#WeStandWithSaira

There’s a lot of us feeling excitement and energy about the number of women—especially women of color—running for political office. If you’d read my Facebook newsfeed the day after the New York primaries, you’d have thought I and just about every one of my friends actually lived in the Bronx or Queens. That’s how elated we were about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ victory.

It’s right and good we feel excited and energized. Given the days we’re living in we need inspiration.

It’s even truer, given the days we live in, that we need these brave women to run for office. We need them to win.

I don’t say that because I think it’s the job of women of color to save us. (Oh my, no.) Nor do the white among us have the right to expect women of color to add yet another burden to the heavy load they already carry every day. I say it because if the current political moment has made nothing else clear it’s that our collective future literally stands or falls on whether or not we can birth a radically different kind of civic community.

Slice or dice it how you want, pervasive white supremacy brought us this political moment and daily nightmare. And when I say, “white supremacy brought it” I’m not just talking about folks we might identify as explicitly racist. I’m not only talking about those who pulled the lever and actually voted for the person currently sitting in this nation’s now very, very white house. I am also making a claim against the white among us (myself included) who voted against that person.

A collective and decades-long white failure to fight white supremacy hard enough, long enough, and with enough do-or-die, in-it-to-win-it urgency is the reason this evil man won. He couldn’t have won were it not for long-term white apathy.

So we need women of color in office. We need them to win precisely because the horrors now descending on all of us didn’t truly come as a true shock to such women. And in any crisis, like the one we’re in, if you’re want to figure out what you need to do now you must, must, must look to the leadership, experience and wisdom of those who were not caught off guard or taken by surprise by the turn of events. (Someone else said this first. I can’t find a citation for it.)

For decades and longer white people—my people—have failed to throw a wrench in systems and cultures of white supremacy every time and in every place we encounter them (which is to say everyday and everywhere). For as many decades and longer, communities of color, so often led by women of color, have challenged and resisted that same white supremacy and its many terrors. Women of color have long known and understood how white supremacy operates. They’ve consistently thrown wrenches. And they’ve endlessly called those of us who say we’re “against racism” to do the same and to do so with as much vigor, commitment and skill as they are already, always doing it (which is to say everyday and everywhere).

Most often these calls have been issued to little response. Which is a major reason we’re now all living with 45.

Okay so, so far so good. Lots of you already know all of this.

But here’s what we must also know. Our excitement and energy in this moment must be joined by a somber and steely-eyed recognition and a very savvy and deep understanding of how white supremacist cultures actually function.

Which brings me to Saira Rao.

Saira Rao is a powerful and brilliant person. She’s been challenging white supremacy and working on behalf of communities of color, women and girls, queer people and many others for a very long time.

Saira Rao also recently ran for Congress in Colorado. She didn’t win the primary. But she garnered one out of three votes cast in that election. She did this after having launched her campaign only five months before the election, with no public name recognition, running against a long-time incumbent opponent who had tons of name recognition, and having made a careful choice to take zero PAC money.

That’s damn impressive.

During the campaign Rao talked often about the racism she encountered on the trail—especially from other Democrats.

Then, after the election was over, this happened. Rao, now acting as a private citizen, retweeted a link to George Yancy’s spring New York Times piece about the violent threats made against him and his family because of his public writing against racism. (It’s an incredible and horrifying piece. You really must read if you want a deep glimpse at the soul of white U.S.-America.)

The title of Yancy’s piece was “Should I Give Up on White People?” When Rao retweeted his article she added this commentary: “Short and long answer: YES.”

Never mind that if you actually read Yancy’s piece you come away struggling to understand how anyone couldn’t but respond “yes” to the question his title poses.  When I first read the piece last spring, it made me want to give up on white people (and I don’t get to do that, because I’m one of them).

Never mind that Rao’s retweet happened on twitter. Twitter: the place all of us say and write things in short hand. There’s a character limit, remember?

Never mind those things. Within a week, Rao was at the center of a political storm in which she now, like Yancy before her, received a torrent of vile, degrading and life-threatening messages. The torrent has been so violent that—to make a long and harrowing story short—she’s decided she must temporarily leave Colorado for the safety of herself and her family.

Let that sink in.

A woman who only three weeks ago was leading one of the most energized and exciting political campaigns this primary season, who was door knocking daily, speaking to and connecting with people of all types of identities and circumstances (including white folks), who showed up to celebrate Pride in Denver unafraid to be photographed with the queerest of the queers, who was and remains a viable, highly qualified candidate for Congress is now moving to an undisclosed location for the safety of her very young children.

Dear lord.

So, why am I writing about this?

First, it’s because I want to publicly say #IStandWithSaira. I stand with her not only because I’ve had the incredible privilege of getting to know her over the last year and thus feel some personal connection to this horrifying story. But I stand with her because she is precisely the kind of truth-telling, courageous, experienced, un-bought public leader we desperately need in this national crisis.

But I have other reasons too. Rao’s experience has much to show those of us who are fired up, and coming into a deeper political consciousness and action right now, about how white supremacy works.

After Rao tweeted, a political writer named Joey Bunch interviewed her. Rao responded to his questions about her tweet by saying things like this: “It’s incumbent on white people and not people of color to solve [racism],” she said in a brief interview, adding it’s the same as it’s incumbent on men to solve misogyny, because women can’t do it alone.”

Bunch boiled down this obviously true, evidence-based and deeply nuanced statement into one absurd description. He insinuated Rao may be guilty of “stereotyping white people” and is perhaps herself accurately understood as “racist.”

A Colorado state representative (fellow Democrat), Paul Rosenthal, tweeted his disagreement with Rao. In his tweet he wrote “we” all need to be “united across all races” and must not “splinter & snipe” at each other.

I’d be hard pressed to imagine anything more offensive and off-key than a white person calling for “unity” after reading a piece like Yancy’s. Actually, wait. I can. It’s to then go on and insinuate that a highly qualified candidate, one who repeatedly experienced the kind of racial insults Rao did on the campaign trail, and yet who persisted in sustaining a thoroughly energizing multi-racial, grassroots campaign in pursuit of of offering transformative public service, is “sniping.”

In a later interview, after the death threats began, Rao (here not confined by the shorthand we all use when we tweet) was asked to expand on her feelings about white people and whether she has really given up on us. She did. And she explained to this reporter something that was also abundantly clear throughout her entire campaign.

She responded, “‘I hate white supremacy. I do not hate white people.’ [Rao] said she’s given up on trying to convince white people—including those in both political parties—to stop white supremacy. ‘White people have to dismantle it,’ Rao said. ‘Brown and black people cannot. It’s not even a possibility. We’ve been trying forever.’

I’m not sure truer words could be spoken.

Still, let’s imagine Rao had chosen to double-down (which she didn’t) and had opted to not add nuance (which she did) to her original tweet. Let’s imagine she really meant that she’s completely given up on all white people, just because we’re white (which she doesn’t literally, exactingly mean; look at her campaign!).

Can any of us miss the devastating irony that for the sin of suggesting there might be good, experience- and evidence-based reasons, to “give up” on white people, Rao has now had to literally move her family to protect them from . . . well . . . white people?

Could any turn of events more deeply demonstrate how utterly rational was the sensibility conveyed her original tweet?

So I’m not writing about this to dampen any enthusiasm or energy. These are the right responses to all these incredible women showing up as candidates. We need these women to run. We need them to win.

But it’s not enough for us to celebrate and extol women of color taking courageous risks to run for office and to lead in other visible ways in these difficult, dangerous days. It’s not enough for the whites among us (like me) to publicly and concretely support their campaigns, though we must all also do that. (I’m so serious here. Pick two or three women candidates running right now, even if they’re not your potential representatives, and plug in hard in whatever ways you can to help them win.)

We have to go much further. We’ve got to understand how the cultures of white supremacy we’re all living in actually function.

The death threats Rao received are utterly connected to descriptions of her as guilty somehow of “stereotyping white people,” being “racist,” “sniping,” or otherwise being somehow responsible for sowing disunity. In fact, though I didn’t see this written anywhere, I’m pretty sure Rao could just as easily have been accused of having failed the “civility” test; this bizarre constraint in tone and aspiration to respectability that people of color especially, but also white queer people and white women are being pressured to comply with as we’re screaming for our lives in our dissent these days.

Public descriptions such as these are like gateway drugs. They enable and lead to the kind of full-fledged and deadly, dangerous white supremacist violence that’s now been released and brought down on the heads of Rao and her family. Simply put, there’s a direct line between an article like the one Bunch wrote and the violence that Breitbart’s subsequent coverage of Bunch’s story called out of the woodwork.

That’s because white supremacist violence or threats of violence don’t exist in a vacuum. They’re the extreme part of a larger, prevalent culture we’re all embedded in.

We must recognize and understand this so that those of us rightly extolling and celebrating women of color leadership can, and do, each and all, diligently and consistently interrupt and challenge the prevalent ways these women and their analyses of racism are  described and characterized. Because these characterizations or insinuations about them happen everywhere in the many every day places we white people live and work and engage other white people—both in person and on-line.

White supremacy, from so-called micro-aggressions to explicit violence, exists on a continuum. It’s literally everywhere.

I’m not suggesting it’s your fault or mine that Rao received death threats. In fact, I assume you’re as horrified by her experience as I am. I’m definitely not suggesting any of us individually, let alone alone (!), should directly take on the very frightening and truly dangerous elements in our society who are indeed capable of violence and are demonstrating that in ways increasingly more bold everyday.

What I am insisting is that we learn to see prevailing racial discourses for what they are. That we take them on and take on the many people in our daily lives who perpetuate them as they insinuate that people of color are “stereotyping whites” or being “racist.” I am insisting we learn to effectively speak up and challenge it when the same people who are fighting for their very lives—some of whom are boldly agreeing to take on very serious risks by stepping into public leadership—are described as being “uncivil.” That kind of language, those kind of dismissals, these types of constraining and silencing frameworks flow freely around questions of race. And given what we are reaping right now as a nation, we’ve got to start to recognize how steeped in white supremacy are even these seemingly (to white people) more benign ways of understanding and debating and discussing race.

We’ve got to do this all so that when women like Rao run, we are ready to proactively and preemptively have their backs. It’s urgent we, white people, do the work individually and collectively required to become savvy and steely-eyed about the power of white supremacist culture and deeply equipped to take it on and take it up in the very public and persistent ways it shows up—because it shows up everywhere.

It’s no longer enough (not that it ever was) to point at the worst and most explicit elements and say “they did this” or “they’re doing that.” “Isn’t it awful?”

Just as those of us who didn’t fight long enough and hard enough and with enough do-or-die urgency against white supremacy these many years are implicated in the horrifying consequences of the election of 45 even though we didn’t vote that way, we are responsible right now too.

We need to hate white supremacy as much as women like Rao do and decide—finally decide—we’re going to step up and join the long labor of dismantling it. Rao is right, it is our work to do.

So vigilant solidarity goes deeper than simply shouting “hooray” when someone like Ocasio-Cortez’ wins. It means we choose to get brave and invest time, energy and resources to equip ourselves to move the needle and shift this terrorizing racial culture in which all of our lives are steeped. We’ve got to do more of our part and especially with and engaging other white people in our lives.

It takes a long time to shift a culture. None of us can do it alone and it won’t happen overnight. But the white among us are responsible for learning how to shift it. But, take heart, if we don’t yet know quite how to do that or what role we can play, all we have to do is decide simply to invest in carving out time and putting forth the energy to learn. There are tons of people who’ve taken the time and contributed their  expertise to show us how. So many who have modeled it. Countless people of all different identities and experiences who have written about it. Everywhere people who are organizing for it. So google, read, join, engage—anti-white supremacy resistance is everywhere and the more we do all of these things the more equipped we will be, each of us, to challenge it when we encounter it in our every day lives; at work, at home, at our kids’ schools . . . all the places.

It’s time to get as brave as we’re asking, and counting on, women like Rao to be.

And we best know this: it’s not just her children whose future depends on our willingness to do so. It’s the future of everybody’s children. Including mine.

Yes. Let’s celebrate courage and vision. And let’s connect with others who are doing the same. Because we do need to know that we are not alone.

We are many. We can win.

But we will only win if not a single one of us opts out of doing everything we can and must to be brave.

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