The Trayvon Martin tragedy is a “racial barometer” moment. The kind that erupts every now and again and acts as a lightening rod all around. As Dr. Joyce Bell recently wrote here, moments like these often inspire scholar-activists to speak from a voice that is utterly personal. Compelled, that is what I’m also here to do.
As a white anti-racist I’m very consciously reminded in moments like this that I, too, am a problem. I am not who DuBois had in mind when he posed the agonizing question, “How does it feel to be a problem?” Yet I ache under a weight of suspicion as I reflect on what the barometer reveals about the path I’ve chosen for my life.
(The author, left, at a Trayvon Martin protest in Houston. Photo from Houston Chronicle.)
When I speak publicly about systemic racism and analyze incidents like the Martin killing from that lens, I know that meanings and beliefs about who I am and what compels my actions will be mapped onto me – with or without my approval. To be sure, sometimes they are positive. I’m keenly aware that I’m often privileged to speak critically about race and have my voice and perspectives valued in ways that my friends and colleagues of color can rarely assume. To many, I’m a curiosity – a white person speaking frankly and passionately about race – how about that? And, I’ve been rewarded to be embraced as a sister, friend and ally in the struggle for racial and social justice, freedom and self-determination.
Nonetheless, I know too, there’s a flipside.
I mark myself when I speak critically about Racism. White Supremacy. Whiteness. And yes, White People.
And, I will pay costs for doing so. Certainly, I will pay less of the direct, material costs that people of color pay for their activism; let alone their simply “being non-white” in the world – costs they don’t choose but which have been chosen for them. But at a bare minimum I can count on paying psychic and personal ones.
I often feel deeply misunderstood: curiosity-turned-grotesque; ally-turned-enemy. My academic and experiential knowledge – that which I’ve dedicated my life’s work to – is dismissed by many people, particularly many (most?) white people. I know that the racialized socialization most white people experience both ensures this will happen (often with near-automation) and provides many tools for my invalidation. Rationalizations, justifications, retorts that explain away racial causes for racial outcomes and solidify our collective white privilege – all plentifully available. To these folks I am at best, unrealistic idealist working from the “unreality” of the ivory tower – at worst, I am crazy, misinformed, brainwashed, hateful, evil. Fill in the blank. I know these are costs that have long been born by people of color; choosing to be a white anti-racist means they are my costs now too.
Unlike people of color, I’m much less likely to have a “natural” community of support around me, to encourage me in my efforts – and indeed, love me for them. Choosing to be a white anti-racist scholar-activist has meant that I often feel alienated, particularly from fellow whites who I wish to call “brother” and “sister.” Always difficult, this alienation is most painful when it distances me from the people in my life I deeply love, including family. Even when it doesn’t include direct animosity (which it often doesn’t), please know, feeling at all outside of the circle of family I call “home” hurts.
If I need advice on financial matters I call my brother. He’s an analyst. If I need to know something about home or car repair, I call one of my other brothers. Between them they know how to fix just about anything. I call my sister for any number of the hundreds of things about which she has knowledge. And what of my expertise? I have long been regarded by my family as someone who has a good head on my shoulders, who possesses both intelligence and common sense. I know white worlds well and have been privy to the worlds of people of color in ways that most white people I know have not. I have 20 years of an awareness forged by scholarship and deeply intimate relationships – things learned in and outside of classrooms, in the real worlds of workplaces and homes and countless public spaces. Nonetheless, I sense my knowledge as something to be tolerated, but rarely sought, rarely praised; at times, resented. Perhaps they feel I don’t understand them. Perhaps they feel they don’t understand me. I’m not sure. And then again, they’ve never asked, what in the world did make you choose this unusual path? People of color ask me that all the time.
Usually the white people in my social circles can ignore my racially politicized self as we play out a sort of implicit “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy of our own. I imagine they may think “You know, that’s just Jenni – she studies race, she hangs out with black people, she listens to hip hop – she’s just like that.” And then we all agree to pretend that doesn’t matter. But racial barometer moments make the work of ignoring personal racial politics harder to do, for me and therefore, for them.
There was a time I listened to a voice of fear in my head and managed the expression of my politics (little ‘p’) with some of the white people in my life, including my family. If I wanted to post a race critical article or idea on Facebook, for example, I sometimes excluded certain people in my white networks from the posting. Even though I knew this was a direct violation of my personal politics, I did it. Not with a lot of people, but with some. Not all of the time, but on occasion.
And then Trayvon Martin was killed. Parents mourned. African American families anguished, outraged, protested. Precious life and potential wasted; signs of an all-too-familiar and well-documented miscarriage of justice afoot.
(Photo by the author)
I’m not new to the game. I can offer a sharp, race critical analysis of probably any social issue, including the structural patterns that both define and create a tragic outcome like this. Nonetheless, this societal racial barometer was a personal one too. It forced me to call my failed integrity – however “minor” and “reasonable” – into question. I decided then that I had to be, as Audre Lorde encouraged, “deliberate and afraid of nothing.”
I knew I must crush any remaining shred of fear that might ever silence me. Because mothers and fathers panicked for the lives of their sons and daughters. Because the many people of color I love, too, struggle to raise their children healthy and happy and productive and in love with themselves in a world that devalues them and “encodes crime and drugs and lust and danger on their bodies,” (as Joyce captured so perfectly and tragically). Because there are those in this world that will desperately and unflinchingly and dispassionately explain away their murders as the result of anything other than racism. Because these are, quite literally, matters of life and death. Who was I to be called sister/friend/ally if I was complicit in any way with shielding anyone from these truths? And so many, many more.
I don’t hate white people – or myself. I do not operate out of a sense of guilt. I don’t have some blind or romanticized or misappropriated love for people of color. And though as a sociologist I am trained to examine the social forces that impact people’s lives, I am never blinded from recognizing the power of personal responsibility, of using personal agency to direct the course of our lives positively, to the best of our abilities as people. As I recently told my sister, I am only doing what I believe is just and right, and I’m never going to stop. In that way, I'm certainly a product of the background I share with my siblings, who are giving, kind, wonderful, beautifully-intentioned people. We are each the product of our parents, who taught us to live out our integrity by their example.
In riding the wake of these personal reflections I came to a sad conclusion: that many of the white people I care about in my life will love me (hopefully) in spite of what I do, but maybe never for it. I know the more fearless I become, the more of a problem I am. Even if there is no direct confrontation, the very way I life my life may be experienced as an implicit challenge. But, as I’ve learned through personal experience in the past, the challenges of our lives often create potentialities.
I think of what DuBois wrote about the famous abolitionist John Brown, written into history as a crazy, fanatical murderer, put to death for his criminal actions in working toward the cause of justice. DuBois wrote that as people at the time watched his trial unfold "wider and wider circles were beginning dimly and more clearly to recognize that his lawlessness was in obedience to the highest call of self-sacrifice for the welfare of his fellow men. They began to ask themselves, What is this cause that can inspire such devotion?" I often meditate on this thought. I try to hold onto the hope that in continuing to seek and speak truth and work toward justice, even as I pay different costs for doing so, some might ask "What is this cause that can inspire such devotion?"
I'm no John Brown. No. But I will stand forever, side-by-side, with all my brothers and sisters in the struggle, whoever they may be.
~ Jennifer Mueller is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at Texas A&M University.