You don't read the book Me and White Supremacy, you do the book for 28 days, examining your role in upholding and benefiting from racist structures. Author Layla Saad talks to Eleanor Black.
Me and White Supremacy - who is this book for?
This book is for people who have white privilege - and that includes white people, people who may be biracial and are able to pass as white; and also even sometimes people of colour who are seen as white. The work will look slightly different for them - they have multiple identities so there are some areas in which they benefit from privilege and some areas in which they are on the receiving end of racism.
Can you unpick white exceptionalism (the idea that a holder of white privilege is exempt from the benefits and conditioning of white supremacy)?
If you believe that racism is those people and not you, if you believe that the actions that you take are enough and you don't really need to do further work other than just reading a book and taking in information, then you continue to hold white supremacy in place through non-action. It may not look as violent as traditional outward acts of racism but it's violent in other ways because it makes the assumption that you don't benefit from the system and uphold the system when you do. White exceptionalism operates at the individual level but also certain groups of people may view themselves as exceptions because they live in a certain place or worship a certain way or because they have other identities through which they experience marginalisation, for example being a woman or LGBTQ or disabled. My invitation is to look beyond the binary of "I am either one of the good ones or one of the bad ones" to realising you can have multiple identities and in some of those areas you hold privilege and in some you don't. And both can be happening at the same time.
You talk about being a good ancestor. What does that mean to you?
For me as a black woman delivering this work, what I am really saying is "I am going to teach you how to treat me and people like me as human beings, like you." It is very easy to get pessimistic and stay in anger and grief and bitterness that the work has to be done in the first place. For me, the idea of being a good ancestor is a touchstone, it's the place I return to, to remind me why I am doing the work in the first place. I, in my lifetime, may not see the end of white supremacy and that shouldn't be reason for me then not to do the work. I do this work because I want my children and my children's children to be able to live in a world where they don't have to teach people about their humanity.
What does it mean for people with white privilege to be good ancestors?
Part of the work is this reckoning with yourself and with history and what white people have done throughout the world. You think about your ancestors and there is atonement work that needs to be done there. It's not about getting stuck in shame and guilt but rather reckoning with that history and saying, 'I am going to become an ancestor too one day. What will I have contributed to this white history? What is the change that will come forth because of the way I have chosen to show up in the world?'
What is the difference between white saviourism and using white privilege to help make change?
This idea of using privilege for good is one that makes me very uncomfortable because that phrasing itself doesn't really underscore the fact that white privilege comes at the cost of black and brown marginalisation. You can't use something for good which is a form of oppression. But you can be less harmful and make more space. Being less harmful looks like listening more than talking in spaces where you are with people of colour. Giving up opportunities that can go to people of colour. In what ways are you willing to be uncomfortable, to put yourself on the line? It's not using your privilege, it's losing your privilege.
So thinking, I know that people listen to me and I have a platform so I am going to start talking about racism - that's not helpful?
Right, because what happens when white people do that is that other white people are more likely to listen to you than they are to listen to us. What that means is you are teaching about our experiences when you don't have our experiences. You have actually caused harm with your whiteness without even realising it, so the better thing to do is to redirect them to black and brown teachers and to share what work you're doing. As a black woman who talks a lot, I get to be on the receiving end of a lot of racism, sexism, all of those lovely isms. People say, "Oh, you just don't like white people." When a white person starts talking about race people say, "Oh you're so brave, thank you for leading this conversation, thank you for being an activist." They're not, they really haven't risked anything at all. We are risking our mental, physical emotional safety and don't get that kind of feedback at all.
Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad (Quercus, $38)