An uncomfortable truth?

The whole point of white noise is that it is intended as a (non-exclusive) space for white feminists to explore and confront white privilege, white supremacy and racism. As such, there is a tricky question that we need to answer.

Thanks to a recent comment on The two rules of white advantage I am now in a position to point you to the following places of interest:

The anonymous writer of “White Anti-Racist” presents a pretty compelling parody of the self-congratulatory, self-serving white anti-racist. For example:

Initial learning about or focusing on racism calls into question our often unconscious assumption that because we are white, we are by definition good people. Suddenly, whiteness and goodness are not synonymous! Our taken-for-granted positive white identity begins to crumble and our image is at risk. We feel depressed and listless. We are often tempted to simply deny being white, which makes us look absolutely ridiculous. Being a White Anti-Racist provides strong protection for your positive white identity/image… It works by turning the weakness of attending to racism into a strength… As a White Anti-Racist, you can easily agree with criticisms of even your own racism — while your positive white identity/image remains intact!…

As a White Anti-Racist, you will be able to criticize assumptions of white intellectual superiority while still maintaining your own right to be an intellectual decision-maker. As a White Anti-Racist engaged in discourse against white supremacy, you will have the opportunity to develop and display your expertise related to understanding and interpreting what racism/white supremacy is, and what should be done about it. The discourse focus of White Anti-Racist ensures that you can even question the value of what you yourself do without changing your actual practice or having to give up an ounce of your intellectual credibility and control.

Kil Ja Kim contends in her open letter that there can be no such thing as a white anti-racist, that white people cannot effectively oppose white supremacy because they are irredeemably a part of white supremacy:

Anyone who claims to be white, even a white anti-racist, is identifying with a history of European imperialism and racism transported and further developed into the US. However, this does not mean that white people who go around saying dumb things such as “I am not white! I am a human being!” or, “I left whiteness and joined the human race,” or my favorite, “I hate white people! They’re stupid!” are not structurally white. Remember, whiteness is a structure of domination embedded in our social relations, institutions, discourses, and practices. Don’t tell me you’re not white but then when we go out in the street and the police don’t bother you or people don’t ask you if you’re a prostitute, or people don’t follow you and touch you at will, act like that does not make a difference in our lives…

Additionally, white activism, especially white anti-racism, is predicated on an economy of gratitude… All of these gestures that you do reminds me of how grateful we are supposed to be towards you because you actually (or supposedly) care about what is happening to us. I am a bit resentful of economies of gratitude... But white people need to think of how their activism reproduces the actual structure of white supremacy some—not all whites activists—profess to be about challenging...

Consider what your presence means… What does it mean when you decide that you want to be “with” the oppressed and you end up displacing them? Just because you walk around with your dreadlocks, or decide that you will not wear expensive clothes, or that you want to march in someone’s neighborhood does not mean that your whiteness doesn’t displace people in the spaces you decide to put yourself in.

Finally, this from Barbara Karens’ piece:

Here’s an example that has helped me get clear: I have been reflecting on a conversation I had some time ago with a white anti- racist activist. He explained to me why he felt that it was right for him to get paid to be a white anti-racist speaker and writer. He said that if he did a conventional full-time job, one where he wasn’t getting paid to fight white supremacy, he would be perpetuating the system through that job and would only get to do anti-racist work on the side. He said that the people who have read his writings and heard him speak wouldn’t have had access to what he has put out into the world.

And then he got to the issue of resources. He said that yes, it would be best if resources for fighting white supremacy went to people of color. But, he said, it is clear that the institutions that pay him to do anti-racist work would not pay people of color to do it. He said that his work paves the way for people of color to go into those spaces afterward to do anti-racist work. He said if he didn’t go in initially, these institutions would not have any events or other similar attention to white supremacy.

Looking at this through a white individual lens, his reasoning makes some sense, I guess. He is analyzing the situation in terms of what he, a supposed individual, is doing. As an individual, he can position himself primarily in opposition to white supremacy. He can position himself as someone who is fighting white supremacy, a change agent in relation to these white-dominated institutions, and an ally to people of color.

But if he looked at this through the lens of being part of a white collective, the first question would have to be: “How are my actions serving the white collective strategy to support the survival of the Euro-white system?”

For me, shifting to this lens into the white collective view makes things clearer. For example: White people are not going to pay other white people to fight white supremacy. But this anti-racist white person is getting paid to do *something.* What is he really getting paid to do and how does it support the white collective strategy?

There’s more. All three of these links are well worth exploring in full and bring out not just the points I have picked out above but a whole range of issues that we, doing our best to find a way of being both white and antiracist, should hear.

I think these articles bring up a contradiction that is inherent when a person claims to oppose a system of oppression from which they benefit.

How can a person truly oppose a system when she is inside it, and benefits from being inside it, and has no way to stand outside of it?

If we act, the chances are we will be unwelcome, clumsy, getting in the way, doing the wrong thing, or just plain taking up space. If we talk, and raise our consciousness, but do nothing, then our words are meaningless and self-serving. And if we neither talk nor act then that is the worst of all. And whichever option we choose, we will almost certainly be supporting the white supremacist paradigm in some way, and almost certainly failing to achieve the objectives we claim.

Is it really so hopeless?
Probably.

Should you stop reading this and listen to the words of women of colour instead?
Should I stop writing this and listen to the words of women of colour instead?
Almost certainly.

Do I feel disheartened?
Yup.

Will I stop educating myself and my daughter?
Will I stop looking for opportunities to oppose white supremacy and racism?
Will I stop sharing that journey on this blog?
Nope.

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6 Responses

  1. Bit worried about the dreadlocks reference.
    I’m following a very long line of people of all colours and cultures who have dreadlocks, is this a problem to people of colour? urh????

  2. I think these articles bring up a contradiction that is inherent when a person claims to oppose a system of oppression from which they benefit.

    How can a person truly oppose a system when she is inside it, and benefits from being inside it, and has no way to stand outside of it?

    These statements, and the overall framework they set up, remove cultural specificity from the critiques you are highlighting in this post.

    They obscure while appearing to focus. They lack attention to the specifics of the situation — the way that the European/white culture-behavior system in particular operates in culturally-bound ways to yield the kinds of Euro/white practices that merit the critiques you link to in the first place.

    (eg, see the link to the Yurugu excerpt on whiteantiracist’s How and Why It Works page).

    I would guess that the whiteantiracist team (hey, are you folks reading this? I just sent you an email) would applaud this abstracting move — and the culturally a-contextual reflection that follows –as excellent white anti-racist practice.

    Barbara Karens

  3. Well, here is one perspective on dreadlocks.
    http://www.makezine.org/mohawksdreads.htm

    There is an assumption, especially in the US, that dreadlocks are specific to rastafarian culture / religion, and so can be traced through Jamaica back to Egypt.

    I think in reality it’s a bit more complicated than that and there are other and older traditions going back to ancient times, including Indian yogi and pre-Christian ascetics – although I didn’t find any references to dreadlocks in the old European religions.

    See in particular
    http://www.dreadlocks.org/2/history-of-dreadlocks-andrew-power/
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dreadlocks

    So where I get to is:
    (1) If your reason for wearing dreads is not one of cultural appropriation, if you are claiming dreadlocks as your own culture, then that’s fair enough. But
    (2) Some (but not all) people of colour may have a problem with white dreadlocks regardless of your motivation, given their better known significance as a symbol of black resistance to white supremacy.

    Don’t know if that was any help… xx

  4. Hello Barbara Karens

    I see what you mean – yet at the same time I don’t know how helpful it is to snip a couple of sentences out of the whole post and say “there’s no context” – when the post itself, the blog as a whole, makes the context abundantly clear.

    And, also, I deliberately stripped out specifics in that part of the post, because I personally do find it helpful to switch levels, to point up possible analogies with other, intersecting oppressions. I find that useful because it helps me to apply analysis developed in other contexts (primarily in my case feminist analysis) to throw light on issues that arise in the context of race oppression. Sometimes that can make things clearer for me, not more obscure, to see things in the round and to draw connections.

    I will think about this.

    Best wishes

  5. There have been discoveries of Celtic bodies with persevered red dreadlocks on their heads. There is a lot of messing about with hair to show resistance to the Roman invasion throughout Europe because the romans liked it all nice and neat. Dreadlocks turn up in quite a few Roman accounts of the ‘barbarians’. (So called by the Romans because they couldn’t understand their language and it sounded like they were saying “bar bar”).
    Do I have to explain this to anyone who thinks I have appropriated another culture?
    I’m not a Celt or any one of the Roman resisters. I am a complex hybrid that we in the UK all are.
    I have dreads to identify myself with the ‘Hippies’ who go to the festivals. (Mostly white but not exclusively so and becoming less so recently)
    I probably sound like I’ve got all defensive…and I have! I’m not appropriating Celts, Rastas, Sufis or all the other deadlocked people in history.
    Hmmmm…

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