Surviving Racism

by Damita Brown, PhD

In developing Midwest Telegraph, I have often been in the position of dealing with the harm of both interpersonal and structural racism. Recently, I started to relate to this work as a survivor. As a Black person I am constantly negotiating the racist terrain of anti-Black  social conditions that force me to decide whether or not to respond and if so how. As a racial justice educator and advocate, my underlying motivation as always to find a way to preserve open communication in order to teach anti-racism and enrich relationships that can help dismantle racism.

Midwest Telegraph is dedicated to making sure that the media environment addresses the many ways independent voices and alternative media sideline the voices of marginalized communities. A particular emphasis is placed on establishing groundwork that can lead to a broader conversation. Ending racism means creating a conversation in which we understand our power to transform the exclusiveness, privilege and structural violence of racism within community dialogues. This focus is a direct response to the sanctioned ignorance that entrenches our so called “progressive” organizations, institutions and political processes in the culture of racism. I am a survivor of this culture.

White people have a terrible track record when it comes to listening to people of color about racism. That record is bolstered by the fact that listening is too often confused with self-serving goals that preserve racism.  In conversations about racism, the goal has to be the same for all involved — ending racism. If the goal is winning an argument, hiding ones hand in perpetuating racism, defending one’s racist actions, explaining away racist behavior, denying race based power imbalances,  pretending racism is not the issue or other forms of re-affirming  white dominance, then the goal of dismantling racism cannot be achieved.

I think our best chance for success is in trying to understand how we participate in preserving the socially conditioned relationships and scripts that are fundamentally based in racism. This requires beginning every conversation, action or engagement with the assumption that racial hierarchies are always in operation and they intersect other hierarchies of oppression which keep the power dynamics we have in the Unites States in place. There isn’t any room for the idea that race is sometimes not in play. As a survivor of racist America, going into any conversation with this foundation would make it impossible to accuse me of playing the race card. The race card doesn’t exist. What exists is racial injustice which plays itself in our day to day interactions. It is already played.

With this understanding true allies and accomplices in the struggle to end racism are ready to understand the anatomy of listening and dissecting personal investments in the racial hierarchy. We should look at allyship and growing capacity to listen to people of color as the primary act of solidarity and the strongest form of reparations. We are repairing the missed or denied opportunity to listen without creating “us and them”. We are investing in the much needed work of shifting the terrain of communication so that there aren’t sides, there is no blaming and compassion becomes a true possibility. At this point, personal divestment from the structures of white supremacy become possible.

Too often we under estimate the problem of colonization. Colonization is most powerful when is operates unseen. Hearts and minds are invested in the invisible myth that is whiteness and the internalization of a world view in which white supremacy is taken for granted. Ignorance of ones role in propping up this type of social organization is the best ally to power elites. And ignorance is not an accident, it is incorporated in the structure of our educational institutions. What oppressive power would teach its subjects how to dismantle it? What system of domination would fail to preserve its power through dominating and controlling media, education, political processes, churches and the organization of the family? These are the institutions that make up the social fabric of racism. Their maintenance depends on our investment in them and the belief that we need them.

If we can understand this relationship between our social position and identity and our investment in the institutions and power dynamics that affirm these identities, the next and inevitable step is to question our acceptance of the falsehoods on which racism depends. What are these falsehoods?

Surviving racism requires us to look carefully and how we play our roles and preserve the scripts. It means letting go of that safe expected response or non-response again and again and again. There has to be a willingness to get to a place where the script of racial dominance is thrown out entirely. I am a survivor of the racist narrative that has led to untold brutality and degradation. My family has been torn apart by mass incarceration and economic exploitation. I suffer at the hands of those daily enforcing their white privilege. I am a survivor.

I have searched out allies and accomplices who have smiled in my face while they lie, cheat and steal. I have sat in “really progressive” conversations that show no awareness of the power dynamics being re-enacted for the benefit of white power. And every conversation is a delicate weighing of costs and benefits. We have to ask ourselves. What lies about race am I buying onto today. And what will be my day to day civil disobedience, my daily direct action to undo this harm. How have I divested myself, my energy, my comfort, my silence from this white supremacist behemoth today? I am a survivor, are you?

About the Author

Dr. Brown recently directed Freedom School 360: Liberation Practices for Our Times in Iowa City Iowa. With a diverse teaching team of 15 she created a contemplative and blameless environment in which to re-awaken curiosity and wisdom, develop capacity building skills for sustainable activism and envision communities without racial oppression. To contact her, email