“white supremacy is not a shark; it is the water.”

A few extended thoughts on the quote, in the context of the last few weeks.

Lots of people have been sharing this quote again lately, partly because Brené Brown, The Conscious Kid, and some other big social media accounts have shared it, but also because of how some 70 million people here in the US decided to vote in our last election. Wanted to share two thoughts.

First, the quote is from a poem I wrote back in 2014 called “How to Explain White Supremacy to a White Supremacist,” which is in my book. You can find the full piece (video and text) here.

Second, and more importantly, one thing we talk about in spoken word classes is the “so what” factor. A poem might make a great point, and that might be all it does (and that’s okay!). But poems that have powerful messages AND point people in the direction of some kind of concrete action can be really powerful.

This post isn’t about the poem. It’s about what that specific metaphor means, in this specific moment. It’s about the “so what.” Yes, as the poem says: racism is bigger than individuals saying the “wrong” words. It’s bigger than interpersonal bigotry or bullying. It’s bigger than microaggressions. It’s about the water: the centuries of systemic, institutionalized disadvantage, discrimination, and violence that Black people, Indigenous peoples, and people of color have faced—and continue to face today.

So what do we do with that? Not that there’s ever just one specific answer, but I am thinking about how, when it comes to disrupting and dismantling white supremacy, there are things we (especially those of us who are white) can do.

And this is NOT one of those “ten things white people can do to be antiracist!” posts. There are a million of those. Feel free to read them. But I wanted to share a more specific thought:

When I co-facilitate anti-racism workshops, classes, etc., one thing we talk about (and maybe someone smarter than me has said this more eloquently) is that on a scale of -100 to 100, the best anti-racist trainings might move an organization, school, business, or individual from a negative score to zero. So in the debate around whether “anti-racism/DEI trainings” are worthwhile, I think there’s some nuance. And to be clear, this isn’t about quantification, or some kind of actual “points” system; it’s another metaphor: going from -100 to zero is a start; it may be a step on a longer path.

But even in the best case scenarios, zero is still, you know, nothing.

So what does that zero-to-100 space look like? Again, I don’t think there’s one answer, but whatever answer there is will have something to do with abolition, reparations, and the concrete redistribution of resources.

So many corporations, institutions, and big, multi-million dollar nonprofits talk so much about wanting to commit to the work of anti-racism, to have frank and honest conversations, and do better. Fewer, however, seriously consider moves like giving their “diversity committees” real power (or even compensation). Or ensuring full health coverage to workers, since “there are clear, race-based inequalities in health insurance and health outcomes” in the US. Or cutting the pay of their (largely white) upper management in order to increase the pay of their (largely BIPOC) frontline workers.

Even on an individual level: how are we regularly, intentionally, meaningfully supporting the organizing efforts, not to mention the material well-being, of Black people, Indigenous peoples, and people of color? What organizations are we supporting? What policies are we supporting, through our votes, our presence, our resources? How are we contributing to the movement toward the redistribution of wealth, land, and power?

The answers to those questions might be different for different people and organizations in different communities. One super specific local example: Here in Minneapolis, I hope people know about MPD150, Reclaim the Block, Black Visions, and all the abolitionist organizing happening—not just since the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, but from years before that.

I’m highlighting those groups (and there are many others, in cities across the country) because abolishing prisons and police is an example of an issue that gets to the heart of what disrupting white supremacy looks like, in practice. It’s not metaphorical. It’s not just about “having conversations,” even if having conversations is part of how we get there.

It’s about putting a concrete effort toward building a community where the health and safety of the people is prioritized over property and punishment, especially for those who have been systematically denied that privilege for centuries. And from local elections, to ballot initiatives, to popular education, to infusing these ideas into our schools, workplaces, places of worship, etc., there is going to be a lot of work to do in 2021 and beyond. And that’s just one example. Find ways to plug in. Follow those groups. Show up, in whatever ways you can, whenever you can.

That line, “white supremacy is not a shark; it is the water,” isn’t meant to be fatalistic—just the opposite. The water might be more dangerous than the individual shark, but it’s still a concrete force that can be resisted. The first step is seeing it, acknowledging it. That just can’t be the last step.

Further resources and notes: