A friend shared an excellent opinion piece from yesterday’s Toronto Star on social media today. Written by the paper’s race and gender columnist, Shree Paradkar, and entitled “So Now You Care About Black Burdens? Prove It,” it is definitely something you should make time to read in full. I want to take just a moment, though, to offer a brief reflection on part of it here.
At one point in her piece, Paradkar looks askance at the various statements issued and social media campaigns launched in ostensible solidarity with the ongoing protests of George Floyd’s murder, police violence in general, and white supremacy. “TikTok celebs are changing their profile pictures to the raised-fist Black power gesture, school boards and universities are releasing statements denouncing anti-Black racism, white and brown people are feeling suddenly provoked to ‘check-in’ on Black folks,” she writes. “Protests create some pressure. Changing profile pictures don’t. Denouncing racism is not anti-racism.”
On the one hand, it’s pretty irrefutable that words and actions are not the same things, especially when it comes to activism and social justice work. On the other hand, though, I do think denunciations of racism can sometimes play a more important role than this quote might suggest. Going a bit further, I also think it’s useful to parse the differences between things like a celebrity’s performative response and a formal statement of support from a university or similar entity. While I mostly share Paradkar’s dismissiveness of the former, I do think the latter can have its place. Obviously, lip service that fails to reckon with institutional hypocrisy is the opposite of helpful; but a statement that demonstrates sincere reflection and offers specifics about practical steps that need to be taken might well help to guide an organization and its allies towards the actual work of anti-racism to which she alludes.
If nothing else, such statements certainly seem preferable to ambiguous silence. For instance, close to home, I very much appreciate that the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling (COHDS) at Concordia University not only updated its logo on Facebook with the above image but also released this statement:
The Centre for Oral History & Digital Storytelling at Concordia University, Montreal, recognizes that it is essential for academic institutions and cultural organizations to use their platforms to share the message of antiracism and to support the Black Lives Matter movement and all those at the forefront of leading social change. In mourning, in rage, in solidarity: Black Lives Matter! // Le Centre d’histoire orale et de récits numérisés de l’Université Concordia, à Montréal, reconnaît qu’il est essentiel que les institutions universitaires et les organismes culturels utilisent leurs plateformes pour partager le message de l’antiracisme et pour soutenir le mouvement Black Lives Matter et tous ceux qui sont à l’avant-garde de menant un changement social. En deuil, en rage, en solidarité: LA VIE DES NOIRS COMPTE!
This is decisive, forceful, and unequivocal in its commitment to support the Black Lives Matter movement. It is also noteworthy as an act of leadership: as far as I can tell,
comparable steps have not yet been taken by other oral history organizations. While they may have something in the offing, the Oral History Association, for example, has nothing whatsoever about the protests on its website or social media pages as of the time of this post’s publication. (Speaking as a dues-paying member, I hope that changes very soon.) it was the first such statement to be issued by a major oral history organization. (See the updates below for others that followed.)
Anyway, all this to say: Statements should absolutely not be confused with the actual work of anti-racism, but I do think they have the potential to encourage that work — all the more so when they are informed by straight truths like those contained in Paradkar’s column.
To that end, for what it’s worth, let me say here: Black lives matter. I understand, though, that simply saying this is not enough. Practicing anti-racism means listening, educating myself, continuously developing a positive White racial identity, and showing up as an ally whenever and wherever I can.
Lastly, if for whatever reason you feel motivated to do more but don’t know what to do next, I recommend visiting blacklivesmatter.com and/or reading Ibram X. Kendi’s recent book How to Be an Antiracist.
UPDATE (June 5, 2020): Three days after this post was published, the Oral History Association issued this statement:
OHA Statement on the Killing of George Floyd and Solidarity with Black Lives Matter
June 5, 2020
On May 25, 2020, George Floyd was killed by a member of the Minneapolis Police Department. Following Mr. Floyd’s death, protests and calls for change and an end to police brutality have risen throughout the United States and internationally. The Oral History Association stands in solidarity with the family of Mr. Floyd, Black Lives Matter, protestors, and communities of color, and we echo this call for change. The killing of George Floyd is not an isolated incident, but another event in a long history of state violence and brutality toward people of color in the United States—a history that predates our country itself.
Institutionalized white supremacy is a disturbingly prominent part of American history, placing barriers to economic, social, and educational equality and creating a criminal justice system which is deeply punitive towards Black Americans. Further, militarized police actions that threaten a free press and freedom of assembly have worked to create a terrible legacy of violence and suppression towards those working to change this country.
As oral historians, we understand that through the stories of people—citizens and activists—we can confront oppression and work to create an equitable and just society. In our commitment to diversity, inclusivity, and respect, and to a historical record that documents the experiences of unheard and marginalized voices, we must listen to and amplify the demands of people and communities of color. We must continue to document and expose the injustice so many have suffered for centuries, and develop new projects to expand these efforts.
In this work, it is essential we adopt anti-racist methods and practices. Further, we can and must work to address institutional racism in our institutions and our field, through developing and supporting leaders of color, providing anti-oppression training, and continually working to center the voices and experiences of those most directly impacted by oppression. People of color, whether they be colleagues, narrators, students, or patrons, must be supported and valued. Historical knowledge around police brutality and systemic racism is essential to addressing both, but Black and Brown people must have a clear, equal, and respected role in developing this knowledge.
Many of our members have dedicated their careers to documenting stories of democratic citizen action and how these efforts can enact change. We have a responsibility to understand and celebrate these successful efforts, and to engage in this work ourselves. There are a number of ways we can support current protests and calls for justice: register to vote, sign petitions, support protestors or participate in protests ourselves, donate to groups and funds working to end police violence and systemic racism, call our legislators, and educate ourselves.
As Black Americans and those acting in allyship in our communities, states, and country engage in difficult and transformative work to end police violence and racism, work that will continue long after the current moment, we are committed to supporting them and participating, now and in the future. Black Lives Matter.
UPDATE (June 17, 2020): Fifteen days after this post was published, Amy Starecheski, director of Columbia University’s Oral History Master of Arts, posted a thorough statement to the program’s official blog. (Follow the link to read this statement in full.)