“We Can’t Build Anti-Racism On Top Of Racism”: A Q&A With Layla F. Saad

Elizabeth Gulino

Author and speaker Layla F. Saad has been spreading her message of anti-racism for years, starting in 2018, when she started a free, 28-day Instagram challenge called “You & White Supremacy” that quickly went viral. Each day consisted of simple yet direct questions and journal prompts, written to help white people gain a deeper understanding of their own racial biases and their complicity in white supremacy. 

On the heels of the challenge’s success, Saad turned the 28-day challenge into a downloadable workbook. Then this past January, Me and White Supremacy became a published book. And now it, along with other anti-racism books such as White Fragility, How To Be an Anti-Racist, and The New Jim Crow, are topping the bestseller charts in record numbers, as white and non-Black POC people seek out information on how  to become better allies.

Despite being inundated with requests for interviews and comments right now, Saad generously agreed to speak with Refinery29. She talked about what it’s been like for her — a Black woman who’s been talking about anti-racism for years now — to see so many white people suddenly wake up to its importance, and about her hopes for our future.

Refinery29: Your book, Me And White Supremacy, came out this past January. What are your thoughts about it now being ranked number four on the New York Times bestsellers list, six months later?

Layla F. Saad: “Anti-racism books are not new. How To Be An Anti-Racist or White Fragility or White Rage — these books already existed. But I think they were only being read by people who were actively like, ‘This is important to me and I want to educate myself on this,’ which wasn’t a huge part of the population. Now, it’s an explosion. Just in the last two weeks, my Instagram following grew from 150,000 to 650,000. There has been this shift, for whatever reason. I know that George Floyd’s murder is the spark behind what we’re seeing now, but this isn’t the first Black person who has been murdered by the police.

“I think that’s what the confusing thing is for me. If it’s important now, why wasn’t it important when it was Trayvon Martin or Sandra Bland? Why wasn’t it important then, and what’s happening now that makes it important? But all things happen in the times that they happen. Now people who never considered themselves racist, who never thought that they were a part of this issue, are just like opening their eyes wide open. As somebody who started talking about white supremacy three years ago, I remember how hard that conversation was and how much resistance there was, how much convincing you had to do and emotional labor you had to do. For it now to be mainstream is really incredible.”

“The fear is that two weeks from now, a month from now, we’re back to how we were before. Except now it’s more dangerous because people feel like they did their part.”

Layla F. Saad

Are you seeing any patterns in what people are reaching out to you about, or the questions you’re being asked? 

“It’s not so much asking. It’s more apologies. ‘I’m so sorry. I didn’t know. My eyes were closed, now they’re open. I’m here to do the work.’ It’s more that, than what was happening before, which was, ‘Can you explain to me how I have white privilege when I grew up poor or I had these other experiences that happened to me? I don’t feel very privileged.’ Those were the conversations before. Now the conversation is, ‘I am a part of this too, and I’m so, so sorry.’

“We’re seeing businesses posting their Black Lives Matter post — like this is our policy on this, or this is where we stand, the same way they did with COVID and it just feels very hollow. A lot of the time, it just feels too late. You knew about all of this and your companies have been called out so many times. So when they say ‘hashtag share Black stories,’ there’s a cognitive dissonance that’s hard to reconcile.

“I think for myself and many of my peers, we are excited. But cautiously excited, because we understand that there’s doing the work and then we understand that there’s the performance of doing the work. Unless these leaders and brands are actually digging inwards rather than just sharing a black square or sharing an email statement or running a week-long campaign or whatever it is, the fear is that two weeks from now, a month from now, we’re back to how we were before. Except now it’s more dangerous because people feel like they did their part.”

Are there any words of wisdom you’ve found yourself repeating often lately?

“My constant invitation to people is to be doing the work within themselves first. There’s a little of this energy right now. With so many businesses and brands being called out, there’s this feeling that once those are toppled, then we’re free; we’re in this post-racial society. It’s like, no, but you’re still racist. You need to examine the ways in which you hold these racist thoughts and beliefs, because that’s the only place where you have complete control. That is what your actual job is, to start with yourself first.

“The thing about allyship is that you don’t get to name yourself an ally. Black and brown people get to name you an ally, and you can’t be an ally to all the Black people. You may be an ally to one particular person who has said, “Because of the way you consistently show up for me, you are an ally for me.” We’re seeing this rush to say “This is my Black Lives Matter statement, and these are the changes we’re going to be making,” but it’s also about slowing down — because you’re just catching up to something that isn’t new. It’s new to you, but it’s not new. When you move too fast and you’re moving with these still unexamined unconscious racist thoughts and beliefs, you’re actually going to do more harm because you don’t yet know what you don’t know.”

“You need to examine the ways in which you hold these racist thoughts and beliefs, because that’s the only place where you have complete control. That is what your actual job is, to start with yourself first.”

Layla F. Saad

Allyship is definitely a term that’s getting a lot of attention right now. What’s important to know about it?

“There’s this idea that being an ally means you now know everything and you never make any more mistakes. It’s this place that white people are trying to get to because they will finally feel some sense of grounding. A lot of white people are in fatigue and exhaustion because they’re not used to these conversations being everywhere.

“White people are not used to it, and many are feeling like, ‘Oh, we’re trying our best, right? We’re really trying, please don’t be so tough on us.’ And it’s like, it hasn’t been even two weeks. This is the definition of white fragility. Your privilege has protected you for so long from having to look at racism that just these two weeks has aged you and exhausted you. You don’t even realize how Black people are feeling right now.

“It’s so moving to see protests, and it’s so moving to see the changes that are happening, but it’s also really exhausting. It’s really, really exhausting. People are trying to reach out to either apologize or to ask for your advice, or they want you to help them process their feelings. Black people are very exhausted right now. I get that white people are in this fatigue, but it still doesn’t compare at all.

“[White people] are not used to seeing themselves as a race. I’m always aware that I’m a Black woman, especially when I’m in spaces where I am the only, or one of the only, it’s even more magnified. Even when I was on my book tour, there are so many things that I have to put in place to ensure that I’m protected in a way that a white author doesn’t have to do.”

“When you move too fast and you’re moving with these still unexamined unconscious racist thoughts and beliefs, you’re actually going to do more harm because you don’t yet know what you don’t know.”

layla f. saad

When did you first realize that the Black Lives Matter movement was truly gaining steam again?

“I was on sabbatical before the George Floyd video came out, and I had taken some time off because I had come off of the U.S. book tour. Then COVID hit and we were on lockdown and I was teaching my kids at home and trying to navigate everything. I hadn’t taken a moment to just like come back to myself.

“I’m Muslim and we were fasting for Ramadan and the last 10 days of Ramadan, which are the holiest days of Ramadan, I decided to take off social media for a month. About a week or so later, that’s when everything exploded. At first I was like, you know what, sadly, this is not the first time this has happened to a Black person, so I don’t know if I need to break my sabbatical to come back and say something because we just had Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor… that had just all happened.

“But as the news started spinning, I realized I had to say something. I broke my sabbatical early. Ever since then, it’s been this roller coaster. Last week in particular was very chaotic for me. I was having multiple interviews every single day because none of us, including my publishers and authors of other anti-racism books, could have predicted what was about to happen.

“I think what’s been really interesting for me is now when people want to interview you, the interview is not about how we can convince white people they need to do the work. Before, it was sort of like having to do a dissertation defense of why you should do the work. Now, it’s like this urgency of, ‘We want to have deeper, more nuanced conversations. We are here to do the work.’ It’s strange because that’s never happened before, not in the mainstream media. Yes, on podcasts and with people who’ve already been engaged in this for a while, but not on the BBC and Sky News and Fox. So that’s a really interesting place to be in. 

“I’m so amazed and proud as I’m seeing Black people top these bestseller lists in an industry that, like all other industries, is racist and excludes writers like myself, especially writers talking very directly about racism. It’s never happened before with this number of people in there. I’m processing that because it’s unbelievable.

“I’m still trying to process that this success, this visibility, is coming because of Black death. There’s something about it that just makes me so uneasy and so sad and angry, while trying to hold the feeling that this is good because people are opening up to do the work. It’s so complex. I asked last week on my Instagram page, ‘Please white people, please have grace and patience and understanding right now. Because I understand you’re new here and you’re ready to soak up all of this information. But it’s actually very jarring having so many of you here in a very short space of time, knowing that you’re here because of what happened.’”

What are some short-term and long-term changes you’d like to see come out of this?

“When COVID hit, all of a sudden everything needed to shut down. Businesses, institutions, and organizations everywhere had to very quickly figure out not only crisis management for this week, but also, recognizing that this will forever change everything, to plan for the long term.

“That is what I want to see happen with this. It’s not just because there are protests now so we adjust ourselves to sync up with this moment, but [asking how can we] actually create systemic long-term change. That requires slowing down, listening, bringing in expertise that you may not have brought in before, making organizational changes that you’ve resisted making all of this time because it wasn’t convenient  and there was no pressure to do. People are doing what they’re doing right now, but I’m more focused on how this is going to change things later. Because Black Lives Matter is not just a hashtag. It’s really thinking about how we must now take on the responsibility of making this a long-term thing.

“I think what resonates for so many Black people is the bigger message of this: Black humanity matters. Black life matters. So how has, in your organization or your school or your family, Black life not mattered? How has Black humanity not mattered? What has been set up in the structures that have made it very clear that Black life never mattered? What do you need to do to change it, to make sure that there is equity happening here? That is what I want people doing. That is not something that we solve in 2020. That’s a lifelong commitment.”

“We can’t build anti-racism on top of racism.”

layla f. saad

At R29, we are working on implementing long term change to address our work culture. If you would like to speak to that, or talk about what’s happening in media companies across the board, I’d love to know what you think.

“Refinery29 is not the only one. It’s all of them across all industries, whether it’s academics, media, healthcare, banking. It’s the same stories again and again and again. It’s just the details are interchangeable. For so long, Black people in particular have felt unsafe in the places where they earn their living. They’ve had to deal with the indignities of everyday racism as well as systemic racism. It’s not like they could always say, ‘Well, I’ll just not work here and I’ll go somewhere else.’ Because wherever you go, it’s still there.

“2020 is such a weird but amazing year at the same time, because when we started off the year, everything was normal. Then we were all told we had to stay indoors and stay away from each other. Now, this huge civil rights movement is going on and no part of society will ever be the same again anywhere in the world.

“I would say: Let it fall. Let it fall. Let it burn. It’s always needed to burn, like those statues we’re seeing being thrown into the rivers and burned. They always needed to be thrown away because these structures only served the dominant culture, only served those who have white privilege and not everybody. We can’t build anti-racism on top of racism. Everything needs to come apart so we can intentionally build something new.

“Specifically in business or in any kind of hierarchical institutional organization, because of power dynamics, those who are being harmed often not the ones who hold the power. The people who hold the power who are resigning or being fired or whatever it is — they were able to do that for a very, very long time because their voices were heard over the people who were being harmed. It’s time to listen now to those whose voices were so underestimated and undervalued and marginalized, because they will be able to tell you what is wrong and what needs fixing. 

“So let it burn. And then let’s create something entirely different that works for everybody and not for just the few.”

Do you have any final thoughts, or want to mention anything you feel like I’m skipping over?

“I understand that now media platforms are wanting to amplify melanated voices, share Black stories, listen to Black people, and that’s great because that’s what we’ve always been asking for. But do so in a way that doesn’t feel like you’re trying to consume Black people. Do so in a way where it shows that you respect their expertise and their value and that you’re not just using them so that your proximity to them can prove to everyone else that you’re good, that you’re anti-racist because you’ve got the Black voices there. 

“These white organizations, while wanting to hear from Black people, haven’t yet done the work to know how to do so in a way that doesn’t cause harm inadvertently. I want there to be a real thoughtfulness about media organizations reaching out to Black people and saying that we want to interview. I’ve been interviewed a lot over the last few months. I’m comfortable with it. And even though the spotlight that’s being shown right now is a very big one, I’m just coming off of speaking about my work nonstop and I’ve been doing so for a long time. Not everyone is that comfortable with it or knows how to.

“Yes, amplify Black voices, amplify melanated voices. But also recognize that in inviting somebody on, it’s our responsibility to make sure that they do not face any racial microaggressions, are not put into positions where they’re having to defend that racism exists, or that they’re being put in a position of centering whiteness over centering themselves. Take considerations like that because yes, we want to be heard — but in a way that honors us.”

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