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.