For about three months, I’ve been gnawing on a Jezebel think piece entitled “I Don’t Know What to Do With Good White People.” When the piece first appeared in my news feed, I instinctively recoiled. Like the author, Brit Bennett, I owe much of my extraordinary good fortune to white people who have reached beyond their comfort zone to defend my rights and my interests. My white friends are empathetic, deeply mindful and self-critical as a rule. Thus, when I read the article’s title, I was eager to dismiss it. I already knew what to do with good white people. I would hold them close and be grateful for their existence.
Yet the mark of a good think piece is that it sticks with you, even when you disagree with it. It asks questions that can’t be dismissed out of hand. While the intentions of white people have improved dramatically over the past half-century, outcomes have not kept pace. Black people continue to face discrimination in policing, hiring, housing, and healthcare. As Bennett puts it, “What good are your good intentions if they kill us?”
One reaction to the dissonance between racial attitudes and racial outcomes has been growing distrust on the part of minorities. According to Bennett’s mother, "It was a lot simpler in the rural South…White people let you know right away where you stood." Social justice activists are increasingly skeptical of their white allies, ready to leap on stray problematic comments as “proof” of their allies’ true motives. While this reaction is understandable, it misses the broader problems of systemic racism by focusing too narrowly on individuals. Having recognized that good intentions are not enough, it is surprising that many activists continue to focus their energies on consciousness raising and vigilance at the personal level. We need to create environments where goodness can flourish and where unconscious biases do not have the opportunity to take root.
Much of this transformation needs to take place on the level of policy. Past efforts to address gender discrimination at Harvard Business School and the effect of stereotype threat on standardized testing have shown that relatively small interventions can have disproportionately large effects on outcomes. Meanwhile, not enough research has been done on the specific initiatives that may improve racial outcomes. Organizations like the Center for Policing Equity and Solving Disparities are addressing this knowledge gap in the fields of policing and healthcare to develop solutions that can shape a better culture. Those of us who hope to improve our culture should do the same in our organizational spaces. It is not enough to merely talk about the need for diversity and inclusion— campuses need to develop policies to ensure these norms are met, and most importantly, they need to develop tools to measure outcomes over time. Harvard’s newly announced sexual assault climate survey is a great model for racial justice activism. The more we know about racial outcomes, the better we can assess our efforts to combat discrimination.
While we work to improve racial outcomes in our spaces, we also must work to develop a sustainable culture around activism. While I appreciate Bennett’s piece for the questions it raises, the tone and title of the piece were clearly designed to provoke and alienate white allies. I am especially troubled by Bennett’s criticism of white people who “expect to be rewarded for their decency.” The very reason that we engage in activism, especially when it is risky or unpleasant, is because we hope to be rewarded, whether in the form of accolades, future benefits, or divine favor.
Given the right incentives, even the most timid ally can be emboldened to challenge systems of oppression. Given the wrong ones, even committed radicals soon burn out. Because fighting for change offers so little in the way of financial and social security, it is imperative that we create communities that nourish and support this work—places where doing good feels good.
“Good” white people are a key resource in the fight for racial equality. We should work to create environments where they can stay that way.
Taonga R. Leslie ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, is a sociology concentrator in Winthrop House.