This story was co-published with Glamour.
As protests in Minneapolis erupted after a White police officer knelt on the neck of George Floyd for nearly nine minutes, killing the handcuffed 46-year-old Black man, Jenny Witt Berg in nearby Brooklyn Park felt “unsettled and anxious.”
Berg, who is White, considered posting tips on how to be a better ally to Black people on the Facebook page of the biohazard-remediation company she owns with her husband. She then hesitated, knowing that within the close-knit first-responder community their business serves, the sentiment could—unfairly in her mind—be interpreted as anti-police.
To shake her feeling of helplessness, Berg, 41, packed up some supplies at her shop that could be helpful in cleanup efforts on Lake Street, where many Black-owned businesses were damaged. She headed downtown and started walking, eventually joining a group to help clean out a looted store.
“That helped a little, but when I left, I thought, Why did that make me feel better? Is it because I did something and now I can feel good about myself and move on? And then I was wondering: Should I post about it? Should I not post about it? Is it disrespectful? I find myself even questioning my intentions,” Berg says.
Berg, like nearly all of the two dozen White women interviewed for this story, is grappling with her role in responding to numerous race-related killings that have left them disgusted and shaken. They have watched from their homes, where they are sheltered in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as videos spread across social media of Floyd’s death and the killings of others such as Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed 25-year-old Black man who was shot and killed by two White men while jogging.
These women are contributing to a “turning point” in America, where 76% of adults—83% of women and 68% of men—now say racism and discrimination are a “big problem,” according to a recent Monmouth University poll. Roughly half of Americans believed the same in 2015, the year after police shot and killed Michael Brown, an 18-year-old Black man in Ferguson, Missouri, setting off a string of protests that received widespread national attention.
The women believe in equality but often live in segregated communities where their neighbors and religious congregations are largely White. They are learning that checking in with Black friends could cause those friends to relive trauma. They are terrified of doing or saying the wrong thing, so they are buying books on race, such as White Fragility and How to Be an Anti-Racist, at rates that have led to shortages at booksellers.
As favorite brands declare that “Black Lives Matter” and friends post symbolic black squares on social media, they are questioning whether these are merely acts to ease White consciences. Some are starting conversations online and attending protests for the first time. Women in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and beyond are trying to acquire the language to talk about race that was never taught in their schools, families, or churches.
Most of the women interviewed for this story do not consider themselves activists but nevertheless said they believe inaction is no longer an option. They are weighing how to be effective allies amid a racial reckoning that has led them to uncomfortable moments of self-examination.
After Berg returned to Lake Street for a second time, she considered the “motives behind the cleanup efforts,” emailing: “While I think we all sprung into action to ‘help’ with good intentions, it might have subconsciously been to speed up this portion where we feel uneasy, guilty, scared, uncertain, to a more ‘peaceful, predictable, normal’ place.
“There is so much more to do than just sweep up. I’m really thankful for the emphasis on a dialogue. I hope we all take advantage of it,” she adds.
Encouraging White women to think through and discuss their White privilege by inviting them to “sit in their discomfort” is the premise of dinner parties hosted by Race2Dinner, an organization founded last year by Regina Jackson and Saira Rao.
The dinners cost $2,500 to host and are typically attended by eight White women friends or acquaintances who Jackson says tend to be “liberals, Democrats, card-carrying ACLU members, and Planned Parenthood types.”
Jackson, who is Black, and Rao, who is Indian American, open each dinner by discussing their own racism and asking the women for “radical honesty” in enumerating the ways in which they have benefited from a racist system that perpetuates White supremacy.
“We force these women to say out loud the ways in which they think and act in racist ways—and they do it,” Rao says. “A lot of times they’ll say things like: ‘I feel like I’ve been carrying this around my whole life and I’ve never been able to say this out loud.’”
Why focus on women? Jackson said that from her perspective “White men are the problem…and if they wanted to change the power structure, they would’ve done it by now.” Rao says they try to show the women that they have “chosen Whiteness over gender solidarity.”
Race2Dinner had 25 dinners planned for 2020 when the COVID-19 epidemic hit. They are now exploring ways to host dinners via Zoom or in socially distant backyard settings. As they field requests from universities and companies, Jackson and Rao are beginning to host some sessions for men but still prefer to separate genders into their own sessions to create safer spaces more conducive to discussion.
Susan Troha, a 51-year-old grant writer in Minneapolis, says she found her own “safe space” to talk about race when she reentered the workforce after caring full-time for her children. At the nonprofit where she now works, there are guidelines and guidance to help them navigate “really uncomfortable conversations.” Early on, a White supervisor pulled her aside to “very respectfully explain” that something she had done was racially insensitive. Troha called it a lightbulb moment.
“Even before I was doing this job, I was wanting to talk to people about race, but I was approaching them in the wrong way,” says Troha. “I didn’t know how to talk about it, I didn’t have a place where I could talk about it safely and without hurting people of color.”
But Troha still struggles to talk about race in her “very White neighborhood,” where the topic can “shut down a conversation.” “If I mentioned the word race, it offends people, because if you talk about it, people think you’re saying they’re a racist.”
Nicole Byer, who is Black, hosts Nailed It! on Netflix, a baking show for children. She recently broke down in a 300-word Instagram caption how parents should explain the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests. The post was prompted by a parent who commented that they would rather “keep their head down and just let their kid watch” the show.
“That made me boo hoo hoo. That you will allow your kid to watch me but not stand up for me. So I’ll do the work, I’ll write you a conversation to have with your White child,” Byer began.
For women increasingly aware that the burden is on them to “do the work,” books are an important resource. Layla F. Saad, author of Me and White Supremacy and host of the Good Ancestor podcast, recently recommended a Do the Work reading list for White people. Major book retailers such as Barnes & Noble and Amazon have sold out of some popular titles. Independent bookstores report selling more books on race and racism than ever before.
Laura Langdon, a 43-year-old high school English teacher who has “taken some time off to mom,” decided to start a book club for women at her mostly White Presbyterian church in the Kansas City suburbs. About six months ago, they read White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.
“All of us thought we were pretty progressive in this area, and it was pretty eye-opening and it was a gut punch. It was shocking to think here we were, trying to do what’s right, trying to make progress, trying to heal wounds…and there’s a lot we do not know. And we need to admit that and work with that and maybe think differently and act differently,” Langdon says.
Langdon says she reached out to her pastors to suggest a Little Free Library of anti-racism books on the congregation’s campuses. She is trying to get White Fragility into as many hands as possible. Next on Langdon’s reading list is Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America.
“Our parents raised us ‘You don’t see color; everybody is totally equal,’ and that just paints over everyone’s experiences. Now we know better so we have to do better,” she says.
Langdon says she believes we are at a “tipping point” in history, with some of her most “staunchly conservative” friends and acquaintances newly engaged in talking about racism. She cited as factors the coronavirus pandemic, which has kept people in their houses and glued to social media and television, and the recent use of tear gas to clear peaceful protestors at the White House for President Donald Trump to pose with a Bible in front of nearby St. John’s Episcopal Church.
At the end of May, Trump’s approval rating among White evangelicals was 62%, having dropped 15 points from 77% in March, according to a Public Religion Research Institute poll released last week. His support among White Catholics dropped to 37% from 60% over the same period, the poll showed.
Support from White women will be critical to Trump’s reelection chances. Though more women voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 than for Trump, more White women cast ballots for the president. But Trump currently trails Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic 2020 nominee, by a larger margin with women than he did Clinton in 2016. More women than men disapprove of the president’s response to the protests, a Washington Post–Schor School poll taken from June 2 to 7 showed. Trump’s support from both college- and non-college-educated White voters has eroded in recent weeks.
Langdon says she is spending a lot of time thinking about her “compliance” with a system that promotes White supremacy and how, as a White woman and parent, she can take steps to change that system.
“When I hold my little boy, I look at him and I think about his future and I think, I’m holding a White male. But I don’t want him to be the stereotypical White male—I desperately do not want that. I want him to be better, I want him to be kinder, I want him to be more than that. And then I think, as complex as that is and as frightening as that is for me as a mother, what are all the other mothers holding Black babies thinking?” Langdon says.
Katherine O’Brien, 37, a filmmaker, educator, and organizer in Chicago who describes her work as “very much centered on equity and access,” agreed that White people appear to be “awakening to the necessity of their allyship” in the wake of the deaths of Floyd, Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, an EMT in Louisville, Kentucky, who was shot and killed by police executing a no-knock warrant. (No arrests have been made or charges brought in Taylor’s case.)
O’Brien says that in traveling through the “stages of White allyship awakening, from how one goes to not really being aware of their White privilege to being someone who can be anti-racist,” it is important to not “get stuck in a phase of White fragility and sobbing.”
O’Brien says she has watched White friends and acquaintances “coming to terms” with the privileges of Whiteness. She has watched Black friends “taking the position of ‘no apologizing, just move forward’” and tried to “follow their lead.”
“You have to be okay with saying the wrong thing, being told that it was the wrong thing and not take it personally. I may not be the most sensitive, brilliant White ally, but I will figure it out, and I’ve got to trust that I will be okay giving the apology and doing the work better for you the next time,” O’Brien says.