by Elizabeth S. Q. Goodman, PhD student
Women of today are still being called upon to stretch across the gap of male ignorance and to educate men as to our existence and our needs. This is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns. Now we hear that it is the task of women of Color to educate white women — in the face of tremendous resistance — as to our existence, our differences, our relative roles in our joint survival…
–Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”
Hello everyone. This is my first writing about anti-racism from a white, American perspective. I’m writing it in response to calls from people of color for white folks to educate each other about how racism continues to operate, and for committed white anti-racists to support each other in our learning and unlearning. Many calls to the general public, and one from a friend who made a semi-serious remark, “you should write a book on white anti-racism”.
The people I am addressing here are other white people (mostly Americans) who seek to resist racism, and who understand that while people who have directly experienced racism are experts on how it works, we can still learn from each other if we cast aside our egos and our fears of being seen as “not good enough allies”. I welcome critiques from anti-racist people of color who decide to read. If on the other hand you’re someone who doesn’t like to talk about race, then unless you’re willing to learn that historical racism has resounding effects and the status quo is still racist, this post is not for you. In particular if you’re a white person and you don’t like thinking about race because you are worried about feeling like a bad person, then please go instead to this comprehensive resource for all the good white people.
So first, as white folks we should know the ground rules:
to listen to people of color about race,
to be mindful of how white folks talk over people of color about anything at all, or act entitled to their space and time,
to acknowledge the impact of your actions even when you have good intent. Because if anyone’s criticizing you, it’s either a public call for help or they think you meant well and can do better.
I’m always learning, but I hope these reflections are helpful.
Use your personality
Not all criticisms of white people are directed at you and me. There, I said it: not all white people are the same! Many critiques might be sometimes applicable. But you are the one who needs to figure out how you are different from other white people, or when you are part of the specific problem. That is one of the first things to learn: if a problematic trend of white people is identified, and you didn’t do it, don’t perceive an accusation and get indignant. Instead, be more aware of the problem, seek out those white people and push them to stop it. For example, after someone on the Onion subjected a 9-year-old black girl, Quevenzhané Wallis, to a misogynist slur, every feminist I saw on the internet that day objected to it. Yet later, I heard that famous white feminists on the whole had not spoken up, and some had even defended the slur. After a moment of “wait, my friends and I DID speak up!” I realized that if I had the energy to talk about it further, my time would be best used holding those famous white feminists to account.
Similarly, when Janani Balasubramanian wrote a post about hipster anti-racism, not knowing them very well at the time and not knowing many self-identified social justice activists, I was anxious reading it the first time. I thought that since my work against racism at the time mainly took the form of supporting the words of people of color, and of trying to raise awareness, that I must be doing nothing deep or helpful and so I was a bad ally. Then I remembered my rule: “if you feel defensive, read it twice”. The second time through I realized the post was about white people who go along with anti-racist talk but have no interest in walking the walk, and how hard it can be to trust when people are so concerned with appearing to be PC instead of with making a change. Once I started hanging around activists I began discovering the depths of insincerity that they were addressing.
So, rather than just let the myriad forms of racist oppression seem overwhelming, we have to work to identify what about our personalities makes us part of the problem, and in what ways we are best gifted to resist racism. I am assertive, impatient and socially awkward, so I have often stepped on the toes of people of color, or ignored others while in a hurry; I have struggled to unpack that, to pay people proper respect and to benefit from the contributions that I might not wait for. The work it takes me to learn how not to silence or distance people of color, might be even harder for someone taller or more masculine than me, and I hope much easier for someone more patient or more aware of social cues.
But assertiveness is a gift, and so is awkwardness (thanks Cameron). So for example it’s easy for me, around other white people who say racist shit, to refuse to play along. “I don’t get that joke”, “I don’t like that”, “what do you mean”, a blank stare, a drawn-out “if you REALLY want to put it that way…” may make white folks uncomfortable enough to think the thoughts they so often get away without, and maybe in future they’ll be more respectful of people of color whose lives they affect. Even if I just feel something is wrong and am not sure why, I express that hesitation while I think. I am used to making folks uncomfortable and not fitting in, so I use that. I am also willing to all-out yell at people unless I’m afraid for my job or safety, and sometimes I unwisely risk those.
Are you good at listening? Are you generous? Are you tough and stoic? Do you work alone, or connect to people? Use the gifts your personality gives you.
Assimilation is intolerance
To expect someone to assimilate to your culture means you don’t respect them or care about their well-being. That applies at every level from nations to organizations. To demand that someone take leadership in the same way you would, to fit in the way your organization is already set up, means you reject the strengths they bring to the table and the changes they could make. To educate someone and not to learn from them is to disrespect their mind and abilities, and to exert the power of a stagnant system over them.
I’m not saying be impractical or let people walk on you, but I cannot tell you the depths of my anger when I see someone fail to consider that when people don’t fit their system they could change the system. It happens anytime someone has privilege, but I am not sure if any privilege has this symptom in more ways than American whiteness, or aligning one’s mind to white-dominated US norms. And the worst irony is when it happens even in groups seeking positive social change. In just one year I have seen so many started by white people, who then make an effort to “include people of color” while not being willing to make any changes to their organization, or thinking to give most of the paid positions to people of color, even if the project and the funding is specifically to benefit communities of color. In fact I’m part of just such a group that is seeking to fix this problem among others.
I think about colonialist education when TAing for Math 51, where my job is literally to teach students to survive in a system of thought designed for them to submit to or leave. I know that all the time I spend trying to show students how they can take ownership of these math concepts, comes at the expense of teaching them how to simply do what is expected; that many students only want to do what is expected, so I have to spend time on that. But I’d much rather know students individually, find out how they think, and offer the chance to use and value their own thinking in the active use of mathematics. And my best students and friends also appreciate how I engage with math; they respect or enjoy the way that logical systems, patterns and puzzles run through my mind all the time.
Yes, that does have something to do with racism, but at the systemic level. To quote an impressive article, “Why, instead, don’t we redesign our primary, secondary and tertiary schools to accommodate the specific, historic and present needs of these structurally oppressed groups?” I think we would, if we worked to understand those we seek to educate.
Art and Media
Art, writing and media are so important. If you think that all people are created equal, and you want to believe that at your core, then you need to counteract the culture that seeks to teach us otherwise. Rather than feeling guilty, seek out affirming art that will reach your subconscious. For example, if your internalized standards of beauty mean light skin, or body and hair types that mostly light-skinned people have, seek out art that portrays dark-skinned people in many kinds of beauty. Perhaps you’ll find new art forms you like, or better appreciate the dark-skinned people around you. I certainly did.
Seek also to prove to yourself that people of color truly deserve the respect they do not often get. Individually or as groups, they are so often distorted when they are represented by white artists and historians. So if you have not read many works by people of color, fix that right now. In fact if you are a white American who values gender and sexual justice and has not read an essay by Audre Lorde, fix that right now because she will tell you so much. (I learned recently that people love to quote her without reading her essays–read the essays, they may change your life!) And, if your ideas of people of color come from popular movies and history textbooks, learn more of their stories and their words. Nothing is more transformative than people being heard and understood when they tell their own stories.
I haven’t thought this up on my own; I learned it through a class on Native American history in college. I learned it through watching how people of color strive to heal themselves of racism against themselves and each other, to represent themselves in media that so often erases their contributions. I have a different but related frustration that I so rarely read a book or watch TV and find any strong queer characters, unless it is explicitly for queer folks. But whether it’s me being marginalized or others, I’m tired of art that claims to reflect life around me and doesn’t.
Learn what you can and can’t do well
I can’t control the fact that many of you will not heed my advice in the section above. That so many white people consistently hear my white voice better than a person of color’s, unless you dismiss me as too shrill, too weird, too idealistic or misguided, too feminine or young, too whiny, too elitist or just plain small. I can keep that in mind and try to amplify and reinforce others’ voices. But I can’t force you to respect the people whose leadership I am following. All I can do is remind you that these ideas are not just mine, that this is informed by many people of color and a few white allies, to point to some writers and speakers (as I have) and hope that you will learn from this.
Also, it makes little sense for me to go around explaining racism to people of color who ignore or deny it. It has (rarely) been useful to point out that many disagree with them. But I remember it was an unpleasant series of shocks for me to stop denying the prevalence of sexism and to learn how to see it, and I certainly wouldn’t have appreciated the condescension of a more masculine person telling me that my life was hard. It was in my interest to learn about sexism and femmephobia from others on the receiving end, learn to combat it and to heal from the self-doubt it had implanted over a long time; I do not think I needed overbearing masculine allies to start that process. So, I do respect my own judgment and the knowledge of things I have witnessed, but not everything is for me to say.
One of the recent hard lessons that I’ve learned was when it is strategic to use my white privilege, or to act in ways that privilege makes easier. If a white person says something problematic or talks over people of color, I worry about responding because that’s another white person taking up space. Yet, some patterns of whiteness are so common that folks of color are often tired of pushing back or unsure it will have an effect, even in a space labeled “anti-racist”; if a white person responds publicly and immediately (not just in private later), it may save the time and energy of people of color, whereas silence may seem like agreement. Not an easy balance to strike, and not something that always helps, but it’s important to try.
Find resources that work well for you
What worked well for me at first, and continues to work, is anger (first in person, then online). When people are angry for good reason, they often express very clearly what the problem is. I know that this is not true for many others; I have talked to friend after friend about why anger shuts them down, and had at least two friends challenge themselves to change that. I’ve had friends explain to me about how a history of emotional or phsyical abuse means any anger is triggering, no matter how reasonable it is. I do not know how to negotiate between the very real need for oppressed people to express their anger and make the problems known, and the need to get the oppressors to listen. In any case, anger brings out directness and for me, directness makes things accessible and understandable. I know some white people find it very unpleasant to watch The Angry Eye, but to me, it is a hopeful and transformative thing, to see other white people learn in an environment that feels unsafe, where they have a taste of what they are committing to fighting–and to see how many people of color find the same social experiment empowering.
When I was trying to learn to connect different kinds of social justice in my mind, what worked for me at first was a scientific, skeptic’s view of bias; I read a lot of Ian Cromwell who likes to talk science, patterns and statistics. Especially his series on system justification theory. I remember a big breakthrough, though, when I read white silence and its follow-up which are excellent pieces on how white folks can participate in anti-racism. And another, reading I read brown silence which wasn’t even directed at white allies. At that point I thought more on how to prioritize the mental health of people of color when there’s racism at work or in the conversation; and realized that hipster anti-racism is all the worse because talking to people of color about your white anti-racism may be draining on their time.
Perhaps what works for you is writing by Tim Wise, since he is a white guy writing for privileged audiences. At least you can start there, but remember that is just a stepping stone or a crutch; writing by him, me, or other white people can never do the work of getting you to truly respect and understand anti-racist activists of color. Perhaps this other social justice trainer, with his gentle humorous approach, will work for you too. But I think it is best to seek out whatever will keep you committed and engaged productively.
Effects on me
I cannot deny that the anti-racist personal work I have done so far has had costs. First of all there is the sheer time commitment of learning, after a lifetime of not being forced to; but racism is complex and everyone needs to learn a lot to combat it. My sense of humor is much heavier, much more bitter, much more deliberate sarcasm designed to let me laugh and heal, than it once was. I’m still learning to navigate humor in a world where I am permanently uncomfortable with the cruelties that so many take for granted. I notice that some of my newer friends, even close ones, are surprised when I am light-heartedly sarcastic, and that surprise hurts a little because it shows a loss. My year of full-time community service was so draining and overwhelming, that I distinctly remember not feeling like myself again until two months after it ended. Yet I have only healed, strengthened, learned, and gone into other difficult situations since then.
I have also had a lot of struggles with my friends who have more of an entitled mindset, who once influenced me to enjoy the status quo. That includes much of my family and friends (including friends of color) who sheltered me growing up into thinking racism was mostly gone now. When I started learning the depths of how bad it gets, when I was shocked over and over again, I expected it to be easy to tell my friends and family. Why wouldn’t they want to know? It took me a long time to understand why so many of my white friends were resistant to learning, why they didn’t sense the same urgency I did. When I began to prioritize social justice in my life, I felt a profound sense of isolation. I began to see that the only way I could live with myself keeping my friendships with the most privileged people was if I also challenged them to do better. I had to negotiate a way for me to live and be happy, to advocate for social justice, yet to respect my friends’ different strengths and interests and the reality that none of us can completely go against an overwhelming system. So I became more distant from some friends, but I found others who continued to learn, to act, and to challenge me as well. And some of my relationships with old friends of color, while I do not see them often and we don’t really talk about activism, have deepened. I have found myself making a number of connections to different people of color more easily than before. That is an unexpected “reward” (remember, I’m an awkward nerd!) but one for which I am deeply grateful.
But the more privileged strangers are, the more I’m on my guard, as I do not trust them to be “good people” by default. In particular I do not have an interest in supporting other white people’s complacency. We live in a country that maintains a legacy of enslaving Black people by criminalizing them, incarcerating them more and more in the last 3 decades. A country that discriminates at every level against transgender women and trans feminine people of color, criminalizes them and puts them in jail. (Please support a community empowerment project led by amazing women from that same constituency.) A country that so often puts marginalized people in jail for self-defense or on trumped-up charges, bullies them into plea bargains, charges them with gang membership, and when they get out, takes away votes, jobs (by culture not by law), and now food stamps. If someone is complacent in the face of that, I do not have the emotional resources for them. Needless to say this attitude makes social interactions hard at times. But I take care of myself and I’m still a pretty happy person; if I didn’t, I know I would not be much use to anyone.
If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading. If you’re a white reader, and you read anything in my article as condescending toward you, because you “already know that part about anti-racism” or because you get something better than I do, check your ego. You might instead focus on what you can learn here; you know, learn with humility. And know that while I may sound arrogant at times, I am genuinely attempting to do the same.
Elizabeth is in the middle of seeking a PhD in mathematics. She is also interested in queer rights and social justice, music, Irish dancing, climbing trees and any number of things.