I hate it when people don’t like me.
I know it’s childish. I know it’s a waste of energy. I know it’s vain. (See also: the number of times I’ve written “I” or “me” so far.)
But have you ever really thought about what it means to be “liked”? Is it being treated nicely? Having followers? Being spoken of fondly at your funeral? More important, what doesn’t fall in the category of “being liked”? I’d suggest being effective, being worthy, and — most of all — being trusted.
Many of us conflate liking people with trusting them, or assume the former begets the latter. “I like you so I trust you.” As the country has more widespread conversations about racism and individual responsibility, confusion about liking and trusting reigns supreme.
I’ve worked in the nonprofit sector for 13 years now, and for six years on college campuses before that. Organizations meant to serve the community are my industry. And my industry loves to talk about is the “mutual trust” required between institutions and the people they serve. I think it’s safe to say that mutual trust is no longer on the table. That trust hasn’t just been breached for Black Americans; it was a house built on sand.
Most of the institutions that dominate and dictate Americans’ daily lives are historically and predominantly white.
Black Americans have no evidence that they can trust historically and predominantly white institutions. In fact, as author Kimberly Jones points out in a viral clip, Black Americans are drowning in evidence that to trust historically and predominantly white institutions is dangerous or deadly.
And it’s not just institutions. Black Americans have no evidence that they can trust people who benefit from historically and predominantly white institutions.
If you’re white like me, lots of Black people around you can’t fully trust you. Some Black people in your life might like you just fine. But that doesn’t mean they trust you. And that is going to have to, one, be okay for a long time and, two, not prevent you from doing things differently.
I think that disentangling the idea of “liking” and “trusting” is central to anti-racism. We have to disentangle it as people and as members of institutions.
In my experience, we don’t love to do things with people who don’t like us. We resent it. We avoid it. We ask, “Why bother?” But if someone doesn’t trust us, what do we do? Some of us might rebel, sure. But a lot of us — especially if we believe the person who doesn’t trust us matters — try to do better. We show up, behave differently and pay attention to what makes us untrustworthy.
Fellow white folks, we aren’t trusted and we earned it. Don’t walk away from challenging other’s behaviors and questioning why you benefit from systemic racism when you hear “I don’t trust white people.” You didn’t walk out of the house if your parents said, “I don’t trust you right now because you keep breaking curfew,” did you?
We, as white people, need to pay attention to what makes us untrustworthy. From getting helped at the store while a Black customer is overlooked to being on an all-white panel at a conference. Did we start the practice? Maybe not. But we benefit from it, so we perpetuate it when we don’t disrupt it. Pay attention and change behavior and maybe the trust between individuals will grow. But if you don’t work to be worthy of trust you imply that the person who doesn’t trust you doesn’t matter. And Black people matter. Paying attention and trying to be trustworthy won’t make anyone like you, but, maybe down the road, it could help someone feel safe. Safety and trust are intrinsically bound.
Institutions behave similarly to people when confronted with a lack of public trust. When an institution realizes it has lost the trust of a community it either panics and “messages as a verb” until it’s blue in the face or surrenders to the feeling that “they can’t win” and just keep … well, institution-ing. What they seldom do is change their core, which requires rethinking the very idea that institutions “serve.”
Institutions (churches, governments, schools, nonprofits) shouldn’t be designed to serve people. They should be designed to give people a place to work collectively to learn something, connect socially or address a shared problem. Maybe I’m splitting hairs, but institutions should be less for people than of people. While the idea of “service” likely launches from the right place, it lands squarely in the category “we do things to or for people” when the goal is to do things with them. “Doing with” isn’t foolproof insurance against upholding racist systems, but it at least messes with their equilibrium.
Institutions will always have a lot of power because they have money and infrastructure, and because they often exist in perpetuity, whereas an institution’s members come and go. But barring the end of capitalism and most institutions — which is a different blog — we all need to work with or around them, and to ensure that these institutions’ whiteness doesn’t define their value.
Working with requires sacrifice; it requires large institutions to take a backseat to smaller organizations or community residents. To support them, to listen to them and to assume that their individual expertise is as important as your institutional expertise. Major institutions: Grassroots organizations and individual residents are unlikely to trust you. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t trust that organizations living an experience or living in a place don’t know more about the reality of the problems your institution wants to address.
Institutions that can grapple with existential dread about whether or not ceding — or at least generously sharing — the spotlight will mean they become irrelevant (or unfunded) are better poised to earn the trust of residents and partners. So are institutions that have residents lead and help design solutions, instead of just asking them to test finished products. Yes, institutions that trust communities without demanding that trust in return won’t get instant results. However, they’re investing in future trusting relationships. And isn’t the whole point of institutions that outlive us that they’ll last long enough to see the world change?
In short, Black Americans have no reason to trust white Americans or historically white institutions. So, as white people, we have to trust first.
Molly Martin works for New America, a national think tank and partner of the Indianapolis Recorder, where she is a senior fellow and the director of New America Indianapolis.