A friend recently asked me for help. As a Black scholar, she wanted a white colleague’s perspective on how to keep white people focused on racial justice, when heightened awareness wanes, as it usually does. What are some guidelines, she asked, that might help white religious leaders, scholars, pastors, and activists commit to the long hard work ahead, to keep taking the next step after leading an anti-racism book club, organizing the vote, taking part in protests, or achieving a small reform of our local police department?
My friend turned to me, not because I am an expert in dismantling whiteness or imagining a non-racist future. I’m not. I struggle daily with when to speak up, when to be quiet, when to lead, and when to follow.
She turned to me because I recently co-authored a book with two religious leaders, Stephen Lewis and Matthew Wesley Williams. The book, Another Way: Living and Leading Change on Purpose, is about leading lasting cultural change that aligns with our heart’s desire to create a world where all people can flourish. The deeply collaborative three-year process of working on this book privileged me daily with nuanced ways of recognizing how whiteness shows up in me and how it threatens to squelch the change we need.
Another Way centers leadership around a definition of vocation as radically communal. We discover our meaning and purpose – the “why” of our existence – best in connection with others who help us name our gifts and clarify our identity. The book is a toolkit of practices that help individuals, communities, and organizations live into their God-given call to co-create and sustain purposeful change for good. Along the way we tell stories of real people designing the future with their hearts tuned into the needs of those Jesus called “the least among us.” These stories show people re-orienting the world in ways that restore right relationship and contribute to repairing the tragic breach that enslavement brought to our continent.
We were writing a book about leadership, not about racial justice. But we were a team of two Black men and one white woman writing amidst daily news accounts following the death of Michael Brown, the massacre at Mother Emmanuel church, the white terrorist march on Charlottesville, and the growing national consciousness of the depth of racialized trauma in America that erupted after George Floyd’s murder.
Lasting change requires community and commitment. We anchor Another Way with a manifesto, fifteen counter-cultural statements about leadership that keep us oriented toward leading another way. A manifesto (from the Latin to make clear or conspicuous) can serve as a touchpoint to reset our deeply engrained patterns as we seek more life-giving ways.
The Another Way manifesto includes Stephen’s frequent reminder: There is a future that mourns if you and I do not step into our purpose. It echoes a favorite theme of Matthew’s when it says: Better choices emerge when the parts of a living organism are connected to the whole. Revisiting these reminders is necessary because the kinds of leadership borne of white supremacy, capitalist business models, and lone-ranger fantasies have not been working, are killing Black and Brown people, and are deeply engrained in our personal and cultural psyches. In times crying out for different ways of leading and being, new default settings are necessary.
In pondering my friend’s request, I discovered that I could not possibly tell other white religious leaders what to do, but I could issue a challenge to my white peers: Reflect on your own learnings. Think about your own long history with race in America, no matter your starting place. What practices and ways of being keep you focused on your desire to work for lasting change? Write a personal manifesto and share it with someone. Return to it when you are tempted to take a break from the work that is before us, as white people..
Why a personal manifesto if we are looking for communal change? Because lasting change requires the personal and the political, the individual and communal. A key learning I took away from co-authoring Another Way is that our inner well-being and our communities of accountability are so closely wrapped in one another that dividing them dooms us.
What follows is a personal manifesto around racial reckoning, ten default settings I return to again and again as I live into my vocation to uproot the white supremacy that lives in me and the systems that sustain my life. For me, it serves as an evolving compass, reminding me of my true north, helping me discern the communities I wish to join, and calling out necessary new commitments as the world around me changes.
Read and then lift up Black and Brown authors. I’m currently reading or re-reading – across genres of poetry, essay, memoir, fiction, and non-fiction — Resma Menakem, Bayo Akomalafe, Ross Gay, Rosemary Harding, Ocean Vyong, and Patrice Gopo. Hardly a week goes by when I don’t need to quote what I’ve highlighted in a book by Alice Walker, Willie Jennings, Barbara Holmes, Ada Maria Isasa Diaz, Kevin Quashie, Patrick Reyes., or my co-authors Lewis and Williams. Immersing myself in books like these — written by people of color but not explicitly about the work of dismantling systemic racism – creates the not-small miracle of slowly decentering whiteness in my imagination over time. This helps immensely when I turn to authors such as Layla Saad, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ibram X. Kendi and Austin Channing Brown, all of whom are explicitly teach how to do the work of ending systemic racism, white supremacy, and anti-Blackness. The more I read Black and Brown authors, the more it seeps into my bones that of course they don’t all agree with each other; why should I expect wholesale agreement in this universe of multiple ways of knowing, when I would never expect such uniform agreement among white writers?
Be a holy listener. This can take many forms — the least recommended of which is asking a Black and Brown directly to educate me on race issues — unless I already have a mutually reciprocal relationship with that person or unless my organization is paying them for this expertise. I listen with holy attention, deciding to trust the truth embodied there. I listen to already documented stories, novels, sermons, treatises, dreams, poetry, theatre, letters, lyrics, hermeneutics, liturgies, theologies, and living human performances of Black cultural creatives. I buy these resources from Black-owned businesses, whenever possible.
Align personal and professional values I’m connected with national Black-led institutions through my work, and I also need local, voluntary connections with Black leaders if I hope to align my personal and professional values. I stay involved in local Black-led nonprofits that address issues such as the racial education gap, health care inequity, mass incarceration, or income disparity. I bring my careful listening there, letting BIPOC help me know how best to support their efforts, rather than assuming I know what’s best. Over time these ways of showing up build relationship and result in trusted friendships of mutual respect and joy.
Support Black and Brown economic ventures. At the simplest level, I buy from Black and Brown owned businesses. Although economics is not my passion, I keep learning about efforts to re-imagine a more equitable economy and remember that economics is theological work. I am talking to white church leaders about using their endowments to create social impact investment funds for Black and Brown entrepreneurs. I keep a growing list of local social enterprises, such as Argrow’s House, and then use their products when creating ritual, honoring a birth, or celebrating a life.
Notice and name times when whiteness is the norm. I find it helpful, when leading out loud in a group of people, to pause before using the pronoun “we.” When talking specifically to or about white people, I don’t say “we,” because in doing so I erase everyone else in the room. Whiteness operates by setting itself up as the norm. It’s slippery. It can happen multiple times a day. I try to notice these norms, so I can name them, talk with other white people about them, and work together to change them. I write about this here.
Don’t do this work alone! In addition to Black and Brown friends and colleagues with whom I maintain longstanding relationships of trust and mutual support, I find other white people with whom to journey alongside as I seek to dismantle white supremacy in myself and the world around me. We can hold each other accountable, and we can also notice one another’s efforts, thereby bypassing my desire to go looking for validation among BIPOC. I should not need validation for standing up in these ways. But, for me, it is extremely helpful to have a few close friends and colleagues with whom to celebrate the moments of successfully untangling one small knot in the massive entanglement that is white supremacy. I write about a small-scale effort to do more of this here.
Fail. Apologize. Take the risk to fail again. I am getting accustomed to the fact that I will fail, but hopefully I won’t fail the same way twice. I learn from my own failures, and the failures of other white people I see trying to do the right thing. I’m learning that it’s always right to apologize for harm I’ve done to a person of color, but not to expect reconciliation or resolution, immediately or ever. Along the way, I take care of myself. I may feel the need to vent or get defensive, so I cultivate places to do that without inflicting further harm on my brothers and sisters who are most directly affected by racialized trauma. In order to get better at tackling ever thornier corners of white supremacy, I need to practice massive self-love and self-forgiveness. On any given day, I look to meditation, nature, art, exercise, children, and music. (Link to Another Way Playlist)
Speak up. I often feel “damned if I do and damned if I don’t” speak up or act out to confront white supremacy. That’s exactly how it is for Brown and Black people every day. I regularly witness the toll paid by the Black or Brown person who names the elephant in the room of racial inequality or microaggressions. Although it will be awkward, it’s white people’s turn. When I choose not to speak, my silence does actual harm. There is not a map for this, so I must get used to the feeling of disorientation. When I speak up, pausing first to try not to center myself or my whiteness in self-congratulatory ways, I feel new muscle forming. I believe that muscle will serve me well in the days ahead.
Practice saying “I don’t know” and “Thank you.” If I am lucky enough to be called out by a BIPOC who is willing to spend energy sharing their experience of my white superiority/supremacy/fragility in ways that are taxing for them and painful for me, I practice saying “Thank You.” I trust their perspective. I let it dwell right there in my gut. Yes, there.
Stay open. A moment will sneak up on me and wash me in the realization that this work is absolutely life-giving. It is life-giving to be part of a movement that will result in a better world for future generations. When my grandchildren ask me where I was during the racial reckoning that accelerated in 2020 and changed the course of U.S. history, I’ll share this manifesto with them and tell them stories over a glass of lemonade or a cup of tea. If I do not personally keep doing this work and inviting others into it, I commit violence in real time and upon future generations. I coach myself to embrace the awkward painful beautiful adventure toward self-liberation that is wrapped up in working toward collective liberation for current and future generations.
In all of this work, I frequently remind myself that the goal is not to make myself feel better. The goal is to build a stronger muscle for this work, to continue uncovering the cringy feeling or the embarrassing memory about a harm my whiteness inflicted last week, last year, or last decade. Sometimes, when surrounded by the right conversation partners, I glimpse how the interlocking systems of white supremacy function to support me in ways I never could have imagined alone. Over time, the work will not go away, but as I educate myself and keep trying, I can get better at supporting my Black and Brown sisters and brothers in dismantling the structures that harm and kill them every day. Nothing short of our communal life is at stake.
I hope some of my white colleagues will join me in this challenge. Write a manifesto, share it, revisit it. It is one tool for staying focused on leading individual and cultural change when the rewards seem fleeting or non-existent. Your personal manifesto could be a steppingstone toward co-creating a communal manifesto after experiencing a dive into study or action with others.
As the friend who asked for my suggestions well knows, divesting of a dominant value system, especially one as deeply embedded as white supremacy, can never happen overnight. It won’t happen once and for all. It certainly doesn’t happen from individuals acting alone. It will happen as we welcome our vastly different starting points, stretch our repertoires in light of new work calling out to us, and find tangible ways of holding ourselves and others accountable in co-creating a world in which all of our grandchildren can flourish.