White People Work

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“White people … believe they have so little to learn.”

The statement struck me. Hard. It made me feel curious and uncomfortable, and so I explored it.

Firstly, because deep down, I feel it is true.

Secondly, because deeper down, I don’t want to believe it is true.

And finally, because deep in the pit of my stomach, I fear that it is true of myself.

This is a line from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s last book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” Written in 1967, Dr. King reflects on where the Civil Rights Movement had come, and how Constitutional assurances like voting rights and desegregation (on paper) were not enough to create community and moral assurances, like housing, income, education, health care, and true integration. Not just a society that would welcome Black Americans into it, but truly bring the nation to “a higher destiny, to a new plateau of compassion, to a more noble expression of human kindness.”

The full statement here:

“It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn. The reality of substantial investment to assist Negroes into the twentieth century, adjusting to Negro neighbors and genuine school integration, is still a nightmare for all too many white Americans.”

As a Canadian, I actively chose to mute the word American, mostly because I see this statement as ringing all too true for white people everywhere. I see it so vividly reflected in how Canadians treat First Nations and Indigenous peoples.

“Hold your horses!” you might be saying. “That’s not me! I’m not one of those white people … I’m one of the good ones! Your white guilt is your own, keep it that way!”

Here’s the thing: every single one of us has work to do. We need to make a commitment to learning – not only about the lived experiences of others, but how our own privilege holds us back from the very important learning that needs to take place. Stuff on paper is important, but not as important as actually changing minds and hearts of everyone in the community to create something better for everyone. Imagine, true equality. Now realize: this takes ownership and commitment to learning.

No more “yeah, buts” or “not my problems”. It is going to feel uncomfortable. We need to recognize that white feelings aren’t more important than marginalized lives. It is hard to admit we have a lot to learn, and even harder to commit to the hard work of learning.

 

A Commitment to Lifelong Learning

The concept of “lifelong learning” was one that I embraced very early in my career. I worked for an organisation that worked alongside adult learners in helping to create a framework for provincial policies around adult education. These individuals were incredible – people from different countries who were learning English, individuals who were working to get their highschool diploma while they helped their own kids with homework, individuals whose experiences (both lived and indirectly) with the Residential School System had made them fierce advocates for better education for all people, especially those who were left scarred by the heinous crime of being robbed of their families, their culture, their innocence.

I learned a lot from these incredible individuals.

But I don’t feel I learned enough. Not only because my job or the systems in place didn’t allow it, but in many ways, I didn’t allow it. My role made me feel great to be working for change (white girl hero cookie!), but at the end of the day if it all fell apart, I was allowed to say “welp, at least I tried!” and move on if it didn’t work.

Even when the practice of “lifelong learning” is embraced, a very different scenario may play out – too often our learning comes from the place of teaching. Too often, we feel we have lessons to give. Our role defaults to that of teacher, not of learner, when it comes to trying to understand people with lived experiences so different than our own.

Don’t get me wrong. There is a time for teaching. But more important is the space we make for learning. And listening. And making a commitment to do something.

The social change we dream of requires us to listen, learn and act.

“First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., April 16 1963

Too often we are “uneasy with injustice, but unwilling yet to pay a significant price to eradicate it.” 

We can safely correct statements like “Black Lives Matter” with, “well actually, ALL lives matter!” and still rest on the laurels of “not all white people.”

We can say things like “well, I had a pretty rough childhood too, but you don’t see me complaining! I’m thriving!”

We can feel heartbroken that over 4000 Indigenous women in Canada are missing or murdered, and turn around to accept our Prime Minister’s answer of “it’s not the right time” when asked why we’ve yet to see an inquiry.

We can claim that lifelong learning – learning activity undertaken throughout life, with the aim of improving knowledge, skills and competences within a personal, professional, civic, and social perspective – is important to us, and yet close ourselves down to the deep intricacies that this kind of learning requires us to embrace.

Real change starts with truly listening and truly learning. It’s going to require us to be uncomfortable, and ultimately let go of the privilege we hold as white people. 

True lifelong learning isn’t just about knowledge collection. This isn’t grade 5, and we’re not memorizing and spewing facts. We’re working towards “a higher destiny, to a new plateau of compassion, to a more noble expression of human kindness.”

This comes from unselfishly embracing all that others have to teach us. An openness to learning.

Let us be part of that work, and not a barrier to it.