Guest Essay: Justin Michael Williams on Ending RacismAug 28, 2020
This essay originally appeared at this link on justinmichaelwilliams.com. Thank you to Justin for allowing us to repost it on Commune — we love supporting the work you do.
Almost every piece of work or literature that I’ve read on racism is built on one assumption: that it cannot end.
Or at best, that it will be a “lifelong fight.” That ending racism will be something that “will probably never happen in our generation.”
Most of the quotes you hear about the fight against racism sound something like this:
"We used to say that ours is not the struggle of one day, one week, or one year. Ours is not the struggle of one judicial appointment or presidential term. Ours is the struggle of a lifetime, or maybe even many lifetimes, and each one of us in every generation must do our part."
~ John Lewis, late civil rights leader and former U.S. Representative
But, if we all continue to say, “racism is something that can never end in our generation.” Then who the hell ever gets to take responsibility for ending it?
We still have a dream. But we are the vessel for the dreams our ancestors were unable to dream.
The current work and research on anti-racism is phenomenal, and so is the tireless work that has been done by our ancestors for generations. But much of this work has one fatal flaw—it’s created from the automatic assumption (whether subconscious or conscious) that racism is unlikely to ever end. And if that’s our starting point, —if that’s the plateau from which we’re writing our books, creating our podcasts, and doing our activism and anti-racism work—then we’re missing a big opportunity here.
I’m not saying becoming an anti-racist or dismantling white supremacy isn’t important work. The current anti-racist and equality work has real impact—it’s saving lives. It’s creating systemic change. It’s bringing us together. And that matters—tremendously. I’m also not minimizing the centuries of incredible work done by civil rights leaders like John Lewis, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Patrisse Cullors, and the countless names we’ll never know. Without them, we would never have the opportunity to even consider ending racism.
What I am saying is this: Imagine how much more important our work becomes if it were done in a different context. If it were done not just as some sort of bootcamp “to be in a lifelong fight,” but with a common, united goal of actually ending racism in this generation.
Here’s what fighting against something looks like:
Here’s what moving toward something looks like:
Congressman John Lewis was right. Our generation does have the opportunity to do something incredible. We have the opportunity to end racism. And to do it within this generation.
Notice what comes up for you when I say, “end racism.”
Notice what you feel when we put a timeline on it.
Are you thinking to yourself, “Who does this guy think he is?” Are you wishing I would define race and racism? Hoping for a plan?
Good. That’s all part of our pathway forward.
But before we can begin to look at how to end racism—both systemic and internalized—I think it’s important that we understand what makes racism persist. Because once you’ve been stuck in a condition—once you’ve been working on the same recurring problem over and over to no end—it becomes important to shift the question from, “What is the problem?” to, “Why does the problem continue to persist in the first place?”
And in part, racism persists because of these five shared, yet individual assumptions:
- Racism is unavoidable.
- Race matters.
- “Those people” will never change.
- Real change takes a long time.
- We don’t know how to end it.
What do I mean by “shared, yet individual assumptions”?
Before we can even get into breaking down any concepts about ending racism, we have to first explore what I mean by “shared, yet individual assumptions.” We must own and acknowledge that we, as individuals and as a collective, see things through a certain lens, or perspective. And if enough people agree on a certain perspective, then that perspective becomes our collective reality and belief. And I’m not talking about the woo-woo “law of attraction” stuff here (even though I love that stuff), I’m talking about perception and belief in the most tangible way.
For example, throughout much of ancient history, it was widely believed that the Earth was flat. People literally thought if they travelled far enough, they might fall off the edge of the Earth into an abyss of nothingness. Ancient civilizations from Greece and Egypt to Asia all believed this to be true, so they created a reality based upon that belief. We see it depicted in art, stories, religion, and ultimately, their shared beliefs about the world.
Now, I know you might be thinking, “We’ve evolved beyond that sort of foolery,” but let’s look at another untrue, yet harmless shared perspective that we all maintain today: our belief that the sun “sets.”
There’s a shared perspective that the sun sets, but the sun doesn’t really set. Think about it. Would the sun appear to set from the perspective of an astronaut who is far away from the Earth’s orbit? No. The Earth would be turning on its axis as it circles around the sun.
But from our shared perspective here on the planet, there’s an agreed-upon belief that the sun sets. On the foundation of this belief we’ve created our reality, the structure of our lives, and our world.
This leads me to an important point: Our world is created upon shared beliefs, even if those beliefs aren’t necessarily true.
So, to end racism, we must first own and acknowledge that we, as individuals and as a collective, see things through a sometimes-faulty lens. And if enough people choose to see through the same faulty lens (for example: Black people should be slaves, women are inferior), then that chosen perspective becomes the context through which we live our lives. In essence, if enough people share the same socially perceived illusions, those illusions cause a certain “way of life” to persist.
Now, with that in mind, let’s dismantle the five faulty perspectives that might be causing racism to persist.
#1 Racism is unavoidable
Here’s the thing: It’s been proven by neuroscientists and psychologists that racism is learned—it’s not some automatic human condition that we’re born with. It’s not something that “just happens” as a result of putting a bunch of diverse people on a planet together. And I’m not sharing this with you as an idea or opinion. It is widely respected and proven by science that racism itself is not “a given.” It’s not unavoidable.
What is likely unavoidable, however, is the fact that we create what’s called “in-groups” and “out-groups” to keep ourselves safe. And terror management studies show that we have a tendency to treat people in our “in-group” more kindly and people in our “out group” more harshly. Yet, even with this scientific knowledge, the idea of using race as a way of defining our “in-group” and “out-group” is something we can eliminate—if we try.
But we the people are funny creatures. When we can’t figure out a quick solution to something, most of us label it as “unavoidable.” Inevitable. Unfortunate, but unlikely to change.
Yet, the idea that racism is “unavoidable” would be like saying the Holocaust was “unavoidable” or that American slavery was “unavoidable” or that refusing the LGBTQIA+ community the right to marry was “unavoidable.”
There’s a real danger in saying something is unavoidable, because we immediately absolve ourselves of taking responsibility to change it. We throw our hands up in the air and say, “Welp, can’t do anything about that.”
Can’t do anything about slavery...
Can’t do anything about gay marriage...
Can’t do anything about the spread of HIV...
Can’t do anything about women’s rights...
Can’t do anything about racism…
Until somebody does.
#2 Race matters
I’m going to say something that’s sometimes hard for people to face, especially for my fellow people of color: Race is a complete fabrication of the human mind that’s used for power and control. It’s a social construct. A delusion. An imaginary truth (or alternative fact, if you will) that we’ve all continued to build our lives and civilizations upon.
“There is no such thing as race. None. There is just a human race—scientifically, anthropologically.”
~ Toni Morrison, novelist and professor
Now, I want to be very clear here: I don’t want for you to think for one second that I’m saying the effects of racism aren’t real. The trauma, the deaths, the lives lost, and the impact of racism—and the persistent collective belief in the idea of “race”—has had very real consequences. It has created wars, dismantled countries, pitted religions against one another, and taken innocent Black and Brown lives for generations. Racism has caused incredible harm and trauma, which cannot be minimized.
I’m also not suggesting we put our cultures, values, and traditions into a Vitamix to make some vegan “we are all one” race-less smoothie. We don’t need to give up our culture, values, and traditions or become one big “melting pot” in order to end racism.
What we have the opportunity to do is far greater than that.
So, while this can be triggering or hard to stomach: The concept of race is literally IMAGINARY. Someone created it to gain and maintain power and control. And now we use it to control ourselves.
Race is not real.
Heritage is real.
Culture is real.
Tradition is real.
Appropriation is real.
Skin color is real.
Trauma is real.
But race—not real.
Or... it’s as real as we make it.
For comparison, and to understand this more clearly, let's consider the concept of gender. While sex is a biological fact of nature (we are born with different anatomy), gender is a cultural/historical interpretation. Gender is not a fact.
Skin color is a biological fact. Race is a cultural/historical interpretation.
Race is not a fact.
The thing is, I don’t think most of us actually care that much about race. Sure, we care about our traditions, cultures, ancestors, customs, languages, and especially our foods and religious landmarks—but race? REALLY?
Take a moment to think about it. If you could keep all of your traditions, customs, and practices, and the beauty of who we all are as differentiated unique humans with our own rituals and historical contexts; if you could continue assembling with like-minded individuals and celebrating your values and diversity; if you could keep all that and be treated equally with the humanity and dignity that is your birthright… how important would the individual concept of “race” be? What’s it for? What’s its function?
I gotta give it to the person who came up with the concept of “race” as a means to enforce power and control, because if their mission was to separate us—well, it worked.
Racism created race, not the other way around.
We were taught to care about race, so we did. Now, here we are—all of us—holding onto this “thing” that we don’t even really care about, but that’s causing us harm and pain and war and genocide and trauma over and over and over, and then saying...
“Even though we don’t care about this...
Even though it’s not real...
Even though it’s causing us harm…
It’s unlikely to ever end.”
#3 “Those people” will never change
There is a commonly held belief that “those people” will never change, yet all throughout life, we can point to and tell stories of people who have changed. And not just “people out there,” but people in your life and family line.
I think about my buddy Greg, a white guy who grew up in Tennessee with a bunch of racist friends and family members who believed “Black people were stupid and lazy.” He said, “I used to believe that if Black people were making 20% less than whites, it’s because Black people must be working 20% less hard or weren’t as smart or capable… that something must be wrong with them genetically. Especially because I had always thought everyone had the same equal access to opportunity.”
Greg went on to say, “If I hadn’t dramatically fucked up my life… if I would’ve still been working in finance, with a house on a lake and a bunch of ‘toys’ like many of the people I grew up with, I would probably still be a white supremacist with a Confederate flag hanging from my truck.”
But that’s not the Greg I know. The Greg I know went through a massive change 15 years ago. And the reason we met was because I gave a talk at his company about ending racism and he came up to me afterward asking for resources to help his 5-year-old son grow up on the right side of history. Greg is committed to making sure his young white son doesn’t grow up racist—and even though Greg is doing his own anti-racist work, he was afraid he wasn’t equipped to teach his son properly. (I referred him to Layla Saad’s upcoming youth book and A Kids Book about Racism by Jelani Memory.)
Greg, a man who used to be a racist white supremacist, is now someone who cares deeply about social justice. And the change didn’t happen when he was 12. It happened when he was 35.
We all know a Greg. They’re not rare. Point to your once-racist family members, your formerly tone-deaf coworkers, your used-to-be homophobic relatives, and the ways in which you’ve personally grown over the years.
People change all the time.
Racists are not exempt.
So, to me, the question becomes: What causes people to change?
Is it always for selfish reasons?
For financial gain?
Does it take a personal relationship?
A direct experience?
Do they need to “fuck up their life” like Greg did?
Fine. Instead of arguing over what are the “right” and “wrong” reasons for change, let’s use them to our advantage and create a model for racial healing where those conditions can be met, and met quickly.
#4 Real change takes a long time
Okay, so let’s assume we’re in agreement here. But even if we all agree racism is avoidable, that we don’t really care about the concept of race, and that people can change, ending racism in our generation is still unrealistic, because real change takes a long time. Right?
You already know what’s coming…
But before I say it, let’s look at some of the most massive changes in recent human history. The “start” and “end” dates below represent unmistakable widespread shifts. Keep in mind, a generation is typically considered to be 20-25 years.
- (1973) The first phone call made on a handheld cellular phone 🡪 (1995) Widespread global use of mobile phones = 22 years
- (1991) Creation of the World Wide Web 🡪 (2001) Total widespread use of the internet = 10 years
- (1981) First documented case of HIV in the U.S.🡪 (1995) Ability to detect, treat, and live with HIV = 14 years
- (2004) First U.S. state legalizes same-sex marriage 🡪 (2015) National legalization of same-sex marriage = 11 years
- (1831) First knowledge of slaves escaping through the Underground Railroad and the start of abolitionism 🡪 (1865) End of the Civil War = 34 years
- (1903) Wright brothers take first flight 🡪 (1920) Widespread commercial airline travel begins = 17 years
- (1929) Start of the Great Depression 🡪 (1945) End of the Great Depression = 16 years
- (1933) Hitler’s first position of leadership and the formation of the Nazi Party 🡪 (1945) End of the Holocaust = 12 years
- (1957) First satellite launched into space 🡪 (1969) Man lands on the moon = 12 years
So, I ask the question again: Does real change take a “long time”?
In almost all of these cases, it took less than one generation (20-25 years) to make widespread global change.
Does every change in human history fall into this timeline? Of course not. Were there years of unrewarded labor that came before the cited “start” dates. Absolutely. My intention is not to minimize the generations of work that have come before us, but to help you notice that once the ground has been prepared—which it is now—real change can happen. And it can happen fast.
So, let’s clean that smudge off of our dirty lens of perception and move on to the final point.
#5 We don’t know how to end it
If we knew how to end racism, we would’ve already ended it… right?
(… do I even need to say it?)
The assumption that we “don’t know” how to end racism assumes there are no solutions. But that’s not true.
There are plenty of not just good, but excellent solutions for ending racism that were created by researchers, anti-racist scholars, universities, and entire college campuses dedicated to the cause. For generations, people have created models, systems, structures, and written The New York Times bestselling books—any of which could easily solve this problem. And not just hypothetically—there’s proof: We’ve seen the problem solved in micro but significant ways all throughout time—in our organizations, communities, and families.
We aren’t waiting for “better solutions”—just like we weren’t waiting for “better solutions” to end slavery and we didn’t need “better solutions” to end the Holocaust.
As a society, as individuals, and as a collective—we needed to be willing and ready.
And the same thing stands today.
We need to be willing and ready for our solutions to work.
“Are we so bound to our pain that we are not ready for liberation?”
~ Nico Cary, writer and mindfulness teacher
So… if none of these things are causing racism to persist:
- If “Racism is unavoidable” is an inaccurate perspective, and
- “Race matters” is an inaccurate perspective, and
- “’Those people’ will never change” is an inaccurate perspective, and
- “Real change takes a long time” is an inaccurate perspective, and
- “We don’t know how to end it” is an inaccurate perspective…
… then what do we need to do to get racism to end?
Well, the same thing you do to get racism to persist—you change the shared perspective.
The purpose of this article was not to give you better solutions to end racism or a step-by-step plan on how to do it, it was to get you to consider that ending racism in this generation may not just be possible, but realistic—if we’re willing and ready.
One of my dear mentors, Jim Selman, always says, “There are lots of conversations ‘about’ change, but that’s different than conversations that actually change something.”
The key to any major shift in the world has always been the same: getting enough people to not just believe a cause “matters,” but to believe that change is possible. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of London discovered in a 2018 study that it takes the support of just 25% of people to make a major social shift in the world.
You might be thinking, “Well, aren’t there already 25% of people who believe racism can end in this generation?”
I don’t think so.
I think more than 25% of people want racism to end.
I think more than 25% of people believe racism is wrong.
I think more than 25% of people think the fight against racism matters.
But I don’t think 25% of people have actually considered that they could be personally responsible for ending racism in this generation. I don’t think 25% of people think it can start with us. And it’s time to change that.
Our call now is simple—it’s to get people to believe.
We can’t fight to “end police brutality” just for the sake of “ending police brutality,” we need to fight against police brutality for the sake of ending racism. We shouldn’t be “dismantling white supremacy” just for the sake of “creating more diversity in the workplace” or “becoming nice white people,” we need to dismantle white supremacy with the intention of ending racism.
We cannot continue to fight for the liberation of our people just to have them encaged again; we must continue to fight for the liberation of our people to end racism in this generation.
If we want to have a breakthrough in ending racism, then we need to realize that it’s not going to happen unless we agree on a timeline for ending it. Saying it’s going to end “someday” is not a commitment. But if we put a stake in the ground and say we are going to end it in our generation, possibilities open up. A new reality emerges.
Racism can end—and it can end in this generation—if we believe it can. Because if we believe it can, we shift the context of the world.
What do we do next?
The goal now is to get as many people as possible to consider that racism can and should end in this generation.
And like any meaningful change, we start by doing the work both internally and with our families, friends, colleagues, and communities. And ultimately, on a global scale—each of us spreading seeds of possibility to the corners of the earth that only we can reach.
You see, this is not about stopping the work that we’re already doing, this is about doing it with a new purpose, a new intention, a new meaning, and a realizable goal. This is about using every means available to us now and every means that becomes available to us in the future to move beyond resignation and fulfill our new, shared and individual perspective that racism can—and will—end in this generation.
Here are five ways that you can help right now:
- Sign the pledge. We’ve created a Pledge to End Racism with a goal of getting 25% of the population to sign it. If we get 1.9 billion people to sign the pledge, we have enough power to end racism not just in the U.S., but throughout the world.
- Donate. We launched the Ending Racism Grant & Scholarship Fund to support vetted individuals and grassroots organizations who have taken the Pledge to End Racism. Donate or apply here.
- Stream this song as much as you can. All proceeds go straight to our mission to end racism.
- Show your support. Display the Pledge to End Racism graphic on your website, social media, or on the bumper of your car. Remember, this is about spreading an idea.
- Share. This article is a free resource. Copy it, paste it, post it, debate it, and share it in your newsletters. Do whatever you want with it—but do it with the goal of ending racism.
And when an opportunity arises for you to end racism, you will. I can’t tell you exactly what you will do, because I don’t know exactly what opportunity will arise for you next, but when it comes—you will know. And you’ll have a choice to either end racism, or not. And you will.
I leave you with this…
My sister Shelly Tygielski, founder of Pandemic of Love, once said something so dear to me that I want to pass it along to you. She said, “There are two types of people in this world. The what if’s and the why not’s… don’t be a what if. They are paralyzed in their analysis. Be a why not. Why not me? Why not now? Why not us? Why not believe… and then see what happens next?”
So, the next time someone says racism can’t end, lovingly reply with: Why not? Then, send them this article.
We the people… we still have a dream. It’s a new dream.
We are the vessel for the dreams our ancestors were unable to dream.
We are exactly who was meant to be alive at this time.
We are enough.
And we rise—together.
About the Author
Justin Michael Williams works at the intersection of music, mindfulness, and social justice. With his groundbreaking book, Stay Woke, and over a decade of teaching experience, Justin has become a pioneering voice for diversity and inclusion in wellness. Learn more at www.justinmichaelwilliams.com
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