Of Rachel Dolezal and Other Confused White People

Like Wendy Moore, as a white antiracist scholar and mother of biracial (African American/white) children who has spent the majority of her life in intimate relations with people of color, I have been asked a lot lately to give my two cents on Rachel Dolezal. And also like Moore, I initially hesitated to speak, because it seemed so many excellent points had already been made, especially by Jessie’s insightful post: that Dolezal’s experience cannot be neatly equated to being transgender; that being black is not a costume one cannot take on and off at will without serious social and political ramifications (the majority of which the masqueraders seem to obfuscate, deny or not even consider); and that any well-intentioned antiracist efforts Dolezal may have attempted are surely cancelled out by her dishonest cooptation of resources that otherwise would have gone to people of color.

Yet we whites are often fond of playing the good white, bad white game: Bad Kramer from Seinfeld , bad Paula Deen—it would seem we may hold up the “bad white” examples to make our own selves feel better. I may put my foot in my mouth sometimes when it comes to race, but at least I don’t do it to such public and blatant proportions, so that must make me not racist—or so the confused logic goes. At least I’m not Dylann Storm Roof, who committed the brutal anti-black hate crime of shooting 9 people in a Charleston, SC church—although by confused white logic, we may not even be sure if we can put him in the good white or bad white column, since, after all, amidst all the racist propaganda he collected, he also “had black friends.”

Not unlike the white students in my Race classes who eventually reach their oversaturation point in exposure to white racism, stating exasperatedly, “why does everything have to be about race?” (um, because that’s the title of the course? Why does everything have to be about chemistry in your chemistry class?) it is clear that much of white America can only take so much of the media attention on police shootings of unarmed African Americans. It’s harder to play the good white, bad white game with such stories of institutional systemic racism, for several reasons. There’s often not a single/lone culprit. Moreover, as in the case of Baltimore, some of the officers weren’t even white—and boy, do whites get really confused then (because the concepts of internalized and institutional racism don’t typically come up in the good cop/bad cop discussions). And more to the point, we are often told that officers shot because they “felt threatened.” Now all bets are off for the good white, bad white game. The object of the game is to absolve whites of their guilty consciences by focusing on white racists who do “crazy” things that average whites convince themselves they would never do—and what white person hasn’t “felt threatened” by someone who is African American? Given what research tells us about the amount of antiblack attitudes held by a majority of white Americans, including assuming blacks are prone to crime, it’s doubtful that most whites are able to draw such a clear dividing line in their minds between themselves and a police officer who “felt threatened” by a black man.

So what better relief from this cognitive dissonance than to shift the mass media discussion away from such institutional racism and toward a white woman—Rachel Dolezal—who has nowhere near the power of the racial state that will soon likely acquit yet another (and many other) officers murdering unarmed African Americans for so-called “justified” reasons? In the game of good white, bad white, most whites can tell themselves, at least I haven’t lied about my race and pretended I was black. The Dolezal story thus presents a more palatable racism news feed for many whites who may be able to see themselves in the shoes of a “threatened” police officer but can’t ever imagine themselves masquerading as black.

It’s so much easier to put a demonizing face on a single white woman (Rachel Dolezal) who deceitfully stole an opportunity from potentially other equally or better qualified African Americans than it is to do a news story on the scores of whites who everyday take opportunities from equally or more qualified people of color through the “opportunity hoarding” that Nancy Ditomaso describes in her book about mostly all-white job referral networks. So Rachel Dolezal gets to be the scapegoat for confused whites, while the rest of us are deluded into thinking our white privilege and racism is normal and not worthy of public outrage, by comparison.

In Malcolm X’s autobiography, he argues it is no accident that the history books paint John Brown (a white man executed for his role in an 1859 slave rebellion) as a “nut case.” Malcolm X asserts it’s quite intentional that the white power structure doesn’t want the masses of whites to think it’s normal to challenge their own white privilege. Although I do not believe the heroic acts of Brown and the cowardice of Dolezal can at all be equated, I argue in my book Whites Confront Racism (2001), as others have before me, that the historical silence about white involvement in antiracist struggle can leave whites confused about where they fit in. Perhaps in Dolezal’s small town upbringing, and subsequent experience of racial politicization in the context of an HBCU campus, left her with a false dichotomy: be white and part of the problem, or be black and be part of the solution.

Newly declared antiracist whites can tend to distance themselves from their own communities and position themselves as “down with the black people” instead, as a way of assuaging their white guilt. Yet people of color will consistently tell white antiracists that the very thing they most need is for whites to go back into their own communities and talk to other white people about racism. We have a unique position from which to do this, in ways that people of color cannot, since whites so often see them as self-interested or “playing the race card” when they speak the truth about racism. In what I call privileged polemics, we are more likely to be believed by fellow whites when we say, yes, racism really happens. Sad, but true. So in choosing to cut herself off from her white family and ally herself in less-than-forthcoming ways with people of color, perhaps Dolezal was one of those confused white antiracists that did not realize there was a place for her in the movement just the way she is. Dolezal’s actions are certainly not congruent with those of principled antiracists. But fully all of the more respected antiracists will tell you that we white antiracists probably fumble around, fail, and put our foot in our mouths more than we succeed. We are constantly learning, and constantly making mistakes—sloughing off a lifetime of racist conditioning, one baby step at a time. So like Moore, although I cannot personally relate to the path Dolezal has chosen, I’ll let those without mistakes on their track record hurl their stones at her. I can only pray that she (and more importantly many more others) eventually become(s) less confused about what racism is, and why fighting widespread white privilege and mass incarceration (among many other forms of systemic racism) is so much more worth our time and attention than one white woman’s confusion.

Eileen O’Brien is a leading researcher on white anti-racists and Associate Professor of Sociology and Assistant Chair, Social Sciences at Saint Leo University (Virginia Campus)

“Walk the Walk but Don’t Talk the Talk”: Color-Blind Ideology in Interracial Movement Organization

Color-blind ideology, which developed as part of the backlash to the 1960s Civil Rights Movement promoted the idea that skin color should not matter. In contemporary society, this often translates into the belief that racism no longer matters and that those who continually point racism out are trouble-makers “playing the race card.” In this context, even those organizations that repudiate racism are pressured to use racism-evasive strategies. Ironically, M. Hughey finds that white nationalist organizations are also using this post-racial rhetoric to their advantage by arguing that everyone, regardless of color, should have equal rights, including “whites.” For the white nationalist, organizing in a color-blind society means coming up with new ways to be taken seriously, since it is no longer appropriate to argue that people are inherently unequal. For progressive organizations, it means fighting an ambiguous form of racism that many refuse to see or discuss.

My study draws on three years of field work and interviews with twenty-five members of an interracial organization and coalition, analyzing the ways in which they address racism in private and public settings. I find that European American, Latino/a, and African American activists equally downplay the role of racism internally, and while they recognize the significance of racism externally, they do not make it a central part of their campaign. One African American woman summed it up this way,

There’s a way that you can bring that [racism] out without actually saying…Everything will speak for itself. It will eventually come to the forefront. (Personal Interview).

She felt that using the word racism against their opponents or addressing it explicitly in public settings would appear “unprofessional.” People of color who noticed racism within the organization also felt it better not to address it. A Latino organizer stated,

Anglos have a way of doing things, being so conniving…They are not in the fight, in the trenches. But if the publicity is there and the newspapers are there…they’ll show up…We do deal with that. We don’t talk about it, because if you talk about it and you say racism and all that, then you can jeopardize the whole movement (Personal Interview).

Activists justify these racism-evasive strategies by emphasizing action over talk. In their view, because they “walk the walk” they do not need to “talk the talk” on racism. Activists see themselves as “walking the walk” literally through marches and rallies and working within communities of color. As a European American organizer stated:

You know I think that the [the organization] does address that [racism]…we live in a city here that’s 60% African American and Latino…disproportionately members of those communities are poor…I think [the organization] makes the point without…using the labels (Personal Interview).

These findings have both theoretical and practical implications for studies of racial ideology and progressive movements. The term color-blind racism is problematic, because it combines a number of different components—racism, colorblind ideology, and racism evasiveness—which should be analyzed as separate but interrelated concepts. I suggest that colorblindness, as an ideology, promotes a certain racial worldview and political climate that leads to racism evasiveness. This racism evasiveness is what scholars are finding when their respondents argue that “the past is the past” or explain protests as “black unruliness.” These responses have typically been referred to as color-blind racism, color evasion, or power evasion. However, what is really being evaded is a specific form of racial power and racism.

While activists view racism evasiveness as necessary to solidarity, these strategies also limit their ability to challenge racism both within and outside of their organization. In fact, an African American man who left the organization stated:

They do too much over strategizing, over thinking [in the organization]. You know, it’s almost like, ‘We want to ruffle the feathers, but we only want to ruffle them to a certain point.’ No! Let’s ruffle the feathers until that chicken is bald, naked (Personal Interview).

For the most part, activists believe that there is a dichotomy between organizations, which talk about racism and those that act on it. Their pragmatic avoidance of talk is understandable, given the failure of many organizations to translate talk into action and the problems that may arise from calling out racist situations. However, the solution to the problems with talk is to throw it out entirely and instead focus on showing up to meetings, rallies, and marches. Avoiding discussions on racism internally may prevent the organization from dealing with complaints of racism when they arise. Also, if members are only communicating problems through a class analysis, how are they to justify their demands for greater representation of people of color on the job, in access to health care, and education, all racialized issues? Some antiracist training programs stress common language and analysis of structural racism for successful community organizing. Having that common language in the organization is important, because members noted different understandings of racism. Given these varied understandings, the organization could benefit from discussing how racism figures into their work. Progressive organizations must achieve a balance between talk and action, without relying on racism evasiveness.

~ Angie Beeman is Assistant Professor of Sociology, Department of Anthropology & Sociology, Baruch College-CUNY. 

Norma Rae, Get out of the Way! Income Inequality in the 21st Century

Karl Marx is quoted as saying, “Workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains.” Well the sounds of chains rattling were indeed heard last week on September 4th across the nation within over one hundred cities across the U.S. Sponsored in part by the Service Employees International Union, partakers within the cities of San Diego, Chicago, Las Vegas, Little Rock, New York, and Detroit raged “against the machine,” marched, and created civil disobedience while performing sit-ins outside your favorite fast-food restaurants. If you were lucky enough last week to be in line at McDonalds or Burger King waiting for your “McFlurry,” or one of those new “Big King Chicken” sandwiches, you might have had the chance to feast your eyes upon hundreds of fast-food workers and their supports proclaiming in unisons that the current living wages of most fast-food workers, which is approximately 7.25 an hour, would no longer suffice. If you were in a McDonald’s in Los Angeles’ Southland area, you may have had trouble listening for your food order, because 100 workers conveyed inside and chanted, “Get up! Get down! Fast-food workers run this town!” You might have even seen some of them, like others protesters across the country screaming for a 15 dollar an hour increase as local police forcibly escorted many of them to “The Pokie.”

The case of income inequality is back upon the stage of interests. Within the U.S., between 1979 and 2012,

the median wage earner became 74.5 percent more productive but saw just a 5 percent increase in pay, and since 2000, compensation has declined or stagnated for the bottom 70 percent.

Unlike when I was a teen in the late 1980s while working and goofing off at Burger King with my high school friends, today’s employees are disproportionately adults with families. In fact, the largest share of those working within these positions is between 25 and 54 years of age. This makes the findings by the Economic Policy Institute even more haunting. They reported that out of those fast food workers, 16.7 percent live below the poverty line. This number is double the percentage of those that do not work within the industry. On the other hand, CEO’s of these companies, on average earned 26.7 million in 2012.

If you heard of the events described above last week while watching CNN or Fox, you did not hear them broach the topic of race and gender. Importantly, fifty-six percent of those workers who were 20 years or older adults between 2010-2012, as reported by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, were women. In terms of race, 56.2 percent and 17.5 percent were respectively White and Black. One must remember Blacks only account for 13.2 percent of the country, while Whites account for 77.7 percent. The Urban Institute found that for every dollar Blacks earned in 2010, Whites earned two dollars.

Not so long ago, we as a country Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. told us that we must challenge the issue of income inequality. He stated,

Many white Americans of good will have never connected bigotry with economic exploitation. They have deplored prejudice but tolerated or ignored economic injustice.

In 1956 Rev. Martin Luther King publicly argued for a world in which “privilege and property [are] widely distributed, a world in which men will no longer take necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes.” It seems nothing has changed.

Regardless, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was an outspoken advocate of unions and workers rights. This is marked within his action to march with the United Workers Association (UAW) in 1963 in Detroit. His position is evident within the speech to sanitation workers in Memphis the night before he was assassinated in 1968. Also, one cannot forget the Poor People’s Campaign that addressed issues of economic injustice and poor housing opportunities, for not only Blacks, but also “all” people. Overall, the campaign stressed to the federal government to take actions that illustrated a strong stance to aid the poor. Sadly, his energies even garnished criticism inside and outside the civil rights movement.

Today, his work is echoed within the current movement to gain rights for food and other service workers. But the question remains, will the gauntlet of King be picked up or are the events last week fleeting and follow the characteristic lazy stance U.S. citizens have taken regarding domestic social justice? I am hopeful, but as Gil Scott-Heron noted in a live performance in France, “Lately there has been on spring, no summer, and no fall, politically and philosophically, and psychologically. There has only been the season of ice.” It truly is “Winter in America.”

Justice for Trayvon: Actions You Can Take

Many people are asking what they can do in the wake of the murder of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman. This ‘action kit’ created by the anti-racist action group Showing up for Racial Justice (SURJ) offers some guidelines for steps designed for white people to take, but open to all.

Actions You Can Take: Table of Contents and Links

Below are actions you can take in response to the Zimmerman verdict and violence against people of color, ranging from one minute to a lifetime of action. Please join us in making a commitment to take one or more of these actions in this important time.


Short Actions:

Medium Actions:

Long-Term Actions:

As white people, it is not too much to commit our lives to ending racism. It is, in fact, only right in the light of our history, and through our collective vision and action it is possible. In my shock and grief I can only recommit myself and work hard for a better world for my daughter — and all the children who deserve safety, love, security, opportunity, and the basic right to walk home in a hoodie and not get shot.  ~ Audrey Ward, Mother & Organizer at We are Guahan



Read about and watch videos on the aftermath of the Zimmerman trial and discuss them with white friends, family, and organizations. Check out these links:




On this day I consider myself utterly lucky to have had the company of many people who refused to accept these misgivings, rather than do what is considered “polite” in our culture and passively ignore them, or worse to join me in slipping into a denial where they can believe wholly that they are not any kind of problem.

Because this evening has made it very apparent to me that I would rather be called out, embarrassed, shamed, flunked, fired, pummeled in the street, or called the worst of the worst — a racist — by my closest friends, colleagues, or people on the street than to be allowed by them to continue nurturing ideas, intentionally or unintentionally, taught to me from birth or not, that support a system where an armed white man can stalk an unarmed black teenage pedestrian from the protection of his car, get out of it and confront him against the orders of the police department, respond to that teenager’s alarm and defensiveness by murdering him, and not only walk the streets as a free man after a rigorous trial in our court of law, but set a precedent that allows others to do the same. ~ Erin Zipper, Graphic Artist


SURJ is a national volunteer-led organization of white people engaging other white people in racial justice work. We have chapters across the country and are always looking for new members. To join, go here and we will connect you with other people in your area.

TWO MINUTE ACTION: Sign petitions

Petitions are one way for us to show a united force. Please take a minute and sign these important petitions.

THREE MINUTE ACTION: In just one click you can spread the word through Twitter

Use the hash-tags

Sample Tweets

  • Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers’ sons #blacklivesmatter #Showup4RJ
  • An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere @MLKing #JusticeforTrayvon #Showup4RJ
  • Tell the Department of Justice to file a civil rights action and give your feedback: http://wapo.st/15G9Qbc #JusticeforTrayvon #Showup4RJ
  • White privilege is the difference between life and death. My white son will never be murdered by George Zimmerman. #WeAreNotTrayvon #Showup4RJ
  • Where was Marissa Alexander’s ground to stand? Release Marissa. tinyurl.com/SYGinequity #blacklivesmatter #Showup4RJ
  • Speak out against racial profiling. No more Trayvons. #blacklivesmatter #JusticeForTrayvon #Showup4RJ
  • Every 28 hours there’s another Trayvon. http://mxgm.org/report-on-the-extrajudicial-killings-of-120-black-people/ #blacklivesmatter #Showup4RJ
  • Has anyone ever followed you with a gun because you looked like a threat to their neighborhood? #WeAreNotTrayvon #JusticeForTrayvon #Showup4RJ

It’s not about being “surprised” by the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the brutal murder of a child, an innocent Black teenager named Trayvon Martin. On a conceptual level, I understand that – more than baseball or apple pie — racism is what defines the United States of America. But I will never stop being shocked and heartbroken at this nation’s absolute and profound disregard for the lives of Black people. ~ Harmony Goldberg

5 MINUTE ACTION: Spread the Word Through Art

Share an image (like the one below) on your Facebook page and write a message about why it is important to you as a white person. Thanks to the artists who have offered to use their artwork for this project. Visit their websites to see more of their art. Paste the link onto Facebook, Twitter or Instagram if you post the picture.

Trayvon Martin - Ella Baker
Ricardo Levins-Morales

10 MINUTE ACTION: Donate to a racial justice organization

There are thousands of organizations that are working to combat structural racism in different ways, nationally and in local communities around the country. These organizations depend on the donations of people: 85% of funding for non-profits comes from individuals. Whether you can give $5 or $500, it is a valuable action to contribute your money to make sure that this organizing, educating, and mobilizing continues.

Think about the work that you find most inspiring. Do you think national or local work is more important? Legal strategies? Education? Mobilization? Policy change?

  • Look for organizations that are led by and working with people of color.
  • Ask a trusted friend which organizations they think are doing good racial justice work.
  • Make a gift. Write a check. Put it on your credit card. Sign up as a monthly donor. Whatever you can give will help them do their work more successfully.

Here are a few networks of great racial justice coalitions with local members across the country:

15 MINUTE ACTION: Write a Message and Snap a Photo

We are not Trayvon Martin: Spend a few minutes writing about how you have benefited from your whiteness. This can be in terms of education, housing, medical care, travel, police conduct, etc.  Post it with your photo at We are not Trayvon Martin.

30 MINUTE ACTION: Talk to  people in your life about race

Don’t be in such a hurry to condemn a person because he doesn’t do what you do or think what you think. There was a time when you didn’t know what you know today. ~ Malcolm X

It is tempting to separate ourselves from other white people who disagree with us on this or other racial justice matters. It can be painful to know that someone you know or care about holds views that you know to be biased. However, as white people committed to racial justice, a powerful way to create change is to engage other white people in dialogue, to see talking about race with them as our responsibility.

Think back to how your analysis and perspective were shaped:

  • Listen well to what the other person is saying, and why they see things the way that they do.
  • Ask questions to help clarify.
  • Withhold judgement.  The goal is to move them forward, not to prove something about yourself.
  • How did the people in your life move you through dialogue? When was it about the presentation of facts that you didn’t know, and when was it about shifting a framework, asking questions, or a deeper connection?

The following are some suggestions for how to respond to conclusions white people often come to around George Zimmerman’s recent acquittal for killing Trayvon Martin. The goal is not to read these as a script. Feel free to modify as makes sense for your conversations and life:

Comment: “But the legal system worked the way it is supposed to. If Zimmerman were guilty, he would have been convicted.”
Response: “The legal system is biased against people of color. For example, African Americans are twice as likely as whites to receive the death penalty. If Trayvon had been white, Zimmerman would have done time.”
Follow-up Question: “How do you see bias in the criminal justice system playing out in your neighborhood, town, region?”

Comment: “The problem was the Florida law, with its broad definition of self-defense. It would not have happened in another state.”
Response: “The only thing different about this case is that we heard about it. People of color are being shot and killed all the time, under so-called fair laws.
Question: “What long did it take for past unjust laws to end or change (like Jim Crow, slavery, DOMA)?”

Comment: “The prosecution was incompetent.”
Response: “That may well have been true, but the real problem was that the judge prohibited any talk about race and racial profiling. That’s what the case was about.”

Comment: “But George Zimmerman is Latino. So it can’t be about race.”
Response: “It’s about race because his actions and decisions that night and the coverage and prosecution of the case reflected and held to racist ideology, that automatically deems a young man of color a suspect, and then guilty of his own death.”
Question: “How might structural racism impact the views of people of color differently than white people?”

Comment: “Well, it’s all over now. Time to get on with our lives.”
Response: “It’s not all over. Trayvon’s family can still file a civil suit, which has a more relaxed standard of evidence. And these laws are still on the books around the country. What would it be like if this had happened to your child?
Question: “What do you think would keep this real in white peoples’ lives when the headlines fade?”

Comment: “Then why not let the legal system play itself out.”
Response: “That can take years. What about all the African Americans and other people of color who face the threat of vigilante attacks and biased arrests every day?”
Question: “What do you think could make the legal system work for all people?”

Comment: “Even if people are upset, holding rallies doesn’t help anything.”
Response: “White people need to stand up for racial justice in a public, visible way. Only action can prevent more Trayvon Martins. What can we do today?”

Question: “What can we do today to engage more people more deeply?”

Comment: “I think there’s been too much focus on this one case. It’s time to move on.”
Response: “People aren’t concerned just about what happens to George Zimmerman, but about the ways in which the outcome here continues our society’s precedent of devaluing black life. It makes young black people more vulnerable to being a target for anyone who sees them as a threat.”
Question: “How do you think we can show that all lives–including African Americans and other people of color– matter?”

Comment: “But George Zimmerman is Latino/ Hispanic. How can he be racist?”
Response: “In this country, white skin/light skin people get certain privileges. While Zimmerman is Latino, he benefits from a system that prioritizes white people.
Question: ”How have you seen white people benefit in terms of education, housing, health care, immigration?  I know in my family history, some people received _____ advantage.  What about it yours?”

ONE HOUR ACTION: Do some writing

Letter to the Editor: Write an LTE about why this is an important issue for you and what needs to change. Send it to your friends, family, organizations, and to the local papers. Post it on our Facebook page.

Click here for tips on writing an LTE.

Here are some writing prompts:

  • As a white person, this case matters to me because…
  • The fact that a jury ruled that it was lawful for George Zimmerman to shoot Trayvon Martin demonstrates…
  • Trayvon Martin would still be alive today if…


Now is an opportunity to check ourselves through some honest reflection and let that lead us to thoughtful action.
~ Claudia Horowitz, Stone Circles

1 HOUR + ACTION: Take a day off your usual grind and spend a few hours in the street!

(Sign from SURJ contingent in NYC march for Trayvon Martin, July 14, 2013)

For any action, meeting, or in-person event please take pictures or a short video and upload it to the SURJ Facebook page.

Go to a local action: There (was) a National Day of Action this Saturday, July 20th, and there will be many more to come. See if there is a local action near you and go with some friends. Make some signs to get your message out. Great messages to use:

  • Black lives matter
  • Showing up for Racial Justice
  • Racial justice, not racial profiling
  • Abolish “Stand Your Ground”

At the action: Engage with other white people. Talk to them about why they are there and whether they’re involved with local racial justice efforts.

Hold a house party: To discuss the Zimmerman trial and its connections to other issues such as racial profiling, the mass incarcerations and criminalization of people of color, and/or the impact of stand your ground laws in your state.

Use video to spark conversation: Use YouTube videos, a short movie, or an article on the Zimmerman trial to spark conversation with people in your community. Or go to a movie with a racial justice theme — like Fruitvale Station, about the killing of Oscar Grant by the transit police in Oakland, California — and meet for discussion afterwards.

In addition to the videos listed earlier, here are some possible videos to show:

Additional Resources:

ONGOING ACTION: Support the Voting Rights Act

With the Supreme Court’s recent decision to invalidate key sections of the Voting Rights Act there is a strong need to make sure everyone has access to a vote- particularly in communities of color. Support the Voting Rights Act. There will be national week of action August 24-28th with local actions around the country in honor of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Join a Day of Dignity on August 28th. More details to come.

ONGOING ACTION: Join a local organization; get involved with SURJ!

We meet a lot of white people who care about the issue of equity and justice, but often feel alone and isolated in their neighborhoods, communities, and families. Within SURJ, many of us have also felt ostracized for not going along with the “norm” of how racism happens. That is part of why we come together–so that we have a like-minded, like-valued community who deeply cares that every single human being deserves to be treated with love and respect–and that with a supportive community we are able to take a stand, speak the truth, and be part of creating a better America and beyond.

Contact us to be connected to a local SURJ group or tell help form a local chapter.


If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together. ~ Australian Aboriginal activists

This is a historic moment. There is an opportunity to decide what type of person you want to be — someone who stands up against injustice in all its forms or someone who sits back and watches. What values do you want your peers and colleagues, family members and spiritual community, children and grandchildren to learn from you? As a white person, you have the opportunity to dig down deep and find the person you want to be and live it out loud.

Will you stand up for what is right? Will you dare to speak above the status quo? Will you rise to the challenge of being your best self?

PLEASE DO! We need you! We need your voice, your brilliance, your heart, your soul… we need you to be part of this moment, right here, right now, to create the world we want to all live in. Be bold with us, be courageous with us! No one is free until we are all free!

Showing up for Racial Justice (SURJ) was formed in 2009 by white people from across the US to respond to the significant increase of targeting and violence against people of color in the aftermath of the election of Barack Obama. The case of George Zimmerman is the latest in a long series of extrajudicial (outside the law) killings of people of color in the United States. We mourn the loss of life, see the impact on communities of color and believe that white people must partner across race and other differences to create social change. SURJ is here to provide resources and support for white people to make this happen.

We look to each other to change the world we live in one conversation and action at a time, and our efforts are to build a broad and deep movement of engaged white people to work in partnership with communities of color for real racial justice in the US and everywhere.  Please   join us as we build on a long tradition of white people engaged in racial justice work in our local communities, our states, and around the world.


Racism in Children’s Toys

About a week ago I went to see a friend and his 9 year old. My 3 year old was mesmerized by the big-kid toys. He settled on a ziplock full of figurines. From a distance, I approved. My son is currently obsessed with categorizing and organizing. Bunch of little people he could sort and line up? Seemed like a perfect fit to me.

I should have known better.

5 minutes later I sat down with him and this is what I saw:

My lower jaw fell open in shock. The entire bag was full of these types of caricatures. Mocking and stereotypical images of poor Latino/Hispanic people doing things like selling oranges on the street, sitting fat and lazy in an armchair, or toting a gun. I turned to my son with wide eyes. He looked at me expectantly. For a couple minutes I was tongue-tied. Then I shook myself out of it and clumsily said something about the toys being mean. I took them away, but was left with feeling gross and like the damage had already been done.

Just a cheap toy sold in a cheap store you would never go to? My zip code 98118 was the most diverse zip code in the nation according to the 2010 Census. Many educated, middle-upper income folk who live here consider themselves liberal as well as progressive. There is a neighborhood toy store very popular with the latter crowd that prides itself on the quality of its product. It has a huge Playmobil section. Surprise! Mostly White figurines. The last time I visited, these were some of the very few people of color represented:


Note the portrayal of dark people as primitive and backwards, or scary and dangerous.


When I searched for “family” on the Playmobil website, I get 6 results. Of these, 4 are “modern”: Black (with a basketball), some sort of Euro-Latin-Hispanic, Asian (with a book), and White. Then 2 “historical”: Knight and Native. Apparently Native families only dress in traditional garb, live in Teepees, and go to Powwows?

Here’s more.

In attempting to buy my son diverse play people for Christmas, for lack of anything better, I resorted to Lego’s World People Set.  When it was delivered, my husband and I excitedly tore open the packaging, and then – sat there scratching our heads.

Which people were the Asian ones? Aside from White, what were the other people supposed to be? My husband pointed to the lower left, “Well this is clearly the Asian family.”

“Why?” I asked.

He was stumped, “I don’t know.”

Did they simply make a bunch of the same dolls with the same European features and vary the skin tone? Why does that make me feel strange and a little sick to my stomach?


~ Guest Contributor Sharon Chang blogs regularly at MultiAsian Families (a private blog).

Livestreaming Now: Whiteness & Health Roundtable Today at CUNY Graduate Center (Updated)

The archived video(s) of An Exploration of Whiteness and Health A Roundtable Discussion

is available beginning here (updated 12/16/12):

The examination of whiteness in the scholarly literature is well established (Fine et al., 1997; Frankenberg, 1993; Hughey, 2010; Twine and Gallagher, 2008). Whiteness, like other racial categories, is socially constructed and actively maintained through the social boundaries by, for example, defining who is white and is not white (Allen, 1994; Daniels, 1997; Roediger, 2007; Wray, 2006). The seeming invisibility of whiteness is one of its’ central mechanisms because it allows those within the category white to think of themselves as simply human, individual and without race, while Others are racialized (Dyer, 1998). We know that whiteness shapes housing (Low, 2009), education (Leonardo, 2009), politics (Feagin, 2012), law (Lopez, 2006), research methods (Zuberi and Bonilla-Silva, 2008) and indeed, frames much of our misapprehension of society (Feagin, 2010; Lipsitz, 1998). Still, we understand little of how whiteness and health are connected. Being socially assigned as white is associated with large and statistically significant advantages in health status (Jones et al., 2008). Anderson’s ground breaking book The Cultivation of Whiteness (2006) offers an exhaustive examination of the way whiteness was deployed as a scientific and medical category in Australia though to the second world war. Yet, there is relatively little beyond this that explores the myriad connections between whiteness and health (Daniels and Schulz, 2006; Daniels, 2012; Katz Rothman, 2001). References listed here.

The Whiteness & Health Roundtable is an afternoon conversation with scholars and activists doing work on this area.

Follow the livetweeting on Twitter at @jgieseking (Jen Jack Gieseking) and @SOSnowy (Collette Sosnowy), and via the #DigitalGC. You can also view the compilation of those Tweets on Storify here.

The roundtable is sponsored by the Advanced Research Collaborative (ARC) and the Critical Social & Environmental Psychology program at the Graduate Center CUNY. The event is hosted by Michelle Fine (Distinguished Professor, Social Psychology, Women’s Studies and Urban Education), Jessie Daniels (Professor, Urban Public Health and Sociology) and Rachel Liebert, (PhD Student, Critical Social/Personality Psychology).

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.

A Reflection on Being a White Anti-Racist and a Call to Do It Anyway

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.

“It’s hard to see racism when you’re white”: Un-Fair Campaign

The “Un-Fair Campaign,” a public awareness campaign about racism, is generating some discussion.  In light of the recent video from BYU (see previous post), this campaign makes a lot of sense and is quite timely. The tag line is: “It’s hard to see racism when you’re white.”  The idea behind the campaign: if we recognize racism, we can stop it.

The focus of the campaign is very clearly on white people and this makes sense given the demographics of the region where the campaign is posting billboards.  The Twin Ports (Duluth, MN and Superior, WI) is a predominantly white community (89%).


The campaign is the work of several organizations committed to racial justice in the Twin Ports area, and grows out of a recent Knight Foundation report, called  Soul of the Community. In a three-year study detailed in the report, researchers found that people in this region were less likely to say that it’s a good place for racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, than those in comparable communities elsewhere. Based on these findings, anti-racist activists in the area are trying to change things through the “Un-Fair Campaign.”  Here’s a brief description from the campaign’s website:

People of color experience incidents of racism every day, and they have long asked “when will white people in our community stand up and speak out about racism?”  This campaign is part of a response to that question.  Racial justice will never be achieved until we as white people address white privilege and work to change it.

The insight that “it’s hard to see racism when you’re white,” has been a central message here at this blog for some time, so perhaps not a new or controversial idea for regular readers here.

But the campaign (which just launched January 24) has already generated some heated backlash from whites who are not too keen on the ideas of having their whiteness pointed out to them, much less learning to notice white privilege or acknowledge racism.

The (white) mayor of Duluth has received death threats because of the campaign, and according to one account (h/t Lisa Albrecht, Assoc Prof, U of MN, member of leadership team of SURJ), other activists involved in the campaign are enduring a daily barrage of threatening emails and phone messages suggesting she should leave town, be raped because she ‘hates white people.’  And, of course, the campaign is getting a lot of play on the usual white supremacist sites.

The question the campaign – and the white backlash against – raises a perennial one for those interested in racial justice: how do you get white people to address white privilege and work against it?  The Un-Fair Campaign is an innovative approach to this persistent dilemma. The next challenge will be how to use the backlash to further the cause of racial justice.

Is Redemption Possible for Alexandra Wallace?

Alexandra Wallace, the student who posted the racist YouTube video about Asian students, is withdrawing from UCLA.   University administrators at UCLA opted not to discipline her.  Wallace apologized, called the video a mistake and is leaving the university amid what she says are death threats.   The national conversation sparked by this video has focused on whether the video was racist or not (uhm, yes)  and whether the students’ speech constitutes “free speech” and what right universities and colleges have to regulate such speech.  Predictably, there’s a raft of response videos, including this one with over 2.5 million hits.  The latest twist is the focus on death threats against Wallace as the real harm here, not the supposedly “trivial” racism of her video (this is the popular take over at Stormfront and in a few comments on this blog).  Of course death threats are wrong, and should be condemned (even when they’re described by local police as “more annoying than threatening”).

The question I want to pose for readers this morning is this: is redemption possible for Alexandra Wallace?  And if so, what would it look like?

I agree with @AngryAsianMan when he writes:

I’m actually a little bummed that she’s leaving UCLA. I would have loved to see her continue her education — in more than just political science — and learn a thing or two about co-existing with fellow “Americans” — yes, Asians — in the UCLA community, having to make those walks of shame across campus while forever known as the “ching chong ling long ting tong” girl.

I’m a little bummed, too.   By leaving UCLA and citing “death threats,” this young white woman has re-cast herself as a victim of racism rather than a perpetrator, which is a pretty amazing slight-of-hand given that video.   Given her abrupt withdrawal from UCLA, the re-frame as a white “victim” in this story, I’m not optimistic that she’ll learn from this experience, which she called a “mistake.”

In fact, if I had to predict an outcome, I’d say that Wallace will probably go on to a reality show of some kind and become a darling of the far-right and white nationalists (as she already appears to be).   I think it’s too bad that one of the unintended consequences of the digital era is that mistakes of a 20-year-old can reverberate so widely and so quickly, and that they can live on forever.   For any of us who have lived well passed our twentieth birthday (a couple of times), it’s truly cringe-worthy to think about our younger, often mistake-filled selves being endlessly available online.

I think there’s another scenario possible for Alexandra Wallace.

She could enroll in another school, maybe to study sociology at UC-Santa Barbara or UC-San Diego,  and learn about the legacy of racism that’s been handed down to her.   Maybe she’d even decide to change her name to distance herself from that legacy and this controversy.

I imagine that she would spend a few years reading her way through this list of books and articles, and spend her other time watching these documentaries.  Then, she’d go on to start a series of workshops for college students called “Unlearning Racism” and “Using YouTube for Good and Not Evil.” Or, maybe she’ll start a speaking tour with other whites busted for their own racism online, talking about what they’ve learned from their mistakes.  Or, maybe she’d make her own documentary about white college students working on their own racism.

Or, perhaps inspired by reading Ruth Frankenberg and bell hooks, she’d decide to follow in their footsteps and go on to graduate study at UC-Santa Cruz in the History of Consciousness program, where she’d take a seminar with Angela Davis.   When she finished at UC-SC, she’d go on to write books and articles about white racism.

I believe that redemption is possible for Alexandra Wallace, but it’s going to take more – much more – than an apology and calling this video a “mistake” and withdrawing from school as a victim.   What she’s got to do is somehow bring herself to see this as an opportunity to learn some of the deep lessons about racism that she’s clearly missed in her 20 years.  This series of events could turn into purposeful work and a contribution to society if Alexandra Wallace decided to use her energy working against the corrosive legacy of racism.

It could happen.