Voices on the Path: Coco Papy

COCO PAPY is a community organizer, policy nerd, and born-and-bred Savannahian who came home to do the work. 

As Deep’s Director of Development and Communications, she works to shine the spotlight on the young people who are leading the way to a more just and equitable Savannah and push forward grassroots-created policy, advocacy, and legislation.  She has a long history with Deep, starting out as an educator in the Young Author Project.

Papy is involved in numerous groups that work across Georgia, serving as a board member of the Planned Parenthood Southeast C4 policy team, co-founder of the Political Rascals PAC, a Highlander Education Center Greensboro Justice Fellow, and a PEN Prison Writing Fellow.

She is an acting member of the Georgia Win List, a political action committee dedicated to changing the face of power in Georgia by recruiting, training, and electing women. She was recently recruited by the People for the American Way’s Front Line Leaders Academy, which gives progressive leaders the tools to ensure elected officials reflect the needs of their communities.

Papy is trained in Kingian non-violence and de-escalation practice and recently became certified as a legal observer for the National Lawyer’s Guild as part of their mass defense support.  

When she is not busy changing the world, Coco Papy makes amazing jam, marmalade, preserves, and raises Silkie chickens at her Twickenham home. 

Why does it matter that white people educate themselves?

At this point, there really is no excuse not to.  The only reason you would be is that you are intentionally choosing not to.  And if we are frank, that is a choice that has been easily supported given the way white supremacy functions.

When I say white supremacy, I don’t mean angry racists storming the streets with tiki torches, though that is very much a function of it.  I mean that we are a country, a society, a culture, with our institutions, and the very heart of what we value and decide as normal on is centered on being white and male. 

It’s something as small as “flesh tone” bandaids that are white and it’s as massive as the fact that black people are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of white people because Jim Crow and slavery were caste systems that were the template of our current system of mass incarceration.  It’s saying protestors dilute their message by not being “civil” and having more sympathy for property rather than black folks dying at the hands of white folks. 

It’s calling the police because a black man is walking through Ardsley Park and then boasting about it on Nextdoor.  It’s not speaking up in our church pews and board meetings and in our PTA meetings because we are comfortable.

We — and I want to be clear, when I say “we” in this, I mean white people who I’m specifically addressing—we have to understand what it is that has kept and keeps racism in place: institutional policies like redlining, banking policies, mortgage policies, Jim Crow “black codes”, the criminal justice system, especially with the misdemeanor system, etc.; restrictive laws that were and are designed to limit the freedom of Black people intentionally or simply by unintentional bias of who created them, which is still intentional. 

Then there is interpersonal behavior.  I find in having conversations on whiteness, white privilege, I have more difficulty talking with people who identify as liberal.  If they voted for Stacey Abrams, they couldn’t possibly be racist, that good people can’t be racist, as opposed to how we function in a racist society that rewards that behavior.  We tell ourselves that racism is only about moral values, when it is very much about the survival strategy of systemic power.

We have and live within it whether we want to or not, period. Our job is to understand and counteract on that. Not speak for the impacted. Not assume or generalize. But to address ourselves and each other. I think by owning that we have racist behaviors, that we perpetuate them, that we are rewarded for that, we can begin to do the long work on undoing it.

Why should white people not ask black people to help them learn how to not be racist?

Reni Eddo-Lodge wrote a book called “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race.” It talks about the struggle of trying to convince a white man that what he was saying was perpetuating a white racist standard. 

All the while he stared obliviously, completely confused by this pain, trivializing it, ridiculing it. It was exhausting.

Ask yourself this: Do you want to go through the experience of sharing with someone the worst pain you experience only to be told you are making it all up, that it doesn’t exist, that if you did X, Y, Z, it wouldn’t be like that? Because they haven’t done the learning needed to understand how your humanity is under assail?

No. And yet we white folks do that all the time. It’s not the job of marginalized groups to educate non-marginalized people on history or their experiences.  We have got to do the labor. There are endless resources. There are support circles for white people wanting to do anti-racist work. 

Because many white people have never been forced to think about our whiteness, to think about the way our race identity carries power into the world, we tend to be incredibly fragile in talking about race. 

The center of the harm and damage of racism should always focus on the center of those impacted. But racism, like any -ism, is a double-edged sword that dehumanizes because of participating in oppressive behavior as well. 

How am I to believe that my full humanity can be intact if it is based on putting my foot on someone else to keep them down so that I may stay up? That’s not humanity. We have to reject that. I reject that.

What do you say to “all lives matter” folks?

The person you love most in the world dies.  Your child, your spouse, whoever.  At the funeral, you go to give the eulogy to talk about what this person meant to you, about the hurt and pain you are experiencing, how much they mattered.  A random person grabs the mic and says “well actually, all children/spouses matter.”

That is what all lives matter is.  It is not being able to look past your own inherent myopia and shrinking world so you don’t have to understand there is suffering beyond your limited perception.

What are some of your favorite resources that white folks can use to become better people?

Support and amplify the work of black / people of color creators, authors, writers, thinkers. Ibram X. Kendi, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Layla F. Saad, Morgan Jerkins, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Christopher Emdin, Rachel Elizabeth Cargle, Adrienne Marie Brown, Ijeoma Oluo — google “anti-racist reading list” and you will access a treasure trove.

Locally, learn about Savannah’s history from the folks here—Trelanie Michelle, Amir Toure, Dr. Otis Johnson, Dr. Vaughnette Goode-Walker, Johnny Brown. Learn about Troy Davis, Henry Moore, Robbie Roberson, W.W. Law — who they were in this community. 

What is the most important thing that white folks can do at this time?

There is no “sorry about racism” care package.  There is only the commitment to anti-racist work, showing up imperfectly and being humble enough to mess up and keep going.  No one is born spitting bell hooks quotes off their backhand. 

BUT — we must, must confront our inevitable and often unaware racist patterns and assumptions.  And we have to be willing to do that work with other white people, not just stay silent when someone says something or drag them on Facebook and call that the work for the day. 

We have to accept that we will come to the work flawed, accepting of feedback and criticism, with humility, and with a commitment to doing it for the long haul.  And we have to bring other white people along with us. 

Get rid of the idea of there being a formula - this idea that if we can just figure out a way to be a “good ally”, to be non racist, to say the right thing, all of this is a by-product of white privilege.  It’s thinking there is a formula that if we figure it out, all black people will be cool with us.  Black folks aren’t a monolith.  Do you see what I mean?

I carry this sentence from Adrienne Marie Brown: “It’s a devastating weight to carry, to work to be fully myself, humble, and brilliant and messy and great, against a delusion of white supremacy so pervasive and invasive that it can grow within each of us without invitation.  But just because something alive violates us does not mean we asked for it, does not mean we partner with it, believe it, or let it live.”


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