Celebrating the End of Slavery in America and Reflecting on White Accountability to People of Color
“Juneteenth,” celebrated on June 19th, is the oldest known celebration commemorating the actual end of slavery in the US in 1865.
Most people think of Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation as the end of slavery, but the 13th Amendment was not put into the constitution until 1865. Enslaved people in the South were only freed as Union troops took over parts of the South later in the Civil War. In Galveston, Texas on June 19th 1865, two months after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at the Appomattox, the news was delivered that the very last enslaved people were free.
This important moment is not generally included in traditional history books, and many people in America do not even know the meaning of Juneteenth at all. Part of being an anti-racist advocate in today’s society includes knowing the history of all of America’s people, and realizing that the Emancipation Proclamation, or even Juneteenth, did not end racism in America. American culture is seeped in systemic oppression and we must recognize where we have been to know where we want to go.
Showing Up For Racial Justice (SURJ) is an anti-racist advocacy group specifically focusing on how white people fit into the movement for justice. SURJ formed a chapter in Kansas City in 2016 when, according to their manifesto, “a group of white anti racist activists heard the call from leaders of color to take responsibility for educating and organizing white folks to join the multiracial movement for racial justice”.
The beginning of the SURJ chapter in Kansas City was not just a broad and general call to action or a white savior complex, but was based on a request by Black Lives Matter activists and response by white anti-racist activists who had relationships rooted in trust and understanding. The Black Lives Matter Group and the local SURJ group continues this relationship through accountability, with people of color attending the monthly SURJ meetings and giving feedback.
While accountability remains a central component to SURJ, chapters around the US and individual members have struggled at times to live out the principles of accountability. Sometimes this has to do with infrastructure- white supremacy makes a lot of money in annexing communities. Neighborhoods, schools and public spaces are commonly segregated by default and do not empower genuine cross racial relationships. To force genuine cross-racial relationship one has to be willing to confront and disrupt white supremacy and find spaces with people of color (POC) leading activism- and support and contribute to these spaces if one is invited to.
Racial anxiety and white fragility are terms that define ways that white people react when race is brought up, and is something that white people must work to change if progress is going to made in race relations in America. The highest form of privilege is to feel uncomfortable in a relationship and walk away from it.
Mainstream accountability is rooted in the misuse of power. It is one sided and carried out primarily through intimidation and fear. It can also be seen as colonizing accountability, and is rooted in oppression. On the other side, authentic accountability in cross cultural and cross racial relationships seeks to deconstruct the differences in power and seek understanding and equality.
To have authentic accountability, one must start by being clear with one’s own self interest. Mainstream accountability is based on selfishness or selflessness, but authentic accountability is not a binary. Authentic accountability is based on self interest and mutual interest within a community:
- Be accountable to other white people (challenge, be challenged and support others)
- Listen responsibly to POC but to not defer all responsibility to POC to explain all race related matters. However, be open to receive feedback from POC to change course.
- Incorporate multiple voices from POC
- Stay at the table (the choice to walk away is the highest form of privilege)
- Show up and follow the lead of POC (respect the times white people are invited to join, and times they are asked to stay away)
Tonight at a SURJ meeting I went to there were many people of color from the partner Black Lives Matter group who shared their thoughts.
“Oftentimes, white people think POC want relationships with them- and that is not always the case. Especially when the relationship is not based on authentic accountability, or when the person of color have to keep reassuring white fragility.”
“Please stop using the word ‘minority’ because black and brown people make up more than most of the world.”
“If you are a white person and you are in a relationship with me, I will expect more of you. You need to do the work to understand me and my life.”
“Shut down racist comments every time you hear them. Start creating family dramas. Ruin HOLIDAYS. It’s your families where these patterns continue, and it means life and death for black people in the world.”
“Move forward with me in understanding my life or else we will not be in a personal relationship anymore.”
“Latinx, Asian and other brown people are seen as the ‘model minorities’ in America. People feel safe around them while they feel threatened around black people like me. This upsets me greatly.”
“White supremacy has a hold of the US, and it also has a hold of Latin America as well. We must address it together.”
“It’s exhausting to be a spokesperson for an entire race. Stop asking me, and find another way to educate yourself.”
At the end of the day, establishing deep, genuine cross racial relationships is essential to creating a multiracial movement for racial justice. Show up. Listen. Learn. Do your own research in the meantime. And seek to make and stay in relationship with those different from you as we all move forward.
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