Here’s a headline I’ve kicked around in my mind for a few days:
White people everywhere declare themselves “not racist” in response to black churches burning
Inspiration for that headline came from the below picture, which I now see circulating on Facebook amongst white people at ever-increasing frequency and popularity in the wake of the Charleston Massacre and string of additional white terrorist arson against black communities:
I don’t have a problem with the picture, per se. I have a huge problem with the fact that I see it with ever-increasing frequency among white folks in the wake of white supremacist terrorism against black communities. I even see groups of white people using the above picture to band together and declare themselves and one-another “not-racist” in a perverse sort of white ego circle jerk. I give exactly four fucks about this trend:
- It deflects from the real issue of black safety and liberation and institutionalized / systematic white supremacy, and makes it about the egos and insecurities of white individuals. When white people “respond” to events relating to black liberation by defensively declaring themselves “not racist,” it creates a comparison and equality between black lives lost and terrorized on one hand, and hurt white egos on the other. That seems highly problematic to me: Such a comparison minimizes and marginalizes and delegitimizes black lives, even implying that fragile white egos matter more than black lives. It’s similar to how many people compare a broken windows to a lost life and try to make the discussion about the broken window. This is exactly why “Black Lives Matter!” has risen as a central slogan and even the name of the current liberation movement: it’s, in part, a very succinct and constructive way to say, “stop delegitimizing, marginalizing and minimizing us!” while affirming at the same time that Black Lives do indeed Matter (esp. when compared to hurt white egos and broken windows!). Consequently, this also factors into Arthur Chu’s observation about (mostly white?) people changing #BlackLivesMatter to #AllLivesMatter:
Why do white people so often feel the need to “correct” the language of black people? Why do men feel the need to “correct” (#mansplain to) women? It’s difficult to interpret intention and motive — especially claimed vs real motives, inasmuch as understanding real motives requires full and thoughtful honesty on the part of the actor — but both the above examples represent ways in which white people continue to dominate, marginalize, minimize and delegitimize black voices, people and lives even as they seem to engage in discourse on the issue, constituting a form of white supremacist micro-aggression. It also exposes white (or male) privilege as the factor behind why white people (or men) can do such things to black people (or women) in the first place, regardless of motivation.
- Individuals use “I’m not racist” as a way to excuse or hide their passivity: white people claiming they are “not racist” often use such claims to remain on the sidelines, as if this isn’t “their fight.” Or by virtue of declaring themselves “not racist,” they have no work to do. How convenient!
- Just as problematically, the white supremacist status quo uses the above-mentioned passivity and micro-aggressions of white individual defensiveness as a type of implicit apology for or endorsement of the current racist regime. It’s a type of wink and a nod.
- Also, you’re racist. Get over it. I’m racist. We’re all racist. In a racist society and culture, everyone is racist by default. Only when we actively do anti-racist things are we not racist…and even so, only partially and temporarily. As Jennai Bundock reminds us, “Don’t tell me you are [feminist, anti-racist, BMX biker, runner, poet, anything, really]. I will know based on how you behave.” (paraphrasing)
In other words, you can’t stay neutral on a moving train, folks (thanks, Zinn). This is a great example of structural racist micro-aggression, and shows how subtle and entrenched racism is in our society.
When institutionalized, systemic and systematic oppression brutalizes and terrorizes people in your community — perhaps people you know — how do you react or respond? How will you behave? Do you, for example, support black armed self-defense or other forms of black agency and empowerment? Or do you try to police black behavior through the lens of respectability politics? Such micro-aggression has huge — even deadly consequences for oppressed groups:
Well-meaning white people need to get off the sidelines, stop insisting they are “not racist,” realize its not about them personally or their own insecurities, and join in solidarity with the anti-racist resistance and liberation movements. This can take a literally-infinite number of forms, big and small (help make signs, publicly condemn the race terrorists, talk to friends and family about what’s going on, take some initiative to educate yourself, etc). To help establish some parameters, here’s what it DOES NOT look like:
- selfish individualism: defensively making it all about you, e.g., to claim or prove you’re “not racist”
- passivity: refusing to say or do anything in support of and solidarity with anti-racist activists and victims of racial aggression.
- victim blaming: wondering silently or out-loud what the black people “did to provoke” their attackers
- deflecting: using your privilege to judge and change any black-led anti-racist discourse and action that makes you feel uncomfortable
- taking control: assuming you know the path to liberation better than those who struggle for their liberation, reproducing the very power dynamic the liberation is supposed to free us from in the first place!
The recent rash of anti-black arson in the US are acts of physical aggression — continuations of the Charleston massacre — targeting a minority population who has become increasingly vocal about the inequalities and injustices they still face at the hands of white supremacy. These are acts of war, perhaps even white supremacists’ efforts to provoke an explicit race war in the US. Until then, these acts of war constitute a reactionary, race-baiting, white-supremacist backlash against black liberation to overcome centuries of entrenched oppression — a type of scorched-earth white terrorism targeting the hearts and peoples of many black communities. These overt, hyper-aggressive attacks stem from and depend on ubiquitous micro-aggressions like those I describe above.
Liberation requires the destruction of white supremacy. Anti-racists wage war against white supremacist identity while white supremacists wage a war directly against people who seek to escape the racist confines and terrors that white supremacist identity imposes upon them in the first place. There’s no mistaking the aggressor in this race war: anti-racists don’t want white people to die, they want the ubiquitous white supremacist threat to disappear. In contrast, white supremacists seek to terrorize and silence the actual voices and lives all black people (and, to a lesser extent, their allies) who necessarily threaten white supremacist ideology as they seek liberation from it. In this way, the struggle for racial liberation echoes the struggle for domestic liberation: abusive, controlling people tend to be most dangerous when they think a victim wants — and is trying — to leave. The closer we get to racial liberation, the more dangerous white supremacy becomes.
I stand in solidarity with the people of black liberation movements and against institutional and systematic white supremacy, including its more subtle manifestations as individual defensiveness, passivity or micro-aggressions. Easy to say, difficult to do: I struggle to find ways to do this in my daily life.
Showing solidarity sometimes gets tricky, uncomfortable and even scary. It gets more and more difficult to “other” the perpetrators of hyper-aggressions when we begin to see the more subtle transgressions that form the fabric or foundation of the status quo. The perpetrators of passivity or micro-aggression start to look an awful lot like friends, family, even ourselves. Talk becomes personal. Intersectionally-speaking, mansplaining (and other forms of solidarity-destroying privilege posturing) can rear its head. I think this is a good thing — a journey we must make to confront and dismantle oppression in our lives and relationships. It’s not that we remove focus from the terrorists of racism — we remain focused on them, and start dismantling the cultural and social basis of their social support system. It starts with us, but does not end there, as we learn to turn white (or any other privileged) fragility into courageous imperfection:
If white people want to belong to the beloved community, if we want to be part of the tide that is turning thanks to people of color-led movements like #BlackLivesMatter, then we have to show up as bold and genuine and imperfect…Dismantling centuries of dehumanizing institutions and practices — both in the world and within ourselves — can’t be a simple process. The good news is that transforming your fragility into courageous imperfection is the beginning of a lot more joy. It’s the beginning of a lot more connection. It’s the beginning of the end of racism.
The rest of the above-linked article is well-worth the read for anyone from the perspective of owning and effectively dealing with the emotional fragility of social privilege. We all benefit when we work to convert our privileged fragility into courageous imperfection toward greater solidarity.
For a different perspective on this same subject, read I, Racist by John Metta. Some pullout quotes:
“The only difference between people in The North and people in The South is that down here, at least people are honest about being racist.”
Black people think in terms of we because we live in a society where the social and political structures interact with us as Black people.
White people in general decide to vigorously defend their own personal non-racism, or point out that it doesn’t exist because they don’t see it.
The entire discussion of race in America centers around the protection of White feelings.
people are dying not because individuals are racist, but because individuals are helping support a racist system by wanting to protect their own non-racist self beliefs.
Here’s what I want to say to you: Racism is so deeply embedded in this country not because of the racist right-wing radicals who practice it openly, it exists because of the silence and hurt feelings of liberal America.
That’s what I want to say, but really, I can’t… [read it all in context!]
The unbearable whiteness of being
I wrote this post as a direct response to a white trend I saw. A few people shared it in support. Facebook automatically picked up and displayed the first picture in the post, the one that inspired the critique begin with. Even though people shared this post and linked to it, the vast majority of white people who commented did so without ever reading the post. Instead, they simply looked at the picture and agreed with it (why not? it affirms and comforts vs challenges their worldview), ignored the critique and went on with their day. I directly asked those people whether they had read the actual post or just looked at the picture. No response. So, there you have it, proof in the pudding: more black lives rest in power so that white liberal egoes may rest in comfort, free from any consideration of their role in the deaths and terrorization of black people. I believe we need to keep hammering away at these people until their defenses crumble.
However, a few people responded and engaged thoughtfully. These thoughtful few seem ready, willing and able to grow and remain accountable. In time, the numbers of the thoughtful few will grow and challenge existing social norms. All but the most intractable of white ignorance will acquiesce and rise to the occasion of liberation.
Thanks to Choya for contributing resources to this post.