Here’s What I Tell White People When They Ask How They Can Help Fight Systemic Racism and Oppression

“What can I do to help?”

I get asked variations of this question a lot. Mostly by white women. At times, by a white man. I remember Malcolm X’s regrettable response in his autobiography to a “co-ed white girl” when she asked him this question. Malcolm would later reflect:

I’d never seen anyone I ever spoke before more affected than this little white girl. Her clothes, her carriage, her accent, all showed Deep South breeding and money.

This woman was so inspired by a speech that Malcolm had given at a college in New England, she took the highly unusual and proactive step to fly to New York and tracked Malcolm down in his beloved Harlem. This “blond co-ed” asked Malcolm what a white person like herself could do to help further the cause? He responded with a cold (and, at that time, heartfelt), “Nothing.”

What Can Justice-Minded White People Actually Do?

I have worked with White people who knew exactly what to do. They jumped in as accomplices and collaborators to do the hard and life-long work of dismantling white supremacy through education, social services, etc. They recognized that wrestling with white privilege is their responsibility and I see them working to raise their own children in a way that will have a dismantling effect on the racism that America was founded on.

However, there are many others who struggle to know what to do. I recently spoke with students at the University of Pennsylvania and this question inevitably came up.

We were discussing schools and the oppressive forces that align against student achievement: crippling and unconstitutional school funding systems, untreated trauma, neglected communities, ineffective schools, etc. Unfortunately, this small list isn’t exhaustive.

We spent time discussing “no excuses” schools and finding the way to maintain a child’s dignity and the fallacy that students, Black students especially, can escape the many traps laid for them without self-control and discipline. We dove into the complexities of the university-secondary school partnerships and the topic I am always happy to engage: the gulf between what school choice looks like in poor Black communities versus affluent White communities.

I smiled when the inevitable question arose. What can I do?

If you’re sincere, “Get your people!”

There are white people who have engaged in the lifelong and difficult work of deconstructing white supremacy and begin with working on themselves and their people. They read books, attend workshops, have difficult conversations and access resources that will help.

Bias impacts us all, it’s like an infective cloud. Often, folks elect politicians who are unwilling to actively confront their biases. These politicians inevitably implement what amounts to racist policies that dovetails with the institutional racism that has oppressed communities of color forever. That’s one area that folks can start. One thing you can do to help is to commit to ending the political lives of those who oppress through policies.

For example, Pennsylvania is ranked 46th in the country in state contributions to students’ educational funding. That means there are only four more states that are more oppressive than Pennsylvania’s General Assembly. (Congratulations on this distinction, lawmakers!)

Pennsylvania is one of 14 states that funds its schools with an asinine formula that provides the poorest schools, which typically have the most need, with the fewest resources. Needless to say, many of these schools have a high number of Black children.

Another report (there are several) highlights more of Pennsylvania’s inequities. The Education Law Center recently released a report that (again) calls out the oppressive racial and class inequities in Pennsylvania’s school funding system.

“Pennsylvania school districts with above-average populations of students of color receive less state funding per-pupil than districts with above-average white populations, even when both districts have similar levels of poverty,” the report said.  This report cites a study showing that Pennsylvania schools with the fewest white students are shortchanged by almost $2,000 per pupil.

So, sincere White people, here is a place you can start. Be angry. Don’t just shake your head and say, “That’s a shame. All children should have funding for their schools.” That is hardly enough. Start with getting angry. Be angered like if it was your traumatized children suffering through dilapidated buildings, scarce resources, and not enough staff or supports.

Act as if it was your own bearing the brunt of America’s worst policies and help right the wrongs through direct, political, and economical action. Don’t just quietly lament that so many of society’s ills are heaped on the youngest and most vulnerable citizens. Get angry. And, then, do something about it.

Yes, feel free to tweet and post your anger, attend marches, hell, wear your safety pins. But, go beyond that. If your state legislator does not support the research that shows that in order to reach equity in PA’s schools, it must spend 3 billion more dollars, you need to go all out in getting them removed from office in the next election.

What can you do?

Push to have state legislators removed from office if s/he refuses to support equitable distribution of the state’s dollars. Those politicians who support Pennsylvania’s current formula, which only fairly distributes 6% of the state’s funding, don’t deserve to be in office because this type of stance is not service—it’s state sanctioned oppression. Malcolm would later say,

I regret that I told her she could do ‘nothing.’ I wish now that I knew her name, or where I could telephone her, and tell her what I tell white people now when they present themselves as being sincere, and ask me, one way or another, the same thing that she asked.

Well, I’ve lived to regret that incident….Something like this kills a lot of argument. . . I tell sincere white people, ‘Work in conjunction with us… Let sincere white individuals find all other white people they can who feel as they do – work trying to convert other white people who are thinking and acting so racist.

Malcolm X came to the realization that perhaps there was plenty the “little blond co-ed” could have done and, perhaps, she could have played an important role as a collaborator.

So, sincere White people, there is much you can do. But you can start with ensuring those who have skewed views of fairness and harbor racist views of school funding find their way out of office.

What do you think?

About the author

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.

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