Over the past couple of weeks, I read a couple of critical autobiographies–those of Malcolm X and Assata Shakur. Reading them together, I was struck by a lot of things, but perhaps especially how enduring false narratives of this country are and how those narratives are perpetuated by white people. We hear this time and again from folks of color, how white people are often surprised by actions of the state or the actions of their fellow white folks, rather than recognizing these as enduring historical patterns that folks of color are plenty used to. Why are we so surprised? Why does our ignorance persist so doggedly?
Well, racism, obviously. But part of that racism is the way we reproduce stories amongst ourselves, as white folks. This probably starts before we arrive in school, but it is heavily reinforced by curricula, both formal and informal. School isn’t just about the whitewashed lessons we learn about literature and history, but it’s also a civic education in how to be a Good White American. School teaches us that America is a democracy, that voting is a civic duty, that the cops are the good guys, that prisons are necessary, that participation is important. We learn all these insidious little lessons and then we learn not to listen when black folks and other folks of color are shouting the opposite from the rooftops. School teaches us to turn a blind eye at best, to argue loudly against the truth at worst.
So what can we do about it? Yep, it’s that simple piece of advice yet again. Talk to other white folks. But a layer I’d add is not to assume that the white folks you know, your fellow liberals etc., are as aware as you think they are about race and particularly about the lie Amerika represents. I’ve often found in conversation that folks are surprised by the degree of deception they’ve been living under, once the historical facts are presented. A lot of white folks think of themselves as anti-racist, but read very few books by people of color. So drop some of those facts into the conversation. Recommend relevant books by authors of color to your friends. Challenge civic participation. Keep on grinding on those little bits of resistance and education within your white circles, so that we can make some space as folks of color are doing the revolutionary work.
What is “wealth?” Money you’ve accumulated over time, right? Well, not necessarily. Nikki Giovanni says that “black love is black wealth,” and this simple statement shines a light not only on how rich the black community is, but also on how fucked up white ideas around wealth and poverty really are.
As white folks, we often think of people of color as “impoverished” because as a group, they don’t have the generational economic wealth that we do. Of course, the reason for this is centuries of racism, genocide, and enslavement, but I’d also argue that the focus on economic wealth is a desperate move on behalf of white folks to cover our own poverty.
When we talk about the poverty of people of color, especially black folks, but also those of all colors in the “developing world,” we use pity as a mask to cover our own longing and poverty. I believe that we constantly need to reaffirm that we are “normal,” that we are on top of the pyramid, because we know in our heart of hearts that we are not–that in fact we are generators of disease, engaging in deeply perverse racist practices, and are as a culture so removed from any ancestral worth that we wouldn’t recognize it if it bit us in the face.
What does “unbiased” actually mean? I’ve been thinking about this when liberals defend the gold standard of mainstream news outlets in the era of “fake news” accusations, and while I obviously think the Trump cronies are full of shit, I also wonder what the staunch defense of traditional news organizations might leave out.
Growing up, I never really questioned the standard that journalists must be objective and unbiased. That seemed like a reasonable enough idea, and I expected it of those working at large news organizations. But in order to be “objective” and “unbiased” according to the definitions of a news organization, you need to have an academic background and specific skills that are especially valued by white folks. You need to reference credible sources–and “credible” sources are often written by white people. You need to have that gold standard “objective” point-of-view that is invisibly white.
I think this expectation of unbiased journalism really means “journalism steeped firmly in white culture.” The idea that anyone could really be “unbiased” is a racist notion, because it relies on the invisibility and supremacy of the white perspective. Everyone has a point of view. Everyone’s perspective is rooted in culture, it’s just that white culture tends to be so pervasive as to go undetected. Rather than expecting objectivity, I think we should acknowledge and embrace the cultural grounding of our journalists, and rely on news sources that come from a range of perspectives.
Usually when I hear discussions around the concept of white guilt, they’re about how inappropriate it is to air or focus on. This of course makes total sense in mixed-race spaces. Often when white people express their guilt around race, it’s in a mixed-race space and they’re derailing conversations to center their own emotions rather than the priorities of folks of color. It’s never right to center white guilt and white experiences in a general anti-racist space, and in that context white guilt can be just as bad as white pride.
One thing I have been frustrated about, though, is the way white folks handle white guilt in white anti-racist spaces that are designed for white people to work together without burdening people of color with their emotions or education. I haven’t heard much productive conversation about how to address this within white spaces so that we can then do effective work to dismantle racist systems in solidarity with people of color. What follows below the cut is a sharing of experiences and some thoughts that I’d love other white folks to engage with around strategy.
The other day, a white friend reached out asking if I had ideas around how to acknowledge as a presenter that a particular course’s content might be especially loaded for Black folks in the room. I certainly don’t consider myself an expert in the topic, but I have been experimenting over the years with different ways to acknowledge my whiteness and position of power as a presenter, facilitator, or speaker. Some of the things I normally do include:
- Regardless of course content, mention that the course is taking place on occupied Native land, acknowledge my privilege as a white presenter, and call attention to the number of white people in the room if it seems to be a majority white space. This is mostly for the white people in the room, to draw their attention to whiteness since whiteness is often invisible or the assumed default. I also hope to signal to POC that I’m aware of these things, though I know that doesn’t make me a “safe” presenter.
- Acknowledge where a particular topic may have loaded or just different meanings depending on cultural context and give examples. I hope that doing this again is a flag both for white folks and for POC, and makes space for bringing up cultural specificity where participants feel comfortable doing so.
- Explicitly say that as a white person, I can’t comment on some things, beyond offering perspectives I’ve read or heard from POC, because I don’t have that experience. Acknowledge that the course content is less rich because of this. I’m just trying to offer some honesty here, and avoid falling into the “well X culture practices X way…” trap.
Recently, I wrote up a travel bucket list, and in the list of places I want to go, found my own racism staring me directly in the face.
But before I get to the contents of list, first some context. When I started traveling abroad, I set a personal policy that I would not go anywhere where I couldn’t at least speak enough of the language to have a logistical conversation about travel-relevant topics. I think that policy initially came from a good place–I was frustrated with the xenophobia I saw in American travelers who complained about how terrible Paris is because the French are super rude, but didn’t bother to learn a word of the French language. “Everybody speaks English!” always struck me as deeply wrong, and I was struggling a lot as a teenager with the meaning of American empire and my complicity in it.
In high school, I was drawn to the study of French because it had always seemed like a rather sophisticated, romantic language, and I already had some exposure to it. I picked German pretty much out of a hat because I needed another elective and it worked for my schedule. So I’m not going to blame myself too hard for starting with European languages, but I do think it had a role in how Eurocentric my perspective skewed over time.
In this post, I’m addressing my peers: white folks who are marginalized along some axis other than race. Poor and working class white folks, queer and trans white folks, white folks with disabilities, etc.—we need to be honest about whether we’re leaning into the identities under which we’re oppressed, at the expense of doing honest work around our whiteness, racism, and anti-Blackness.
I don’t think it’s an uncommon experience to focus on how we’re oppressed and marginalized, nor is it blameworthy on its own. Of course we notice those identities more—that’s what white privilege is. It makes whiteness the invisible norm, whereas our other identities are what make us targets of slurs, violence, economic disparity, and other injustices. But at some point in our journeys, once we get through our excitement of consuming all the literature about queerness/class/disability/etc. and sharing in righteous anger with our comrades (or ideally, even before then), we need to also address the fact that we are white and therefore in a position of extreme privilege. We need to read what people of color have to say, to listen to what people of color have to say in our communities and workplaces. We need to sit with the discomfort of our racism and fucking do something about it.
If your reaction to reading the words of people of color on racism (and particularly black people, as anti-Blackness is its own thing in this culture), is guilt and a desire to run back to the safe enclave of writing about your own people, good. Keep reading.
In recent years, I’ve seen a lot of posts and Twitter commentary on how insidious it is when folks claim that the “A” in LGBTQIA (an alphabet soup I’m not too fond of in the first place) stands for “ally.” All these commenters make good points about why allies shouldn’t get a cookie or claim allyship as an identity, as well as about asexual erasure. I too find it frustrating how corporate white gay America, institutionalized in various forms such as the high school gay student organization, equates being an ally with actually being a GSM, often defining “ally” only as someone who vaguely supports “gay rights” and shows up at queer events from time to time. But I’m even more frustrated when I see some of the same white queer folks who make these points about how ally is not an identity that gains you membership into the queer club try to simultaneously position themselves as allies in another space—the space of anti-racist organizing and conversation.
Yes, there is a role for white folks in anti-racist work. But we don’t belong front and center. We don’t get to name ourselves “allies,” or claim membership to a club simply because we manage to have a bit more humanity than our white siblings in naming and shaming racism. Simply by virtue of being white, we are part of a brutal genocidal culture, and no person of color should have to give a reason for wanting space away from us, or for wanting us to step back in anti-racist movements.
Listen up, white feminists.
We have a problem. I’m including myself because none of us are immune from this problem. We all fuck up. And you can say “fucking up is natural,” and that’s true, but it’s time for us to start identifying our fuck ups, and not just learning from them, but acknowledging the hurt they cause other people.
We need to acknowledge that we cannot know what it’s like to be an oppressed racial minority. Cannot. The end. Period. We don’t know because we’re queer, because we’re disabled, because we’re Jewish, because we were the nerdy kid in school. These things may have hurt us severely, but we need to stop playing Oppression Olympics and acknowledge that when we’re talking about race we Do. Not. Know. No more metaphors.
I’ve been struggling for over a month to write this review, not because I didn’t like the book–it’s an amazing anthology, in fact, and I think it should be a mandatory part of the feminist/activist canon–but because as an activist and a writer, my mode is always “do, do, do.” “Here’s how to make change.” “Here are five things you can do to improve your world.” “This is my experience and why it’s relevant to you.” This review isn’t going to be like that.
Feminism for Real is a challenge to white feminist academics and activists to stop doing. It’s hard for a lot of us to listen actively and compassionately. It’s hard to say “I am wrong, my ancestors were wrong, and I cannot fix it.” I’ve known this for a while, but it’s such a depressing thought, such a disempowering thought, that it’s hard to know what to do with it. And maybe that’s the point.
This is not our battle. What white feminists can do is show some respect, be conscious of history, make space for indigenous feminists and other people of color to do good work, and make an effort in our own communities to stop harming others. We need to recognize how colonialism and imperialism continue to impact huge segments of our societies, and we need to constantly fight against these forces. It isn’t our job to trumpet indigenous feminism, tell everyone about how the cool ideas native people have about women and other genders, or talk about how down we are with indigenous causes. Indigenous people are doing that just fine on their own. It is our job to address the pervasive, continuous, active harm we are perpetrating.
There are a thousand ways to do this. Attack bad government policy, attack the media, attack educators who wouldn’t know education if it bit them in the face. Support indigenous communities by giving indigenous people room to work–by speaking out against policies that take away land, culture, and freedom; by fighting rape; by challenging patriarchy.
As Robyn Maynard explains in her piece, “Fuck the Glass Ceiling!” it is important to recognize that the problem is not just marginalization but exploitation. The harms discussed in this book are not historical, rather we continue to actively perpetrate them. This is a structural problem for which we need to take collective responsibility. Maynard explains:
Justice means–justice has to mean–an end to people deliberately destroying generations of cultures, of women, of lives, and of dignity, for personal political and economic gain.
We can do this, but only by taking responsibility and recognizing where law and policy actively harm rather than help. I would encourage other white feminists and academics to join me in this self-critique, and in the challenge to listen without appropriating. Feminism for Real provides a collection of essays, poetry, and interviews that are a great first step to listening. You can find others on the web at Racialicious, SisterSong, INCITE!, and People of Color Organize, to name a few.
You can purchase your own copy of Feminism for Real from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. The centre provided me with a copy of this book, and I was not otherwise compensated for this review.