top of page

You Push, We Steer: Power Dynamics in Anti-Racism Work

Updated: Sep 8, 2020

By Damonni Farley, Common Thread Consulting

The recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Nina Pop have brought the world to a place of reckoning. The viral video of George Floyd’s murder, and subsequent protests led by Black and Brown people have compelled us to confront both interpersonal bigotry and institutional racism.

Since then, have you thought about past interactions with People of Color? Did it call to mind an incident in which you wish you had behaved differently? Perhaps an awkward chuckle at a problematic joke from a colleague at work, or a comment your friend made that you let pass to avoid “conflict?" How about an immediate justification when an elder family member said something blatantly racist because “they were raised in a different time?" We've all had these experiences. We’ve all been complicit at one time or another for various reasons.

At the institutional level, companies have put Black Lives Matter on their logos, Governments have written Black Lives Matter on the sidewalk, and knelt in solidarity with demonstrators. Anti-Racism books started flying off the shelves, and institutions have begun contemplating the steps necessary to become truly anti-racist.

For all that this moment is - for all that this moment can be - we cannot forget the brutal fact that it is built on the Black/Brown bodies of Taylor, Pop, Floyd, and countless others. If we are to meaningfully honor their lives in this movement, we must recognize that an examination of conscience alone is not enough. Although the examination of one’s heart and mind requires significant emotional labor, and is vital to the process, it’s the starting point not the finish line. If we leave our efforts at examining our hearts and minds, the work of anti-racism will wither on the vine with”thoughts and prayers”.

This reflection is uncomfortable for white people. It can lead to defensiveness, self-righteousness or even denial. The discomfort inherent in this process is necessary to grapple with one’s position in society whose white supremacist foundations remain intact. Reflection must be accompanied by meaningful and sustained actions aimed at dismantling institutional racism along with a constant awareness of one’s own place in this urgent work.

In the weeks following Floyd’s murder, people of color have watched anti-racism work become romanticized as the new buzzword signaling progressive personal and institutional values. Just like other buzzwords, such as anti-bullying, equity, trauma-sensitive,etc., there are both financial and reputational rewards to being seen as an anti-racist today. This ultimately increases the “value” of the person/people leading the work in the eyes of an organization. Value is rewarded by advancement, social prestige and authority. Opportunities to exhibit this value correspond directly to an individual’s proximity to whiteness. A white person leading an organization already, or a person of color willing to indulge white fragility has always been given a larger platform while Black people desperately speaking truth to power have been silenced. Replicating the habits of white supremacy does not require malevolent intent, it can simply be a function of inertia. Disrupting this dynamic is essential to progress within institutions.

Most products are designed to be consumed by a white audience. That’s the population with the money to purchase goods, and the resources to project their ideas, values and various cultural markers. The extent of this influence shapes both the power dynamics and discursive space in which anti-racist work must be conducted. Two things can be true. White people’s sudden surge of interest and energy in this movement is welcome and encouraged, but white people cannot be centered in this work. Anti-racism work in America must be led by People of Color, specifically Black people, because Black people experience the most severe marginalization within our institutions.

BIPOC have been healing and sustaining our communities while holding the hands of our white friends and colleagues in the hope that they will grow and become comrades in the struggle for racial justice. We cannot center whiteness in a movement to dismantle the structures of white supremacy. When aspiring white anti-racists are seeking to clarify their role in this work, I tell them “You can push. We will steer.”

This inversion of racial power dynamics can be unsettling to white people. Familiarity with power and deference often creeps into their behavior, even as we welcome their influx of energy in anti-racist work. This places significant additional emotional burden on BIPOC people and undermines the goals we all support. Some of this new found energy has produced a new look for old tactics such as gatekeeping. Below you’ll find some of the different versions of gatekeeping. Beware of engaging in these gatekeeping behaviors:

Dear white people, you’ve come this far on the journey - I believe you can make it to the end. I asked that you commit to struggle through the feelings of discomfort. Remember, correction isn’t punishment, it's about caring accountability. This disclaimer isn’t about creating space for white fragility. In fact, for the purposes of this article and this journey, I think it is very important to distinguish between white peoples’ discomfort in the face of truth and the very real human response that one feels when it appears their genuine interest and most well-intended actions backfire. I call that feeling the “gut punch”. So when you’re in a position to lead the work and make decisions, it might feel like a gut punch to relinquish decision making authority, but remember, that’s you doing the work that needs to be done. Once you get over that discomfort, we get to the true transformation, where POC use their expertise and lived experience to create truly anti-racist institutions and systems.

We can’t retrofit justice into unjust systems that were designed to harm Black and Brown people. This grim fact has never been clearer as COVID disproportionately impacts Black and Brown families working front line jobs as people are sitting at home watching police brutalize Black bodies in the streets. The twin plagues of COVID and racism will persist as long as the comforts of whiteness are prioritized at the expense of justice and humanity.

There is hope, because these structures are becoming clear to many who otherwise would have remained in comfortable ignorance. The work of anti-racism, like Dr. Ibram X. Kendi states, is to “Identify, Describe, and Dismantle." Wherever you are in the continuum, the two pandemics demand that we reimagine our society beyond our current structures and practices. Will you meet this moment? Will you take up the movement?


bottom of page