Let’s Talk About Race: Resources for White Philadelphians Who Are Ready to Actually Do Something About Racism and Anti-Blackness
To quote Michelle Obama, “Race and racism is a reality that so many of us grow up learning to just deal with. But if we ever hope to move past it, it can’t just be on people of color to deal with it.”
Whether you’ve taken to the streets to protest the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers who now face murder charges, posted all your thoughts and feelings on social media, or stayed completely silent, one thing is irrefutable: White people, we have work to do.
Dismantling the systemic racism in our city and our nation starts with demolishing the internalized racism in ourselves. Angela Davis said, “In a racist society it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.” This guide is intended as a starting point for learning about how we got to where we are and how to do better in the future. This list is by no means comprehensive, but we hope that through the many resources we’ve linked to, white readers can stop asking “What do we do?” and actually start doing.
We would like to acknowledge that this guide was written by white writers who have a lot of learning to do themselves and are committed to doing better. As you’ll see, guides like this would not be possible without the work of the many BIPOC (black, indigenous, people of color) activists and writers who have led the way. We have worked to de-center our own voices from this guide.
We’d also like to note that although this guide is targeted to white people and includes resources that cater to them, what is ultimately important in the ongoing fight against internalized and institutionalized racism is not white feelings, but the experiences and voices of black people. We hope that this guide serves as a starting point. Building anti-racist work — actual actions involving giving up our comfort, donating our money, relinquishing our privilege — into our everyday lives as white people is a moral imperative that we cannot ignore, as humans and as Philadelphians.
Esteemed artist and creative Sir John recently posted, “It is a privilege to educate yourself about racism instead of experiencing it.” Not sure why our black neighborhoods are at such a disadvantage? Start by learning about redlining and the legacy of structural racism it initiated, leading to today’s issues of segregation, lowered home values, underfunded schools, urban heat islands, and more in Philadelphia’s majority-black neighborhoods. Saw that the protesters went for the Frank Rizzo statue? Read about his racist, violent leadership, then read about how the city delayed his statue’s removal for years and the message that sent to marginalized communities. Seen the Octavius V. Catto statue outside City Hall? Read how the civil rights activist (and African American baseball pioneer) was killed in 1871 Election Day violence aimed at limiting black suffrage. Don’t know the details of Philly’s 1964 race riot? Read up on it. Haven’t read the history of the MOVE bombing, for which the city has yet to issue a formal apology? Hear from Philadelphians who still can’t make sense of it. Heard that black people don’t feel welcome or safe in South Philly? Read about its history of racism and segregation. Have you seen the annual articles decrying the Mummers? Read about the parade’s history of sanctioned and celebrated blackface.
We all have a lot of learning to do. Don’t stop here. Below, we’ve listed resources that take a deeper dive into Philadelphia’s history and the systemic racism woven throughout it.
Race and exclusion in Philadelphia: Snapshots from the past 100 years, Eric Hartman and Stephanie Keene for Generocity
Philadelphia’s Anti-Racism Riot Was a Cry From a City That’s Had Enough, Ernest Owens for Philadelphia magazine
A 1918 ‘race war’ and its ties to Philadelphia’s present, Avi Wolfman-Arent for WHYY
Philly, We’re Officially Living in an Apartheid State, Ernest Owens for Philadelphia magazine
(Note: You can purchase or order many of these titles at local black-owned bookstores. Find a guide to them here.)
Philadelphia Freedoms: Black American Trauma, Memory, and Culture after King, Michael Awkward. Examines racial politics and black identity in Philly during the post-King era, with a focus on four cultural moments that reveal how racial trauma is woven throughout Philly history.
The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study and History of Pennsylvania’s Black American Population; their Education, Environment and Work, W.E.B. Du Bois. A compilation of research on black neighborhoods during Du Bois’s time at the University of Pennsylvania. A profile of urban black American society at the start of the 20th century that revealed “endemic social prejudices and abject poverty.”
Represent: 200 Years of African American Art in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw and Richard J. Powell. An overview of 150 paintings, sculptures, decorative arts, costume and textiles, and photography by American artists of African descent. Includes thematic essays by consulting curator and Penn professor of art and Africana studies Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw.
Falling Back: Incarceration and Transitions to Adulthood Among Urban Youth, by Jamie J. Fader. An ethnographic study that follows young men of color as they transition from incarceration back to their lives in urban Philadelphia neighborhoods.
Let the Bunker Burn: The Final Battle With Move, Charles W. Bowser. Examines the events that took place in Philadelphia on May 13, 1985, when city officials, including the mayor, approved a police plan to drop a bomb on the home of members of the black liberation group MOVE. Bowser, a civic leader and activist, reveals disturbing conclusions about how children were killed, why the bomb was dropped, and why the fire was permitted to burn unchecked.
Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City, Elijah Anderson. Delineates the “code of the street” and “examines it as a response to the lack of jobs that pay a living wage, to the stigma of race, to rampant drug use, to alienation and lack of hope.”
A Movement Without Marches: African American Women and the Politics of Poverty in Postwar Philadelphia, by Lisa Levenstein. Reviews the history of post-war Philly, tracking poor African American women as they work to access government benefits and services.
Up South: Civil Rights and Black Power in Philadelphia, by Matthew J. Countryman. A look at the work of Philadelphia Black Power activists to create a “vital and effective social movement that combined black nationalism’s analysis of racism’s constitutive role in American society with a program of grassroots community organizing and empowerment.”
The Nicest Kids in Town: American Bandstand, Rock ‘n’ Roll, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in 1950s Philadelphia, by Matthew F. Delmont. Examines the discrimination towards black people by the popular late 50s television program – and the protests against that discrimination by black teens and civil rights activists.
Face Your Own Racism and Fear-Driven Silence
Talking about, reading about and even interacting with people of different races can provoke intense anxiety and defensiveness from white people. According to Howard Stevenson, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education who studies racial socialization and racial literacy, acknowledging that fear and reframing it is the first step in dismantling our own racism. We can’t become anti-racist or fight against inequality in all its forms if we’re too scared, or too wrapped up in our bubble of white privilege, to even talk or think about race. So we must start by recognizing the racism within ourselves and having the conversations in order to unpack our biases.
Without that work, Stevenson says, we’re more likely to perpetrate violence against black people or become overwhelmed with the work of anti-racism and give up. His research focuses on the emotions — from discomfort and anxiety to panic and fear — that people have about race and how to dismantle those emotions to further anti-racism work.
Examine why conversations about race feel unfamiliar.
In his research, Stevenson often asks white people to speak with a family member about what experiences they had with regard to race growing up, and how those conversations led to what they might have passed down. That process, he says, can help people learn a lot about how their families have sidestepped these issues. If you know why you don’t know, you can start to ask very different questions.
“If you’re white and you lived in an all-white neighborhood growing up and you went to a predominantly white school, you could literally have years without exposure to black and brown people, with so few racial moments, you would not be pressured to try to manage them or face them,” Stevenson says. “The more awareness you have of that, the more you can say, ‘Okay, this is how I’ve learned to dance when a racial moment happens, and this explains why I might not know that much about this, or what to do.’”
Remember that not everyone has the choice to opt out of the tension and conversations — that’s a problem.
In a society that is founded on racial hostility and segregation, for you to escape the challenges of racial conversations and moments of radicalized conflict for years is a unique privilege. That’s something white families can do that black and brown families cannot, Stevenson explains.
“Research shows that the stress of race politics on black and brown people affects their health outcomes, their work outcomes, how they’re treated by the justice system, and how they’re educated,” Stevenson says. “To not have to go through those kinds of stressors is a privilege. Once you realize that, the question is, does that create enough tension for you to say, ‘What do I want to do about this?’”
Understand that unmanaged fear and anxiety are dangerous problems.
“Because race is so stressful in this country, a lot of people have emotional responses to any kind of stimuli that they associate with race,” Stevenson says. Those responses can range from stress, which can cause you to avoid talking about race, to violent fear that results in brutality against people of color.
It’s important to understand clearly that any level of stress response is on the spectrum of racism and contributes to upholding white supremacy. “George Zimmerman, following Trayvon Martin, if you listen to him on the 911 call recordings, he’s basically hyperventilating, stressed that this kid who is by himself, walking, is stalking him and not the other way around,” Stevenson says. If you’re having a fear spike at the eight, nine or 10 level, “that means you’re distorting reality. That’s the type of fear you should experience if you’re facing a poisonous snake.” If you’re having this kind of reaction at the mere mention of race, the problem is most definitely you.
If you don’t dismantle the fear you feel — which is based in racism — you’re putting the people of color around you at risk. According to Stevenson, the training we get around race, if we get any, is ideological. But, he says, most people are woefully unprepared to actually make good decisions in what he calls a “racial moment.”
Calculate, locate, communicate.
That’s what Stevenson calls the technique he recommends for responding to stress. Say you’re trying to have a conversation with your uncle about a racist attitude he’s expressed. First, rate the amount of anxiety you experience when talking about race on a scale of one to 10. Then notice location of that stress in your body. Finally, communicate.
“What are you saying to yourself while you’re talking to your uncle?” Stevenson recommends asking. “What images come to mind? Some people will say, ‘Oh, I’m afraid he’s going to walk away, or that I’m going to make him upset.’ We try to help people notice what’s going on with them at that moment, then reframe it as not impossible, but possible, so they can stop walking away from situations saying, ‘I woulda, coulda, shoulda.’”
Once you’ve worked through these three levels, you can breathe and exhale, bringing oxygen to your brain so you can speak and access memory.
Stevenson also encourages white people to take note of their reactions during other moments.
“If you see a black boy walking down the street, a lot of people will cross the street as a matter of safety, but they won’t question themselves,” he says. “Noticing is important because it can bring you to other things. Some people will be scared and ashamed of what they find — they have to work on those issues, they have to ask for help.” (We’ve listed some resources on identifying and addressing your internalized racism below.)
Address race with children head-on.
If you’re feeling nervous about talking with your children about race, it’s important to acknowledge that, Stevenson says. Young children are also more likely to pick up on non-verbal cues, since they don’t use as much verbiage to communicate.
“It’s most important for parents to notice their own reactions to race,” Stevenson says. He hesitates to offer specific resources about what, exactly, to say, because if parents have those conversations without first dismantling their own racism, that racism will be passed on to children.
In white families, children often form impressions about race from the things their parents won’t say or don’t do, explains Stevenson. You can’t avoid teaching your child about race — children will pick up on your silence and anxiety, which continues the negative pattern as outlined above. Any potential embarrassment you might feel if your child says the wrong thing publicly is fixable — and far easier to amend than the racism that comes from decades of silence.
Read about and work on dismantling your own racism and white fragility with these resources. (Note: You can purchase or order many of these titles at local black-owned bookstores. Find a guide to them here.)
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, Robin DiAngelo. Explores the “defensive moves that white people make when challenged racially” and explains how these behaviors “reinstate white racial equilibrium and prevent any meaningful cross-racial dialogue.”
Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor, Layla F. Saad. A 28-day program to unpack your own white privilege and your role in supporting white supremacy, with advice on how to stop “inflicting damage on black, indigenous and people of color, and in turn, help other white people do better, too.”
How to Be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi. In this book, the author shares his personal awakening to anti-racism while guiding readers to question their own beliefs and commitment to policies and systems. It’s necessary reading for anyone who wants to take the next steps to create a more just society.
What Does it Mean to be White?: Developing White Racial Literacy, Robin DiAngelo. Discusses whites’ “miseducation about what racism is” and “racial illiteracy.”
So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo. A guide for readers of all races to help them have “honest conversations about race and racism.”
“The White Space,” Elijah Anderson, American Sociological Association. An academic article exploring how black Americans feel in predominately white spaces. Examines how “white people typically avoid black space, but black people are required to navigate the white space as a condition of their existence.”
“Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race,” Reni Eddo-Lodge, The Guardian. An excerpt from a book in which Eddo-Lodge explains her frustration with discussions of race and racism in Britain. Explores issues such as the erasure of black history, whitewashed feminism, and the link between class and race.
Listen: Code Switch podcast, NPR. An NPR vertical that combats the concept of “post-racial.” Explores “overlapping themes of race, ethnicity and culture, how they play out in our lives and communities, and how all of this is shifting.”
Initiate the Conversation
People of color shouldn’t have to bear the responsibility or emotional burden of initiating difficult conversations about race with white people. White Americans can make communities better, safer places for BIPOC by having necessary conversations about prejudice and privilege with their white friends and families. To make the conversation productive, here are some tips on communicating effectively from Jeremy Pollack and Toni Hawkins of Pollack Peacebuilding Systems.
Open with a question.
For example, if a friend makes an ignorant comment while listening to the news, open the conversation by saying, “I heard you say this. Why do you have that opinion?”
Don’t frame your conversation as an argument.
The moment you say to yourself, “I’m now arguing,” you and the person you’re speaking with will become defensive.
Use the three Cs: calm, caring and curiosity.
Commit to staying calm, remember that you care about your family members, and ask how they came to hold those beliefs. “When they feel understood, they are going to do the same to you,” says Pollack. “And then there’s the opportunity to share information.”
Learn to de-escalate.
“Learn mindful breathing, but also, before it gets to that point, it’s good to take a break,” says Hawkins. “Say, ‘Let’s talk about this later when we’ve both calmed down and had a chance to think, so we don’t personally attack each other and can stay focused on the issues.’”
Keep in mind that the conversation may not end the way you think it will.
You won’t magically change the mind of the person you’re speaking with in one conversation. If that person leaves your conversation with a more open mind, that’s a step in the right direction. “You can do everything right and it still might not end up with result you hoped for,” says Hawkins. “End the conversation in a way where they feel that they can come back and have another one.”
The Philadelphia-based organization From Privilege to Progress was founded in 2018 by Melissa DePino and Michelle Saahene during a moment of national outcry against the over-policing of black people. Both women were present at the Center City Starbucks where two black men were wrongfully arrested. They met during the incident and connected in the following days, ultimately creating their organization, which works to desegregate the conversation on race and encourage Americans of all backgrounds to join the path to anti-racism. Here’s their advice to white people on how to take action.
As the Starbucks video went viral, Saahene watched as news organizations (including Philadelphia magazine) reached out to DePino for interviews about the incident, although Saahene was the person who had interacted directly with the police.
“Melissa already had the awareness that, as a white woman, she was being centered,” Saahene says. “I could only have done this work with her, because she had already done that work to understand how to de-center herself.”
From Privilege to Progress helps white people learn to turn the attention away from themselves in conversations about race, bringing the voices of marginalized people to the forefront. In your own life, look for ways to amplify marginalized voices, with the knowledge that their comments and concerns are often ignored in largely white spaces.
Don’t perform or look for praise.
Be wary of over-publicizing the work you’re doing, which can quickly become performative. Doing so shifts the focus back to you and re-centers whiteness. Instead, the goal is to keep white people focused on the voices of others — the voices of people who actually experience racism. Showing up is the right thing to do. You shouldn’t expect to be praised for doing the right thing.
Make anti-racism a daily practice.
DePino and Saahene say the outcry in the past two weeks has been intense, and they’re heartened by how many white people they’ve seen showing up at protests across the country. But they highlight how important it is that the work continue.
Consider committing to a recurring donation to an anti-racist organization. (We’ve listed some below.) Stay connected with activists in your area, and regularly show up at protests and rallies. Commit to regularly reading books about anti-racism. Notice if the media you consume is mostly white voices, and work to find channels to bring diverse perspectives into your life. (Locally, you can look to the Philadelphia Tribune , the oldest continuously published newspaper focused on the African American experience in the country, and AfroPhilly.com, a publication that promotes black-owned businesses and community organizations. And follow and support the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists, which advocates for newsroom diversity and fair coverage for communities of color.) Always speak up when you hear racist sentiments expressed in your community and workplace.
“Constantly exposing yourself to information [about racism] will eventually result in a moment where you don’t just see it, but you feel it,” DePino says. “We call it the ‘aha moment,’ where your lens gets a little bit cleansed and you feel it in your heart. So that day in the Starbucks, that was that moment for me. Once you feel it, you can’t turn away.”
The work is never done.
“We don’t use the word ‘ally’ or ‘woke’ — those are all destination words; they make you feel like you’re done or that there’s an end point,” DePino says. “We say, ‘You show up.’ Showing up is a process; it’s constant action. That’s why we use #ShowUp.”
Put your money where your mouth is. Buy from black-owned businesses, order from black-owned restaurants, shop at black-owned bookstores. Plus, here are some local organizations doing important work that you can put your dollars toward.
Philadelphia Community Bail Fund: Posts bail for Philadelphians who can’t afford it, advocates for the abolition of cash bail (which disproportionately affects low-income communities and black people) and pretrial detention.
Black Lives Matter Philly: Founded in 2015, this is the local chapter of Black Lives Matter, whose “mission is to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes.”
Community Fund for Bond and Legal Support: Pays bonds, covers legal fees, and provides legal support for detained immigrants in Philadelphia
The Okra Project: Combats food insecurity in the black trans communities in the NYC/Philly/Jersey area.
Coded By Kids: Provides young people from underrepresented groups with software development, digital design, computer science, and tech-startup-focused entrepreneurship programs.
The Enterprise Center: Business incubator providing minority entrepreneurs with resources. Operates the Minority Business Development Agency’s Business Center of Pennsylvania.
Philadelphia Black Giving Circle: Leverages resources from diverse donors to support nonprofit organizations working in the black community.
Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists: America’s oldest professional association of journalists of color works to increase diversity in newsrooms and advocates for fair coverage of communities of color.
African Family Health Organization: Provides culturally and linguistically sensitive health, human and educational services to African and Caribbean immigrants and refugees.
Mill Creek Farm: A farm and environmental education center working to improve access to fresh, local, chemical-free produce at low cost for the Mill Creek community and surrounding neighborhoods.
ACLU Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
100 Black Men Philadelphia: The local chapter of a national organization working to provide mentorship, educational programs, and health and financial support to the black community.
Youth Art & Self-Empowerment Project: Conducts art, poetry, music and empowerment workshops at Riverside Correctional Facility with young people under 18 who are being tried as adults.
Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project: Utilizes direct service and policy advocacy to improve the experiences of children prosecuted in the adult criminal justice system. Ensures fair and thoughtful resentencing and reentry for individuals who were sentenced to life without parole as children.
Pennsylvania Prison Society: Provides transportation for people visiting incarcerated family members, mentoring for men returning from incarceration, and official visitors to help advocate for incarcerated people with problems such as harassment, mistreatment and medical neglect.
Philadelphia Coalition for Racial, Economic and Legal (REAL) Justice: A grassroots organization that provides space and creates connections so that community organizations and individuals can combine resources to eliminate the system of white supremacy and police terror across all areas of racial, economic and legal oppression.
Black and Brown Workers’ Co-Op: Conducts several campaigns pushing for the social and economic liberation of black and brown workers.
Juntos: Latinx immigrant organization in South Philadelphia fighting for the human rights of Latinx workers, parents, youth and immigrants.
Movement Alliance Project (formerly Media Mobilizing Project): Connects communities and builds power for working families by running campaigns and building infrastructure for community organizations in Philadelphia.
Reclaim Philadelphia: Endorses and supports progressive candidates and policies to put working people before the profits of corporations. Works to unify communities to end structural racism, classism, sexism and oppression.
Go Beyond This Guide
This guide is one of many out there for being an active anti-racist and supporting the BIPOC community. Here are others you can look to for more resources and advice. Please share with your white friends and family.
- Dear White People: Here Are 10 Actions You Can Take To Promote Racial Justice In The Workplace, Dana Brownlee, Forbes
- What You Can Do Instead of Calling the Police, Aaron Rose
- Dear White People, This Is What I Want You To Do, The Kandi Dish
- Guidelines for Being Strong White Allies, Paul Kivel
- 75 Things White People Can Do For Racial Justice, Corinne Shutack, Medium
- A Resource Guide For Anti-Racism + Being An Educated Ally For BIPOC, Samantha Welker, Glitter Guide
- White Ally Toolkit
Plus additional, non-Philly-specific books and media to explore:
The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois:. Du Bois’s 1903 landmark work combines history and autobiography to reflect on the magnitude of American racism and chart a path forward against oppression.
The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin. Baldwin’s 1963 autobiographical work helped shock the nation into action. He tells of his early life in Harlem and examines the consequences of racial injustice in two passionate “letters.”
The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander. Argues that “we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.” Explains how the War on Drugs targeted black men and decimated communities of color, and how the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a “contemporary system of racial control.”
Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, Ibram X. Kendi. Kendi chronicles anti-black racist ideas and their effects on American history, employing the life stories of minister Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. Du Bois, and activist Angela Davis.
Mapping Police Violence. An ever-evolving database reflecting the thousands who have suffered under police, created by Samuel Sinyangwe, DeRay McKesson and Brittany Packnett-Cunningham.
The 1619 Project, New York Times. A large-scale, ongoing project re-examining the legacy of slavery in the United States.
The Case for Reparations, Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic. Argues for reparations to be paid to African Americans after exploring the impacts of slavery, Jim Crow and racist housing.
“13th,” Ava DuVernay, Netflix:. Director Ava DuVernay examines the racist legacy of policing and mass incarceration.
Reveal podcast. The podcast for the Center for Investigative Reporting. Among other investigative reporting, “reveals” how racism is the root of many of our policies and social issues.