In Doing Nothing Is No Longer an Option: One Woman’s Journey Into Everyday Antiracism, Jenny Booth Potter tells her story of racial awakening and shares lessons from her antiracism work with a Christian megachurch and as co-founder of Herself Media, a company dedicated to telling the stories of Black women and girls. In the book’s first half, Potter (whose spouse is a content editor of Living Lutheran) collects stories from her childhood and young adulthood that drove her toward a greater awareness of racial prejudice and inequity in the United States. In the book’s second half she explains how she’s passing along that awareness to her children and offers advice to white readers on keeping the conversation alive and productive.
Potter takes her title from an incident that occurred during her junior year in college, when students touring civil rights monuments and museums in the South divided bitterly along racial lines after seeing a historical exhibit on lynching. As her classmates took turns denouncing each other over the bus’s sound system, Potter recalls, a Black friend begged her to say something that would break the fever. Taking the microphone, Potter promised her Black classmates that she would devote her life to making sure their children didn’t suffer the pains of racism as they did: “Doing nothing is no longer an option for me.” Living Lutheran sat down with Potter to ask how it’s coming along.
Living Lutheran: You write that you were moved to begin the book by the murders of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and the killing of Breonna Taylor. I remember that as being a rare moment when white people wanted to listen and learn. What led you to the opposite conclusion, that this was a time for more white people to tell their stories?
Potter: I actually had the idea for the book about a year and a half before George Floyd was murdered, before Breonna Taylor, before Ahmaud Arbery, but I started writing the book for real when those events were happening. I was seeing such a popular response—you know, the hashtag “listening and learning.” That’s appropriate when you’re first starting to become aware of racism as a white person. But learning and understanding without action is incomplete. … What I knew to be true was, I had all these lessons that I learned on my own and I was watching other white people really struggling with: “I see it now, but I just don’t know what to do, and I don’t want to get it wrong.” The through-line of this book is, “You’re gonna do some things wrong, and you have to stay humble.”
The book focuses more on interpersonal antiracism than on specific issues for advocacy, such as police reform. Were you afraid that material like that would be dated by the time the book arrived, or do you see antiracism mainly as consciousness-raising?
I wanted it to be broad enough that it could be accessible no matter where someone was on their journey with antiracism, and I was not worried that we would have solved problems by the time this book came out! White people can advocate, they can organize, they can join movements, but what does that have to do with ordinary choices that they have full agency over? Choices like how they spend their money, who they vote for, what church they attend, what neighborhoods they live in, where they send their kids to school, what books they’re reading. I wanted people to understand that those choices are racialized as well.
It’s not just big things in the news that, of course, we have to be aware of and organize around. It’s also: what are you talking to your kids about at the dinner table, how are you helping them process the news, how are you using your sphere of influence in your workplace? I didn’t want to focus on the interpersonal as more important than the institutions that we participate in. But the institutions we participate in are made up of people. Sometimes when we focus on turning the ships, we forget that we ourselves are in a rowboat that we can turn really easily.
You remember a time when you asked your dad how he would feel if you dated a Black man and he replied, “I would just be concerned that if you married and had kids, it would be hard on them. Mixed race kids often don’t know where they belong.” Did you consider that statement racist then, and why? What would your dad think of it now?
My dad has no memory of that conversation, but he does remember hearing that from his own parents, from his mom in particular. I don’t know what tone or how his mom introduced that to him, but I did not consider it racist at the time, because I don’t even think I knew the word “racist” then. I was 11!
But you knew something wasn’t right about it.
I was really confused by it. Being raised in the church, I was learning that Jesus loves all the little children of the world—“red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.” So it was this confusing moment of, “If Jesus loves all of us, and loves our color, why would that be bad, and what does that mean, they wouldn’t know where to belong?” It just furthered a gray area that I was already gray and murky in, but I didn’t have the language. I once heard this quote: “Words make worlds.” So that was one of those moments when I didn’t have the language of racism, discrimination, colorism, any of these things to help me understand the undercurrent of the message my dad was giving me.
I don’t think my dad was being racist in what he was saying. I think he was naming the racism in the world but not helping me understand that. It feels really messy because you have to pull at all these threads of what’s actually happening to get at what is actually racist about this conversation. But I don’t think commenting the way he did was he himself bringing a racist attitude.
The next time interracial relationships come up is during your bus trip, when Black classmates express their feelings of betrayal toward a Black man who married a white woman. There’s a moment when you flash back on the conversation you had with your dad years earlier. Were your dad and these students saying the same thing, or were they saying different things?
I think they were saying different things. I don’t think it was about the Black women’s sense of belonging. I think it was, “Yeah, yet again we are at the bottom, and the people who are closest to us on the bottom aren’t loving us, they’re leaving us and they’re going after these women who give them a certain level of status that we don’t.” I don’t think they were saying we shouldn’t have interracial marriage or relationships. I think they were just saying, “This is something that we see consistently, this is a pattern, and it’s a painful pattern because the optics of it are, we are not lovable, we are able to be left as you seek out someone of a higher status.” There’s a lot of pain in that, of people who you maybe grew up with or you see the world similarly, and then they leave you when they achieve a sense of accomplishment that maybe you yourself have also achieved.
You tell a story about a woman in a discussion group who had to be pushed into admitting that she was racist—in other words, that she’d participated in and benefited from a racist system. How often have you seen that kind of epiphany, and how do you keep it from turning into defeatism: “I can’t change society; all I can do is change my own actions.”
I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve literally been in the presence of someone coming to that epiphany moment of declaring, “I am a racist, I benefit from racism.” But in those moments it’s not followed with a shrug. It’s almost a sense of relief. “My energy doesn’t have to go toward proving that I’m not that. My energy can now go toward something else, and something that isn’t just in self-preservationist, protection, identity-saving mode.” It’s similar to when you get a medical diagnosis: “OK, I’ve had these symptoms. Now I have a name for it and possibly a treatment plan for how to address this. …. I can be in community with other people who have gotten this same diagnosis and trade stories of what’s been helpful for them and what hasn’t, and [we can] cheer each other on and celebrate milestones.” There’s a freedom that comes with living in reality as opposed to not wanting to be held accountable.
In the case of this woman, what was her response?
In that instance, she said those words, “I’m a racist,” and there were tears. It was emotional. And then in the coming days and weeks it was really interesting to watch, as we worked on these classes and trainings for our church community and staff, her saying things and then being like, “Is that what I really think?” It wasn’t an overnight transformation, but it really was a conversion moment: “I once saw things this way, I now see them this way.” There was an interrogation process happening, of her questioning and being open to feedback. I worked with her up until two years ago, and that work was continuing. She was figuring out, “How do I hire differently, and how does this turn into more action?” It was inspiring to witness someone, I think she was in her early 50s when this happened, say, “It’s not too late for me to turn my little boat around.”
All through the book you draw a line between wanting to hear the stories of people of color but not wanting to exploit them. This comes up during your bus trip, when your friend Katrina explains that she was recruited for the trip because they needed more Black students. Later, there’s an anecdote in which you ask a fellow college student to perform his poetry piece about being a person of color and he declines. Where do you draw the line between needing to hear the experiences of people of color and asking them to represent their race in an unfair way?
I think it’s as simple and complex as shifting who is centered in the conversation or in the story. I remember hearing a Black woman—I’m struggling for the details, but the gist of it was, she had gotten an email from a predominantly white book club or group of some sort. They were asking her, “We have this one very outwardly racist member of this group, this white man, he’s terrible,” and then said something about one of the members being a Black man. So, what should they do with this white man so that he doesn’t ruin the book club? She wrote back, “I don’t care about the white man. You need to figure out whatever the Black person in your group needs to feel safe, and that needs to be your priority.” When I heard that, that was such a shift for me.
In this work you hear a lot about who’s being centered. That’s a common vernacular in justice work: we have to move the people who are from the margins to the center so they’re the priority. And if they are the priority, they are not pawns for further learning, for further defending their race or explaining their race. When I went on that trip, and when Katrina was recruited, Katrina was not being centered in that experience. The white students on that bus were being centered. The hope was that white people will get off this bus, see the racialized history of our country, see the way that racism flows throughout, and do something.
Me wanting that student to perform at this art night, this is where it’s complicated. I wanted to hear his story, but what I want doesn’t supersede what he wants. Anything that white people could possibly gain by his story is not more important than him feeling safe and having agency and having dignity, and he gets to make that choice, I don’t get to make that for him.
In your chapter on raising children, you write about having to explain the George Floyd murder to your oldest son, and how it conflicted with what you’d previously taught him about the police. Later you present age-appropriate “building blocks” that parents should use to educate their children about racism. What are your ideas then about the teaching of American democracy and the founding of the United States? Is that something that needs to be taught in building blocks? Do kids have to learn about Thomas Jefferson before they learn about Sally Hemmings?
I’ll just speak for my family. In my family, they’re learning about Sally Hemmings before they’re learning about Thomas Jefferson. Now, that’s for many reasons, because at school they’re learning about Thomas Jefferson, about our Founding Fathers, about the Declaration of Independence and George Washington crossing the Delaware—they’re learning those things. As a parent we are parenting with society, so I have to look at, what is society bringing to my kids and what are the gaps I need to be filling in for them?
Both my kids are in the minority of being white kids in their class. During COVID I got to spy on my kid’s class and hear his teacher talk about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, and I was so grateful that she concluded it with: “This work is not over, and we still have to do work to continue to make what Martin and Rosa fought for happen today.” So I’m not in some school system [where] I’m fighting parents who are pulling books off the shelves. But in the narrative about the founding of our country, there is an elevation of those leaders. I want to make sure my kids [have] a fuller, wider, more racialized view of what was happening at the time—not to demonize George Washington or Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln, but to help [my kids] understand that we have a racialized history. Because by the time my white boys are 11 and 12, messages of white supremacy are gonna be coming their way, and I want to have a bank for them of seeing a fuller picture, of having a tapestry, of stories told to them, that’s not so easily broken.
Do you see more friendship between the races 30 years from now?
[Professor and podcaster] Brené Brown talks about this concept [that] we’re the most sorted people in history: we find who agrees with us and we stick with them. I don’t know how we break free from that. COVID was one of the things I thought would maybe do that: now we have a real crisis that we’re all going through [where] we’re all going to need to band together. And you saw how quickly that was politicized.
I hope we’re in a “last stand” kind of moment, where this is the final battle and [the enemy is] getting really big and vocal out of desperation because it’s about to die. But white supremacy is sneaky and evolving, and what’s it gonna do when it hopefully gets clobbered? It’s not gonna just die, it’s just gonna get smaller and go underground.
When I had this epiphany on the bus, I [promised my Black classmates], “I’m gonna work for the rest of my life so that your kids don’t experience the same racism that you’ve experienced, or that we’ve seen today.” But their kids are already experiencing the pains of racism. So it’s almost like our lifetime is too short-lived a vision to have. This is legacy work. I don’t have control over the person behind me who I hand the baton to, what they’re going to be facing. But that’s not why I do the work, because I have some end goal of how things are gonna look. I do the work because it has to be done and because I’m convicted and I’m committed to it.