In the summer of 2018, globally-respected writer, speaker and podcast host Layla Saad ran a month-long Instagram challenge asking people to examine and accept responsibility for the ways in which they uphold white supremacy. The #MeAndWhiteSupremacy challenge, as it was known, proved to be wildly popular and galvanizing as more than 80,000 people downloaded the Me and White Supremacy Workbook in just six months. Today, this guide has now been published as a book.
Me and White Supremacy: A 28-Day Challenge to Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor is “a bracing, highly useful tool for any discussion of combating racism” (Kirkus Reviews). Saad helps readers recognize and understand their white privilege and participation in white supremacy, and offers advice for ways to stop harming people of color, even when that damage is done unconsciously. The book expands on the original workbook by adding more historical and cultural contexts, sharing moving stories and anecdotes, and includes expanded definitions, examples, and further resources. The result is a helpful and necessary tool to understand the pervasiveness of white supremacy and what we can do to dismantle it.
We spoke with Saad ahead of our February 5 event with her as part of the program series presented in conjunction with special exhibit My America: Immigrant and Refugee Writers Today. Saad’s work focuses on the topics of race, identity, leadership, personal transformation and social change in an effort to be a good ancestor and leave a legacy of healing and liberation for those will come after she is gone. Read our full interview with Saad below, and RSVP to our February 5 event here.
AMERICAN WRITERS MUSEUM: Your new book Me and White Supremacy stems from a successful Instagram campaign and workbook…what was the initial impetus behind the #meandwhitesupremacy challenge and how did people generally respond?
LAYLA SAAD: Me and White Supremacy was the answer to some big questions I wrestled with after writing my viral blog article I need to talk to spiritual white women about white supremacy, and beginning to do anti-racism work. Those questions were these: How can we become good ancestors? How can we leave a legacy of healing and liberation in this world for those who are here now, and those who will come after we are gone? How can we help create a world free of racism? I struggled with those questions for months, until one night I received the inspiration for what became Me and White Supremacy.
Me and White Supremacy was not the answer to these questions. But it was my answer. The work of anti-racism requires many different approaches, strategies, and practices. What the challenge offered was a unique 28-day process for meaningful self-reflection and truth-telling. Rather than asking people to look outside of themselves, I asked them to look within. People overall responded very positively to the challenge. Though of course we had our critics as we showed up for the work each day, the overwhelming response from people was one of active engagement and commitment to the work. In the space of the 28 days alone, my Instagram account more than double from 19K followers to almost 40K. People showed up for the work each day, spreading the work through word of mouth, and engaging meaningfully.
“White supremacy is the dominant paradigm that forms the foundation from which norms, rules, and laws are created. Everyone with white privilege benefits from it, and everyone with white privilege has the responsibility to help dismantle it.”
AWM: What do you hope people take away after reading Me and White Supremacy and your other work?
SAAD: Three major takeaways from the work are these: 1) To create change in the world, we must create change within ourselves. The self-reflective nature of Me and White Supremacy allows readers to do the necessary self-reflection needed in order to transform the personal so that the collective can change too. 2) Though the book offers a process through a 28-day journey, anti-racism is life-long work and not a month long challenge. Me and White Supremacy offers both a starting point and a continuation for life-long anti-racist practice. People can return to this book again and again throughout their anti-racism journey. And 3) White supremacy and racism do not just belong to the extremists and neo-Nazis. White supremacy is the dominant paradigm that forms the foundation from which norms, rules, and laws are created. Everyone with white privilege benefits from it, and everyone with white privilege has the responsibility to help dismantle it.
AWM: Your bio reads that you are an “East African, Arab, British, Black, Muslim woman who was born and grew up in the West, and lives in Middle East”…how does this “unique intersection of identities” impact your writing?
SAAD: These identities are the lens through which I see myself, and the lens through which I see the world. This juxtaposition of identities helps me to see the world through a unique perspective. We live in a world that often tries to box us into one or two identities, and that stereotypes and marginalizes certain identities. Learning how to embrace all of my identities, and not just the ones seen as acceptable by white supremacy and patriarchy, has really empowered me as a writer. Toni Morrison once said, “Being a black woman writer is not a shallow place but a rich place to write from. It doesn’t limit my imagination; it expands it.” This is how I feel as a writer who owns all of her identities.
“I am inspired by the thought that my writings can leave a legacy of healing and liberation for those who are here on this earth now, and those who will come after I am gone.”
AWM: Conversely, how, if at all, does writing impact or inform your sense of identity?
SAAD: In addition to my aforementioned identities, “writer” is definitely one of my core identities. Not just as a career or a vocation, but rather, as a calling. I write, therefore I am. It’s what I believe I am here to do, why I believe I was given the gift of communication, and how I believe I am here to serve.
AWM: Why did always know you would become a writer and what inspires you to continue to write?
SAAD: Like most writers, I would say writing is not a choice but an integral part of who I am. Writing and the love of books have been part of my life since I was a small child. However, the decision to finally commit to a career as a writer came in 2016 when I wrote an article at the time that went viral and caused thousands of people to engage in meaningful conversation around harmful practices in the coaching world. Up until that point, I’d always dreamed of being a writer but felt a little like an impostor. The impact of that article, however, helped me to see how powerful writing is, and how passionately I felt about using writing to speak truth to power, inspire, educate and help create a better world. Taking responsibility of my talent for communication as a writer and speaker is one of the important ways that I choose to show up as a good ancestor. I am inspired by the thought that my writings can leave a legacy of healing and liberation for those who are here on this earth now, and those who will come after I am gone.
“My conscious awakening to the impact of racism and white supremacy unleashed me from this restricted way of communicating, where I now own the full range of my emotions when I write – anger and love. All of it.”
AWM: In our My America exhibit and accompanying program series which you are part of, many writers have mentioned being “othered” or made to feel like an outsider…have you experienced feelings like this in your life? If so, how have they impacted your writing?
SAAD: I think everybody who holds identities that do not fit in with white supremacist-capitalist-heteronormative-able-bodied-gender restricting-patriarchy has felt othered at some time or another, if not their entire life. The very function of these systems is to minimize, to marginalize, to oppress, and to other anyone who these systems are not designed to privilege. The way that this othering has affected my writing has been, until I began to write about race, to try and make my writing conform to the comfort of the White Gaze. Not wanting to come across as the Angry Black Woman, my writing was certainly more palatable to white people for a very long time. My conscious awakening to the impact of racism and white supremacy however, unleashed me from this restricted way of communicating, where I now own the full range of my emotions when I write – anger and love. All of it.
AWM: Did you have any favorite books or writers you loved to read as a kid?
SAAD: As a kid, I loved to read detective stories: Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, and later Agatha Christie. I also loved Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl and the Sweet Valley High series! As an adult now who makes a real effort to read books by Black authors, I wish I had had access to books by authors such as Tomi Adeyemi, Octavia Butler, Angie Thomas, and so on. I know that reading books that featured other Black children and young people as protagonists would have a remarkably positive impact on my self-identity as a young Black girl.
AWM: If you could meet one American writer from the past, who would it be and why?
SAAD: Audre Lorde. Her writings, which I discovered shortly after writing I need to talk to spiritual white women about white supremacy are words I turn to again and again as I travel on my journey as a Black woman and writer. Her collection of essays and speeches, Sister Outsider is like a sacred text for me. Her words strengthen me and remind me of how impactful writing can be as a tool for healing and liberation not just for our generation, but for the generations who come after we are gone. Audre Lorde is definitely a chosen literary ancestor of mine.
AWM: What are you reading now? Who should we be reading?
SAAD: Like most book-lovers, I’m always reading and listening to many books at the same time. At the moment I’ve got the following books going: Children of Virtue and Vengeance by Tomi Adeyemi, The Stars and the Blackness Between Them by Junauda Petrus-Nash, Dare to Lead by Brené Brown, Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself by Dr. Joe Dispenza. On my upcoming To Read list are Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch, Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid, This Book Is Anti-Racist by Tiffany Jewell, I’m Not Dying With You Tonight by Kimberly Jones & Gilly Segal, and Stay Woke by Justin Michael Williams. And I’m going to read some more Toni Morrison books this year too.
“We as writers have the power and the responsibility to be able change the world using words.”
AWM: Any advice for aspiring writers?
SAAD: Every writer has their own rhythm and practice of writing. Some writers must write every single day. Some writers prefer to write in closed off blocks of space and time that are specifically dedicated to writing and nothing else (this is me!). Whatever your writing rhythms are, honour them. Do not make the mistake I made for many years of thinking that you’re only a “real” writer if you write in a certain way, according to a certain rhythm. Get to know yourself and how you best get in your creative zone. Don’t worry about if it doesn’t look the same as everyone else. Your job is to get to know your creative process as best as you can, and then do everything you can to honour it.
AWM: Anything else you’d like to add?
SAAD: James Baldwin once said of writing, “You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world… The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even but a millimeter the way people look at reality, then you can change it.” I use this as a guiding light for why I write, and how we as writers have the power and the responsibility to be able change the world using words.