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.
Thanks, Jenni. Courage comes in many shapes, forms, colors, and times. This murder and this murder’s context and unraveling tell and signal more about this white-racist society than a 1000 academic treatises that only scratch the surface. Yet most of white America is still tone deaf to the thundering sounds of these racial truths — humanity dies one death at a time, and many other truths.
Thank *you* Joe – obviously so much of what I’ve learned, I’ve learned from you – not just the academic side, but in witnessing you walk the talk every single day. You are an inspiration.
This was a very moving piece! This further illustrates the courage of the modest number of whites who care more about equality of mankind than subjugation of the many for the benefit for the few! Giving up the comfort of close family and friends for justice is among one of the most unselfish things a person can do. Keep fighting sister, I am with you!
Jim Zwerg would be proud.
Jenni, this is one of the most beautiful things I have ever read – and I am not one for hyperbole. Your piece reminds me (and I need constant reminding) of the most important thing I’ve learned about activism: that we must engage in the struggle to our fullest ability, in line with our conscience, with no concern for those who are not (yet) allies; the “work” we do assuaging others’ feelings/resistance is a distraction and not in reality the work. But the point you make about family and community and “home” is what makes antiracism for white folks so unique and at times deeply hurtful. There is a saving grace (although nothing is quite like family). In my own experience, more limited than yours, I have been humbled by the willingness of people of color to embrace genuine white allyship and at the same time to challenge us to be more effective allies.
Thank you for writing this impassioned piece.
Thank you for writing this, Jenni. If we were still in the pre-electronic age, this would be a magazine or newspaper article I would clip and re-read until it became ragged and tear-stained. You are not alone.
Thanks all – I hope this blog and this case continues to open conversations (I’ve already had some with family myself)… the support is humbling and makes me feel very grateful.
Thanks. In more ways than one.
thank you for this. i am just beginning my career in this work and have already experienced the beginnings of what you talk about:
“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.”
“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.”
that last quote is something i said almost word for word just a week or so ago. …but this is very new for me. i am at the beginning of my serious academic study in race and race-relations. and just beginning to experience the baggage that will come with this work for me. i welcome yours and others advice on navigating these sometimes daunting challenges.
I’ll tell you what my wonderful adviser Joe Feagin (who’s been at this even longer than I) tells me: You need to build a community of support – among colleagues and friends who share your perspectives. I am very fortunate to have that.
I will say too that, although it was not necessarily this way in the beginning, I grew increasingly weary with trying to manage any level of “disjointed” identity, to the point where it became intolerable for me – mostly because it was a violation of my politics, and more importantly, my integrity. I decided better to speak my truth and let the chips fall where they may. As I alluded to in the piece, I really think that is the only place where true potential (and thus hope) lies – transformation has ALWAYS required those willing to pay costs – it always will.
I would just add that I believe as white anti-racists it is very important that we stay linked to white communities and networks and not just retreat to the safe bubble of our support communities. All racial communities have “dirty laundry” to air and address – we have more than most. And as whites in the struggle I believe we have an important role to play in removing the burden from people of color for explaining matters and shoulder the responsibility of bringing other whites along with us… we know that racism often destroys white empathy and warps our thinking and perspective even amongst the best-intentioned of us, and so when our brothers and sisters say well-meaningful but destructive things, I try to remember what it was like to be early and unconscious in the struggle and speak to them accordingly – from a place a love and understanding.
You might also consider sharing this blog with people in your life (or writing something personal of your own) if you think it might help.
It’s one thing to speak in generalities and “academic-ese”… But speaking from your personal experience is often the most powerful thing you can do.