What White People Must Do to Support #RJ4BlackLives

[Featured image: Victoria Pickering via Flickr/Creative Commons]

By Andrea Grimes, Cammie Dodson, Jessica Goldberg, Jill E. Adams, Kylee Sunderlin, Lauren Paulk, Sara L. Ainsworth, and Shireen Smalley

“What are you willing to do differently to defend and protect the fullness of Black lives?” 

“What ways are you willing to identify, acknowledge, and uproot the small and big ways you are upholding white supremacy?”

These are questions Kwajelyn Jackson (Executive Director, Feminist Women’s Health Center) and Monica Simpson (Executive Director, SisterSong) asked of thousands of reproductive health, rights, and justice organizers, activists, and supporters as calls to action at Defending Black Bodies: A Reproductive Justice Townhall. As white people working against racism and anti-Blackness and as legal partners to the reproductive justice movement, we carry the responsibility to “live in the answer” to these questions. We offer some of those answers here — not our final answers by any means, but a starting point for conversation and growth as part of If/When/How’s ongoing efforts to build power for “RJ Squared” (reproductive justice is racial justice). 

Wherever and whenever we have grown and evolved in our movement work, it has been upon the powerful foundation built by the Black women who founded the reproductive justice movement, and because of the ongoing intellectual, spiritual, and emotional work of Black and Indigenous women, queer, trans and gender-nonconforming folks of color, and women and people of color leading the movement. 

The practice of law and the legal field more broadly has historically been a profession hostile to people of color and particularly to women, queer, trans, and gender-nonconforming people of color, and is currently a profession where white people are overrepresented and wield undue power. We often say that our work is “changing the face and practice of lawyering for reproductive justice.” But we cannot fulfill this charge unless white people — including the white staff members authoring this post, along with the white people in the wider If/When/How community of over 100 law student chapters and 10,000 alumni — take action to create lasting change.

White people should not need to be asked and invited to dismantle white supremacy again and again; we should be showing up to support Black lives every damn day. We are grateful for the opportunity to learn from #RJ4BlackLives, and we offer the following as more than an invitation to white members of the If/When/How community — we offer this as a call to join us, in two parts. 

First, we’ll talk about some of the individual commitments we’ve made and renewed as white people in response to the #RJ4BlackLives call, and then we’ll offer concrete steps that white law students, lawyers, and other members of the legal profession can take now to work toward dismantling white supremacy.

Editor’s note: Because we are responding dually to questions about defending and protecting Black lives and uprooting white supremacy more broadly, we use both “Black” and the acronym “BIPOC” — Black and Indigenous people of color. Where we address the question of uprooting white supremacy more broadly we use the more expansive acronym “BIPOC.”   

Our commitments:

Make accountability more than a goal; build it as a daily practice. We commit to showing up and doing the work every day. We commit to doing the work for ourselves, not waiting for someone to do the work for us, and not asking BIPOC to educate us. We will caucus with white folks while finding ways to ensure we are centering the work and efforts of BIPOC. We know that committing to accountability also means committing to changing as we learn. This is not a race and there is no finish line — we are not competing for who can become the best white person first, and the work white folks need to do will never be “done.” We must put in to practice what we learn. We must own our mistakes, be ok with being uncomfortable, and keep going. We will listen and follow the lead of BIPOC.

Confront and undo workplace practices rooted in white supremacy. So many non-profit organizations that center social justice fail BIPOC staff and colleagues by continuing to engage in harmful, white supremacist practices. We are not exempt from that truth, and we have a unique duty as a recently recreated organization to identify and eliminate those practices before they take hold and do even greater harm. As white folks at If/When/How, we commit to do the daily work to see and undo white supremacy in ourselves as white colleagues, and in our organization as an institution. We don’t do this organizational work alone – we center the leadership of BIPOC colleagues, we look to BIPOC experts, and we pay them for their expertise. But as white folks, we recognize that we are not bystanders in internal anti-racist work, regardless of our organization’s public-facing goals and programs.

Prioritize impact, not intent, and take responsibility for action and inaction. The effects of our actions are more important than the intention behind them, and being well-intentioned does not guarantee that we will not have caused harm. Feelings of discomfort, guilt, shame, etc. may arise when confronting white supremacy as a white person, but these uncomfortable feelings are not comparable to experiencing a lifetime of racism. When we have caused harm, we commit to repair that harm in a way that centers anti-racism, not our own feelings and power.

Get uncomfortable. The discomfort and stress we as white folks experience when thinking about race, talking about race, and taking action for racial justice is a direct result of challenging our own mental frameworks that were created by and serve white supremacy. We must do something every single day to advance racial justice and tear down white supremacy that takes us out of our comfort zone, including challenging family members, friends and colleagues in the movement; interrogating our own biases; and asking ourselves and others to redistribute white wealth.

We commit to challenging white supremacy as white staff members at If/When/How and as individuals to redirect money, accolades, opportunities, and positions to BIPOC leaders and colleagues. Because of white supremacy, white people are often given recognition and high-profile opportunities to the exclusion of our BIPOC colleagues. We will examine our current roles as well as future invitations that come to us to take paid work, sit on panels, give presentations, participate on boards, etc., and redirect them to our BIPOC colleagues. Even when these conversations require us to challenge people with power over us, we will support the leadership, expertise, and presence of BIPOC leaders and colleagues, rather than centering ourselves. We can build bigger tables with more seats, free up our own seats, or flip over and repurpose tables where the best way forward is a fresh start with BIPOC leading — which includes tables that are solely by and for BIPOC.

Support abolition. We must support movements to defund and dismantle the police and prisons wherever we live, being intentional to follow the leadership of Black people and organizations led by and centering people of color. The past few weeks of uprisings against racism, racist policing, and police violence and brutality have ushered in moments of potential systemic change that are replicable across this country if we commit to roadmaps like 8 to Abolition. We can support Black-led efforts to make our communities safer without police and prisons, including using our voices to advocate to our city council members, county leaders, and state officials that they meet these demands for change. We must use our voices sparingly — when called to do so as co-conspirators — and our skills and resources liberally behind the scenes.

Model anti-racism for our children. Talking to children and young people in our families about racism is important, but awareness is not modeling, and talking is not enough. We must engage in meaningful action personally, interpersonally, and within our communities. If anti-racism is a daily practice for us, we can help our children make it a daily practice, too. We should advocate within the institutions our children are part of — daycares, schools, sports teams, clubs — for anti-racist principles and racial equity in practices and spending, especially by investing our time, resources, and futures in public schools. It is essential that we embolden our white children to think critically about the ways we’re all impacted by white supremacy, the conscious and unconscious ways white people uphold it, and how our collective liberation depends on working to dismantle it. 

Our call to action for fellow white law students and lawyers:

We encourage our fellow white members of the If/When/How community to answer these calls to action from #RJ4BlackLives in ways that feel authentic and meaningful to you. In addition, here are a few actions law students and lawyers are uniquely equipped to take.

Insist on the inclusion of critical race analysis in core law school curriculum, as well as critical race electives. The law is not separate from the people and communities it affects, and our law schools diminish our learning if they fail to include critical race analysis in our legal education — and not just as an elective course, but incorporated into the required curriculum, such as mandatory courses on race and criminal law within the 1L criminal law curriculum. This also means demanding that law schools hire into tenure-track positions BIPOC law professors who bring critical race theory expertise, and that law schools expressly engage in anti-racist internal and institutional work to address white supremacist practices in hiring, tenure decisions, course approval, and admissions. 

Make reproductive justice the lens through which we work, no matter where or what kind of law we practice from the corporate corner office, to direct services, to policy advocacy. Racial justice is reproductive justice, and intersectionality is at the heart of it all. There is no part of our lives that race and racial inequality does not touch, and that includes our work. We can apply an RJ Squared lens to our work product and our workplaces, which may mean changing our work and our workplaces — including having difficult conversations with partners and leaders. If the challenge feels too hard or too dangerous, it’s probably all the more worth taking on — which means it’s essential that we have each others’ backs and show up for our BIPOC colleagues in creating change when the going gets tough.

Redistribute wealth. For those of us who’ve pursued financially lucrative careers in lawyering, opening our wallets and purses is a non-optional part of anti-racist work. Fund organizations that are BIPOC-led/-centered and focused on racial justice. Connect with mutual aid funds and activists who can direct money to individuals, especially BIPOC women, queer, trans, and gender non-conforming people. Contribute to or start scholarships, fellowships, and bar study funds for BIPOC law students and graduates — without strings attached. And giving is just as important for those who’ve taken a different, less financially-remunerative career path, or are still paying down student debt — small, and especially recurring, donations from a lot of people add up. Give what you can and invite others to do the same. 

Identify the skills and privilege we can leverage to support the work of BIPOC individuals and organizations. We  can volunteer to use what we know about the law to take on paperwork and contract analysis for BIPOC-led organizations, or learn how to serve people arrested for rising up against police brutality. Sometimes being able to send a strongly worded letter from someone with “J.D.” or “Esq.” after their name can provide necessary heft to spark change in community and policy work. Learn how this privilege can be used strategically, and always in service of the needs and goals of community members who are most impacted. Consider ways you can use your understanding of and access to legal and policy decision-making spaces to amplify the voices and demands of Black people in your community.

And no matter what …

Keep learning and prepare for the long haul. It’s important for us to stay engaged with the work of dismantling white supremacy long after current waves of public attention to these issues wane. We commit to continuing to study and learn from the teachings of Black people who have been developing solutions, writing, studying, and advocating on these issues for years. Dismantling white supremacy and developing anti-racist practices as an individual and in our communities and organizations will require ongoing learning, reflection, and action. We commit to supporting the leadership of Black people and continuing to push ourselves to do the work of imagining, building, and realizing a better world now and in the future.