General Patton said it, but my real reference for this phrase is the film Idiocracy which used to be funny but is just frightening now.*
This phrase came to me this morning while doing a free writing exercise with my professional writing group. It felt strange and luxurious to go to a writing group meeting while Minneapolis in burning, while the president is tweeting encouragement of violence against people of color, while a string of people of color have been killed for living their lives, and while knowing that people in my life are experiencing levels of grief and fear that I can empathize with, but that I can’t possible understand.
I can understand white supremacy though. I see it and I live it, as I am a white person in the United States who benefits from it. I also have eyes, and ears, and a mind. A recent example is my election to the Presidency of the Society of American Archivists. I am aware that I seemed less threatening to voters then a young, queer person of color. I am complicit, and I struggle with that complicity.
All I can think about this morning is white supremacy, and how to show empathy and make change. In that free writing exercise, I was working out what I think my place is in this world and my world. That’s what made me think of the phrase “lead, follow, or get out the way.”
White people should choose all three.
I have two platforms to lead: a position in SAA (which does not technically start until the handover in August 2020) and a position of leadership in my workplace, where I mange a team in the library and sit on our “leadership team.” These are places where I can and should lead. I have been given permission y being elected/hired. In my own workplace I can show empathy and respect the humanity and emotional/spiritual needs of my colleagues at this time. I can also push our leadership team to not only display empathy as a practice, but also to dismantle white supremacy as it exists in our organization. Luckily, I am in a workplace where the flesh is willing, and the spirit is consistent.
As for SAA, I will soon have a national platform to move my profession forward. I care deeply about SAA, I care deeply about other archivists and their individual struggles, but we can’t go on like this. We need to at least have a conversation about white supremacy in archives. I know this important work has bene started by scholars and brought forward to the membership at large in the very excellent annual meeting in Portland. What I want is sustained conversation that leads toward change. SAA can and should be at the forefront. The greatest lesson I have learned over the past few years is that if you pick an issue in your community (I subscribe to Dr. King’s ideas of the beloved community; when I say “community” I so, it’s likely that at times I use the word to mean people outside my door and sometimes to mean a global community), it is likely that someone is already working on that issue. They have more contacts than you, they have meaningful relationships in their community, and they have a history that you can’t gauge. When you find them, it is time to follow.
For the last few years I have been working on a grant from IMLS related to HIV/AIDS activism in Atlanta. Throughout the grant I have attended trainings through the ABCD Institute at DePaul University. “ABCD” stands for “Asset Based Community Development” and you will never meet a more well-meaning group of white people who are out here training the rest of us to follow. All communities have assets, and those assets have existed in relationship to each other long before you showed up. The training teaches you to recognize that local assets are power, and how to engage with people not as an institution that has power, but as a powerful ally who can follow the lead of a community. More archivists should engage with these ideas, and our archives programs should be teaching these skills. Show me a single archivist who has never needed the skills of engaging with a stranger and I will applaud you for supporting the acting community in these hard economic times.
Little old me can’t change the course of HIV/AIDS activism in Atlanta. But through the grant I have made important contacts, wonderful friends, and learned a lot about the ins and outs of funding and promoting public health in a large, dispersed city. HIV/AIDS is an intersectional issue. I would never have understood the depth and breadth of what these activists face on a daily basis without listening to their stories and following their advice on how I can help.
As the Gospel of Ludacris teaches us, “Move bitch, get out the way.”+
There are conversations and spaces where white people should not go. We are not welcome and our contributions are not useful. Got on black Twitter and listen. Repost if you think a signal deserves to be boosted, but keep the taste of privilege out of your mouth. You can follow intellectuals, activists, and community organizers of color and learn from them without staking a claim to their ideas, stories, or work.
I don’t live in Minneapolis, or Louisville, or Brunswick. I am not on the front line (yet). I can share my thoughts, I can give my money to justice and aid organizations, and I can do my part to lead myself and other white people to the righteous path. A first step to making a difference and being a true ally is for me and all the other whites, to learn when to lead, follow, and get the fuck out of the way.
+I live in Atlanta. Get used to it. https://youtu.be/tw429JGL5zo