A system failure earlier this year caused us to lose our previous blog installation. We are in process of rebuilding.
Robin Mallison Alpern
My friend Jim Edler, who posted in June, is a pioneer. In the early 1970s, Jim and colleagues were leading anti-racism trainings for white people in tandem with trainings for people of color. Jim’s unpublished dissertation of January 1974, White on White: An Anti-Racism Manual for White Educators in the Process of Becoming explores what can be done about “our white problem.”
Nowadays, if people discuss the topic at all, we usually talk about “racism” or even “white supremacy.” But at the time Jim and a few others such as Robert Terry and Judith Katz were breaking new ground, the common vernacular was “the black problem.” If people of color were struggling, it was their fault and they would have to fix it.
European American pioneers who urged fellow whites to explore white privilege were listening to leaders of color. Malcolm X wrote in his Autobiography in 1964, “Let sincere white individuals find all other white people they can who feel as they do – and let them form their own all-white groups, to work trying to convert other white people who are thinking and acting so racist.” Another example from the same time period is Stokely Carmichael’s statement, “It must be offered that white people who desire change in this country should go where that problem (racism) is most manifest. The problem is not in the black community. The white people should go into white communities….”
In 1967, the Kerner Report, commissioned by Lyndon B. Johnson, stated in its summary, “What white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” This finding was all the more surprising, coming as it did from elite white commissioners.
Decades later, white people still don’t understand we have a role and responsibility in ending racism. The Center for the Study of White American Culture (CSWAC) has recently introduced a workshop entitled “What White People Can Do About Racism” and European Americans are staying away in droves! In fact we heard from one source that some progressive white people are offended by the very idea.
Well, it’s certainly not news that racism is a very unpopular topic in most circles, especially white ones. And it isn’t news that nobody likes to be blamed or shamed, which (I believe) is what many white people fear will happen to them in a workshop about whites and racism. So why on earth would white people take such a workshop?
There are several great reasons. It requires a certain amount of true grit to look some of them in the eye.
A top reason would be that white people benefit from racism through a system of white privilege. Even if we try individually not to hurt or oppress others, institutional racism ensures we’ll get the most goodies. That being the case, shouldn’t we be the ones to take up the work of ending this system?
Another reason is that our white privilege grants us the very power that can be used to help take down the system. Should we stand blithely on the sidelines, privilege and power in hand, and watch idly while people of color struggle against horrific odds?
A third reason is that, because of privilege and the misguided strategy of colorblindness, most of us white people have extremely little knowledge or understanding of racism. We really don’t know what happened and why, and what’s continuing to happen all around us. We don’t have a clue about how we are implicated, and what we could do to change things. The vast majority of us think we are nonracist and that’s good enough. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men [sic] to do nothing.” A great deal of evil is happening on our watch. The CSWAC workshop provides basic education – again, not shame or blame, but solid information – about the historical construction of racism, its modern manifestations, and tools available to white people for working to end it.
What we learn about the history of racism is that the system was, in fact, consciously and purposely designed by an European American elite. Even though we weren’t there and maybe never would have acted the same way, it was our community who invented modern racism. So who else but white people should participate in workshops and other ways of undoing racism? Not because we are the bad guys, but on the contrary, because we are the good guys, who of course would seize the opportunity to set things right!
If you are unmoved by the argument that white people created racism, then consider that we currently perpetuate oppression. Again, whether we white people wish it or not, we are complicit with white privilege and structural racism. Add to that the internalized racial superiority we absorbed individually from our culture, and we are clearly purveyors of racism. What a great reason to get to work undoing the evil.
One of the best reasons of all for fighting racism (and taking our workshop!) is that white people are profoundly damaged by racism (see Impacts of racism on white people). We have our own humanity, happiness and wholeness to gain.
White people who participate in a white awareness workshop have to get past the wish/myth that racism is over and that white people ended it. We have to get past the tragically failed strategy of colorblindness to admit that, yes, we are white people – and it matters that we are white. We have to surmount both the historical notion that people of color alone should fight racism, and the idea that we must go to communities of color to oppose racism. We get to turn to each other, sister and fellow whites, and figure out how to partner in the work. This has to be done in a wider context of anti-racist activism alongside and led by people of color. People of color are welcome in What White People Can Do About Racism, but most participants are likely to be white. Members, that is, of the community that bears responsibility for the construction and perpetuation of a white supremacist system. Are we ready yet to step up and learn to create with people of color a new system of human justice and equality?
White people in the United States share a common history of immigration from Europe and assimilation into United States society. As a group we share a common language, and a common understanding of normative values, aesthetic preferences, and many other things. In other words, we share a culture. Sure, individual stories and preferences differ. And there is great variety in the experiences of white Americans. But that is true of people in any culture. The larger picture is that we share a cultural experience.
You wouldn’t know it if you asked us. Most white Americans deny that white American culture exists. Instead we claim to be just plain Americans, as if our cultural experience is identical, for instance, to that of African Americans, Native Americans, or Latino Americans. Yes, we share some things, maybe many things. But there are significant differences in history, heritage, and shared values as well.
Some white Americans claim as their culture the original heritage of the European country or countries from whence their ancestors came. This makes sense for first or second generation white Americans, but the vast majority of white Americans have been here much longer. Often we’re a mix of many ancestral national origins. We can’t speak the original languages, and we have no meaningful relationships with those who remained in Europe.
More likely we have gone through generations of assimilation in the United States, and the culture of the United States gives us our language, our customs, and our values. But again, it is not simply “American” culture. Our experience has been more constricted by race, and the historic process of cultural formation has taken place along racial lines. Today this can be as obvious as the music people listen to, the movies and TV programs they watch, and the foods they eat. Yes, again, individuals make individual choices and some people prefer the cultural experience of others. There is a fair amount of fusion and cross-over activity taking place. But the larger fact remains. White Americans have a culture. We have a shared cultural experience. So why don’t we recognize that? And why is it important that we should?
Let’s be real. One important reason to recognize white American culture is because it exists. White Americans, as a group, basically control what’s going on in the United States, and so our culture sets the norms. In fact, it’s one and the same process. Those who set the norms control what goes on, and those who control what goes on set the norms. This is why we think of ourselves as “just Americans.” Our culture defines what “American” means, even though the meaning of being American differs, depending on how one has been racialized.
It’s not uncommon for a country to have a central and normative culture. People from that culture often have difficulty recognizing how their culture shapes their lives. It just works for them. They don’t think about it.
But there is more to it in the United States. White Americans have not lived here for thousands of years developing a culture organically through our indigenous presence. We are relative newcomers and our culture is a fairly new creation. As that development took place, we created conditions in which “our” country holds a significant population of people of African heritage, as well of Latino heritage and Asian heritage. Native Americans, of course, have been here all along. So our central culture is not so much a natural, organic development, but rather one significantly shaped by historical and political events of conquest and control.
It used to be that white Americans understood this. We talked openly about the “white man’s culture.” Nowadays, we take explicit recognition of white American culture as upholding the white supremacist notions of that bygone era. The irony is that failing to name and discuss white American culture upholds the latent white supremacy that continues to exist in the United States. Refraining from naming white American culture allows white Americans to feel like we are the normal, right people, and everyone else is “Other.”
When white American culture is allowed to operate unnamed, we shield it from examination and public discussion. This renders us unable to have a national discussion of things like race, racism, white privilege, and the creation of a society centered on multiracial values. Whiteness continues to remain unexamined, and supreme.
White American culture is the native culture of many people. At least some want to claim it. Today they must gravitate to white supremacist groups as their only path to acceptance, but that should not have to be the case. It’s time that white Americans learn to name and accept our own culture.
The reason we have not is because it contains a lot of baggage. As mentioned, the culture was formed in a multiracial setting through assertion of dominance and control, often by brutal means directed toward others. Nowadays it is considered impolite to continue to explicitly enforce a central culture of dominance. We’ve become a multicultural nation, or so we believe.
White American culture upholds norms of colorblindness, a philosophy that both refuses to name white American culture and assures that white American culture will remain the dominant culture in the United States. In fact, that’s the main reason white Americans are reluctant to name our own culture. Why be “white American” when being “just American” works as well, if not better? We get to assert an identity (American), protect our (white) privileges by making it taboo to discuss white American culture, and undermine people of other racial/cultural groups (playing the “race card”) when they try to discuss it. We can have our cake, and eat it too.
As a 30-year veteran of the movement, I know one thing for sure: the struggle against racism is the most unforgiving. It is in no way like saving the animals or the environment, important issues in which I participate and act as an ally. As an African American, I have to prioritize anti-racism work. And the reaction to those of us who take on that struggle is as ugly and stressful as it gets.
Recently I have had the honor of fighting gentrification in wealthy Westchester County, NY, alongside a gallant group of White anti-racism workers. This experience has been an education for me.
To begin with, the White anti-racism movement does not mean liberals or even progressives. Those groups generally don’t even discuss racism.
To me, the White anti-racism movement means White people recognizing the advantages and privileges White skin affords them, recognizing that White people created and benefit from this system and they are taking responsibility to address it.
Most of my career, Whites have sought me out and offered their “support.” Whether the issue was police brutality, youth issues or institutional racism, that “support” often took the form of Whites (1) judging us (Blacks) (2) knowing (and telling us) what was best for us and (3) having the solution to the problem. That solution was, with few exceptions – vote Democrat! Or some other solution that advanced their cause, not ours.
I was somewhat skeptical when I reached out to anti-racism activists in Westchester a few years ago. I read a lot of critical writings about them taking over, undermining Black leadership and doing more harm than good. I went into this thinking that all of that is possible, but also believing that we need to continue this alliance and develop more constructive relationships, work through the mistakes – on both sides – and stumble forward.
So I did that and have no regrets. Even as I say that, I am reminded that despite African Americans (and Whites) recognizing my leadership, some of my new allies treated me as if my community’s support wasn’t good enough for them and so I had to “prove” myself to them. I had to learn to be patient when my White allies implied that I was “angry.” They didn’t understand the insult to my dignity when they did that. Whites get angry (they even riot) over such spectacles as the World Cup (soccer). I react, not in anger, but with a healthy reaction to insults to the human dignity of Black people. We may need to create a word for that reaction ourselves.
Some in the white anti-racism movement also seem guilty of playing the “Uncle Tom” or “Aunt Jemima” game. They use Blacks – usually middle class – to sell their ideology to poor Blacks who have a much different experience from middle class Blacks. Some Whites seem sub-consciously to think we should “calm down.”
These are issues that we in the anti-racism movement need to grapple with. Gandhi called his autobiography The Story of My Experiments With Truth. We are in one big laboratory when we struggle against racism and White supremacy. And we should not fear that, but embrace it. That is the only way to get stronger, wiser and more successful.
Yesterday one of my summer students stayed after to talk about Ralph Ellison’s short story “Battle Royal.” We talked for two hours, each of us leaving with assigned reading or viewing. I agreed to read some of the sources he’d used for a high school paper he’d written about the KKK. Their real purpose, he told me, had been to defend the south from carpetbaggers. Only a few renegade branches turned to violence. Oh? He in turn agreed to watch the film version of “Slavery by Another Name.” I would have tried for the book but it’s finals time at this engineering powerhouse and in the humanities nowadays, we take what we can get.
This student, call him Todd, hails from Virginia, where he was schooled in military academies. What he wanted to talk about was how he couldn’t read past a certain point in the story because he just couldn’t believe leading citizens of a southern community would act the way the men in the story did.
I better summarize the story, which is also the first chapter of Ellison’s seminal novel Invisible Man. It’s set in a small southern city in the 1940’s. An outstanding senior from the “colored” high school has been invited to give his graduation oration in which, he tells us, he “showed that humility was the secret, indeed the very essence, of progress.” He arrives to find the room crowded with intoxicated white men, “all the town’s bigshots.” Turns out it’s a smoker. His speech is to be preceded by a little entertainment for the civic leaders. After being forced to watch a white woman prostitute strip, with the white men enjoying their distress, the teens are blindfolded and made to fight one another in a ring – the battle royal. Bets are made. The main character gets through it with a bloodied mouth and his painfully earnest desire to deliver his speech intact.
Todd said he had to stop reading right when the white men started passing the frightened stripper around and violence seemed imminent. At first I thought he was critiquing the way the story was written, but I soon saw he was laboring under the first loss of the “terrible innocence” Cornel West speaks of. In different ways he kept saying: if the leaders are that corrupt, then society simply can’t function. It was a strange form of denial that had in it the seeds of a burning truth. And this future chemical engineer, a senior slogging through a required humanities class, was feeling the heat.
Was society functioning then for its African-American members? I asked. How much longer would it function in that pre-Civil-Rights-era form? And why did he assume morally corrupt people could not, did not in fact, maintain a society? And what if the whole society is corrupt, founded on exploitation?
As we talked I saw that what most troubled him about the story was that no one at the battle royal had stopped it. Or at least walked out. We agreed that perhaps some hadwalked out, or opted not to attend. But what did that mean, in the end? I paraphrased a King quote and have since gotten it entire: “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”
Todd searched desperately to find one good white man in the story. We read aloud, debating the meanings of specific words, “fear” for example. He argued that the school superintendent, who quiets the crowd so the boy can, swallowing blood (he dare not use the spittoon), give his speech at last, is that one good man. Todd felt by giving the main character an award, the superintendent was helping him help his own people. “Within the confines of Booker T. Washington’s limits,” I said. Oops, no knowledge of that. (We’ll be meeting again.) “And why not a leader of all the people, a lawyer or the mayor? They give him an award because they think, and he still thinks, he’ll never ask for equality. That’s the dangerous word. That’s the word that could get him killed and he knows it.”
He couldn’t leave the story; he still argued it couldn’t be based on experience. He finally conceded that he could maybe buy the mistreatment of the woman: things get out of hand. As for the boxing match? Well people do enjoy watching boxing, so he could sort of see…. “But the whole thing with the electrified rug? Just couldn’t happen, maybe with the town’s low-life, but not the upstanding gentlemen. Never.” Aha, class showing.
More summary needed: After the battle, the sweat- and blood-soaked are encouraged to scramble for tossed coins and bills. But the money is tossed onto an electrified rug. More entertainment for the town leaders, more pain and humiliation for our main character, more moral torment for my Virginian.
“You don’t believe something like that ever happened?”
“I don’t believe no one stopped it.”
Consider a white boy raised on math and science and educated in a mostly-white, historically segregationist military academy where he studied the pseudo-history of the KKK but not George Washington Carver’s career and beliefs. He’s never heard of Emmet Till or Trayvon Martin. How to begin to shed his terrible innocence but through reading fiction, with its ability to recreate and deepen experience. But it’s no easy thing to be dropped, via Ellison’s literary brilliance, right into the perspective of a smart black teenager in 1940’s America. The very authenticity and resonance of the narrative is what’s caused the story to be so heavily anthologized, taught and discussed.
In my office doorway Todd stood talking still. He asked if I knew that the beautiful Shenandoah Valley had been burned to the ground three times by Sherman’s scorched earth campaign. I did not.
“It was. He said ‘even a crow traveling this valley shall have to carry its own provisions.’”
I had hiked that valley. No place but my home Catskills had ever struck me as so beautiful. I imagined him growing up there, his schools teaching about “the war of aggression,” elders lamenting a time when it was said “The United States of Americaare…” rather than is. I tried to open to his perspective. I thought he had earned it. And anyway I really wanted him to read or at least watch Slavery by Another Name. Because I don’t think he realized, but he was sure trying to, what it takes for the good men and women to stand up and say stop. And the high price they, and we, pay because they don’t.
I’ll let you know what he sends me to read about the KKK.
There is something important and precious about white folks genuinely struggling for clarity and understanding about our common culture and the inescapable cognitive and emotional poison we’ve ingested by growing up here. Even more important is what we actually DO with our insights, vulnerability, courage and freedom as we focus on becoming an authentic piece of anti-racist solutions.
I am white and also very hungry to equate that with constructive anti-racist behavior. It is important to me to be working that agenda while recognizing and owning that I have been handcuffed to destructive misperceptions about myself, about people of color, and about my country along with her systems and structures that control everything. I am a learner.
I appreciate the work of William Bridges who describes the human, three-stage process we all go through when facing significant changes in our lives. He calls it Transitions. I see a powerful connection to what white Americans face in our own transition and the necessary journey to become anti-racist whites.
A critical reality is that people don’t change automatically or easily when facing difficult challenges – especially when our identity, our very perception of ourselves is intimately involved. Instead, we go through a three-step process that starts with endings.
Stage One of transitions, accepting the loss and the ending of “what we had,” is understandably difficult. Fears and “what ifs” can permeate our thinking. Letting go can leave us vulnerable, guilty, and frightened. We don’t know for sure what is in the future or if we can, or even want, to pursue it. We are facing a loss of comfort with an ingrained privilege and consuming myth of the “rightness of whiteness.” Letting go is seen as risky but hanging on can be stifling. Picture a trapeze artist needing to let go in order to grab the approaching bar. Some lives are lived without ever allowing an ending and a letting-go to take place.
So what does this have to do with being white and effectively anti-racist? The “perceptual saturation bombing” from every institution in America contributes to a horrible distortion of reality as it empowers us to feel superior while being just as thoroughly armed to deny it, consciously and unconsciously.
For white people struggling to truly understand and deal with racism, this is a critical, but often-missed part of the work. We have a thousand “reasons” why we are not racist, all of which block an acceptance of reality. Accepting our “disease of racism” is not unlike the need to accept a serious malady before we can actually get to the work of healing.
Bridges describes what we get upon successfully letting go in Stage Two, The Neutral Zone. Here is uncertainty on steroids, sometimes referred to as wandering in the wasteland. We don’t have the security of what we had and feel ill-prepared and lost. The second stage of transitions can be empty, lonely and de-energizing. Often one feels anger at being duped by those people and institutions we were taught to trust, and love. The white person without the sturdy support of an abandoned racist identity now struggles with “What fills the void?” Questions of, “Who am I and what will I become?” gnaw at the vulnerable person in the neutral zone. Genuine pain is felt when we also struggle with, “What have I been?”
Clarity can emerge from courage, reading, thinking, observing and talking to others who have struggled with this frustrating stage. Courage to explore new possibilities for understanding oneself and a more accurate understanding of racism in America generates sparks of what the newly aware white person can become. We discover new acceptance, amplified energy, new optimism and insights that begin to replace the emptiness in the Neutral Zone as we transition to Stage Three, the “New Beginning.”
There is a new focus and a receptivity of the work ahead to make the new challenge or identity meaningful. We might now hear: “This isn’t easy, I may stumble at times but I now see this as an opportunity.” This new perception of oneself is no longer anchored by what was lost but is now empowered by what can be, by the excitement of grabbing that trapeze bar, and even a peaceful centeredness while being simultaneously challenged. White people often talk with relief of no longer hiding, living a lie, pretending or wasting energy being inauthentic.
Stage Three New Beginnings can be dangerous when the unleashed energy generates activism that is less grounded in collaboration and accountability. People in this stage are feeling driven and may want to go out and slay dragons but can, unfortunately, charge ahead blindly and attack the wrong dragons. Active listening to victims of racism with a new receptivity is priceless. The energy and new focus demands thoughtfulness, sensitivity, and a true acceptance of oneself as a learner. Vulnerability can be an act of strength.
But the look on someone’s face in Stage Three is beautiful. It reveals optimism, ownership, hunger to learn, receptivity, motivation, humility, impatience and a true awareness of the new beginning… and it all started with endings, with letting go.
Muster the courage and the friends to help with the struggle because it is about freedom – yours and that of the victims of racism. Also, please be there for other whites beginning their transitions!
We will not, and don’t have to, get it perfect before we engage in our transition toward new white beginnings. We start with ourselves, change is unlocked from the inside. There are more anti-racist whites available than ever before to help with this work. We all are pawns and perpetrators of racism – that is a horrible reality that we pay for and can’t escape. But we can also be recovering, passionate learners and that’s the beginning of a new anti-racist identity and a new freedom.
“Things end, there is a time of fertile emptiness, and things begin anew”
Robin Mallison Alpern
Most readers recognize many of these names: Emmett Till, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, James Byrd, Troy Davis, Trayvon Martin. All are American men of African descent, brutally murdered (or executed by the state in Davis’ case) essentially for the crime of being Black. They represent a tiny fraction of African Americans assaulted, incarcerated or killed for the same crime.
How many readers know these names? Lawrence Russell Brewer, Mikhail Markhasev, Michael Maloney. All are white Americans who suffered terrible consequences of racism in the United States. I’ll come back to their stories.
Like many white activists, I came to anti-racism with a profound concern for the horrific damages done to people of color. I saw racism ravaging communities of color. I felt terrible pain on behalf of sister and fellow humans.
In 2003, while participating in an Undoing Racism workshop offered by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, I experienced the first hint that racism could be damaging me and my people too. I realized European Americans have been trained to numb our feelings about racism. Without that numbness, it simply would not be possible to perpetrate violence of all forms against people of color. But we cannot be numb to the suffering of people of color without also being insensitive to our own suffering. One of the very mechanisms that ought to be alerting us to terrible danger has been disabled, in the service of maintaining a racist culture.
While it is crucial for white anti-racists to understand how racism destroys the lives of people of color, I believe it will fuel our will to end racism when we understand we are harmed too. This may even be a strategic way to reach white people who, sadly, do not seem to recognize the need to end racism for the sake of justice, equality, and full, happy lives for all people.
Before I explore how racism impacts European Americans, I declare two caveats. First, I am by no means discussing so-called “reverse racism.” Racism is a worldwide system of oppression granting white people the power, privilege and resources. No individual act of hostility toward a white person, no matter how heinous, can possibly reverse this global system.
Second, while I am passionate about ending the damage done to my people by racism, I remain fully conscious that our sufferings are not the same as those of people of color. And that alongside our sufferings are significant privilege and power due to our white-skin status.
So how can racism hurt white people?
You may recall James Byrd was the African-American man horrifically dragged to his death behind a truck driven by three white men. Lawrence Russell Brewer, one of the three murderers, was executed. Brewer suffered death by racism. He was a human being who never deserved to be warped and twisted by a racist culture into behaving like a monster.
Mikhail Markhasev is the Ukrainian American who shot and killed Ennis Cosby, son of Bill Cosby. Markhasev is serving life without parole for this crime. Markhasev wrote in his confession, “I shot the nigger…” It’s just possible that if not for racist thinking, Markhasev would not have killed Cosby, thereby ending his own life as a free man.
On April 12, 2012, Michael Maloney, a white police chief in Greenland, NH, was shot dead during a drug raid. Without knowing any further details, I feel qualified to declare Maloney another casualty of racism. Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, offers compelling and meticulously documented news that our criminal justice system is serving as the newest method for enslaving black and brown people. A primary vehicle has been the War on Drugs, fabricated out of whole cloth by the white elite. Were it not for this groundless and devastating “war,” it is highly unlikely Maloney would have been involved in a drug raid to begin with.
Obviously, most European Americans are not going to pay the same price for racism as these three men. But our costs are not necessarily less horrendous, just because they may be less dramatic. Space permits just a glimpse at a few of these impacts.
The “white” race was not constructed until the late 1600s, when an elite group of Virginians began to amass power and privilege by dividing poor folk into a white group and other “races.” (Lifting the White Veil: A Look at White American Culture, by Jeff Hitchcock.) In the process of becoming white, people of diverse European descent gave up their heritage and identity to melt into the pot. Hundreds of years later, we European Americans know a fair bit about African culture, Latin culture, Asian culture, but we are hard put to it to describe our own culture. We live with a profound sense of rootlessness, a lack of reality.
On the other side of the same coin, European Americans have seized center stage for the past few hundred years, shoving all other people off to the margins. This self-centeredness restricts our ability to receive and appreciate the contributions of people of color. It infects our attitude toward people of color with unwarranted and unwanted superiority. It blinds us to an appropriate sense of our worth, and the worth of others.
Because the system of white supremacy depends, by definition, on devaluing people of color, it drives a wedge between white folk and all the rest of humanity. Human relationships that are our birthright are strained, and many white people may never have healthy relationships with any people of color. Ironically, we cannot divorce ourselves from people of color without also bringing patterns of superiority/inferiority into our relationships with other white people.
One last impact I’ll mention is that racism not only controls all of our institutions, it also affects our personal thoughts, feelings and attitudes. “Internalized racial superiority,” as it is termed by the People’s Institute, causes European Americans to register racist thoughts and feelings on a daily basis. I am 100% dedicated to the eradication of racism, I am highly educated on the topic, I pour a huge amount of my life into working to end racism … and yet on any given day, I can report thoughts along these lines: “Why do those Latina women have so many babies?” (In reality, I have no idea whether this particular young woman has any other children.) “That guy isn’t qualified to be a political leader.” (My only information was a photo of a man with black skin.) “I feel in danger.” (Several young African American men are passing me on the sidewalk.) “I know more about this situation than you do.” (In almost any discussion with people of color.) Racism controls my own mentality.
In his book Lifting the White Veil, Jeff Hitchcock lists impacts of racism on white people in four categories: how we relate to ourselves; our relationships to other European Americans; relationships with people of color; and how we view ourselves relative to racial structure in the US. Take a look for further insights on this topic.
A popular expression says, “I feel your pain.” It is hugely important that white people sense the devastation of people of color. I ask, “Can we also feel our own pain? What will we do about it?”
As I write the final post in this series, a national outcry is taking place over the homicide of Trayvon Martin, a black teenager, by a white man in Florida. Messages calling for justice flood my email. The whole country seems engaged.
Occupy Wall Street is no different in this regard. I believe there is a genuine desire for racial justice among the vast majority of OWS activists. But how do we get there? There is an experiential deficit among the white leaders of OWS and relative powerlessness among people of color to shape the agenda, both within OWS and at the margins of the Occupy movement. White privilege means never having to learn how race operates. It always operates in your favor, automatically. Why think about it?
Organizations working for racial justice led and sustained by people of color have always been the driving force behind racial progress in the United States. But that progress requires a sympathetic, informed, and committed body of allies within the white community as well. Racism is all about power. People of color don’t have it, at least on the scale needed to force the changes needed. Else they would just do it.
White people, who hold the power to do as we please, racially speaking, lack the knowledge of how to create a racially just society. And lacking that knowledge—worse yet, lacking the knowledge that we lack the knowledge—we are unable to create a movement that truly engages, speaks for, and benefits the 99%.
I continue to hear white OWS participants wonder why people of color are not present in greater numbers. Let me be clear, if I haven’t been so far. People of color have been present. The people of color I know are burned out from the constant task of swimming against an overwhelming tide of whiteness. Like Allen and Allen point out in their historical study of reform movements, people of color have always been there. And like Allen and Allen pointed out as well, white-led reform movements have always tried to reach out, recruit and support people of color. Thus OWS has taken part in coordinated efforts with Movement for Justice in El Barrio; Stop Stop and Frisk; the Applied Research Center, the Council of Elders, and others.
But these efforts have not shaped and informed the majority of participants in the movement, and the message, from what I hear, is not reverberating in the inner circles of OWS. Born in white privilege, and gifted with an overwhelming success, the unnamed tacticians and strategists of OWS may not have what is needed to truly reach the 99%. Fortunately, OWS has room for self-correction.
In a “leaderless” movement there is no single person or place to raise these concerns. There is no top down proclamation that can be made. Change has to come person by person, and really more to the point with this concern I am raising, one white person by one white person. I am calling for us to rise above ourselves. Even more difficult, I am calling for us to rise above our history because historical business-as-usual says that the Occupy movement will benefit white people, but leave people of color behind, again. All that is necessary for that to happen is for conditions in the movement to continue as they are.
Then in another generation or two, we’ll just have to do it all over again.
Here are some suggestions to white people in Occupy:
- Learn how to follow leadership of color. Not every time, and every occasion. But at least once, maybe. Go to a racial justice action organized by people of color. Find out beforehand what is expected of participants. Attend a planning meeting. Do not bring your own agenda. Listen, don’t talk. Stick to the theme the organizers set. At the action, listen and follow instructions given by the organizers. Do not create your own action within the larger action. Do not act out if acting out is not part of the plan. Show leadership by bringing one or two other white people who can do these same things respectfully. If you see other white people getting off script and being disruptive, encourage them in a non-obtrusive way to step back in the interest of the overall event.
- Educate yourself.Here are some resources on Occupy, racial justice, and white privilege.
- Understand white privilege (which is really a serious hangover from white supremacy). See point 2 above.
- There is a white anti-racist community that has emerged over the last four decades and is coming into its own. Learn about it. Join it. See point 2 above. Check out ShowingUpforRacialJustice.orgfor a broader view. In OWS there is the Anti-racism Allies work group. Explore www.euroamerican.org, our parent web site.
- Buy and read Accountability and White Anti-racist Organizing: Stories from Our Work.
- Support and attend anti-racism training. I personally recommend the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, but there are other groups as well.
- Learn about solidarity politics and how that pertains to racial justice.
- Learn what it means to be an accountable white anti-racist activist.
In the end, the Occupy movement may deliver the economic change it seeks. So let me ask once again, is it okay if the redistribution of wealth and power takes place along existing lines of privilege?
Let’s get it right this time.
The rich have been getting richer. The wealthiest 400 individuals in the United States own as much as the poorest 150,000,000 people. Get a college degree and drive a cab. It’s not easy being young, white and male when the middle class is on its way to extinction.
OWS and the Occupy movement have given hope to many who are hurting in today’s predatory economic climate. Coming out of nowhere on September 17, 2011 when a small group of activists camped out in Zucotti Park near Wall Street, the movement has
exploded. But was it genius, or was it simply time? Maybe a little of both.
OWS crafted a culture in which participatory democracy and transparency are core values, and this created an open structure that all could enter. But at its inception the OWS founders also brought an unexamined whiteness into the process of OWS cultural creation.
The racial philosophy of the dominant white culture today is colorblindness. Activists working for racial justice have long criticized colorblindness as being unwilling to grapple with the realities of structural racism in our economy and society. Colorblindness has been co-opted and skillfully used by conservative demagogues to undo many of the gains of the civil rights movement. In the name of not seeing race, a colorblind philosophy refuses to see, understand, and act against racism.
The founders of OWS showed their unexamined complicity with colorblindness early on when crafting their initial declaration. It took the courageous stance of a small group of people of color to create room for a race conscious, anti-racist vision in the declaration.
This pattern continues to apply. OWS remains a predominantly white social phenomenon. People of color take part, and their presence has an impact, but the predominantly white character of OWS persists. It’s an odd experience, one of my colleagues of color noted, to be in New York City where people of color are often
a majority, and to go to OWS and see all those white people.
And it’s not as if the good white people of OWS invented protest. People of color have been struggling for a long, long time. I personally work closely with two social and racial justice organizations led by people of color that have been active for more than 30 years. So when white workers in unions, the white unemployed, and the white victims of foreclosure, predatory student loans, and failed job markets come into New York City as part of the great awakening of the 99% it’s wonderful to see, but maybe a little confusing to those same people who do not know the long and continuing history of struggle for racial and social justice in the United States.
The very structure of OWS is problematic. A movement that values democracy and rule by consensus and fails to identify leaders and issues has shown itself to have great advantages, but disadvantages come with this structure and they impact activists of color adversely. An “anything goes” atmosphere gives permission to (usually white) disruptive elements at demonstrations organized by people of color when true solidarity calls for disciplined support. And perversely, efforts to establish discipline within OWS are brought forward when people of color assert themselves during internal discussions.
This can lead to some hard feelings. “Why should I help 1,500 white people,” I recently heard an activist of color glibly say. People and neighborhoods of color have been under siege for a long time. It takes all their time and resources just to fight back. Even in the best of times, people of color bear a disproportionate share of bad outcomes. Although popular wisdom dates the start of the current economic crisis around 2008, United for a Fair Economy reported in 2009 that people of color had already been in economic crisis for 5 years.
The predominantly white mass of OWS protesters made news when their marches and occupation were targeted by police who resorted to mass arrests, pepper spraying, contrived charges of assault, and other repressive tactics. Many protesters felt themselves unjustly assaulted and victimized. Indeed they were, but they failed to understand how their whiteness also protected them. New York City police arbitrarily stop and frisk thousands of young men of color each day, enacting many of the same atrocities anonymously, one victim at a time, far from the media’s eyes. In the New York metropolitan area every few months, and sometimes more often, a young man of color is killed by police who act with excessive violence. In the latest incident they chased Ramarley Graham, an unarmed teenager, into his family’s house, into his bathroom, and shot him dead. This happens a lot. And not just in New York City.
It’s complex. People of color have been present in OWS all along. And OWS has been aware of its whiteness and a need to reach out and become multiracial for just as long. And yet, as Robert and Pamela Allen pointed out in their study, reform movements of the past have also done as much and still failed to become truly multiracial. OWS is still seriously flawed and diminished by its whiteness. Three notable examples, notable because people of color have taken time to place their experiences in writing, are the protests surrounding Danny Chen and Trayvon Martin, and the conditions taking place at the OWS Spokes Council.
There are serious problems and limitations to any social justice movement that is predominantly white.
First, it is not the 99%. And it will not benefit the 99%. White-led movements benefit white people. How can it be otherwise?
White-led movements ignore white culture and history. That’s
part of white culture. We discard the past, believe we invent the future anew,
and never consider that our whiteness has any bearing upon what we do.
White-led movements ignore the experience of people of color. When did the current economic crisis start?
White-led movements universalize white experience. If it fits for me, we think, it must fit for everyone, and we say we don’t need to pay attention to race since we’re all human any way.
Lastly, for all the reasons given above, white-led movements can reform, but not change the social order. I truly believe, from my first hand experience in OWS, that people want real and lasting change. So this is something to think about very seriously.
The very idea of a “white” person was invented in colonial Virginia in the late 1600s as a means of separating poor European laborers from poor African laborers, who together had shown a willingness to join in mass armed rebellion against their masters. African Americans became the enslaved workforce and European Americans became the slightly privileged, but still poor and oppressed enforcers of the status quo. At the top was a much smaller elite group of “white” English plantation owners who arrived upon a master plan for social control that has lasted until this day. Basically, the further down you can push people of color, the further down you can push white people too, so long as you allow some small difference in privilege between the two groups.
This divide and conquer strategy of race was ingrained in American society when capitalism was in its formative stages. Racism and capitalism fed and informed each other. They still do today. Neither reduces to the other but they are entwined like incestuous siblings. Dividing the poor and working class creates tidy profits for the few.
It is incredibly naive for a newly-minted radical cohort of white people to claim that unity in the 99% compels us to ignore historical hierarchies of privilege and oppression. Race, in particular, has been the undoing of progressive movements in the past, and it has been the failure of white leadership to understand the impact of race and racism that has led to these movements falling short of truly radical change.
Robert Allen in collaboration with Pamela Allen described this unfortunate historical tendency several years ago in Reluctant Reformers: Racism and Social Reform Movements in the United States. The authors studied six reform movements: abolition, populism, progressivism, women’s suffrage, organized labor, socialism and communism. Their findings are worth quoting at length. “Reform movements have been consistently undermined by racism,” they say, and they elaborate,
…two basic and important factors immediately stand out when these case histories are reviewed. In the first place, it is apparent that virtually all of the movements (with certain limited exceptions) have either advocated, capitulated before, or otherwise failed to oppose racism at one or more critical junctures in their history. These predominantly white reform movements thereby aligned themselves with the racial thinking of the dominant society, even when the reforms they sought to institute appeared to demand forthright opposition to racism. Instead of opposition, the reformers all too often developed paternalistic attitudes that merely confirmed, rather than challenged, the prevailing racial ideology of white society. Secondly, but equally striking, constant efforts were made by black reformers to get their white co-workers to reject and oppose racism, both within the reform movements themselves and throughout society in general. In each of the six movements blacks were actively involved, although the degree and success of their involvement varied considerably. In each case, the reformers struggled to have blacks included both as supporters and beneficiaries of reformism, since black people in fact needed the proposed reforms as much as whites (p. 247).
Allen and Allen focused on black people, but they note that their analysis does not preclude finding similar conditions impacting other people of color. Indeed, I strongly believe that is the case.
Not only have reform movements failed to achieve their full potential because of the inability or refusal of white leadership to grapple with racism within themselves and their movement. Even more problematic has been a tendency for white society to settle intra-racial conflict (i.e. conflict between large groups of white people) at the expense of people of color.
Class conflict in white society was minimized by the “frontier,” where working class whites could strike out and acquire land—made available to them by a white elite that enacted a centuries-long practice of genocide on Native Americans, and the military conquest of Mexico. In the mid-1800s when poor white people were given the vote in Northern states, black people were simultaneously disenfranchised. This included the few black people with property who had been eligible to vote at that time.
North and South fought a Civil War unprecedented for its carnage but within four decades veterans of both sides marched side by side in memorial parades. In the intervening decades, the North ignored the wave of white terrorism sweeping the South as black people were re-enslaved under the newly crafted banner of white supremacy and Jim Crow.
When the masses took a radical turn and threatened class warfare in the Great Depression, the new program of Social Security provided a safety net to white labor, but effectively excluded black labor from participation. These are simply a few examples. I can offer more, at length, but I hope you begin to see the point.
Make the rebellious white people happy, our history tells us, and you can write off people of color. Better yet, you can seize their resources to finance the outcome. This is a short term and racist solution. The short term nature is evident insofar as the need for reform arises anew among white people every generation or two (while it has more or less been continuous for people of color). The racist nature should be clear to you by now.