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White privilege comes with responsibility to enact change

Deutschland Samantha Baker Porträt DW
Sam Baker
June 6, 2020

White Americans and white Europeans need to reflect on their own lives and actions, to educate themselves. And ultimately, they have to figure out how they are going to show up and fight racism, writes DW's Sam Baker.

Anti-racism protests in front of the White House in Washington DC
Image: Getty Images/AFP/E. Caballero-Reynolds

Every day, I walk home past little brass Stolpersteine or "stumbling stones" that bear the names of Jews ripped from their homes by Nazis. When I walk by them, I think about complicity. I wonder about the people who let their neighbors be stripped of their dignity and led away to their deaths. What were they thinking as they witnessed this happening? How did they justify their inaction?

This has been on my mind a lot in our present context — am I, a white American, complicit as black Americans are killed by racists? Are we whites silent as people who simply want better lives for their families are put in cages or camps at the borders of our countries? Countries which, in many cases, built wealth by exploiting the people and natural resources in places now reduced to poverty and violence. 

Read more: Opinion: George Floyd killing opens racism wounds for European blacks

Many are asking if George Floyd's death is a turning point for the US, if something will really change. But rather than asking this passive question, we need to be asking ourselves how we are going to help make this a turning point.

For many of us, we're not sure where to start. How do we do something more meaningful than posting on social media? How do we avoid simple virtue signaling? I've grappled with whether I should even enter the conversation.

Black in Berlin

White privilege

I used to work one block from where the former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pinned George Floyd's neck to the ground with his knee for nearly nine minutes. In some ways, I am shocked and overwhelmed that Floyd was killed in a community that holds such a dear place in my heart. In other ways, I absolutely shouldn't be.

I worked at an after-school program for low-income youth in the neighborhood. It was a community that cared about its children and supporting one another. It's a multiethnic area where black, Latinx and white residents live side by side.

In many ways, that job was the first experience to burst my bubble of white privilege. As a white girl from a small town who then went to a predominantly white, private college, this was one of the first times I genuinely interacted with black and brown communities. I was 22 years old.

It was the first time I understood the massive inequities between the reasonably well-funded public schools I had attended and the overcrowded classrooms of these students. It was the first time I knew families struggling with homelessness or kids going home to empty houses because their parents worked multiple jobs to make ends meet. It was the first time I saw a 6-year-old child drop to the ground as a police car drove by, demonstrating the lack of trust between minorities and the police.

That after-school program was the beginning of my education on what inequality and racism mean in the United States and how my privilege as a white person is part of that story. 

Members of the Washington DC National Guard stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial
As calls for change echo across the US, President Trump has called up the National Guard to maintain order in the capitalImage: Getty Images/AFP/W. McNamee

Founded on inequality

The comfort and affluence of white people in the US is built on the backs of enslaved Africans, the displacement and death of Native Americans and the exploitation of lands and people around the world. The stories of many European countries are similarly flawed.

In US schools and in many other countries, racism is taught as a part of history. But the fact is, while it's ingrained in our past, it is still very much our present reality. The images we see today of protesters and police in riot gear hardly differ from those from the 1960s.

Racism is systemic in the U.S. It's baked into the societal structures that govern our lives. But systems are created by people and people have the power to change them.

Read more: Opinion: Systemic racism is the real 'American carnage'

However, to do so, we need to start with what we do (or don't do) in our day-to-day lives. How do we act towards people who look or sound or worship differently from us? How are we actively working to dismantle systems and beliefs that are racist?

Portrait of DW editor Samantha Baker
Sam Baker is an editor at DWImage: Esan Swan

Doing better

As a journalist, I usually stay far away from anything resembling advocacy. Instead, I report the facts and let others' ideas be heard, so that news consumers can make up their own minds.

However, back to that notion of complicity — not standing with the oppressed means you are siding with oppressors.

I am not a perfect advocate, far from it. I'm probably not even a good ally, but I'm trying to be a better one. And this is what we white people need to do.

Here's what I'm working on: Sitting with uncomfortable, even overwhelming feelings. Listening, as much as possible. Raising up others' voices whenever possible. Educating myself. Engaging in conversations with family and friends who need to be informed and challenged. Supporting those protesting and those doing the tedious policy work needed for genuine, systemic change.

I'll get stuff wrong along the way, but I look forward to learning from those experiences.

The United States has never been a perfect country — it has always had its demons while at the same time championing its ideals. Though I live abroad right now, and I know some expats might try to distance themselves from the US with its many and deep flaws, I find that living overseas reminds me why being an American is something to be proud of, even in our darkest moments.

I find hope in our unending drive (as evidenced by those speaking out across the US) to make ourselves better, to challenge one another, to improve our society, to change.

Beneath the frustration and pain and indignation on the streets of Minneapolis and many other cities around the US is a belief that our nation can change. In fact, we must change, if we wish to survive, if we wish to someday become — as US schoolchildren recite every morning — a nation that is "indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

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Deutschland Samantha Baker Porträt DW
Sam Baker Journalist, Audio Presenter & Senior Producer@srmBAKER