There's been interesting discussion about these issues in the blogosphere lately, and I'm not going to add to that particular discussion. But I did want to make this the topic of a post because it's been on my mind.
I am afraid that what I write will sound sanctimonious. I'm also afraid that I'm going to sound like I think white people are supposed to be the saviors of the world. I don't. But I'm going to write this anyway and hope you guys understand the spirit of what I'm saying if I don't get all the words right. What I'm trying to get at is not "how to make white people happy," but "how to get more white people 1) less racist and 2) involved in antiracist work."
When I teach about racism to white students, they get overwhelmed. Now - before anyone gets pissed off at the notion of privileged youth who are overwhelmed by the idea of racism but don't actually suffer from it, let me make my point: it is a big burden to take this on, this "I am responsible for the unearned privilege I get on a daily basis." It is. It doesn't mean that it is not a necessary burden, nor that it is a larger burden or even an equal burden to the burden of suffering from racist oppression, but let's just remember that sick, awful feeling that comes from the recognition that one is profiting from systematic campaigns that hurt other people. That sick, awful feeling, because you thought that you were just an innocent bystander, and then you realized that there are no innocent bystanders.
And there aren't a lot of public examples of ways to take responsibility for it. We don't have a lot of white heroes who are heroes for being antiracist. White people are always the fuck-ups in the stories about racism, right? So my students - and, quite frankly, I - need some models for what the hell to do to make a difference, to actually be anti-racist.
And because examples don't always come readily to mind, my students - and I - get stuck. The easy thing is to push it away (like we push away Darfur or AIDS or whatever else is too horrible to think about). I want to say first that this is a measure of privilege, this ability to push it away and think happy thoughts. Sometimes it's necessary to push the ugliness away and let it simmer in the backs of our minds for a little while while we gain perspective, but it's still a luxury to be able to do this at all.
The hard thing, though, is to bring it to the fore and start examining what racism means in our own lives. I can think of embarrassing and painful stupid-ass racist things I've thought and said and still cringe about, and I'm sure you all can, too. I have the uncomfortable feeling that there will be more of them to come in my life. And when anxiety and fear about this overtake us, this is white guilt.
White guilt is not a useful emotion. It makes us focus on shame and embarrassment, and it makes us feel yucky, and it doesn't usually prompt us to anti-racist work. So we sit there, and we either feel guilty, or we conquer that guilt by 1) insisting that the racism isn't occurring, or 2) shifting the focus away from ourselves by focusing on other people's racism.
I think white people who want to do antiracist work, to move past that white guilt, need to do four things:
1. We need to talk about racism. We need to do it openly, among ourselves. I say "ourselves" not to exclude anyone from the conversation, but to suggest that people of color do not need to educate us or pronounce us "cured." We are capable of having smart conversations about race and we are capable of unlearning racism, and we can do it if we make a space to talk about the contradictions we find, the confusing issues, the shameful moments, the questions about what to do next. We need to approach this like it's not a dirty secret but a process of unlearning and recovery.
The concept of white people living in families of color and how that affects them and their families, how other whites view them, how their racial sense of self changes, how their white-skin privilege can both be intact and still, somehow, altered, depending on circumstance - all of these are important topics. But, as we've seen, these are topics that require careful, nuanced discussion. Which brings me to number two:
2. We need to educate ourselves. We need to take responsibility for educating ourselves, and this education doesn't come from our friends of color, primarily. It comes from reading, from immersing ourselves in the world, from knowing what is going on.
And once we know, we have a duty:
3. We need to work in coalition with people of color in our communities on their issues (which are our issues, as well). We can't be antiracist in a vacuum. And antiracist struggle is not won through theory alone.
And then, finally:
4. We need to point out examples of how white people can do antiracist work. This is not to lionize the efforts of white people but to teach white people how to fight racism. We need to think of teaching moments, for example. How many white people know what to say when someone, seeing white skin and thinking they have an ally, makes a racist comment? I will tell you that I have no clue how to respond to this most effectively. Is it the time to educate? Is it the time to curse and yell? Do I go for education? Blowing off steam? Simply taking my business (for example) elsewhere after delivering a scathing explanation of why I won't give my money to a racist business owner? What will work? I ask these questions, not because they have simple answers (I would bet that the best reaction to each would depend on the situation), but because these are the kinds of questions white people need to be asking ourselves and each other. We need to be sharing our success stories, the times when we said something that made the racist person stop and think, or the times when we helped correct a wrong in our communities. We need to know what to do so that we can do something.
Barbara Smith once said something at a conference that I took to heart. She talked about how afraid white people are when it comes to working with Black people, that we are afraid of their anger. Sure, she said, sometimes you'll get anger. But, she went on, as a white friend of hers who did antiracist work had told her, she was surprised to find that much more often she met with generosity and kindness.
I would like to see whites being generous and kind to each other, as well, when we struggle. All too often - and maybe this was particular to my own grad school environment - I have witnessed (and participated in) a kind of smack down whenever someone would inadvertently reveal her unconscious racism. We never gently corrected. We publically humiliated. And I'm quite sure that this approach only leads to more fear and guilt, and not to confident, antiracist work.
I'm not sure if I've said anything of value here. I hope, at least, that I haven't come across as a self-important asshole. These are things I've been thinking for some time, and they're things my students often ask me about. I want to clarify, too, and say that of the four points I list, I think the most important is number 3. Number 3 is taking action. The other points are supplementary, but necessary.
I didn't talk yet about race traitors. I think if we do these things, that does make us race traitors - in the sense that, as the journal, Race Traitor says, "Treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity." What the journal focuses on is rejecting white privilege, refusing to see ourselves or let others see us as white. But rejecting white privilege - to the extent that that is even possible - alone doesn't cut it. We have to take action.
I'm curious to know what people think of this.