Friday, October 26, 2012

Friend or Foe? White Allies Who Tell the "Truth" About White Privilege

We are in the home stretch before the election. Consequently, many members of the chattering classes are holding their fire and best shots until the middle and end of next week. In a marathon they say you need to save up some energy and push through the last lap. I am following that rule, and taking the intermission--the lull before the storm--to write about some things which I have been thinking about, but have not the opportunity to share. Election fatigue has set in; let us clear our minds by discussing semi-related matters.

As I like to say, here is something fun for a Friday.

In this piece on Mitt Romney's success in the face of failure, I discussed white privilege.

Said concept is one that many race men and race women have been analyzing for more than one hundred years. The language of "white privilege" has seeped into the public discourse through the work of good folks like Time Wise. And even he would admit that it was people of color like Du Bois, Ellison, and others who had arrived there long before white public intellectuals and activists even uttered the phrase. The reality of white privilege being what it is, the fact remains that many white folks will listen and respond to certain truths from other white people, while simultaneously remaining deaf to the same observations, when they come from a black or a brown person.

I would extend the same model to "straight" people, men, the middle class, and other groups who are defined as "normal" or "ideal" in this society as well.

While watching this interview, one in which a seemingly honest and vulnerable white elder reflects upon white racism, I am made to feel uncomfortable. This interview could do good work with the right audience; on the other hand it feels like a cheap parlor trick where someone conjures up a white person to tell the darker races, the oppressed, and people of color who have had to navigate the color line, exactly what we want to hear.

This interview is the great reveal in a poorly written mystery or heist film where all of the twists and the turns are explained to the audience during the last act. Alternatively, this interview, where the true mysteries of white racism and white privilege are deciphered, is the equivalent of Neo's dialogue with the Architect in the second Matrix film. I liked that scene as a viewer and a fan; in hindsight, it never resonated as a mirror for the real world. The Matrix franchise, despite the many books on the subject, is not offering up a life philosophy to its viewers.

Power is not sitting in a corner, twisting its mustache, moving you and me like chess pieces. Power works more effectively through rewards and incentives than it ever can through punitive moves, punishment, and disincentives. In all, the time that the less-empowered spend looking for its center of gravity, the more strength and resources Power is able to accrue and leverage to keep them in their place.

Secret riddles revealed through bad online documentaries about the Illuminati, or by "street knowledge" such as the Willie Lynch letter, are a fool's errand and a tired detour from the real field of battle: hegemonic power mocks such searchers. Likewise, if Power extends its hand and offers to share a secret riddle or truth, a person should be immediately suspect.

Coming full circle, how should we assess the sincerity of our white allies, and those others who are members of a dominant group, but are ethically and morally compelled to assist those who are subordinant and less powerful?

Most of the white folks who I later found out were true allies in the struggle against white supremacy were often quiet warriors who did the right thing, not because of a pat on the back, or a public interview, but because their conscience demanded it. Those "white allies," many of them "progressives" and "guilty white liberals" crowed the loudest about their accomplishments in helping people of color, but inevitably I discovered they were just racists of a different ideological hue and stripe.

Thus, I am immediately suspect when I see public credit claiming, or reveals about the "truth" of one's kin and clan's shortcomings. Perhaps, I am just jaded and cynical.

Ultimately, who is the exploited in this series of interviews where a white woman shares the "truth" about white racism with a black interlocutor? The older white woman who is telling the interviewer everything that she wants to hear, as she gives a cathartic (and in many ways pathetic) explanation of her complicity with white racism? Or is it the interviewer and the audience who are being played and exploited? Are they/we the real marks in the con?


Anonymous said...

I respect [some] of them but still view them with caution. Tim Wise gets paid a couple grand per speech/lecturs to speak to non-white people about how white people are racist and how we live in racist system and white people just need to know better..blah,blah,blah...but guess what...racism ain't solved yet and Tim Wise has said on record that he is a racist and that ain't stopping them cheques from coming in. There is the complexity of it all. If i as a non-white person did what Tim Wise did, i wouldn't be known and probably won't get paid as much as he does. Shit, both non-white people and white people would give me shit for talking about white people and racism like Tim Wise does. There is nothing that Wise says that hasn't been said by non-white people for decades. Thats how ill white supremacy is. A white person can say i'm a racist, get paid by those who suffer racism and still be labelled as an anti-racist. White people got this shit on lock !

Unknown said...

I found the interview quite boring, until she got into her "duty as the oppressor". This is, in my view as a white person who has spent a wealth of time considering my "place" or "duty" in the struggle for equality, is where the conversation goes in one of two directions. The destructive, ethnocentric, view of whites who are not self-aware enough to realize that even "enlightened" folks can still be racist, OR a self-aware view of the role you play and what your place, or is not, in the struggle. For me, the oppressing group, in any discussion of inequality and injustice, is not at liberty to dictate what should be done. I think this is where the woman really goes down the wrong path, in limiting her involvement to what she must do to liberate the oppressed by stopping her action as oppressor. She still remains the one in power in this construct, thus not really changing anything. At this point, members of oppressing groups must realize that to truly support the struggle, you must recognize your role as an oppressor and instead stand with the oppressed in solidarity, put them in a leadership position, and support them. This comment is probably rambling, long, and not incredibly eloquent. This is a conversation that's best for in person discussion, but I am coming back to this point time and again with white privileged people who dont realize this dynamic, mostly through my experience as a feminist dealing with men who claim to be "feminists" but continue to assert their own power in the struggle, and also as a white privileged person who has thought very carefully about how I can best be most helpful in the struggle for racial and economic justice for all oppressed groups.

Unknown said...

And I even said "put them in a leadership position" above when I should have really just said "follow their lead". My mistake! My point is that the oppressed group's resistance and struggle is genuine, real and anyone who truly wants to support them should get behind them and recognize the power solidarity has. I think...

Black Sage said...

This southern drawl, soft spoken Caucasoid woman is literally a NOBODY! Simply because a guilt ridden, confessing old lady offers up some pointers on the evils of racism (as if Black folks don’t already know or haven’t experienced it) doesn’t at all extinguish the fire or the yearning for true freedom that burns within the collective soul of the Black man.

White folks may continue to speak of racism the evils of racism until they turn purple in their faces for all I care. The only White man that I’m aware of that I could truly say was interested in wiping out racism because they saw the evils that it persistently wrought upon Black people, was the inimitable, John Brown. He didn’t just speak of racism, he acted! This is what Black folks need to do, if we could only strategically and properly organize ourselves.

Scholar and social activist W. E. Dubois spoke of the “psychic wage” of being White. The ontology of this phenomenon still holds true today, even as some Whites rage against this scourge and obvious sickness of racism. It’s still beneficial to Whites, even if they’re unconscious of this fact.

fred c said...

I don't feel like I need to be guilt ridden about the whole thing. I did, however, acknowledge in my own life that White Privilege exists; that I had greatly benefited from it; that the phenomenon had engendered many horrors; and that by having accepted the benefits that it conferred I had to accept some group responsibility for the whole thing.

But guilt ridden, I don't think so. I mean, I'm not tearing out my hair, crying at the moon. I just resolved to do things, to take action, to balance out my involvement in the problem, quietly.

There I'm with Black Sage, talking about it is probably just a waste of time. Action is called for. I'm no hero, but I began to do things, I had a plan. Definitely no "this timely assistance brought to you by the White Man" bullshit, and no preaching. Just some little something, some involvement, with a smile. Or a well placed word or two to one of my fellows who hadn't gotten the memo yet, or some guidance for my children, or their little friends. Call it active awareness.

Not familiar with this Tim Wise fellow, but do you mean to suggest that a White man can get paid for talking about this stuff? That's a kick right there. Please automatically discount the words of anybody who's getting paid.

ABW said...

I was glad to see I wasn't the only one feeling that something was a little bit off. I didn't see the vid, as I figured it was going to be one big therapy session for home girl. I'm also not to go on and on about something I didn't watch. So I'll tackle the subject matter, which for unknown reasons has been close to my heart lately. I think I'm in agreement with the other people here about the larger need for action, rather than words alone. Racism is taught, racism is learned. And everyone is living in a world in which racism permeates every aspect of it.

Yes, white privilege exists and yes, the first steps are to acknowledge it, understand it, accept that you as a white person continuously benefit from it and then what steps next to take? How can you take action? The answers to those questions and others are out there, and not so hidden as some would try to make you believe.

I had to let this article marinate a few days before replying. I'm a long-time lurker here, and this is my first unlurk. Chauncey, I like what you said about the "quiet warriors". I may have met a few of those along the way, but like your experience, it takes awhile to realize who they even are, since horn-tooting is not their style.

re Tim Wise and other whites who get paid for their antiracist lectures, books and whatnot: Sorry to say, but the system is set up for more credibility, and attention being paid to, and even sitting down and listening when a white person speaks on antiracism than any POC. At this point in the game I'm tired - no - exhausted mentally, spiritually and physically with my own antiracist struggle. At this point I'm all go ahead boo boo make that paper what the fu*k ever. If one person even just one in any of his lectures or a reader, just one reader of his books turns into a quiet warrior and in turn goes on to affect those same changes in other whites - then good. That isn't to say I still don't have a level of discomfort about yet another making some dollars from the struggles of POC, but like I said, I'm at the point where I gotta pick my battles.

Thank you always for sharing your thoughts, I may not always agree, but I always read. Thank you for letting me share mine.

chaunceydevega said...

@ABW. Thanks for commenting. Do unlurk. I like Tim Wise. Even he admits to that dynamic being in place. What to do about it practically?