A long letter about “undoing” rather than “dismantling” racism

Dear President Trump,

I was so wrong – we aren’t catching a break at all. Even while on vacation you are quite capable of keeping the horror reels coming. I know your destructive little minions have been working long and hard on both the new rules about the types of social services immigrants will be penalized for using and the plans to relax tons of aspects of the Endangered Species Act, but to unleash both these things on us on the first weekday of your vacation is really very mean of you. Somebody in your camp sure knows how to keep the demoralizing shit flowing; do they get monthly bonuses when they do a particularly good job laying it on?

As much as there is to say about all that (or rant about it or just spew about it), I’ve wanted to come back to something from the People’s Institute’s Undoing Racism workshop for a while now, so I will since I think it will be more constructive than an extended fuss.

Before the workshop I kept finding myself confused and unable to remember the name of it. I knew I was confused, but couldn’t help thinking to myself that it was called the “Dismantling Racism” workshop and when I’d remember and get it right, I was actually, nervily, feeling fussy that it wasn’t the grander sounding “dismantling” wording, as if I somehow knew better than the people who’d spent 40 years fine tuning the program and no doubt had carefully considered the workshop title as well. I believe this kind of deal about semantics is one of my particular White privilege weaknesses (indulgences) that I have to be especially mindful of.

I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to me to ask during the workshop why the title uses “undoing” instead of “dismantling” since that sort of thing has been quite like me historically. Yes, I try to be diplomatic and polite and all that, but there’s usually a somewhat pointed subtext when I do this kind of thing so I’m actually grateful I didn’t go there.

Plus, not having asked has allowed me to chew on the distinction myself and I’ve come to the conclusion that “undoing” is the exact right term for what we need to do and how we need to go about doing it.

At some point on Day 2 of the workshop I wrote myself a simple little self-note (i.e., not from the didactics or group sharing content):

“unpacking, untangling, undoing”

I was thinking about how the careful, if brief, history lessons we got were helping us unpack how racism has been foundational to our country stretching back before we were a country. This led to the idea that the analysis we’d been doing of both the historical and current reality was helping us untangle the strands that are woven into our ways of being and that keep us locked into unhealthy, divisive roles. Finally, it seemed to me that undoing racism relies on seeing all this history, not shying away from it, and being willing to accept its historical and current day implications.

The really key thing that the term “undoing” does for us that “dismantling” does not, is that it conveys the possibility of agency at both the personal, individual level as well as at larger, more communal levels. To me “dismantling” sounds grand and big and like it’s someone else’s job while I’m really familiar with the idea of undoing, though usually it’s in the context of undoing a mistake in my knitting or untangling a mess of yarn or necklace chain. As tiny and small scale as these things are, they do require careful looking and really seeing what is there and they require patience and doing the work of undoing carefully and thoughtfully since yanking at it or cutting the knots out doesn’t leave one with anything very useful.

I realize the above metaphor only goes so far, but framing the work as “undoing” racism puts the onus on each of us and asks each of us to look carefully and thoughtfully at our places in this mess and at what we can do to address it. Obviously the work we each have to do depends mightily on what circumstances we happen to be born into since some of us don’t have any choice at all whether to deal with this shit day in and day out with little or no let up, while others of us can be social justice tourists because we are white and can wade into, and out of, these waters pretty much at will. (I wish “social justice tourist” were my phrase, but I picked it up from someone, somewhere recently and can’t remember the details.)

The issue of patience is also really, really hard here. It’s absolutely not ok to tell people of color (or women or gays or disabled people or trans people or Muslims or whomever) to just be patient, that we’re getting there and moving too fast will cause a bunch of backlash. Sadly, this may be true, but as Stacey Abrams said, we’ve got to keep moving the goalposts out further and further so that when backlash does happen, we don’t find ourselves all the way back to square one. And really, encouraging patience (as in “there, there, dear, just hold your horses, we’re on it”) generally means tabling these issues indefinitely, which only serves those in power.

So, while we do need to take care and be strategic to be effective, we do not need to wait on someone else’s timeline.

May we be safe in our own skins.
May we be willing to push hard to undo racism, now.
May we stand firm on values that have integrity and support each one’s dignity.
May we make kindness and compassion the measures of who we are as a people.

Tracy Simpson

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