Racist Framing and Action by White Progressives: Some Hard Questions

I am slowly revising my book, The White Racial Frame, for a second edition. A new white activist acquaintance in Minnesota sent me this comment in response to my questions to some folks of diverse backgrounds up there working in several effective anti-racism groups. She first made some kind comments on the book’s virtues, but then noted a discussion in the book that needs much more amplification and discussion:

Your research regarding the level of continuing negative stereotyping of people of color, through purposefully coded front-stage communications and through blatant back-stage communications, is most compelling. White readers of The White Racial Frame come away from the book much more able and motivated to interrupt these racist performances. What I would also hope to see more of in the second edition is articulation of the ways in which progressive/liberal/radical social justice activists (some likely readers of your book) act out of the white racial frame, making their organizations and themselves toxic to people of color. Why are almost all the liberal progressive organizations in Minnesota (environmental activists, child care advocacy groups, affordable housing lobbying groups, etc) virtually exclusively white?

Such white folks disavow any racist thinking on their own part and decry it in others. But in what ways are they reproducing the white racial frame in their personal interactions and within these progressive organizations? Clearly they are acting out of the frame, but they are (seemingly) completely unaware of this. On page 128, you point out that highly-educated whites often think and write, unreflectively, out of a strong and unexamined version of the white racial frame. “Holding that [white] racial frame in their heads, but trying to suppress overt actions reflecting it, whites frequently send powerful nonverbal signals, as real feelings … leak out into cross-racial interactions. “ (p. 135)

What forms do such subconscious performances of dominance and assumed superiority take? How do whites typically manifest the power and privilege of their social location in unconscious ways? What is being communicated non-verbally, and how is that being done? What assumptions are controlling our behaviors? In what multitude of ways on a daily basis do we assume that the white experience is also the experience of people of color, with that assumption informing our perceptions, feelings and understandings?

In the social networks I am part of, people of color tend to find these subconscious white behaviors more damaging than the explicit racial references whites engage in.

She and a Black colleague she works with then added that they

have found very little in the literature naming, surveying or researching such subconscious performances. So anything you could contribute to the understanding of this would be appreciated. Your book, with its articulated focus on the White Racial Frame, provides and ideal time and place for those of us who are white to consider such issues.

Because of her (and their) insightful, and on target comments, I have been thinking a lot about this way liberal/radical/progressive/anti-racist whites do conscious, half-conscious, or unconscious racialized and white-framed performances that alienate people of color and make organization difficult or impossible across the racial lines. Indeed, in a request earlier today about examples of what she is talking about, one of my Latino graduate students sent me this response as I was finishing up this post:

[She] raises an interesting point of the lack of interracial organizing. From my own experiences organizing in the Logan Heights (predominantly Mexican/Chicano) community in San Diego, white leftist/radical organizations and individuals such as C.P. USA, ACORN, labor unions (i.e. S.E.I.U), American Friends Service Committee often approach issues as “leaders” and don’t do enough to understand/involve the perspectives/concerns of the minority community. In essence, white progressives often (my own experience) have a difficult time relating to a non-white constituency, I suspect it due to race and class and the power/status discrepancy they create. Blee’s (2012) Democracy in the Making study of grassroots in Pittsburgh, PA also notes the lack of interracial organizing, and it resulting from white progressives who often talk about diversity/expanding their base. The book does not do enough to investigate the reason behind the lack of cross-racial outreach (but did cite in one case how white activists did not feel safe flying in minority communities.)

Very good points, indeed.

I would also welcome your thoughts on these matters (in the comments, for example), and any existing research or discussions you may have seen on these very important issues. Thanks.