Rainbow Rant: White people, don't let a fear of being wrong stop you from acting for justice

Joy Ellison
Demonstrators take a knee during a prayer at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus on Sunday, June 7.

Hello, white people. It’s me, Joy Ellison, another white person. We need to talk. 

Right now, on the streets of our city, black people are waging a battle against systemic racism. While these protests were inspired by the murder of George Floyd, it’s our city’s own history of police violence and racism that sustains them: the murder of Ty’re King; the beating of the Black Pride 4; the case of Masonique Sanders; our crumbling public school system, gentrification, inequitable budget priorities and more.

At this crucial moment, white people must participate in the movement against systemic racism by supporting black activists, artists and community leaders. We must take action, even if we make mistakes. 

Fear of making mistakes causes well-meaning white people to do nothing in the face of racism. We’re afraid that we don’t know enough, or that we’ll accidentally say the wrong thing. We talk ourselves out of acting because we’re embarrassed that we haven’t already acted. We fail to make small contributions because we can’t make bigger ones. Because we won’t risk being wrong, we risk nothing – and thus maintain our own power and privilege. 

Allow me to point out the obvious: Black people won’t be surprised when we mess up. They’ve met us before. 

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Black people already experience our well-intentioned cluelessness daily. They know our ignorance better than we know ourselves. No mistake made by a white person bumbling through activism is going to surprise a black person. 

I’m not giving any white person permission to do less than their best, nor am I telling you to expect black people to give you a pass. Black people have been patiently teaching white people for decades, so when we make mistakes, they are entitled to be angry with us. But black frustration isn’t fatal. White complacency is.

Often, our fear of making mistakes comes from an unexamined belief: To make change, one must have moral authority. We feel that to be activists we must be not just good people, but perfect people. A quick flip through any history book will put that belief to rest, but that’s not the real issue. 

When it comes to matters of racism, our moral authority is already lost. As white people, we are already complicit in structural violence. Rather than defending a good reputation we don’t have, we need to act to change an unjust system we didn’t create, but which we have a responsibility to dismantle. 

My message is a hopeful one: Just as racial bias is learned, so are anti-racist behaviors. We’re going to make mistakes, so we might as well make them while we work for justice. After all, that’s the only way we’re going to improve. 

Rather than fearing mistakes, let’s commit ourselves to accountability. We can become the type of people who are easy to correct and eager to learn. 

When it comes to changing the world, we are all beginners. The process of defunding the police and investing in black communities is a visionary undertaking. We are creating a world we can’t fully imagine. Mistakes aren’t just unavoidable; they are necessary.

Let’s get into the streets and make mistakes together.