Strategies in White Anti-Racism

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.

Humility

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.

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13 thoughts on “Strategies in White Anti-Racism

  1. […] that inhabit this academic and activist milieu have managed to make their entire movement about white people. Ethnic (non-white) studies used to be a popular major for the aspiring Social Justice Warrior […]

  2. none says:

    Are you concerned that anti-racism results in an attitude in the black community that white people and their racism is the cause of all black problems? Doesn’t this breed resentment of whites? What if this resentment is unjustified–what if white people and their racism is actually not the cause of problems in the black community?

    Is resentment of white people a good thing?

    • esqg says:

      Sorry what? It is one thing to analyze how racism permeates our society and affects communities of color including black communities, but the “black people blame white people for all their problems” is incredibly dehumanizing. Black people are human, they know it, therefore they and communities they may form have flaws and they know that. (For example you can find plenty of black feminists and womanists discussing sexual violence, misogyny, food access and eating disorders, and other problems in ways specific to black communities. It’s just they usually don’t try and deny or distract from racism.)

      But really, I can’t see much in this comment but your underlying fear of “resentment of white people” being the reason you said everything else. It sounds like a classic “OH NOEZ, TALKING ABOUT RACISM IS WORSE THAN RACISM ITSELF!” If that is truly not what you are trying to convey, please rethink and be more specific.

      • none says:

        I’ll try to explain more clearly about resentment.

        An achievement gap exists between blacks and whites. Black test scores are lower, black education attainment is lower, and black incomes are lower, among other things.

        There are various possible causes of this gap, but you’re focusing on current and/or past racism (ie things white people do or have done) as the main cause rather than focusing on internal improvement. You’re jumping to the conclusion that white people are, in fact, the problem when you haven’t proven it or eliminated the other possibilities.

        If you focus on all of the bad things white people do or have done as the most significant cause of lower black achievement, isn’t that going to lead to some resentment of white people for their racism? Focusing on racism means blaming white people for problems in the black community.

        In fact, as you may have noticed in the link in another comment, people have actually been murdered because of their “white privilege”.

        I want an end to racism as much as anyone else, but I think it’s dangerous to promote ideologies that generate so much resentment that people actually go out and murder people over it.

      • esqg says:

        Okay, thank you for writing more clearly and respectfully.

        In fact “internal improvement” is exactly what my goal is here: for white people to work on breaking down racism amongst ourselves, instead of only making a change when people of color (again, not only black people) call out white people’s racism. That is, when white people’s behavior is the problem, then fixing that behavior takes work, and that is work that white people can and should do in the fight against racism.

        And also. I see in your comment a very common mental problem that people face (mostly white liberals, but also others): if we see inequality of outcomes, do we take the inequality as evidence of discrimination, or do we instead blame it on the inferiority of the less well-off group? I would ask you to think very hard about your answer. I could throw lots of concrete evidence at you, and you can look it up yourself, but unless you think about where your own discomfort with thinking about racism may be at play, it’s not going to help.

        I would also say that in my experience, for many people to understand the ways in which we are oppressed by the system, that is actually a very good thing enabling us to work better on our own problems, our communities’ problems, instead of being weighed down by feeling ourselves inadequate. That does not contribute to violence in itself. Moreover I read your link below but I don’t think you read the one I replied with. I am not going to engage with you more specifically on how black communities should and should not deal with racism, that would be very disrespectful coming from me.

      • Amber says:

        I actually wanted to respond further down, but that doesn’t seem possible.
        Perhaps it is just lack of perspective, having not paid attention before. But it seems to me like people on all sides of the political aisles are getting angrier these days. I read an article about kindergarten teachers, and the comments are full of anger over racial issues–it’s absurd and disheartening.

        Society can only function when we see ourselves as one people, united, when we all have each other’s backs. If the term ‘privilege’ is being used explicitly to justify murdering people, how important is it that this particular article is only aimed at white folks? The concept does not limit itself to white minds. I don’t know about “none”, but I did read the article you linked below, but I think this is precisely the attitude none is objecting to. Does it matter to a dead person how bad the racism of one side or another is? Does it matter to this lady: http://www.nj.com/essex/index.ssf/2013/06/video_millburn_home_invasion_brutality_stuns_neighbor_drives_manhunt_for_suspect.html ?

        Is there an ideology which doesn’t result in people murdering each other? How do we move past “us” and “them” to just “us”?

      • esqg says:

        Amber–I have been hearing recently about the problems with quoting Audre Lorde. Her name is so big in some circles (feminists, activists?) that many quote her without actually reading her essays, and some read her essays uncritically, or fail to look at other writers who work in a similar vein. Nevertheless, I really, truly loved her essay called “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Defining Difference”. I think that was the first writing I ever read that did not take a naïve view of civilization, progress or human nature, in other words which did not soften anything, but which inspired more hope and rethinking than it did anger. If you want me to email it to you let me know. For example, a quote:

        Institutionalized rejection of difference is an absolute necessity in a profit economy which needs outsiders as surplus people. As members of such an economy, we have all been programmed to respond to the human differences between us with fear and loathing and to handle that difference in one of three ways: ignore it, and if that is not possible, copy it if we think it is dominant, or destroy it if we think it is subordinate. But we have no patterns for relating across our human differences as equals. As a result, those differences have been misnamed and misused in the service of separation and confusion.

        Certainly there are very real differences between us of race, age, and sex. But it is not those differences between us that are separating us. It is rather our refusal to recognize those differences, and to examine the distortions which result from our misnaming them and their effects upon human behavior and expectation.

        She talks in the essay about the burden oppressed people have to always educate the oppressing group, and how that drains energy; about how people should learn to cherish and relate across differences; particularly, a lot about building a feminist movement that includes all women struggling against oppressive social control.

        As for this article, I’ve specified my target audience only, mostly because a lot of people write and simply assume who their audience is, which in itself feels alienating and exclusionary. Everyone interested in engaging with the concepts is invited to read this article, as I said. Is your objection to that in itself, or to the idea more generally that white people really need to work against racism?

        Also, analyzing the Audre Lorde quote above, what I got out of that for myself was that it is not discussions of oppression in themselves, that inspire violence in any direction. If you want personal ideology from me, it is that what inspires violence is fear and anger. People who suffer the effects of racism, don’t have to analyze it in order to be angry or afraid. I can’t cite studies for this, but based on experience I’d say unrecognized oppression built up over time actually makes people feel angry and lash out without even knowing their reasons, so their targets might be their spouses, their children, themselves–any kind of oppression can do this. Citing examples where people lash out at those they see as enemies, is the tip of the iceberg. (For me, learning how pervasive sexism was and how it had been operating on me, made me very angry; but the flipside of that was I was also learning to be a stronger person, and to learn to deal with anger way better than I had when younger, and I learned better respect for other women. But I still react in the same strongly aggressive way every time I’m harassed or threatened or assaulted by a large masculine person.)

        Moreover, I think that anger can be generative, but fear almost never can. When people work on learning to listen across differences of experience, which is essentially what I’m urging in most of this post, I think they can reduce fear in all directions.

      • Amber says:

        I’m reading the article now; thanks for sending it. I have no objections to working against racism, only concerns about the optimal ways to do so. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about nationalism/group identity and how that goes bad–see, for example, my recent posts on LJ. I’ve been anti-nationalism since late highschool, largely as a result of the breakup of Yugoslavia. Not that it is bad to like one’s own group/state/ethnicity–it’d be kind of problematic if folks didn’t–but too often this leads to group identities, us v them thinking, self-identifying with atrocities committed against folks who are long gone and identification of others with those who committed the atrocities. In short, racism. In Yugoslavia, people who had lived in peace and harmony for decades suddenly began shooting each other. Next thing you know, genocide. Over what? Shit one group did to another back before WWII, if not even further back–like the Battle of Kosovo, 600 years before (624 years, now.) Of course, it’s probably actually meaningless to speak about ethnic groups in a society where people have lived so closely together for so long, but ethnicity is a social construct and blah blah. Were Bosnians oppressing Serbs? No. But ethnic cleansing happened anyway.
        So, while racism and oppression certainly cause anger and resentment, so can people, in my observation, simply decide one day for no good reason to go murder their neighbors.
        I don’t think we’re headed down Yugoslavia’s path, but the US is already an extremely violent country, completely out of the norm for a ‘first-world’ nation. I don’t want to add to that.
        It seems to me that we won’t solve any of this country’s major problems–poverty, violence, unequal access to resources, etc., until we abandon “us” and “them” thinking and just think about everyone as “us”.
        This is where I think it is easy to fall into assimilationist thinking; that if “they” were just willing to be like “us”, then of course we’d welcome “them”–but this thinking, as you point out, is flawed. Creating a just society is not only everyone’s ethical duty, but practically, everyone has to commit to it for it to work. And from a self-interested POV, an unjust society will be riddled with violence–just look at South Africa, where the president has led the congress in a rousing rendition of “Kill the Boer”. Merely ending apartheid was not enough to create a just, peaceful society. We must all see ourselves as one people, supporting each other. Otherwise, we’re doomed.

  3. Amber says:

    It’s a nice article. Thanks for writing it. 🙂

    • esqg says:

      Thank you! The positive feedback is really good to have.

      • Anonymous says:

        I especially liked the part about institutions changing to accommodate all of their members. Too often, credit/attention go to the folks who talk the biggest talk, and shy or quiet people (often women) have trouble being heard. In a thoughtful, compassionate society, institutions should take advantage of the strengths of all their members.

  4. none says:

    Here’s the result of your anti-racism: http://www.vdare.com/posts/congratulations-splc-tim-wise-atlanta-black-gunman-nkosi-thadiwe-says-he-shot-three-white-girl

    Congrats, one less white person for you to oppose! I hope you’re happy.

    Just keep blaming everything on the allegedly pervasive racism of white people, and the natural result is racism AGAINST white people. Are you aware that the VAST majority of interracial murders are black-on-white? You are more racist than the people you’re arguing against, and the effects can be devastating.

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