June 19, 2020

Attack the problem of racism without disengaging the people

The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless others have sparked mass protests around the country and a wave of Black Lives Matter and Anti-Racist posts on social media. In just four years, many people of color have experienced a reversal in the long fight for civil rights and a society where racism is a thing of the past. The president praises white, armed domestic terrorists while condemning the protesters as thugs and a disgrace to society. The death of George Floyd was the last straw, and proved, as Trevor Noah succinctly put it, “the contract that (black people) have signed with society is not being honored by the society that forced them to sign it.”

Protests have been documented in all 50 states, exposing the injustices that continue to plague our society. As a biracial woman myself, I have experienced both implicit racism and the common microaggressions that damage my self-image and cause me to question my self-worth. Like so many others, I am sickened and angry with the way black men and women have been shot down over and over again. I believe there is no place for racism in this society, and we must do better as a country. We must hold our leaders accountable, and we have to create the change by voting, protesting and resisting systemic racism.

Over the course of these trying times, I’ve seen many of my friends posting about how to be anti-racist -- that is, working to dismantle the inherent racist ideologies and stereotypes with which many white Americans view the world. On social media, I saw many posts from both friends and influencers about how to actively be anti-racist and how to be part of the solution rather than the problem. It was heartening to see how much my friends cared and how much they wanted to see change in the world.

Author Ashley Mickens graduated from Miami in May, 2020. Photo provided by MQ Magazine

After several days, I started to see a trend in the posts they shared: a large majority of them tried to make viewers feel uncomfortable or even ashamed. They called out people in a way that was designed to make them feel guilty. At first, I thought this was a brilliant tactic. The posts were even getting through to me, making me feel like I should be doing more to support the movement. I could only imagine what it was doing for white people. I have seen guilt convict people, motivate them to change and do better.

However, as I talked to some of my white, brown and black friends and family members, I realized that kind of guilt could also lead to fear and anger. This anger has caused Trump and people at his rallies to yell “send them back” to American citizens of color. This anger has caused people to direct racial slurs at my dad and brothers -- this happened on the same day in two different states. This anger has also caused a professor at my alma mater to use racial slurs against protesters at a peaceful rally.

The idea of being anti-racist implies that many white people have actually been racist all along, and that doesn’t sit well with them. While anger over posts is the response of some, other people simply shut down and withdraw when confronted by the changes taking place in America or the suggestion that they should be part of the changes. These responses all fall under what anti-racist educator Robin DiAngelo calls “white fragility,” which often causes people to behave defensively when experiencing stressful situations involving race.

Being uncomfortable is a necessary part of change, but for some people, being uncomfortable stops them from participating. Now, I’m not arguing that people should be comfortable all the time. Being uncomfortable and challenged is an important part of growth, not only in individuals but also in society. These feelings spur actions of change in communities and the country. I am arguing that using solely the tactic of guilt will alienate just as many people as it calls to action. Posting that your silence is perpetuating racism or threatening to end friendships over racist comments or ideals will work for some people, but it will also push others further away.

My recommendation is this: There should be a balance between posts that use guilt to call people to action and posts that draw guilt-ridden individuals into conversation where they may otherwise be cut off. Yes, I definitely think emotion, especially guilt, can move people with powerful results. People need to be held accountable for their racism. The posts on how to be anti-racist or the ones that call people out for being complacent are necessary and have provided direction for the BLM movement in its attempt to dismantle systematic racism and end police brutality. However, there also needs to be a way to continue the conversation after pointing out and condemning racist words, actions and ideals in order to create lasting change in our society.

The biggest questions for me are these: How do we get people to change not only their behavior but also their way of thinking about race? If this movement fizzles out, will people still engage in anti-racist behaviors and actions? Will society implement lasting changes or will things simply revert to the way they were before?

These questions keep me up at night. I don't think answers will come quickly or easily, but one thought has emerged: We cannot expect one approach for change to work; we need many. Just as there are many parts and roles in a successful movement, we need many approaches to this complex problem, and posts causing people to feel guilty should not be the only approach to implement lasting changes.

While I am completely against letting people get away with racist words and actions, we need a variety of responses to determine the best course of action. To start, you can ask why. Why did the police officers feel it was acceptable to kill an innocent man in the street? Why did the professor feel it was acceptable to use racial slurs against members of the community? Why did those people call my dad and brother racial slurs while they were minding their own business in public? In some situations, guilting people is the best way to handle the issue and spread awareness. In others, it may be starting an honest conversation, taking judiciary action, amplifying black voices, organizing a protest, speaking out against racist ideals or a variety of other actions that will bring justice to the memories of our fallen brothers and sisters.

Many people of color in America are struggling to breathe, and some like George Floyd have stopped breathing completely under the weight of societal racism. When racism should be addressed and condemned by our political and community leaders, they have failed us. The mantle has fallen to us; we the people. It is not going to be comfortable. It is not going to be easy. But something has to give, and it is not going to be us. We stand for justice, fairness and equality in many ways.

If you’re reading this and you feel uncomfortable, ask yourself why. Congratulations. You’ve just taken the first step toward being part of the solution.

Take the next step. Learn more and read more. Here are some places to start:

Black Lives Matter

What is Privilege?

Unpacking the invisible knapsack

Explaining Privilege to a Broke White Person

White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo

How to be Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi

Being Anti-Racist

Solidarity Is


This column originally appeared in the June 9 edition of MQ Magazine and is reprinted here with MQ’s permission. Ashley Mickens graduated in May 2020 from Miami University with a bachelor of arts  in environmental earth science & sustainability, a minor in French and a concentration in European culture & society. She is currently a contributing editor for Oceanbites, a marine science blog, and she occasionally does photography for MQ Magazine. While the pandemic has put many of her plans on hold, Ashley plans to join the Nautilus Live expedition sometime next year for a research cruise in the Pacific. For now, Ashley is applying to jobs that focus on building a more sustainable future and enjoying afternoons spent reading in her hammock.