“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!”

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Buffalo soldiers

This is a part of American history of which I was entirely ignorant before today.

For fellow non-US readers (and for US readers who aren’t up on their history!) here is a potted version: after white men “freed” the black people they had enslaved, they enlisted many black men into the white army (in segregated regiments, naturally) so that the white army could continue the fight to dispossess Native Americans of their land and, if possible, eliminate them altogether. Oh yes, and to fight imperialist wars abroad, for the benefit again of white patriarchy.

This excellent article decries the continuing miseducation of black Americans about this “glorious” episode in black history.

The pay of the Black soldiers in the war was less than what whites received. “Yet,” the Chronicle assured us, “many Black men enlisted out of sense of duty and honor to their country and their people.” In what way were they serving or honoring their people by fighting for a criminal ruling class in its wars against oppressed freedom fighters?

Eighteen Buffalo Soldiers, the article states, received the Medal of Honor for valor during the Spanish American War. But the article does not mention the many Black soldiers who were disgusted by the racist slaughter and deserted from the Army-some of whom fought instead with the Filipino freedom fighters against U.S. colonialism.

(HT Dark Daughta)

The look of the future?

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Currently there is much outrage at the above racist video. I post it so that you can see it if you wish (blurred to protect the identity of those involved). However, I will warn you right now that it is about white Afrikaaner students feeding urine-soaked food to older black workers. So you probably won’t want to see it, right?

Four white students persuaded a group of low-paid black workers (one man and three women, who all worked at the university as cleaners) to join in what they apparently told them was a mock-up of the TV show “Fear Factor”, a competition where the prize was a bottle of whisky. These people knew and were fond of the students – perhaps they were cleaners who serviced the students’ rooms – and one of them has said she looked on them “like sons”. So it probably all seemed like a great hoot when their young friends suggested a fun afternoon in friendly competition. Umph. So, using this pretext, the white boys persuaded these people who trusted them to eat food which looked pretty disgusting even before one of the students urinated on it. (NB there is some doubt about whether it was actual urine or whether he was just pouring water on it and pretending to urinate – frankly I’m not sure that in the general scheme of things it makes much difference but, for what it’s worth, from looking at the video the “competitors” do seem to gag pretty quickly.)

The video was made as a protest against integration of their college dorm. Currently, the dorms are largely still segregated, even so many years after the official end of apartheid. The university is, belatedly, trying to do something about this. The white boys don’t like it. The end of this video, in which white boys made black women eat piss, says (in Afrikaans) “That, basically, is what we think of integration.”

(See also here, here, here, and here.)

That this is disgusting, that this merits the outrage expressed – no doubt.

(Although it is worth noting that plenty of things happen every day which don’t get such outrage. Poor black people starve or die of *easily* preventable diseases, they go missing or are assaulted, even killed, every day in South Africa. Who even finds out about those cases, let alone reports them internationally? Remember that, as well.)

But what worries me is that (notwithstanding the hot denials of Afrikaans organisation “Freedom Front Plus”, who exist to further the interests of white Afrikaners in Africa by opposing such things as affirmative action, the reclamation by black people of their right to name their own land, and generally anything that seeks to redress the balance by reducing Afrikaner privileges) this is not a one-off freak atrocity that nobody could have predicted. It is absolutely the sort of thing that happens when privilege is taken away from people. It is absolutely the sort of thing that happens when “entitlement” is denied to spoiled white people who do not even understand what they have as a privilege. And it is absolutely the sort of thing that will happen again and again as we struggle against white supremacist patriarchy, as we force people to give up the fruits of their forefather’s thefts. Not just in South Africa. All over the world.

People, the fight is going to get worse. When we “win” by taking back what white men have appropriated to themselves, what they have appropriated for so long that they no longer even remember the theft, they will get angry. They will get mean. They will piss on our food, on our bodies, on our children. It’s only when we are being pissed on that we will know we are making inroads, that they are running scared, that they know they have lost the long fight and are left only with the petty reprisals.

When we fight white supremacist patriarchy, this is what we have to look forward to.

Fannie Lou Hamer

hamer.jpg

Fannie Lou Hamer was born in Mississippi in 1917, one of twenty children of a sharecropper family. She began to pick cotton at the age of six and worked in the fields as a plantation timekeeper until 1962, when she lost her job after registering to vote. Hamer, who was the mother of two children, was jailed in 1963 and severely beaten for attempting to integrate a restaurant. She was under constant attack for her civil rights leadership and narrowly escaped being shot. Her home was bombed in 1971.

Hamer worked to organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and was one of three Black candidates running for Congress from her state and garnered 33,009 votes.

She also lectured extensively, and was known for a signature line she often used: “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” She was a powerful speaker, and her singing voice lent another power to civil rights meetings.

Hamer helped found the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971, speaking for inclusion of racial issues in the feminist agenda.

Fannie Lou Hamer died in Mississippi in 1977. She had published To Praise Our Bridges: An Autobiography in 1967. June Jordan published a biography, Fannie Lou Hamer, in 1972, and Kay Mills published This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer in 1993.

The special plight and the role of black women is not something that just happened three years ago. We’ve had a special plight for 350 years. My grandmother had it. My grandmother was a slave. She died in 1960. She was 136 years old. She died in Mount Bayou, Mississippi.

It’s been a special plight for the black woman. I remember my uncles and some of my aunts–and that’s why it really tickled me when you talked about integration. Because I’m very black, but I remember some of my uncles and some of my aunts was as white as anybody in here, and blue-eyed, and some kind of green-eyed–and my grandfather didn’t do it, you know. So what the folks is fighting at this point is what they started. They started unloading the slave ships of Africa, that’s when they started. And right now, sometimes, you know I work for the liberation of all people, because when I liberate myself, I’m liberating other people. But you know, sometimes I really feel more sorrier for the white woman than I feel for ourselves because she been caught up in this thing, caught up feeling very special, and folks, I’m going to put it on the line, because my job is not to make people feel comfortable–(drowned out by applause). You’ve been caught up in this thing because, you know, you worked my grandmother, and after that you worked my mother, and then finally you got hold of me. And you really thought, people–you might try and cool it now, but I been watching you, baby. You thought that you was more because you was a woman, and especially a white woman, you had this kind of angel feeling that you were untouchable. You know what? There’s nothing under the sun that made you believe that you was just like me, that under this white pigment of skin is red blood, just like under this black skin of mine. So we was used as black women over and over and over. You know I remember a time when I was working around white people’s house, and one thing that would make me mad as hell, after I would be done slaved all day long, this white woman would get on the phone, calling some of her friends, and said, “You know, I’m tired, because we have been working,” and I said, “That’s a damn lie.” You’re not used to that kind of language, honey, but I’m gone tell you where it’s at. So all of these things was happening because you had more. You had been put on a pedestal, and then got only put on a pedestal, but you had been put in something like a ivory castle. So what happened to you, we have busted the castle open and whacking like hell for the pedestal. And when you hit the ground, you’re gone have to fight like hell, like we’ve been fighting all this time.

Excerpted from “The Special Plight and the Role of Black Woman,” Speech given by Fannie Lou Hamer at NAACP Legal Defense Fund Institute, New York City, May 7, 1971.

Source: Black Women in White America: A Documentary History, ed. by Gerda Lerner, pp. 609-610. Random House: 1972.

Fannie Lou Hamer, by Jane Johnson Lewis.

On claiming sisterhood

White women, especially middle-class white women, are raised to expect isolation from other women, a closed life within a nuclear family. We are raised to compete with other women, especially other middle-class white women who are supposed to be our nearest rivals in the all-important quest for good husbands.

When we discover feminism, we discover that this is harmful, to ourselves and to other women. We realise that we need instead to build sisterhood – to reject the cattiness, competition and isolation we were told was the natural state of things. We may make this a personal project, a self-improvement goal to which we give urgent priority. Sisterhood, it feels so good, to stop tearing each other apart.

Sometimes what we end up with is almost a reflexive negative reaction to words or actions that strike us as unsisterly. We develop an instinct against the tactic of doing another woman down for any reason at any time – we insist on focussing our attention instead on the real source of harm, on patriarchy and the menz…

But do we go too far?

I suspect that we privileged feminists are not just opening ourselves up to sisterhood. We declare* sisterhood. We claim sisterhood, even where it does not (yet?) exist. Worse, when we claim sisterhood with the women who are more oppressed than we are, we can end up insisting that they extend sisterhood to us, and we can end up expecting that this should happen on our own terms. On our terms.

(*On a related point, declaring alliance, see here.)

The trouble is that our terms, our white (often middle-class) terms may preclude honest engagement in favour of a perception that restraint must be exercised over “unsisterly” conduct. Our constructed sisterhood may silence women by denying them the space to speak their truth, their pain, to call out their challenges to our own fundamental ways of being, even to our ways of sistering.

The trouble is that our terms do not provide for power differentials – they tend to posit that in sisterhood there are no power differentials, we are all equal here, just women together… and because our terms do not leave room for the effect of power differentials that do not in fact go away just because we say they have, our terms favour those who are in fact more powerful. Us.

What does that mean in practical terms?

It means that when we come across a (white, privileged) woman who is saying something that we do not agree with, something that is racist or that supports white supremacy, we do not speak up. We are reluctant to be unsisterly. We turn a blind eye. We either move quietly away or we stay but ignore the person’s faults, focussing instead on her positive contribution to (white, privileged) feminism. Thus we tacitly perpetuate her mistaken and probably unintentional support for white supremacy.

It means that when we come across a (nonwhite, less privileged) woman who is saying something that challenges us in direct, confrontational ways – with power, anger and certainty – we experience that as an attack, as unsisterly, as Not Feminist. Instead of listening, trying to understand, engaging – we move quietly away. We do not ride out to meet the challenge that has been offered us; instead we put up defensive walls and mutter behind them about how we women are not the real enemy.

Honestly, which is more sisterly?
Striving to be heard or striving to play nice?
Striving to listen or striving to hide?

We need to be careful about claiming sisterhood with women who do not consent.

And we need to acknowledge that offering our selves as sisters means more than just dumb love. It means engagement, it means respect, and it means speaking up when something is going wrong.

“On Being White,” by Marilyn Frye

[B]eing white-skinned means that everything I do will be wrong–at the least an exercise of unwarranted privilege–and I will encounter the reasonable anger of women of color at every turn … as a white person one must never claim not to be racist, but only to be anti-racist. The reasoning is that racism is so systematic and white privilege so impossible to escape, that one is, simply, trapped … I have enjoined males of my acquaintance to set themselves against masculinity … Likewise I can set myself against Whiteness.

Frye, Marilyn. “On Being White.” The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory. 1983. Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press, pp. 126-7. Via Amy.

On our “declaring” that we’re white allies

Justice Walks has a new post up that speaks to some of what we’re trying to do here at this blog. 

I’ve declared myself “ally,” precisely in this patriarchal context. Thanks, Justice Walks, for pointing that out.  It should have been a no-brainer! But, as I’m learning here, our white privilege has served to blind us to the obvious, effectively and repeatedly.