Proud to be White?

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.

The Asymmetry of Racism

Many whites, even white anti-racists, want to place themselves at the heroic center of any narrative about racism or equate their experiences with those of people of color, and thus misunderstand the asymmetry of racism.

Last year, the news carried a number of reports that genealogical researchers uncovered a connection between the families of Al Sharpton, African American civil rights leader, and Strom Thurmond, former U.S. Senator and ardent supporter of segregation. While Sharpton was open to and intrigued by this revelation, Thurmond’s descendants’ response has been denial and, then ultimately, silence. In the wake of his discovery that his family had once been owned by Strom Thurmond’s family, Al Sharpton said:

“I wrote my name and … had to come to terms with the fact that this was a name given to me by slaveholders.”

The Thurmond family issued no similar statement reflecting on their slaveholding past. The different responses from Sharpton and Thurmond’s family reflect the asymmetry in excavating the racial past.

Part of how white supremacy works is that whites must configure themselves as the center of a heroic narrative. In the Sharpton-Thurmond history, there’s simply no way for the Thurmond family to configure themselves as heroic, so they deny the story’s veracity and refuse comment. It’s very similar to the stories of the Holocaust, like Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” where everyone in the audience is meant to identify with the heroic Schindler, rather than with the Nazis. (And of course, Spielberg’s version of this history is an altered and sanitized version that ignores Schindler’s collaboration with the Third Reich.)  White Americans want to be the Spielberg-version of “Schindler” in the narrative of racism in the U.S., innocent of any culpability and also heroic in their defense of racial equality.  Yet, the evidence doesn’t support this.

Instead, the evidence suggests that a significant proportion of whites today continue to engage in two-faced racism and actively discriminate. In addition, there are hundreds of thousands of whites alive today who are descendants of slave-owners, organizers of lynch mobs, crafters of racially discriminatory deed restrictions, and millions who followed along with and benefited from these architects of inequality. Yet, it’s incredibly rare to see a white person who looks this history in the face and tells the story. There are exceptions to this rule, of course. Mab Segrest has a wonderful book, Memoir of a Race Traitor, and Ed Ball traces his family lineage to their slave-owning past, in his Slaves in the Family, and I did a little of this in the preface to my first book.

Still, it is African Americans and other people of color who do the bulk of the hard work of excavating the racial past, even when it is painful. The Museum of Modern Art recently included an exhibition of work by photographer Carrie Ann Weems, called “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried,” in which the artist reproduces nineteenth- and twentieth- century photographs of black men and women, from the time they were forced into slavery in the United States to the present. The artist has rephotographed the images, toned them in red, and across the glass frames, added text. As described by the MoMA catalog, the rephotographed images and text “evoke the layers of prejudice imposed on the depicted men and women.” The artist, in her audio supplement to this piece, says:

“When we’re looking at these images, we’re looking at the ways in which Anglo America, white America saw itself in relationship to the black subject. I wanted to intervene in that by giving voice to a subject that, historically, has had no voice. … a strategy that I hope gives the subject another level of humanity and another level of dignity that was originally missing in the photograph. ‘From Here I Saw…’ is perhaps one of the more painful pieces I’ve made. When I look at it, when I study it, I cry. It is a very sad piece. And, at the same time, of course, there is always hope that’s located within sadness as well, the hope that in the end, our mutual humanity will be understood and embraced.”

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. For those who were victims of oppressive systems, revisiting history as Weems does in her work, reclaims those lives and resituates them in a different context. While for those who have been architects and benefactors of oppressive systems, such as the Thurmonds, revisiting a history of unearned privilege based on racial inequality may result in shame at what their ancestors perpetrated as white slaveowners.

The asymmetry of racism reflects the unequal power relationships in our society. The challenge for those of us interested in creating change is finding a way to get whites to acknowledge systemic racism without configuring themselves as heroic, central figures or equating their experience with that of people of color. What this requires is for white people to work in coalition with people of color and to listen to the experiences of racial discrimination that people who bear the unequal burden of systemic racism without trying to take center stage.