White folks being anti-racist: How do we become useful?

Written by Richard Gelb, Environmental Public Health Planner, Department of Public Health, ProTech17

The systems of whiteness and racism in society have been more greatly revealed through the COVID-19 emergency. We see the historic and ongoing racial differences in the quality, affordability, and access to housing, health care, jobs, education, transportation, and technology resulting in disproportionately higher risk of infections for people of color.

Pictured: Author Richard Gelb, bottom left, with other members of the Antiracist White Action Group (ARWAG).

King County’s Antiracist White Action Group (ARWAG), one of several official Employee Resource Groups, helps white employees train themselves away from harmful behaviors and become more poised to constructively engage in change.

My experience as a member of ARWAG has allowed me to become involved in working to change systems of oppression that benefit white people. This work has shown me that antiracist behavior is about interrupting – seeing and countering momentum of racial inequity in real time – or follow-up steps. It can be hard to do, but my skills and ability have been enhanced by joining white colleagues that want to advance racial justice.

This includes seeing systems of whiteness, that are revealed in ourselves and others, and learning, through role play, how to respond in the moment to support more equitable access for, and treatment of colleagues, customers, and residents who identify as Black, Indigenous, and people of color. We learn and practice together – and implement a work program focused on white culture change that is guided by other Affinity Groups.

By working on equity and social justice and being part of ARWAG, I now see the system of “whiteness” showing up in both obvious and subtle ways, for example:

  • during hiring panels, as comments like ‘they seem like a good fit’ – meaning this candidate will not rock the boat
  • when contributions from those lacking “professional” or “standard” English are discounted
  • when ‘fair’ means serving the first in line, while ignoring how the line is formed
  • when available resources are ‘spread like peanut butter evenly across the toast’, regardless of how need is distributed

In this period of traumatic disruption from COVID-19, it can be difficult to deal with the feelings of grief brought on by the harmful failings in our unfair systems.  Empathy and compassion should drive our satisfaction in building toward racial justice.

I am grateful to have an employer and union that support anti-racism and equity as a core elements of my routine work. My experience with anti-racism efforts in King County have been uncomfortable, challenging, hopeful, and even healing.  I invite and encourage my white colleagues to join me at ARWAG meetings and become part our shared work toward racial justice at King County.