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Lecia Michelle: The White Allies Handbook

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Lecia Michelle: The White Allies Handbook

Lecia Michelle is an author and anti-racist educator. Her new book, The White Allies Handbook, provides readers with the tools to get off the sidelines and onto the frontlines of the fight against racism.

The White Allies Handbook is currently available for pre-order, and will be released on July 26th.

You can find Lecia on Twitter @LeciaMichelle11

Ken Harbaugh:

Burn the Boats is proud to support VoteVets, the nation's largest and most impactful progressive veterans organization. To learn more or to join their mission, go to votevets.org.

I'm Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.

My guest today is Lecia Michelle, an author and anti-racist educator, her new book, The White Allies Handbook, provides readers with the tools to get off the sidelines and onto the front lines of the fight against racism. Lecia, welcome to Burn the Boats.

Lecia Michelle:

Thank you for having me.

Ken Harbaugh:

The White Allies Handbook is hitting bookstores in July, and I normally wait to interview authors until their books are actually out, but I didn't want to wait to talk to you. Can you give us a preview?

Lecia Michelle:

Sure. So the White Allies Handbook is an actionable book, I think that's what makes it very different from a lot of other books that talk about anti-racism work that are out there right now. You get four weeks to get through the book. Every chapter has great information that's going to take you forward in your ally journey. I'm also requiring that you journal, I'm requiring that you do complete the actions that are at the end of every chapter. There's also scenarios to role play.

I also tell everyone who's reading the book that this is not work that can be done in a bubble, you need an accountability partner, you need a group of people to work with, group of White people to work with, because the goal is that you're not just reading things like white fragility, you're not just reading those books and saying, "Okay, now I'm an anti-racism warrior or whatever." You're not. You have to take the information that you learn and actually use it. And I encourage that throughout the book.

Anti-racism work is not something that can be done on the sidelines. You have to actually be uncomfortable, you have to confront racism, you have to work on yourself. You have to work on your family, your friends. That's why I wrote the book because I don't see enough white people actually taking risks and making real change.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, you beat me to my next question, which is about forcing those uncomfortable conversations about asking people to leave that bubble and that comfort zone, and have the discussions that they have been taught that I was taught growing up you don't have in polite society. Why is that so important?

Lecia Michelle:

You know what's interesting about your question is I actually never knew that until I became an adult. I did not know that White people were told not to say things like Black or not to say things about racism, because it makes it worse. I just never knew that. So, as an adult and someone who constantly works with White people to explain to them that is counterproductive to what we want to do, it is paramount to change. You have to have those uncomfortable conversations regularly, but before you can have those conversations, I think one thing that I say a lot that a lot of white people really struggle with is the first real conversation you have to have is with yourself. How are you contributing to white supremacy? How are you contributing to racism? Because you are, whether you're actively doing it or you're passively doing it by staying silent, you're definitely part of their problem. The only way that we're going to make real change is to have what I call those grassroots conversations. And that means not only confronting racism, like if you see somebody out in public and you need to say something to them, but you also need to have those conversations with your family and friends. And those are the really tough, hard, painful talks.

I work with a lot of people who want to be allies, and I cannot tell you how many times they have told me I had to cut somebody out of my family who I love because they're so racist or I had to not be friends with someone I've been friends with for 20 years because they're racist, and I don't want to be around that. Or I had to go to my child's school and have a conversation with the teacher because my kid came back and told me that the teacher said something racist. That is the work. And is it fun? No. Is it necessary? Yes. Because if we have more people doing it at that level, we're going to make real change.

Ken Harbaugh:

In some of your other writings you've described this really shocking moment of awareness, I believe it was in 2016 when you were a member of Pantsuit Nation.

Lecia Michelle:

Oh yeah.

Ken Harbaugh:

And the community there had this prevailing idea that, and I'm going to quote you here, "If you talk about racism, that's what makes it bad."

Lecia Michelle:

Yeah. Pantsuit Nation is still a thing, I think they've gotten very involved, way more in politics now than I think originally, I still think they're around 3 million people. I mean, it's a massive organization now. They've always had the problem that they don't want to delve into the stuff that's sticky, the things that are difficult. And for them, that was definitely having discussions around race. I still pay attention to what happens in that group, but I also find them for the size that they are just extremely ineffectual when it comes to any type of anti-racism work. And I have heard from multiple White people- I mean, I cannot tell you how many times I've heard, well, if you talk about race, you're being divisive. If you talk about race, you're making it worse. If you talk about race, you're putting a focus on something that we don't need to focus on. If we don't talk about it'll get better. And what ill in society gets better if you don't address it. I mean, that doesn't make any sense to me. And really it's not about White people being honest about why they don't want to talk about race. It really comes down to that it makes them uncomfortable and it makes them defensive. And our society is definitely built on the comfort of whiteness, and what I've noticed is anything that is discussed that is outside of the comfort of whiteness, White people have zero interest in having a conversation about it.

Ken Harbaugh:

When you talk about doing the work, doing the hard work and forcing those conversations, I imagine your prescription is wholly different when you're talking about Pantsuit Nation and white liberals in communion with each other versus talking to your old racist parents or something like that. I mean, there are different levels of work that need to be engaged in when you're confronting this.

Lecia Michelle:

Yeah, absolutely. It's different conversations. Your racist uncle Bob who's 80 years old, and he's always been the way that he's been is decidedly different than having a conversation with a coworker or having a conversation with a friend who is liberal, "liberal." Your racist uncle Bob probably isn't going to change. There's very little chance of him making substantial change in his beliefs. At that point, your job changes from trying to educate him to confronting him. You have to confront him. You have to be the person in your family who confronts every racist conversation, every racist in your family. You want to make them uncomfortable. At the very least they know that if they say something like that in your presence, you're going to say something back and it's not going to be a good situation for them.

So if we're talking about having conversations with other white liberals, that's interesting too, because I feel like people on the left who have ... they'll very quickly tell you they voted for Obama and they vote for the right policies to help us. And I love that. That's great. But again, if you're voting for democratic policies and for liberal policies, but you're also uplifting white supremacy by staying quiet, not saying anything when you hear racist comments or see racism, not working on it within yourself, not confronting it anywhere, staying on the sidelines, then you're complicit. So, while you're voting is helping us, your silence is hindering us.

Ken Harbaugh:

I am glad you make the distinction. We'll get to the voting piece in a sec. But the distinction between having those conversations in your circle of like-minded people versus confronting those who are irredeemable, or at least unpersuadable, because we hear so much talk and so much advice about persuasion politics and convincing others. And then you look at a political landscape in which 70 million people voted for Donald Trump, and there is a part of me, and I know there is a part of a lot of people who are done dealing with the extremists and just ready to beat them at the polls. Is that frustration or resignation shared by you? I mean, confronted sure, but let's stop kidding ourselves that we're going to persuade enough people on that side of the equation.

Lecia Michelle:

Oh, I agree. I think that absolutely, you have to confront it on the right. You might persuade a very tiny, tiny percentage of them to change a little bit, but I'm really focusing on the people in the middle, and the people on the left who will very readily throw away a vote because they're mad that their candidate isn't the candidate for a president, or their candidate that one nomination is not progressive enough, or the candidate will not forgive their student loans. It can't be politics you support that you only care about the things that are going to directly affect you.

And what's interesting is, if I'm talking about the fact that Black people are still fighting for equality just to vote, to have the ability to go vote. That is a basic human right in our country. So, the fact that I have to have discussions with people on the left to explain to them that my family has been here for seven, eight documented generations, and we're still fighting for the rights that you take for granted, why do I have to try to convince you that that's more important right now than you having your student loans forgiven? And I'm not saying that student loan forgiveness is unimportant. What I'm saying is that if you're putting it ahead of basic human rights for marginalized communities like Black people, then that's a problem. And if you're only focusing on things that directly affect you, then that's a huge problem.

Ken Harbaugh:

Let's talk about voting, and voting as tactics. Vote is not a virtue signal, it's a chess move in a long game. And I just want you to share your wisdom and your perspective about that. Because once again, we're in an era with row under assault and other rights being infringed upon where suddenly people are animated in an environment in which the African American community and Black women in particular have been sounding the alarm for years and years and years.

Lecia Michelle:

Right. Well, for generations-

Ken Harbaugh:

Generations.

Lecia Michelle:

We've been for generations. I'm glad that you brought up the issue of voting again. What I find interesting about people, and it's typically these way more leftist white progressives who have basically said, "Well, I'm not getting anything from Biden, so I'm just not voting anymore. I'm not voting Democrat anymore." I don't think they understand, like you were saying, politics and voting, it is a long game. We didn't get where we are because of one round of voting, Black people didn't get the rights that we do have because of one round of voting. We got those rights because generati ons, my ancestors fought and protested and voted to get these rights. They voted to get the right, they fought to get the right to vote. So, it's very shortsighted of anyone to think that a president can make every change that you want in less than one term. Actually, they're not going to make every change in two terms, it's not going to happen. You just want them to progress things in a way that hopefully another democratic president comes into office and can continue that work. It is very exhausting and tiring to constantly have to say the same things to people who I just don't think have any skin in the game when it comes to politics, again, that they don't think directly affect them.

But it's also very selfish if you don't care about the person on the corner who doesn't have the rights that you have, the person that their child goes to school with your child, and they don't have the rights that you have, and they're still fighting for those things. I'm hoping when people start doing the work and they buy my book, that they realize that first of all, politics are not done in a bubble, and you have to think outside of your immediate needs and look at society as a whole, who are the people suffering and what can you do to help?

Ken Harbaugh:

I heard you say on a recent interview that you learned, and this is in quotes now, "you learned early on that if you were going to have conversations with White people about race, it's going to go badly 90% of the time." I'm going to knit that to another quote of yours, because I think it forms part of the answer, which is that, "when White people are talking with each other, they listen, but if you're talking to them, they're busy thinking about how to defend themselves."

Lecia Michelle:

Yes, that is absolutely true. Like I said, I run a Facebook group that I've run for six years now and we do train White women how to be allies. And I learned early on that I have to have other White women work with them, because they'll listen to them and they will defend themselves to me, they're not going to take my words as seriously. Is that frustrating? Yes. But at this point, I just want them to do the work.

One thing that I've realized is, if White people are talking to each other and the person who is educating the White person who just needs to do some introspection and some soul searching, that White person, if I've worked with them and I know them typically, I already know that they're going to start confronting them on why is it that you don't listen to Black people when they talk to you? Why is it that if a Black person says to you, this thing that you just did is racist, why is it that you defend that? But when I come to you and say it, you actually will try to listen and have a conversation about it and possibly do better.

And there are, I think, a lot of reasons that happens. One thing that I've noticed with a lot of White people that I talk to about race is, if they're on the left, if they're any kind of a liberal, not just progressive, any kind of a liberal, I cannot tell you how many times they have come to me basically and said, "Well, I know I'm not a racist because I'm a liberal and I vote liberally and I support the things that are helping you. So I'm not part of the problem. You should be talking to the people on the right, because they're the racist." As a matter of fact, yesterday on Twitter, I had a conversation with a lady who ultimately blocked me, but she basically told me that the real racist were the people in the Southern red states who were voting Republican, and that the rest of the country was completely fine, which is absolutely ridiculous. They are racist and they're White racists and they're white leftists and white Democratic racist in every state. That's just a conversation I have on the regular with White people.

And I tell other Black people who are doing anti-racism work, don't burn yourself out, having these conversations with White people who will not listen to you, you need to have a nice little group of White allies that you can point them to and say, "Okay, I'm going to have you talk to some White people because you'll listen to them." The goal is ultimately they start their ally journey and they realize that they need to be listening, in my case, to Black women.

Ken Harbaugh:

I followed that Twitter thread, and I think the person you're talking about missed the plot

Lecia Michelle:

Yes. As usual, which is-

Ken Harbaugh:

As usual.

Lecia Michelle:

That's usual. Yes.

Ken Harbaugh:

But I did bookmark it for reference.

What gives you hope?

Lecia Michelle:

What gives me hope? I'm hopeful because of the 2020 election. I really feel like I'm so traumatized by the Trump presidency. And I think a lot of Black people are. Had he been reelected, I really don't know where I would be mentally, because I feel like I was just in this depressive hypervigilant state for four years. What gives me hope is President Biden and Vice President Harris. The fact that Stacy Abrams, I'm crossing my fingers, is going to be the governor of Georgia, that will be huge. I think it's going to happen. I'm very excited about that.

I'm also really excited about the increased number of what I see White people. Like I said, I'm very active on Twitter, I talk about my book a lot on Twitter. I also bring up lots of conversations around race on Twitter. And I'm very hopeful of the, I think, probably several hundred White people I have who follow me, who are really interested in being an ally and are okay with being criticized and called out. And don't just shut down and block me and go talk about me behind the block. That does make me hopeful.

I'm also hopeful that this conversation around race is going to get bigger. Hopefully with my book, hopefully with some other books that are going to be coming out, and hopefully people are worried enough about the next presidential election and about the midterms to start having these conversations. Because one of the main reasons that the voting has gone the way that it has in the past is because of white supremacy and racism. There's no reason to vote for a candidate who does nothing for you other than uphold white supremacy. Think about why is that so important to you? Are you so concerned about your place in the food chain? You're at the top, are you so concerned about that, that you're willing to just put everybody else to such a low level that they're struggling just to survive? I'm not talking about financially survive, I'm talking about mentally survive, I'm talking about being in a place where you just feel healthy, just going about your day. I mean, I think on top of the election, and then we had the pandemic, a lot of people who are already marginalized I think are really having a hard time. So, getting to the polls, voting the way that we should be voting, making sure that we're speaking up when we see things, making sure that we're paying attention to what's going on with things like Roe V. Wade and how we can really fight that, we can't go back any further.

I feel like right now, politics have gotten to the point where people are one issue voting and they're not really paying attention to the big picture. I am part of a marginalized group, but if I were not, I would still be fighting for marginalized groups and making sure that my voice is heard and that's how I'm voting, and that's what I'm standing up for.

Ken Harbaugh:

You asked a question rhetorically, "Do some White voters really care so much about their position in the social hierarchy that they're willing to do whatever it takes, even hurt the body politic and vote against their own economic interest to maintain that status?" But I don't think it's a rhetorical question. I think there are voters who are doing precisely that, which has led to some political theorizing about the spasm of voter suppression laws and racist violence and a lot of what we're seeing today as the last gasp of a white supremacist order. Like this is the existential moment for those who believe that they will lose everything if whites are no longer at the top of the social pyramid. Do you buy that we are reaching a crescendo and it's sunny pastures after this, or is it more complicated?

Lecia Michelle:

Well, I think that it's a crescendo in the way that things are getting exponentially worse for marginalized communities. I think in that sense, it's just getting worse, but I don't see an end in sight. I think a lot of people are saying that the Republican party is imploding, and at some point it's going to be a non-issue, but if we're talking about the 70 million people who voted for Trump, they're not going anywhere.

When he won in 2016, I lived in the South, I was in Atlanta at the time, and I remember the day after the election, when we knew that he had won, I walked out of my house, and for the first time I was scared. I was scared because I lived in the South. I was in a community that was diverse, but also Atlanta has a very complicated history around race and white supremacy, and still has a current history around white supremacy and race. So it was the very first time that I really had to think about, "Can I be someplace where every day I have to worry?" It's not going to end by itself. At this point, it's a numbers game, we have to beat the Republicans, we have to have enough Democrats in office that their power structure changes.

Roe V. Wade has me terrified and I'm of an age, I don't have to worry about pregnancy and things like that, but I do have a lot of young women who I think look up to people, women who are my age, who've been through all of that, and it's our job as Democrats, as centrist Democrats, to protect these women, protect these young girls, protect these girls who are not a voting age, who are going to be a voting age soon enough, and are going to be of an age where they can have children soon enough.

The idea that we still don't have a lot of work to do is interesting because I look at where we've been, where this country has been, the white supremacy that founded this country, and the idea that we don't have generations to go before we either beat it, or we get it to a point where more often than not, we're coming out on the right side of history.

The fact that Trump still has as many supporters as he has just scares me. He may not ever be president again, but he has an influence in this country where he is driving a lot of the violence, he is driving a lot of the politics still that dictate people's day to day lives. And he's also driving a lot of the opinions that we don't really think about. What about his supporters that are in these boardrooms that are on these school boards that are making decisions in these local communities that are just getting less, no media coverage, but those people's lives are changing drastically?

I think we have to get really real about what's going on, and we have to understand that the work in our lifetime is not going to end. We cannot get complacent, it's not as bad as it could get, it's really bad right now, but it will only get worse if we make the decision not to do anything.

Ken Harbaugh:

I think a lot of people are looking at, and it's a lot of wish casting here, but Trump's waning influence in Georgia, for example, and they're missing the point that Trumpism is far more dangerous than Trump himself. And if you take a competent Trumpist and put him in the White House, they'll be able to do so much more damage than Trump himself. And that's what we're facing. We're not facing a single authoritarian, we're facing an authoritarian mindset.

Lecia Michelle:

I agree. Absolutely. It's already happening, I think there's already names that are being pushed. I don't think that Pence will be the nominee. I think that the fact that he spoke out even a little bit against Trump, I think is going to be his downfall as far as getting the nomination. But I do think there will be a nominee who is very much a Trump supporter who is more articulate, smarter, faster, stronger, whatever. I mean, I think he's just going to be a more palatable nominee on the surface, but with all of the hatred that Trump brought to that office, and that is dangerous because what I find really terrifying is that a lot of people on the right who maybe have decided they don't like Trump because he's belligerent and he's rude and all those things, will think that the person who has the same Trump policies, but is articulate and seems smart and charming is going to be exactly what they want and what they need and what this country needs. And I don't think that they're going to care that those policies are really to punish and to hurt people who are non-supporters, who are on the left, who are marginalized, people who are already struggling. And what's interesting is that a lot of them are already struggling, but they're still going to vote for him. So that's a whole nother conversation, but there are people on the right who he has done damage to, but they love him.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, they love him because of that social hierarchy vote. They love him.

Lecia Michelle:

Exactly. Exactly.

Ken Harbaugh:

Okay. Yeah. Make the point for me.

Lecia Michelle:

Yeah. I mean, it really comes down to… We have this conversation a lot in anti-racism circles because when we vote, we're talking about voting for the greater good. So if you look on the right, a lot of people who love Donald Trump or love those policies are basically like, "I love the fact that because I'm White, I'm at the top of the food chain. So everything else, I don't care if I don't have healthcare." I mean, they care, but they don't think about it until they don't have it anymore. But they really believe that if they have the proper, right candidate for them in office, they're going to stay on top. They're going to stay on top and the rest of us are going to suffer. And they're okay with that because historically that has been this country, and the fact that there are White people who honestly believe that for me to be equal, they have to lose something, is mind boggling to me. So my equality means that you now have less, that doesn't make any sense to me other than the fact that white supremacy is the goal here.

So, it's just really frustrating, it makes me very angry, but I also think it's not going to change. And that is the candidate they're going to get. They're going to get that candidate who has those same policies, they're going to vote for him. They're going to lose things, but they're going to stay on that hierarchy. They may lose healthcare, they may lose jobs or whatever, but they're still going to be at the top of the food chain because they're White. And that seems to be the most important thing to them.

Again, this is generations and generations of this. They're learning this from the previous generations, learning this from history, history that they don't learn, they don't know anything about my history in this country, and they're okay with seeing the rest of us not have basic human rights.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, if we're being literal, that is part of the definition of conservatism. We had this conversation with Sherrod Brown, that part of the DNA of that mindset is conserving a status quo part of which is that social hierarchy.

Lecia Michelle:

Right. Right. Yeah, I agree.

Ken Harbaugh:

I've been reading your Facebook page, which is just a font of information. Can you share a bit about what motivated you to create it and what it is accomplishing now?

Lecia Michelle:

So, the page actually came out of the group. So the Facebook group is private. That is the Real Talk Page, where we have a space for women of color to have conversations amongst ourselves, but also to train White women. The public page came because we really felt like we needed to have a space to actually have conversations with people outside of the group and post articles that are thought provoking. And then also be able to answer questions of people on our public page, and that where our public page has grown exponentially. We have a lot of interaction. We post a lot of different things. Sometimes it's articles that I've written, other articles by other people. Sometimes it's just memes to get people talking. But it has definitely been a space that has been eye-opening in a lot of ways. One thing that social media does very badly is police white supremacy. If you look at our page, we have a lot of racists who come onto our public page, and they're just outraged that we're having any conversations around race. But on the other hand, we have a lot of people who are very sincerely interested in learning more about anti-racism work and working on themselves.

We have a lot of groups who contact us and ask us questions about what resources we use about the training that we do, how they can get their training. They ask very pointed questions about things that are happening in their organizations and how we would address that. So that happens a lot. So, that page has been up for years now, and it's definitely a really nice springboard for people who aren't really sure where they want to go as far as learning about how to be better White people.

Ken Harbaugh:

There was one exchange in that vein that caught my eye, and I'm trying to remember exactly the context, but I think it was something you reposted in which John Stewart was making a really insightful comment about structural racism. And someone got on and said, "Says a privileged White man." And the response I'm guessing you or someone close to you wrote was, "This is how White people are supposed to use their privilege." So, in the spirit of working on myself, can you speak to how White people are supposed to use their privilege.

Lecia Michelle:

Exactly the way that John Stewart did it, honestly. What's interesting is, there are a lot of people, a lot of non-White people who are justifiably furious with White people. So they don't want to hear anything that you have to say. So I am not in that camp. If you are a White person and you have an audience, a platform, you are the person that should be opening your mouth and pushing this anti-racism agenda. You should be listening to Black people. If you're on social media, then you need to be reposting, retweeting, in your case, bringing people onto your show like you're doing right now outside of social media. If you work for an organization where you're in a place in the organization where you have a voice on who is hired, who you're bringing in to present, to train, what vendors you're using, what contractors you're using, you have to use your voice to make sure that those people are getting a fair chance and that you're actively trying to diversify whatever it is that you're doing.

As far as just speaking up, any time that you can push a topic or like when the George Floyd murder happened, I saw a lot of public figures, White public figures, really standing up and having hard, hard conversations with people online and being interviewed and talking about how that situation made them feel. But also saying, "I can't imagine how Black people feel after having this happen again and again, and again, and this time having it happen in such a visceral violent way."

I think the White people who I really appreciate and partner with, and the ones who I think really want to make substantive change are the ones who are willing to say the uncomfortable truths about systemic racism and about structural racism and about the fact that they know how much privilege they have, and they are aware that white skin is this incredible buffer for them that I don't have. And the fact that they can, as a public figure, say it is unfair, there's no reason I should have this privilege just because I'm White, and my goal going forward is to use that privilege for good and to address racism everywhere that I see it.

In a lot of cases for public figures who are really, really passionate about it, it is pushing conversations other White people don't want to have, it's going on shows and talking about white supremacy. It is starting organizations or joining organizations that are already doing this work and lending their voice because they have so much influence. So those are a lot of ways that you can do that as a person who has a platform, and it's not being done nearly enough, I feel like when something really horrible happens, there's this ground swell of support and then it gets quiet again. And we have to stop doing that, we have to continuously have the conversations, because even when there's nothing in the news happening, there are things happening that aren't being covered by the media.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, I think that's an incredibly powerful observation and insight to end with. We will keep the conversation going. Lecia, thank you so much for coming on.

Lecia Michelle:

Thank you so much for having me.

Ken Harbaugh:

Thanks again to Lecia for joining me. Make sure to check out her book The White Allies Handbook, which is available now for pre-order. The link is in the show description.

You can also find Lecia on Twitter @LeciaMichelle11

Thanks for listening to Burn the Boats. If you have any feedback, please email the team at [email protected] We're always looking to improve the show.

For updates and more, follow us on Twitter @Team_Harbaugh. And if you enjoyed this episode, don't forget to rate and review.

Thanks to our partner VoteVets. Their mission is to give a voice to veterans on matters of national security, veterans care and issues that affect the lives of those who have served. VoteVets is backed by more than 700,000 veterans, family members and their supporters. To learn more, go to Votevets.org.

Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Declan Rohrs, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our audio engineer. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers, Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss. I'm Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.

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