“The focus on individuals as racists is a dangerous distraction from the real systemic problem of racism”

This whole post including the title is basically swiped from Feministe. Except the lolcats which I is inkluded for gigguls. Ahem.

In this “gotcha!” post, Holly lists sixteen (er, nineteen since I swiped another three from the comments section) behaviours that white people use to deny racism or white privilege and avoid responding to the challenge of recognising and being unable to escape from our white supremacist patriarchy.

In a fit of Liberal White Guilt I’ve starred the ones that I personally do or have done to some degree – or feel and then have to physically restrain myself from doing – although I like to think that my reactions and actions are less whiny and obvious, more subtle – read, more insidious, more deniable. Yes, as you will see, I am and have been very much a white person in denial. Hum. I am resolving to check this list whenever I feel upset, attacked, threatened, put in the wrong or otherwise defensive when challenged about racism or privilege.

(HT: NOLA Radfem.)

The Bootstrap Myth
“Racism is a thing of the past… this is a free country, and anyone who works hard can make it in America.”

The Backtrack *
“Hey, wait a second, that’s not what I meant… I mean… you took my words out of context, don’t make it try to sound like I’m racist!”

The Remove the Right To Be Angry *
“You’re too sensitive… if you weren’t so aggressive, vocal, hostile, angry, or upset, people would listen to you and you wouldn’t get in trouble!”

The Utopian Eye-Gouger *
“I’m colorblind, personally… why can’t we all just ignore race, it’s not like it’s even real… it’s not like I tangibly benefit from being white every day or anything! Can’t we all just get along?”

Turning the Tables
“You’re being just as racist against white people, you realize. You’re being racist against me right now, you reverse-racist hypocrites!”

The Good White Person * (not like those obvious racists!)
“Whoa, that guy over there is SUCH a racist, unlike me… I know exactly the right things to say and I’m never racist. By which I mean overtly offensive about it. Hold on, I think I’m going to go spit on that guy. I hate him.”

The Unblemished Family History *
“Hey, my family never owned slaves, so it’s not like I, as an individual, get any benefit from racism!”

The Bending Over Backwards * (makes you look flexible, but accomplishes little else)
“You people of color are so right. I agree with everything you say. Because you’re right, of course… not just because I’m guilty and white and wrong!”

The Personal Justification
“But a black person, Mexican, mean old Asian lady, or Native American once cut in front of me in line, said something stupid, mugged me, or took my hubcaps! So as far as I’m concerned, they proved all of my prejudices!”

The Loophole of Escape *
“I can’t possibly be a bigot or a racist… I’m part of the oppressed due to the fact that I’m a woman!” (or gay, poor, young, trans, etc.)

The Culture Appropriator *
“Damn, bro! You know I’m down with the homies, I ain’t no wack racist cracker, shiznit.”

The Lean On You When I’m Not Strong *
“Teach me, help me. I’m just a white person, so I need your wisdom as a person of color to show me how not to be racist. Wait, is what I said earlier racist? How about this shirt I’m wearing? Can you come with me to this party, so they know I’m not a racist?”

The Pause for Applause *
“Unlike all those other white people out there, I’m an anti-racist.” (…) “I do anti-racist work and I try to educate other people about anti-racism.” (…) “Wait, did you hear me?”

The Smoke and Mirrors *
“I totally agree. Racism is one system of oppression among many interlocking ones, that specifically awards more privilege and power to all white people, whether they like it or not, and serves to keep the existing power structure in place. Oh… what? You want me to volunteer in a community organization, contribute money, do security for your protest march? Uh… yeah maybe next time, I’ve got to wash my hair tonight. And walk my dog, see the latest episode of Lost, manage my stock portfolio…”

The Penitent Paralysis * (will not truly absolve you)
“Oh my god… that is so awful. I’m so sorry. Sorry. I can’t imagine what it must be like… I’m sorry. That’s so awful. I feel so bad for you. Sorry.”

Whipping Out Your Best Friends * (or children, adds Maia, ruefully)
“Hey, I’m not a racist, OK? Some of my best friends are black. See?”
Best Friend: “Yeah, I’ve known him since we were kids, and he’s never said anything racist to me!”

…and one bonus one for all your folks of color out there.

It Doesn’t Matter What Comes Out of My Mouth, Just Look at My Skin
“What? I can’t possibly be racist. I AM a person of color. How can I be racist against myself, huh? No, I haven’t heard of internalized racism, and I still think affirmative action is reverse racism!”

The Tiger Lily
“I can’t be racist. My mom says I’m 1/16th Cherokee. So I’m a minority, too, and I’m exempt. What? You say I’m blond and blue-eyed, grew up in the suburbs, have no connection to Native culture, and know of no actual Cherokee relatives? Well, one of my Grandmas was adopted. She might have been Cherokee. Or half-Cherokee. Nobody knows, right? Anyway, I’m exempt.”

The Lost in Translation *
“I went to Japan/China/Mexico/Uganda/Malawi/Bangladesh/the neighborhood a couple miles away with the good barbecue joints one time on a tourist jaunt/mission trip/cruise/lunch break, and I was the only white person there. So I get what it’s like to be a minority, you know? I can’t be racist. And man, is it ever scary to be surrounded by black(/etc.) people.”

Throwing Up Your Hands *
“What do you mean I’m part of a racist system no matter how I try to distance myself from it or prove that I think differently?! That’s ridiculous… I guess I might as well give up and join the Aryan Nation!”


Confronting racism: what not to do

I’ve just finished reading Every Light in The House Burning, by Andrea Levy* and the scene from which the excerpt below is taken really struck me.

[* Which is excellent in so many different ways – I will definitely be reading more of Levy very soon! My further comments here.]

To give you some background, the book is based in London with this scene taking place in, I guess, the 1970s. The narrator Angela is the young est daughter of Jamaican immigrants, and the scene follows an incident at Sunday school where a white boy, Michael, has said some nasty, racist things about Angela and the only other black girl there, Ada. This is the reaction of the vicar when the incident is reported to him.

“Now, Miss Thompson has been telling me some very distressing things,” the vicar began. My heart began to thump.
“She has told me that someone has been calling names. We don’t have people calling names in the house of God. Come out to the front…” I waited for Michael’s name to be called. Now, I thought, God will show him how wrong he is, how bad he is to hate difference. But the vicar said, “Ada and Angela.”
At first I didn’t move, I thought he’d made a mistake.
“Come on out to the front,” the vicar said, beckoning us. Sonia pushed me and I stood up and walked to the front. So did Ada, slowly. The vicar put his arm around me and Ada. Ada held her head firmly on her chest. I looked up around me and saw Michael grinning. Then I dropped my head too.
“Now Ada and Angela and their families are coloured, but that does make them any different to you or me. We are all God’s children and in the sight of God, everyone is equal. Now we will sing the chorus together.” The vicar held on tight to me so I couldn’t’ go back to my seat. Then he began to sing “Jesus loves the little children.”
And everyone joined in…
When the chorus was finished the vicar patted us each on the head. Then he let us go.

Look at what the vicar is doing.

  • He is focussing not on the wrongdoer, Michael, but on the wronged, Ada and Angela – thereby increasing their embarrassment and ordeal and letting him go unnamed and unshamed.
  • He hugs the black girls pointedly, and against their will, using them to prove his own non-racist credentials.
  • Then he erases their difference by pretending that they are “no different to you or me” – colourblindness.
  • Finally, he gives the two girls a pat on the head, as if he is their benefactor, and sends them on his way – patronising.

The result – Angela and Ada were excruciated, Michael was grinning.

It just seems to me that this is such a useful demonstration of what white people do wrong when it comes to addressing racism.

The perpetrator is not named; difference is highlighted, but only so that we can better erase it and not so that we can make an effort to accept it or understand what it means; we try and befriend people of colour to use as shields, as incontrovertible evidence of our own good intent; and then we expect cookies.

White mother, light daughter

Who am I?

I am a woman, a mother, a white mother, a single mother, and plenty more besides. What I rarely add is that I am not the mother of a white daughter, but of a light one.

I have had two important reasons for this silence.

One is that my daughter’s identity is not a part of who I am – that I am her mother is a part of my identity; but who she is is not. Out of respect for her privacy, her right to find her own identity, to define herself for herself – for these reasons I have preferred not to impose my own vision upon her, not to develop my ideas about her identity before she is able to develop her own.

The second is that (in terms of discussions of my own white privilege and my own collaboration with white supremacy) I know that this is a distraction. The fact that I married a black man, the fact that I birthed a child who was (however briefly) fathered by a black man, make not a jot of difference. I am not going to play the “I have loved a black man” card, or the “I have birthed a mixed-race child” card because those cards do not mean anything. Those experiences have not made very much if any difference to my white privilege, or to the way I see the world, the way I have been taught to see the world: trading on those cards would be downright fraudulent. So they are not relevant and I have preferred not to muddy the water with what is not relevant.

Well, maybe sometimes things shift a little.

I am finding that “white mother of a light child” is creeping into my identity. I am finding that mothering a non-white child is a topic that I am now ready to explore. I wasn’t until quite recently, and I am still on shaky ground here, but this is important so please bear with me while I grope around for meaning.

Because what I have been remembering of late, and it is no co-incidence that this has been happening in parallel with my emerging at last from a kind of post-marital numbness – what I have been remembering over the last few months is that my daughter is not white.

Don’t laugh.

She has such fair colouring that it is easy to forget: her skin is very light, her eyes are grey, and her hair is made of soft brown curls that shine bright bronze in the sun. Most people who don’t know otherwise don’t even realise that she isn’t white – although that too may shift a little as she grows out of her baby face. In a world where white/light privilege means so much, it has been easy to want to forget – especially when remembering her parentage brought such painful associations, all those memories of hurt. And the task of teaching her, alone, about a part of her heritage that I know almost nothing about (a fact which is not to my credit, I know) has felt so big… There are so many reasons to pretend, to forget, to act as though it makes no difference, to kid yourself that it doesn’t matter.

But my daughter is not white.

And if I don’t help her to find her own identity, then somebody else will. And that, actually, is what I have really been re-membering, coming to understand not just intellectually but in my soul.

I am learning, slowly – perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I am starting to learn – that this can be done. A birthday card from her (paternal) Grandma means I can show my daughter a picture I have of Grandma, and show her Jamaica on the globe, show some more family pictures from her Daddy’s people, few that we have. An interest in Mary Seacole – also a Jamaican nurse, like Grandma – follows and we have been talking about that.

It is easy to try and say too much, too fast. She doesn’t understand much about time. In her Mary Seacole book, there are slaves who make sugar. At nursery, she uses sugar to make a cake. Is that the same sugar? Did people get hurt for that sugar? A long time ago, people were hurt really badly for the sake of sugar. That doesn’t happen any more. Things are better than they used to be. She doesn’t get it, it’s too much, all she can think of is the sugar in those biscuits she made me today.

By little steps, faltering, revising, learning, practising –
little steps will take us a long way.
Because my daughter is not white:
my little, light, beloved daughter
is. not. white.

Which comes first?

When you grow up as a white colourblind individual your instinct is to treat everybody the same, to treat everybody as equals – irrespective of race. That’s how I grew up.

When you grow up that way, and then people start to say to you – no, you can’t do that, you can’t ignore a person’s race, because race does matter – it makes sense and you devise a new approach. You still treat everybody equally, you still give everyone the same respect and offer friendship wherever you can (irrespective of race) but you are aware of race and you become sensitised to issues like racism and cultural appropriation. You realise that there are certain things that you may otherwise have done or said which were not appropriate. You realise that non-white people with whom you interact will have experienced things differently and are likely to have different perspectives on things that you take for granted. You try to listen.

What you have done is to develop a new, apparently better, way of being colourblind. A new way of saying – race does matter, and I can acknowledge your experiences and perspective, and we can still be friends on equal terms, because everybody is the same really and race doesn’t matter really, not underneath it all, does it?

And then you start to think about your life and you say – hey, why do I have so few friends who aren’t white? And you realise that for people of colour living in white supremacist patriarchy, there is little reason to trust white people. Plenty of reason, if you want what white privilege offers, to ingratiate yourself with or work with white people – but little reason to trust and befriend them. And so you start to think – what can I do to change this? I’m not one of those bad white people, they can trust me, what can be done to earn the trust of people of colour? And you start to think – where can I go and what can I do to mix with and make friends with non-white people? And it all seems very difficult and you wring your hands and you wonder – how do I get out of this cycle where I don’t have friends of colour and I don’t know how to change that?

Then, one day, if you are lucky, something will jolt you awake.
A moment of clarity will jolt you out of that helpless chicken-and-egg cycle.

You’ve been going round and round thinking that white and non-white people being together as equals was the way to make racism history, but wondering how you can get together with non-white people until racism is history because racism acts to divide us from people of colour and to stop us from working together on equal terms, but we can’t end racism until we… where was I?

Which comes first – the racist chicken or the divided egg?

Stop that.
Brain: stop that white liberal chattering.

The light is filtering through now and I’m starting to see it.

We can fight racism in our own communities, even (and perhaps especially) if they are communities where people of colour are not present. We can write to politicians and newspapers about race issues, speak up when friends make inappropriate comments or jokes, contribute time or money to antiracist activism. We can raise our children with an understanding of race oppression and white supremacy. We can use our white privilege to make our voices heard, speaking up against racism. We can find ways of subverting, undermining or even (to a limited extent, alas) renouncing white privilege itself.

And we can do all that without making friends with women of colour. We don’t need to make friends with women of colour.

So let’s not go round imposing our good will and our nice white lady badges on people who’ve already got their own friends. Let’s not say: be friends with us, we are offering you equality with us, we honestly honestly don’t care that you are not white, no really its true, we’re not racist, we’re against racism, oh, can’t we be friends? Because that’s not antiracist, that’s colourblindness and we’ve already figured out that being colourblind does not help. It just continues the status quo.

Of course, we need to listen to the words of women of colour, to be on their side, to learn about and then support their demands and their needs. We must be open to friendship or any other relationship of dialogue or engagement that is initiated by a woman of colour out of her own genuine desire… But we also need to remember that the basis of real friendship is equality. And where white supremacy exists, there is no real equality and little hope for much in the way of real friendship.

That sucks. It hurts. It feels wrong. It is still true.

So this is my moment of clarity. I don’t want to end our separation from women of colour as a step towards ending racism. I want to end racism as a step towards ending our separation from women of colour.

The two rules of white advantage

The two rules of white advantage*
by Jeff Hitchcock

Ever since Hitler’s race-based, genocidal empire was defeated, an explicitly articulated white supremacy has been discredited in the United States and Canada. It lingers even today, but in its place mainstream white America has adopted a different set of rules. White supremacy has gone underground, yes, but white advantage, the essence of white supremacy, remains.

White advantage (supremacy) is maintained by two simple rules:

1. You can do anything you want to maintain and enhance white advantage so long as you do not name race.

2. When a person names race, you must immediately admonish and discredit that person as a racist.

These are cultural rules. No one has written them down. Most white people don’t even know when and how they learned these rules-they seem so intuitive to white folks. People of color often do not understand where the rules came from either, and find themselves baffled by the logic white people trot out in opposition to racial dialogue and change.

But the rules have a subtle genius that only folk wisdom can produce. At one and the same time they discredit avowed white supremacy and undermine the moral authority of movements for racial justice by people of color, all the while preserving white advantage (their very purpose) and keeping white people satisfied they represent all that is good and right, racially speaking.

Want to use tax dollars to build a new recreation center in your town? Simply locate it where there are good transportation routes and nearby restaurants and shops. If someone points out it’s in the “white section” of town, brand that person a racist and deny any such motive on your part.

Are you a novice teacher who treats every child the same in your inner city classroom because you don’t see color? In a few years when you live in a big house and send your own kids to a good school in the suburbs, after your teaching experience gains you a transfer to a suburban school system, you probably will continue to not see color. Why should you?

Not everyone is buying this approach nowadays, not even every white person. WACAN members violate these rules simply by joining WACAN. You get your first white anti-racist stripes by having another white person call you a racist for bringing up the topic of white privilege.

Still, it helps to know what’s going on. We react because we see injustice, but we may not understand the rules used by the opposition to keep racial justice movements in their place. Knowledge is power.

Memorize these two rules, watch them operate, and then expose them. Repeat them to anyone who uses them. Repeat them to anyone whose philosophy (colorblindness, for instance) tacitly supports them. Repeat and expose them until they become common knowledge because then they will no longer work.

Cultural rules can only operate when unnamed. Once exposed, they lose their potency and become ineffective. Expose them. Then maybe we can talk about who the real racists are.

* Permission granted to reprint this essay anywhere provided it contains the following credit: Copyright 2008 Jeff Hitchcock. Originally printed in WACANupdate, 2/6/2008. WACANupdate is an electronic periodical published by WACAN.