the good ones. I think white exceptionalism is actually what drives a lot of people to buy my book in the first place, because I think that they have this belief that they're one of the good ones. An ally buys a book like this.
I think white exceptionalism is very dangerous because it separates the "good" from the "bad." And there is no good or bad. This isn't about your inherent goodness as a person. We're talking about the ways you're unaware of causing harm to other people. Because you're not aware. And so that's what we're bringing into the light.
You're going to have to redefine good. What does it mean to you to be good? Is it that everyone else thinks you're not racist? We see this with brands right now. Businesses are putting forth Black Lives Matter statements because they want everyone to know they're not racist and are doing the work. A statement isn't proof that you're one of the good ones. A statement shows that you have caught onto the fact that you need to say something or otherwise you're going to be perceived as agreeing with or co-signing that black lives don't matter. But that's not the work.
The work is digging in and looking at how you treat black people — your staff, your customers, your clients. What policies do you have in place, whether written policies or unofficial policies, that show us black lives don't matter here?
What are the benefits and drawbacks of doing this work on your own versus doing it as a group?
I don't think there's necessarily one preferred way or another. It's about returning to this work again and again and knowing there are benefits to doing it alone and to doing it with a group.
One of the things that people have to be wary of in the group is this idea that, "We're in this group, and we do this work. So we are the good ones." It can be dangerous when white people start congratulating one another for being good allies.
I think the benefits of doing it in a group is that you get to see and understand that it's not just you who is digging up these unconscious racist thoughts and beliefs that are very ugly. You get to hear from other people, which may spark things for you.
So, for example, you may read one of the [chapters] and think, "I don't center myself or think I'm exceptional." But if you're in a group with other white people and they tell you the ways they center themselves or find themselves exceptional, it might help you see how you also do certain behaviors that fall under white centering or white exceptionalism.
What we're trying to do is not just create individuals who are doing this work, but really a culture of doing the work — a culture of anti-racism. But I also think that shouldn't be a deterrent if you can't find community.
If you had to break it down, what are the three important things people can do to work on themselves and help unwind white supremacy?
Number one is, this work begins and ends with yourself as an individual. The one place where you have complete control is within yourself. So when you think — "Where do I start? What do I do?" — it's you. You need to start with you first. If you start doing things outside of yourself, if you think that you're here to save black and brown people, remember you're not here to save us. You're here to see the ways in which you are already causing us harm and stop doing that.
Second, impact the people you are in relationships with — your parents, your kids, cousins, friends, bosses, whoever. You have the ability to influence those people. So take what you've been learning about yourself, and have those conversations with the people with white privilege in your life. Because when you've been doing the work within yourself, you're actually able to understand what they're thinking from a more empathetic point of view, as opposed to just preaching at them and saying, "That's racist." Sometimes the call-out is necessary, but for long-term change we need ongoing meaningful conversations.
Lastly, look at the systems around you. What do you benefit from? What do you create and sustain? And how can you change those things? We can't wait for the lawmakers and the policymakers and the politicians to change things. They have a vested interest in things staying the same. But you as this collective can [effect] change by saying this isn't actually what we want — we're going to hold you accountable to a different world.
We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.
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The audio portion of this story was produced by Clare Schneider.