On-ramps and Lanes on the Racial Justice Freeway
Watch an illustrated video of this analogy here.
Not long ago, I was asked to be part of a panel. My role was to talk about white anti-racism. When it was my turn to speak, I used an analogy of “on-ramps” to racial justice, and I suggested that what we have is akin to a racial justice freeway. Part of the message was how much I appreciate that although many of us are moving in different lanes, we are headed in a similar direction. The point I tried to make is that we need as many people as possible on this path, doing whatever we can within our local context. Conservative, progressive, radical, and moderate. We can all make a difference in our community; everyone has some role to play. We are all essential to the struggle, since every person has a local context to influence.
My primary motivation in exploring this analogy of the racial justice freeway, with its various lanes of traffic, is to lend support to others on this journey, especially those who are newly joining the effort. I very much want us to appreciate each other’s efforts more than we currently tend to demonstrate. As the appreciation for one another can often seem in short supply (both among white anti-racist people as well as within other social justice communities), this lays out some guidance that white folks engaged in anti-racism efforts might follow in order to avoid creating unnecessary traffic jams and accidents on the journey toward a collective liberation that will benefit people of all backgrounds. (Note: This analogy focuses on white anti-racist lanes. I leave it to people of color to define their own lanes and expand the analogy in ways that makes sense for them.)
Let’s start by defining the terms:
Carpool lane (HOV lane): In Southern California, some freeways have a high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane that (ideally) allows people to go faster if they share a ride. These are the racial justice organizations helping white anti-racist folks move along. Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), AWARE-LA, Catalyst Project, Groundwork, European Dissent, Coalition of Anti-Racist Whites, and White Awake are examples within this category. There are also community organizations led by people of color who work multi-racially, such as The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond.
The fast lane: The fast lane is populated by activists who advocate for the ideal and are fueled by visionary platforms. Some in the fast lane have been there a long time. They are often connected to organizations who occupy the carpool lane, but not always. Others are relatively new to racial justice, but have gained speed and confidence quickly.
The slow lane: The slow lane is the starting place for many. Strategies found in this lane often concentrate on building analysis, awareness, skills, and relationships. Introductory resources and workshops cater to people in this lane. The slow lane is also appropriate for those whose personal context or locality do not support successful operation in faster lanes. For people in places where an anti-racist community is not yet sufficiently developed, the most effective strategy may be to chip away at injustice little by little. This may involve ongoing one-to-one conversations with white colleagues, family, and friends that challenge racist stereotypes.
The middle lanes: (Note: In Los Angeles, there are often 3 or 4 lanes in between the slow and fast lanes). These lanes are used by any number of us who have found our direction, found our speed, and are moving along with others in a consistent manner. We pass some and are passed by others. Frequent lane changes also occur, with people moving back and forth from one lane to another, depending upon the need of the moment. Strategies used within these lanes might include public programming via organizations such as the YWCA that offer multi-racial or racially-caucused dialogue groups, workgroups within religiously-affiliated organizations (such as Allies for Racial Equity chapters within the UUA), or the use of workshop series curricula that support leadership development in home communities, such as Witnessing Whiteness, White Awake, or AWARE-LA’s White Anti-Racist Culture Building Toolkit, among others.
What’s the point of this?
- Finding our lane. Traffic moves most steadily when we find the lane that moves at the speed appropriate for our skill set and local context. This is where we will make the most productive contribution. Moving into a lane that isn’t right for us is a great way to cause a backup. Embedded within this analogy is the suggestion that all lanes have value. There are pros and cons to everything. Being in the fast lane doesn’t guarantee success, and being in the slow lane does not indicate a lack of progress.
2. Changing lanes. It’s dangerous when people change lanes with little awareness of others. It causes us to slam on our brakes and can result in a slowdown with far-reaching impacts. When white anti-racist people enter another’s lane abruptly, with little awareness of what is going on there, we can create havoc. White folks moving from a faster lane toward a slower lane can sometimes unwittingly provide a strong critique that not only fails to inspire, but undermines, causing nervous or cautious people to come to a halt. This occurs regularly when white people observe other people’s actions and then take to social media, posting articles or personal commentary that pick apart the efforts of an unintentionally flawed anti-racist effort without offering constructive advice for how to improve and encouragement to stay engaged. On the other hand, those just entering the freeway may cross lanes of traffic rapidly, hurrying toward the fast lane without awareness of who they’re cutting off along the way. This, too, happens regularly when individuals enter a meeting and immediately begin offering advice about the group’s management or direction. Changing lanes takes skill. Awareness and communication are essential. We should use our blinkers to signal our intentions so others can alert us to potential hazards.
3. Accidents. We’re going to run into one another on occasion. It’s bound to happen. Obstructed views. Inattention. Tiredness. Good intentions don’t prevent accidents. They happen. Apologize for the injury, work on the healing, make adjustments to our practice as needed, and get back on the road. Some may no longer feel comfortable driving in the faster lanes for a time. Okay, but keep moving.
4. Dependable insurance. In this analogy, having insurance is the result of long-term investments in accountable relationships, ones where each of us takes responsibility for our personal growth and actions in the service of justice. This is the best way to ensure recovery after an accident. The more investment of time, humility, and energy that goes into developing relationships, the more likely it is that forgiveness will be granted when a collision results from a mistake made. Keep in mind that our premium is higher (and so we pay more) when we’re new in the work. We have to earn the trust that generates a lower annual cost. And, blessedly, there are many who seek transformative alliances that operate on mutual accountability, so that all of us are expected to raise our consciousness and grow.
5. Student drivers and driver’s education teachers. The slow lane is not necessarily a safe place to be. A lot of merging happens in the slow lane. Introducing new folks into the stream of traffic is an essential service. It is here where some of us station ourselves, providing guidance to those who might best be described as student drivers in need of coaching and instruction. We need these educators who stay in this lane to support those who are new to the work, expanding skills sets. After a while, many of us who start out as student drivers in the slow lane eventually gain confidence, switch on our blinker, and head toward the faster lanes, safely and without causing an accident. The slow lane may not seem to be moving quickly, but it is where a lot of action is taking place that can pay off down the road.
6. Driver’s licenses. We must balance our need to get as many white people on the racial justice freeway as possible with the need for drivers to be safe and skilled. Untrained, unlicensed drivers do a lot of damage. Although the idea of having a single organization make judgments about what constitutes useful action is contrary to the heart of this piece, the concept of earning a license remains useful. There are plenty of resources available for support, plenty of communities and organizations of anti-racist people willing to help. Unfortunately, it is all too common for white people to act as though a minimal amount of consciousness equals sufficient expertise for successful action. A sense of overconfidence mixed with lingering white fragility (the inability to tolerate race-based stress) makes for a dangerous situation. Whether the feedback is coming from other white anti-racists or people of color, it is essential that we listen deeply to messages that we are causing harm and then seek additional learning so we can improve our engagement. This kind of license require continual renewal.
7. Street racing. Vroom, vroom goes the ego-filled white ally. Most of us go through this phase at some point while we work to develop our white anti-racist identity. In a quest to please people of color, we might rev our engines a bit too strongly (and oftentimes unskillfully). In trying to be seen as a good ally, we can shame other white people for mistakes or misstatements. We may not even realize we’re showing off. However, for those of us who have experienced this phase ourselves, the pattern is easy to spot. Humility is akin to defensive driving. Part of developing the necessary humility involves cultivating empathy for the white folks traveling alongside us, learning just as we are learning. Additionally, getting in the flow and following people of color leadership, as well as seasoned white folks who have been doing this work a long time, should guard against the impulse to show off.
8. Speed limits. If we’ve got the privilege, go ahead and break the rules. We are encouraged to find ways appropriate to our lanes and contexts to push against the norms and systems entrenched within a society that maintains structured racism. This might mean challenging the expectation that people holding power in our communities should remain comfortable at the expense of marginalized voices. It might mean asking critical questions to disrupt the flow of a conversations tinged with racism. It could also mean participating in civil disobedience protests likely to lead to arrest. Depending on personal identity and local context, we may be able to get away with things that others cannot. Do it conscientiously, however, because we might leave people of color (and those with other marginalized identities) vulnerable who get caught in the wake of attention drawn to ourselves.
9. Using our horns. There is a lot of honking among white anti-racists on the racial justice freeway. Without doubt, honking can be an important communication device. It can be supportive when offered as an alert, indicating where improvement in practice is needed. And sometimes these alerts need to be repetitive and insistent when unrecognized damage is being done (often by inexperienced drivers). There is another kind of honking, however, one that criticizes an entire lane for the sake of arguing in favor of one’s own. It’s true that some who are radical and revolutionary may never value the actions of those working within systems in a “practical,” plodding manner. Those dedicated to non-violent strategies may never appreciate anti-fascists who are willing to engage in physical altercations. If we remember, though, that everything has an upside and downside, pro and con, light and shadow, then we might recognize that something important is happening in those other lanes, even if they aren’t the lanes we choose. We might then use our honking more productively, ensuring we don’t push some people toward the off-ramps for the sake of uplifting a single strategy.
10. Road rage. If honking is an attempt to communicate, road rage occurs when productive communication is no longer the goal. Marked by out-of-control emotion, a person in a state of rage lashes out against someone else. How we treat one another is paramount. If we’re going to create a transformed society, one that is truly liberating and avoids the “power over” dynamics of our current system, we need to act it out ourselves. Whether it is how we treat each other in our in-person interactions, organizational norms, social media posts, public events, or published writing, we affect one another. Raging against other people (even those who are critical of us) disrupts the flow of traffic and diminishes our collective progress. Self-checks are warranted. Avoiding road rage may mean we have some self-development work to do. Cultivating strategies that keep us in control of ourselves when feeling frustrated or angry are needed.
11. Construction zones. Road repair is imperative. Racial injustice has resulted in brutality against the human psyche, and each racial group needs its own specific healing process. This includes white people who need to heal from the disconnections white supremacist culture has fostered in us. In this spirit, there are people who focus on providing healing rituals for individuals and organizations. This is akin to road repair. Someone has to fill in the potholes and re-pave the road’s surface. It helps us cultivate a healthy approach to our anti-racism practice, because ‘how’ we do things is as important as ‘what’ we do. Practice Showing Up is a resource offered by one such individual dedicated to being part of road repair. This is the kind of work that might seem like it is slowing things down for a while. Ultimately, however, it is an investment in the path and the people on it. Part of the reason we need to care for the road itself is because bumpy, pothole filled roads damage our vehicles (in this analogy, ourselves).
12. Regular maintenance. We can’t forget about ourselves. Somewhere in my studies of psychology, I heard that the car is a typical dream symbol representing the individual’s ego. Let’s be clear: we need an ego to do this work. We need something inside us that tells us to get up and get about the work. That’s what the ego does. It makes us move, tells us we have something we need to do. We need to take care of that vehicle. Just as roads need repair, each of our vehicles needs regular maintenance. We do no good if we’re broken down along the road. Healthful living, maintaining relationships, and engaging in practices designed to promote physical wellness are like ensuring we have sufficient fluids to keep the machinery humming for what is sure to be an extended journey. There are times when taking care of ourselves means finding the nearest off-ramp and taking a moment to regroup, away from the flow of traffic. This acknowledgement comes at the end because, although I know off-ramps are important, I hope that we can do a better job of supporting one another along the road (appreciating road repair as needed) so that we can avoid becoming so jostled that we head for the exit.
Assuredly there are ways to further this metaphor. Some have suggested expanding it to include the role of ambulances, tow trucks, rest stops, and street signs. If it’s useful, go for it. Feel free to add connections to address what hasn’t been said. My primary goal in offering this piece is to encourage us to uplift one another on this journey. Racial justice is too important for us to be running each other off the road.
As we move forward, let us construct as many on-ramps as possible, appreciate all of us in our various lanes, watch out for one another, be guided by one another, and keep the racial justice freeway moving. And if anyone needs a ride, there’s room in my vehicle.