Last week was International Blog Against Racism Week (IBARW) and, a bit belatedly, I wanted to draw attention to a couple of excellent posts from that event, both of which deal in some way with whiteness and what it means to be white (image: “Shiny Happy White People” from DCVision, Flickr CreativeCommons) and struggle against racism.
Alexis Lothian blogging at QueerGeekTheory praises the focus on intersectionality in this year’s cautions about what she sees as the downside:
“That doesn’t, of course, come without a risk – of interminable ‘white guilt’ posts, of the idea that this is the one week in the year when bloggers should think about race, et cetera – but I still think it’s a rather wonderful example of the way online community creates mobile sites of theorizing and activism that don’t necessarily rely on established networks or on the academy.”
White guilt seems an inevitable, if regrettable, cul-de-sac of conversation about racism with white people, because it leads to white resentment. A number of multicultural trainers have adopted a group-work exercise meant to address this, and Priscilla Brice-Weller blogging at Solidariti writes about her experience with this:
“…we were asked to … talk for three minutes with a partner about what we hate about [being white … or whatever other group we belong to … it could be related to sexuality, race, age, class, or anything else]. Then we were asked to talk for three minutes about what we love about [being white]. The one rule was that we couldn’t talk about our group in relation to other groups (so in my example, I couldn’t talk about being white in relation to being black/brown/anyone else).
It turned out that for the first minute or two I focussed on stereotypes. When the stereotypes were out the way, the truth started to emerge. I found that during the second “what I love about being white” session, it was difficult to speak because I had nothing positive to say. When you find yourself in that situation, and particularly as an anti-racism campaigner, it’s pretty confronting.
When I reflect on this, all I can think of is how white people invaded Australia, how the English invaded India, how the Americans invaded Iraq, how the global north (which includes Australia) lives in comparable wealth to the global south and still fails to address the balance of power in that relationship. There’s plenty of wonderful things white people have done, but I think about the negative things first. Obviously I’ve still more reflection to do, because to work effectively across difference I need to be able to embrace my own people too.”
While I admire Priscilla and others involved in IBAWR for tackling these issues, I think that the approach advocated by many multicultural trainers like the one she encountered in Sydney is wrong-headed because it suggests a symmetrical, “we are all the same,” approach to dealing with racism. As I noted in a post awhile back, uncovering the history of racial oppression and privilege is an asymmetrical process that has an asymmetrical effect in the present depending upon one’s standpoint.These sorts of exercises, if followed to the logical conclusion, would have us believe that if we are “proud to be white” just as people of color are “proud to be black” or “proud to be Latina,” then we will all have moved away from racism and toward racial harmony. I don’t agree. Cultivating the notion that one is “proud to be white” leads – it seems quite obviously – to white pride. That certainly seems to be the wrong direction.
Of course, individual whites can, and should, take action to find examples of white, anti-racist activism and to adopt those as models for their own lives. Yet, if what we end up doing is sitting around in racially-segregated groups discovering why we’re “proud to be white,” I don’t think we’re engaging in anti-racism. A more productive approach is one that foregrounds accountability and responsiveness, as our occasional fellow-blogger Tim Wise explains (via Macon D at Stuff White People Do and originally from Carmen at Racialicious):
“And I think that’s because a lot of white folks come to this work with the mentality that we’re doing it for other people. And, one of the things I learned doing community organizing, working in public housing in New Orleans for about fifteen months with a great organization down there called Agenda for Children, that was connected to the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, which does anti-racism training, was that they really taught me—and I haven’t figured it all out—but they taught me the importance of accountability, and trying to be responsive, and responsible to, people of color, understanding that ultimately we want to follow the lead of people of color, but that we’re not doing it for them. . .”
What Tim suggests here – being accountable to and responsive to people of color – is a very different project than the multicultural-training where we all put our chairs in a circle and decide what we like about being white. The challenge, of course, for white people is understanding the history and present-day record of racial discrimination and oppression, then choosing to take action to end it rather than getting mired in the dead-end of guilt and resentment.
I agree with the main point of this post, that learning about whiteness is learning about power and choosing to take action, but feel that there is an important place in whiteness training for the kind of thing the session organizer was trying to do. But instead of saying, “What is good about being white?” the right question is: “What do you like or celebrate about your own culture?” There are cultural differences between groups that are not just about power. I do think people have to learn to live inside their own skins, and think about your own way of being and acting as one way among many.
Although I wasn’t networked enough to know about blog about racism week, it turns out I did it anyway. I include links just in case you want to see where I’m coming from re white supremacy.
The VERY LONG post on reflections on white supremacy at a conference on racial disparities:
A few short extracts from the longer post about the incidents that made the biggest impression on me:
Hi there, OW ~ great to see you here and thanks for the link to your really thoughtful post. You make an excellent point about asking a different question. From my perspective, “What do you like or celebrate about your own culture?” can be a useful question, but (and I think we’re agreeing here), it’s a qualitatively different question from “What do you like about being white?” And, the trainings and workshops I’ve been in haven’t acknowledged the distinction between these two questions. In thinking about how I would honestly answer this question, it’s more nuanced even than “culture.” For me, the people who I admire or identify with that I share some sort of ethnic/cultural background are also queer, anti-racist, often Southern. So, for me, Dorothy Allison, Mab Segrest, Minnie Bruce Pratt, and Lillian Smith are white, Southern, lesbian/queer, anti-racists that I identify with for their politics as much as for our shared racial/ethnic identity.
Hi all, and thanks Jessie for the mention above. I would only add one twist to all this. I actually do ask the “what do you like about being white?” question in workshops, and “what do you like about being black/Latino/Asian/indigenous” as well, but for a very different reason than that implied by the original example above. When I do it, it is to demonstrate that being white doesn’t mean anything OTHER than privilege: that was the reason the concept was created, and there is no unique white culture separate and apart from that history of domination to celebrate.
So, after having the folks of color articulate the MANY things they like about being whatever they are, “racially” speaking, I ask whites the question and inevitably the only answers they can come up with are answers about privilege (“I like NOT being followed around the store, thought of as less capable, etc). The point is to have whites see that whiteness is nothing to celebrate, and then to see that the rich cultural histories, which now-white families DID have upon arrival in the U.S. have been lost to a large extent, replaced by whiteness, which on the one hand provides immense advantage, but on the other hand exacts a cost in terms of cultural integrity.
From there, we discuss the way that people who are now called white come from cultures of resistance (after all, the winners in the class game in Europe didn’t leave: we are mostly descended from the losers), and their journey was itself an act of resistance. Yet, when one becomes the dominant group, the resistance culture that kept your people alive and vibrant all those years dies on the vine. After all, why resist when you’re top dog?
So, I ask the question you mention, but only as an entry point for something very much about privilege and loss. In my experience this ends up being an effective tool to get whites to address these issues without guilt, because seeing that they’ve been “played” by whiteness and left with a sense of self rooted only in the negative–“what do I like about NOT being black or brown”–is often jarring, and allows them/us to see them/ourselves as having been harmed by the very thing that has privileged them/us. When one sees that, guilt becomes a luxury you can’t afford…anger is more appropriate.
hello dear sir, andar here. i enjoy post of yours very much so. i am agree to you. good day.
The key I get from this discussion and the thoughtful comments is for white people to see race as an artificial construct. Most ethnic minorities that I know are well aware of this, but not so for many whites.
AND, most importantly, the racialized words “white” and “black” were invented for their modern racist use in the mid to late 1600s by whites, to distinguish their superiority from those these “whites” named “blacks” ( and the N-word).
Self-named whites invented the racist frame and system of oppression it rationalizes in the first place, and almost all the words we use in this oppressive frame/game.
White pride by definition is racist.
Interesting post. I blogged about something similar recently that I hope is somewhat coherent:
Anyway, I’m not sure if “resistance culture” is all that great, other than its ‘genuine’ aesthetic that separates it from hipsterdom. I would prefer it if I got to choose my own struggles.
Hey Tim, andar, Joe, BPA, Restructure! Good to see you all here and what a terrific discussion. It seems there are two interrelated threads here that several of you mentioned: 1) the importance of connecting a discussion of white identity to one of white privilege and racial inequality, and 2) the insight that ‘race’ is a social construct. I agree. And, I still find it a difficult conversation for most white people to engage in because the notion of unearned privilege flies in the face of the deeply held belief that all that we have as white people is earned and well-deserved.
Before I read the comments, I was going to say more or less what Tim said in his comments. In the antiracism workshop that I am a trainer for (Damascus Road) we use “What I like about being….” as Tim described, with the same effects. It strikes me that this is a very different question that “What about being …. makes you proud?”, which as Jessie writes in her post can set up a false symmetry. The question we use (what I like…) exposes the asymmetry of racial experience in a powerful way, emotionally and cognitively.
We briefly removed this exercise from our training a number of years ago, but we added it back in for two main reasons. 1) It really gets at how whiteness is based in privilege and opens up discussions about lost European culture; and 2) it provides an important place in a training setting where people of color get to say that they have a lot of really good stuff in their communities and are not only victims of racism.
I’m really glad this discussion is continuing (I’m Priscilla, from the Solidariti blog quoted in this post). To add more light on this, I think it was the prejudice reduction workshop by NCBI that I attended in Sydney (http://ncbi.org/workshop-training-descriptions).
The comment above from PhilMor Bru sounds to me to be a better description of what our trainer was trying to get at. My blog post was merely my personal account of what I experienced, but didn’t accurately describe the purpose of the exercise.
You’ve all given me many more things to think about and discuss with my group (particularly the quote from Tim Wise), so thankyou. I’m finding it a really difficult topic to get my head around.