I recently attended a presentation by Chris Crass, a powerful speaker, activist, and community organizer. I have followed his work for over a decade and we agree on issues (privilege, structural racism, community building, organizing white people, etc.), so I figured I knew exactly what to expect. In the final minutes of his speech, though, he offered a surprise.

After making a point that I completely agree with, about how white people working on anti-racism need to support one another and build community to keep each other active and striving, he provided a homework assignment. Now, as a teacher, I tend to take homework rather seriously. So, my ears perked up as I listened to what he advised each of us to do.

Write a love letter to a white anti-racist who inspires you. So simple, so elegant, something I have never done. This is a beautiful reminder of the need to not only believe in justice and the value of community, but to act on those beliefs, to allow them to be evident in day-to-day practice.

So, here it goes…and I want to share it with you and the world, because I don’t think there are enough examples of what we need to do. And, as a teacher, I recognize the value of us sharing examples. So, share this, modify it, improve it, and expand it as needed to share your thoughts with those who inspire you.

Dear Christine Saxman,

This letter is meant to thank you for being you, and to tell you the top 8 reasons why I’m so grateful for you in my life. In a way this is a self-centered letter, as it’s completely framed around how you affect me. But, in this culture, sometimes we don’t spend time articulating these things, and we should.

So, thank you. In a nut shell, you have been an incredible influence in my life for the last 6 years. Without you I would not be all of who I am. Here’s why:

You help me to….

  1. Feel inspired. I see you giving selflessly to the groups and organizations you affiliate with who are trying to do good justice work in the world. And then when I hear how you are also going above and beyond in your work environment, constantly raising your voice and volunteering your time, you serve as a model. I want to be like you.
  2. Act. I’ll never forget the way we met. I was trying to navigate/direct about 150 white people into a set of caucus groups that were already too large, all meeting in one large room, and I was drowning. The second you entered the door, you recognized the overwhelming nature of the scene, and immediately said “How can I help? “What can I do?” Your quick action allowed things to go much more smoothly. It’s not just this one example that makes you a model for me. It’s that this example represents how you approach life and justice efforts. “Where do you need me? What can I do? How can I be of service in this situation?” These are questions I’m more likely to ask because of you.
  3. Be brave. Since we live multiple states apart, we don’t always get to talk as regularly as I’d like. But, when we reach out to one other for the support we both need, I am constantly empowered by your life and sharing. Hearing you name the injustice faced by the students where you work and how you continue to stand up and ensure their voices are heard (or at least you’re trying really hard) makes me feel stronger and more capable of doing the same thing in the face of challenge.
  4. Stay accountable. An essential thing I see you doing consistently is checking in to ensure that your actions are in line with the needs of your colleagues of color. At no time have I seen you descend into arrogance or become haughtily self-focused about the work for justice. You stay true to the immediate goal, which isn’t about you, or me, or any of us white people. When you act, it is reinforced by relationships with people of color who have confirmed that what you do supports the fight for racial justice.
  5. Show my imperfection. I’ve watched you grow and change over the years. During one multi-day event where we connected and deepened our friendship, one of the things that struck me was your willingness to name out loud for all to hear, “I have a problem with white men.” The fact that you were so in touch with your own emotions, recognizing how they didn’t serve you, and taking steps to create a more healthful relationship with those you seek to influence, was a tremendous gift to me. Your ability to listen, understand, and respond to people in helpful ways has dramatically expanded. And, witnessing you develop the capacity to be less emotionally reactive and, instead, engage with increased empathy has been astounding. You are a model of what it looks like to keep your eye on self-improvement, while also accepting yourself in the face of imperfection. You hold the “both/and” and it provides a sense of freedom for me to do the same.
  6. Feel useful and valuable. Let’s face it. We all want to feel useful. I have long-questioned the value of my contributions to racial justice work, always wondering if there was something more or better I should be doing. You have been a key voice in supporting my efforts and your willingness to be a sounding board has a lot to do with me continuing to press forward. I honestly do not believe this next book of mine that’s nearing publication would have been written without your support. The conversations we’ve had over the years have made a tremendous difference.
  7. Feel connected. As is true for most anti-racist white people working in their white communities, I experience the typical frustrations. There are simply a lot of moments of ‘white fatigue” where I need a shoulder to lean on, some perspective, or a bit of solace. In those moments, I see you playing the role a coach plays for a boxer between rounds. I retreat to the corner, reach out, and you spray water on my face, wash off the mess, and tell me I need to get back in there and keep fighting. You understand what I’m experiencing, and you help me process it in a way that strengthens my resolve.
  8. Feel supported. Ultimately, no matter what happens, I never feel alone. Our mutual dedication to racial justice efforts might have brought us together, but the qualities that propelled you into justice work in the first place is also what makes you such an amazing friend.

 

You uplift my life. I am grateful. I think you’re a model for other white people too, and I’m glad your work is expanding and I hope you play an increasingly visible role so that others can be inspired by you too. Thank you, my friend.

Sincerely,

Shelly Tochluk

P.S. And, I’d like to say a final thank you to Chris for prompting me to write this. I read it aloud to my friend over the phone. She cried. I cried. It was just what she needed at that moment, and we’re both incredibly grateful for the gift. She agreed that if posting this for others could prompt more of this type of expression of appreciation, I could use her name.