Social Justice

Educate Yourself: Why White People Must Take Responsibility for Understanding Black History

By Laura Donohue and Sadie Kempner

Growing up, Black History month was a fun month for me. In my public school back in New York, (PS 261 represent!), we would learn about African American abolitionists, freedom fighters, and artists. One particular memory that stands out is dancing to Bob Marley’s Redemption Song. It was one of the things I loved about attending a diverse public school. I was encouraged to learn about other cultures by reading, listening, and searching. 

Unfortunately, instead of doing their own research, many white people ask people of colour to educate them on their history (which can be presumed to be “their history”, making it even more inappropriate). People who ask these questions are usually (but not always) starting from zero. Thus, they expect the person of colour to transform into a Google search bar and be a font of knowledge. 

Sometimes this can come from a well-meaning place – out of a desire to amplify black voices or not presume to speak for people of colour on an issue. However, it can be problematic for several reasons:

  1. For many people of colour, revisiting their history can be painful.

Remembering past atrocities can be triggering or at the very least upsetting. Usually, when someone asks a person of colour to explain a part of their history, it’s the part where there was extreme human suffering, human rights being violated, imperialism, the list goes on. Also…

  1. They’ve probably been asked to explain it already.

Explaining the same piece of history or culture over and over again is emotionally exhausting. The person being asked, unless they’re a teacher or tutor, are also probably not being paid to talk about it.

  1. Women of colour are disproportionately asked to do this emotional labour.

Just as women are expected to comfort and be empathetic towards men, women of colour are disproportionately expected to educate people about their history, culture, and struggles. There is a fantastic article about this in Everyday Feminism

Here’s what you can do to help:

  1. Remember, as a white person, that the history of African American’s is NOT only “their history” – it is also yours. It is inextricable from white violence, colonialism and oppression. The reason Black History Month needs to exist is that white people systemically erased Black history. Don’t forget this important context. 
  2. Pay people of colour (especially women) for their knowledge. Whether it be their for their books, articles, or supporting them through Patreon, pay them what they’re owed. If you can’t afford it, share their work on social media.
  3. Make a conscious effort to prioritise marginalised voices and stories in your learning all year round – if you read fiction on your commute, read books by black and other women of colour. I like reading about periods of history or politics, read (and as above, buy!) books and articles
  4. Before asking, do some research! The answers to your questions are almost definitely already out there to be found. Not much more to say other than that.
  5. Share what you’ve learned with your friends, but make sure you don’t drift into fake allyship territory. Show them because you care, not for a cookie or points.
  6. Relatedly, be earnest in your learning and take it seriously. Don’t make it about “performing” your goodness by #NotAllWhitePeople-ing all over social media.

Getting Started:

  • Bell Hooks (1984, 2015) Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (I promise it isn’t as dry as the title suggests) – or literally anything by bell hooks, she’s incredible. 
  • Reni Eddo-Lodge (2017) Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race 
  • Glory Edim (2019) Well-Read Black Girl 
  • Michelle Obama (2018) Becoming 
  • Anything by Toni Morrison – especially, (1970) The Bluest Eye
Social Justice

Activist Listening

As a social worker, a big part of my role is to listen to children and families. I listen to their stories that range from their triumphs, struggles, and trauma. To build trust with my clients, I need to show them that I’m listening and that I care. This is crucial because many of the families I work with come from a context laden with a variety of adverse experiences such as poverty and violence. Many of the people I work with have also been oppressed due to their identity, socio-economic status, the colour of their skin, and more. They were most likely oppressed by someone that looks like me as well (a white person). As a social worker and activist, I’ve honed my skills of active listening to ensure that I show my clients, friends, and allies that I care and am there to support their cause. Here are a few tips you can use to be an activist listener!

Don’t interrupt

This is huge. Interrupting is disrespectful and might make the person feel as though their point of view or story isn’t as important as what you have to say. Therefore, the person may begin to withdraw. Interrupting can also make the person lose their train of thought. Telling their story may require a lot of emotional energy. It might also be the first time they’re telling their story so they might need some extra time to think about how they’re going to relay it to you. As the listener, be patient and wait until they’ve completed their thought before interjecting with a statement or a question.

Body language 

If the person you’re listening to tells you to sit, look, or hold your body in a certain way, as long as it doesn’t endanger yourself, follow their instructions. It may seem rude to not make eye contact or to be turned away from them, but again, it’s about what makes the storyteller more comfortable. If they haven’t given you any sort of instruction, you typically want to make sure you’re on the same level as them or a level below them. If they’re standing, stand or sit, for example. Make sure your body is relaxed. Keep your arms to your sides or relaxed in your lap. Crossing your arms might signal disapproval or make them feel tense. Some eye contact is important. Don’t stare. You want to make sure the person knows you’re completely focused on them, however, staring can make them feel as though they’re under scrutiny. Finally, be mindful of your facial expressions. You don’t want to continue smiling if they’re crying or upset. Your tone of voice is important as well. Sound interested. Lower the volume of your voice if their voice is low.

Please DON’T say “I know how you feel”

You are not them. Even if you’ve been through what you think is the same situation, you are not them. You have not lived their life. If you have gone through something similar, there are ways of communicating that without saying “I know how you feel”. You could say, “Something similar happened to me and it was awful. If so sorry you went through that.” If they ask if something similar has happened to you before, it can help them heal for you to share your story. You should only share if you feel comfortable though. 

Social Justice

Notice Your Privilege with Social GGGRRAAACCCEEESSS

No, my cat didn’t just roll around on my keyboard (although he does do that sometimes). It’s a real acronym and it’s packed with information! 

Social GGGRRAAACCCEEESSS is a shorthand way to recognize the diversity and difference that exists in our lives. Each letter stands for a different aspect of our identity. Some of these identities can be visible or invisible. To be competent, socially aware, and sensitive activists, it’s imperative that we take into account the impact that our identity can have on others, and vice versa.

My cat in arms, Karl Marx, PhD, helping me smash capitalism and patriarchy one paw at a time.

This nifty tool was created by John Burnham and Alison Roper-Hall around the 1990s. It was originally designed to help family practitioners develop reflexivity — in other words, looking inside yourself to try to understand how outside influences make you think, feel, and act. By learning to recognize these feelings and their impact on how we interact with the world, we can better understand the lived experience of others.

I’ll give a personal example. I’m a social worker who works in child protection. As such, I work with families from many different backgrounds. As a cis-gender white woman from a middle-upper class background, I need to understand the impact my presence will have on families who are minorities and living below the poverty line. 

This is compounded by the fact that I’m in a position of power. When I meet with families, I acknowledge our differences and explain that I’m not an expert on their lived experience. I humbly ask to be invited into their lives and integrate their identity into my interventions. 

When talking about knife crime with young black people, I will specifically ask what it’s like walking down the street as a young black person knowing that knife crime disproportionately affects people of colour. I then recognize my own discomfort when discussing race. I can feel the frog in my throat right now clawing at me. Trying to tell me it’s taboo to talk about race and reminding me of guilt I feel for being born with privilege. But that’s for me to deal with on my time by reviewing my Social GGGRRAAACCCEEESSS.

After looking below at the list of Social GGGRRAAACCCEEESSS, I want you to try this exercise:

  1. Pull up the list of Social GGGRRAAACCCEEESSS with a partner. For your first time, find someone you’re comfortable talking to.
  2. Set a timer for one minute and go through the list as quickly as you can. Discuss your own Social GGGRRAAACCCEEESSS and what similarities and differences there are between you two. Don’t worry, it’s by design that you won’t get through all of them!
  3. Afterwards, circle the ones you discussed. How were you able to identify certain GGGRRAAACCCEEESSS? Were some more difficult to talk about than others? Ignoring the time constraint, why didn’t some of your Social GGGRRAAACCCEEESSS come up?

To be a good activist, it’s vital to integrate reflexivity into our practice. It’s what keeps us humble, competent, inclusive, and effective.


I’d love your feedback on this exercise! Feel free to shoot me an email to let me know what you think.

Social Justice

Conquering Imposter Syndrome

It’s that annoying little voice in your head again making you question yourself. It doesn’t matter if you have the right degree, you’ve done whatever it is your doing several times successfully, it just keeps coming back. It’s the gift that keeps on giving and you’ve lost your gift receipt: imposter syndrome. This nasty monster is a kind of self-talk that makes you feel like you aren’t qualified or good enough to do something that you’re probably actually very good at.

Imposter syndrome usually crops up due to outside forces. For example, if you work in a field in which you’re the minority, you might feel like you don’t belong. This can make you vulnerable to imposter syndrome. It can also take hold due to your identity and society’s expectations of your identity. It can simply happen because people have told you directly that you can’t do it even though they have no idea what you’re capabilities are!

This happens to just about everyone, even to extremely successful people. Don’t beat yourself up over it. Lots of accomplished people have shared their experiences with imposter syndrome and how to fight it. 

  1. Name it and shame it
    1. “It’s imposter syndrome is rearing its ugly head again!” Just simply saying that out loud can help make you feel a little bit better. Write it down too. Hearing yourself and seeing yourself labelling the negative self-talk and self-doubt is more impactful than just thinking about it.
  2. Think back to your hard work and successes
    1. Maybe you’ve made a mistake or two, but think about how much you got right to get to where you are today. No matter how big or small, think back to all of the times you’ve gotten out of bed, helped a friend out, and gave that fantastic presentation.
  3. Power pose!
    1. Amy Cuddy, an American social psychologist, shares her personal experience with imposter syndrome and how she beats it with her evidence-based model of power posing. It may feel a bit silly at first, but it does make a difference. Learn more about it from her TED talk.

To be a good activist, you must believe in yourself. Challenge yourself to feel better about yourself.

Social Justice

Dealing with Micro-Aggressions

Let me paint a picture for you. Let’s say a black woman is giving a talk on something she is an expert in. She has spent hundreds of hours perfecting her knowledge in this area, thus making her qualified to talk about this particular subject. After the talk, a white woman approaches her and says, “Wow, you sounded really eloquent.” The speaker thanks her for the compliment but walks away with the feeling of her stomach sinking. She’s not really sure why. She is later given an award for her talk and she begins to tear up a bit. A man remarks, “Women are so emotional.” She quickly goes to the bathroom to dry her tears. A woman sees her in the bathroom and says, “I loved your talk. Your people must be so proud.”

I imagine you might have felt the same way I did while writing this: blood boiling, stomach-dropping, and body cringing. These are examples of microaggressions. It is when someone says or does something that is based in discriminatory, prejudicial, and/or derogatory ideology.

A microaggression can be intentional or unintentional.

Microaggressions aren’t limited to people.

Our environment contains microaggressions as well. For example, many products are designed without people of colour in mind. This can lead to dehumanizing and underserving consumers to false convictions.

What can you do to stop microaggressions from happening?

Make sure when you hear one, if it’s safe and you have the spoons to do it, call out the microaggression such as:

“Hey, I’m pretty sure you didn’t mean to, but what you said could hurt someone’s feelings.”

“I understand you’re coming from a good place, but when you say that, it feels like you’re putting me down.”

“Wow, what kind of reaction were you expecting when you said/did that? That’s incredibly offensive.”

Learn more about microaggressions: Check out these resources:

What exactly is a microaggression? by Jenée Desmond-Harris

5 Microaggressions Secular People Often Hear – And Why They’re Wrong by Miri Mogilevsky

Microaggressions in Everyday Life by Psychology Today Contributors