Teach-In – Dec. 1, 2016
What Should White Antiracists Do?
I was asked to speak for a little while about what white people at St. Mary’s ought to do in the wake of the election. I’m going to focus in particular on what white people who identify as antiracist or who claim to be for racial justice ought to do. I’m going to argue that we should do two things: we should understand what whiteness really is and we should then, having done so, stop making things about us and actually stand up for and with those who are more vulnerable and less privileged.
So, with regard to the first point: white antiracists should understand three things in particular:
1. Race is not biological – at least not in any morally important sense – but is socially constructed. I think we should follow philosopher Sally Haslanger (among others) to understand race as a way of socially positioning people in the world, and to have that social position determined largely by your appearance. So, on this definition, to be black or brown is to be socially subordinated – it’s to be more likely to be subjected to police violence, to have it be harder to get a loan, get a job, get an apartment, to be more likely to be arrested and convicted of a crime, to be less likely to be respected, to be heard and listened to, to be less likely to wield political power, it is to have less social power, and to be more likely to be marked out as criminal, deviant, or the Other.
To be white, on the other hand, is to be socially privileged in a host of ways. It’s to be able to command respect without having to first earn it, to be listened to (and deferred to) when you’re speaking, to be more likely to be seen as a good fit for a job, for an apartment you want to rent or home you want to buy, to be more able to influence politics, to not have to fear encounters with the police - or really anyone - and to get to walk around in the world as the person for whom it was designed and built. It is, in short, to be the norm against which all others deviate.
To be clear: that’s what it means to be white in the United States today. Hopefully that isn’t what it will always mean; I take it our goal here today is to think in part about how to change things so that they don’t stay this way. But, that’s where we are, here in Southern Maryland, on December 1, 2016.
2. Ok, next point: I was a bit too quick in point one, because I spoke as if whiteness itself functions to secure all of those benefits. And it does, but it doesn’t do so alone; it often has allies. For instance, gender and class, religion and nationality, ability, gender identity, and sexual orientation, often work to increase or diminish the power that any particular white person has. So, when I said that part of what it means to be white is generally to not have to fear other people, what I really meant was that part of what it means to be a straight, wealthy white man is to not have to fear anyone. Lots of you know that what I’m describing is what is called intersectionality. That’s just the recognition that we experience the world from complex intersections of various identities that can’t just be added up but intersect in unique and important ways to bestow someone with particular forms of privilege or subordination.
As another example, note that in our world today Islam and race are inextricably linked with each other. In general and for most people, if I say the word “Muslim” I’m betting that someone with brown skin comes to mind. And, since race is about social positioning in virtue of your appearance, then being Muslim becomes racialized. What that means is that, in the United States today, you can’t talk about Islamophobia without also talking about racism.
3. The last thing white antiracists should understand is that all of the forms of advantage and disadvantage I’ve been describing - all the forms of privilege and oppression - are structural phenomena and not merely forms of interpersonal action. This is easy enough to say – it’s become commonplace to talk about social systems and about structural injustice – but I think it’s often pretty hard to really get your arms around. It’s not that it’s necessarily that hard to understand, but when you live in a privileged social location, it is often hard to perceive or to recognize when you encounter it.
So, let me just say quickly what I mean by it. To talk about oppression and privilege as structural is to say that they exist above and beyond the actions of what any individual actor does. And, it’s to say that the systems we’re living in – which are systems of white supremacy and male supremacy – are going to tend to make it the case that for any particular person who falls into the “appropriate” place in the world will likely be subjected to the forces that I named above.
This is managed and regulated by way of racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic ideologies; background stories that we tell ourselves, background scripts in which individual people merely play a part, that say that it’s fitting or appropriate to subject some people to certain kinds of harmful treatment and to open the door for others to enjoy greater freedoms, enhancements of autonomy, and more thoroughgoing opportunity.
Note that none of this to say that white people cannot be oppressed; they certainly can in a host of ways. For instance, poor or working class white people can be economically oppressed – they can be exploited and marginalized – but they aren’t oppressed in virtue of being white. Instead (to paraphrase philosopher Marilyn Frye) whiteness is something that white people have going for them, even if their economic class or some other aspect of their social location works against them.
So, when I said at the outset that part of what white people should do is to recognize that race is not biological but socially constructed, that’s what I meant: it is about recognizing that to be white, and specifically to be white men, is to be socially privileged and able to move about the world more freely, with fewer hindrances and penalties and with more opportunities.
Ok, so on to my second main point:
White antiracists should stop making it about them. I’ve just gotten through noting the ways that the world is set up to make it about white people and I think it’s well-past time that we change that fact.
But, that’s hard to do, because it turns out that in a world as thoroughly white supremacist as ours, it’s easy for genuine efforts to step back and get out of the way to still end up refocusing the conversation on white folks.
To see how, consider a few actions that have become commonplace among white people who are “woke” – who are for racial justice:
1. Claiming that they want to be good allies;
2. Acknowledging and owning their privilege;
3. Acknowledging and owning their ignorance;
4. Admitting to being racist, or saying that everyone is “a little bit racist”;
5. Claiming that they couldn’t begin to understand what it means to occupy a different social location.
I want to grant – and I mean that sincerely – that lots of the time when white people say any of those things it’s coming from a good place – a genuine attempt to “check their privilege” or to grapple with the privilege I’ve just gotten through describing.
And, I think sometimes it’s important for people to do that. But here’s the thing: once you’ve done it, you have to move on. And I really mean that! You have to keep moving!
Because a lot of the time I think that’s where white antiracists stop.
They stop with saying they want to play a supporting role without actually being supportive.
They acknowledge and own their privilege and then exercise it by refraining from going on to actually do something about the social structures that bestow it on them.
They acknowledge and own their ignorance and note the ways that they don’t understand features of the subordinated world that are not made readily available to them without, you know, reading a book or watching a documentary or talking with a friend who has a different perspective on the world.
It is so easy to feel self-satisfied in confessing – and that’s really what it is: confession – that there are not only things you don’t understand, but things that the world is structured to prevent you from understanding, and then to stop there and just revel in that ignorance. Don’t stop! Do what we’re all here at St. Mary’s to do! Acknowledge that you don’t know things about the world but then seek to change that.
And finally, white people often acknowledge that they are racist, or “a little bit racist,” or racially biased, or whatever. That can be an important moment; it’s an important thing to accept that you might feel fear or hatred, disregard or a lack of concern, jealousy or envy, or simply the desire to hoard all the resources and opportunities you can in comparison with someone who is socially subordinated to you.
I’m here to say today that you should do that – confess that – and then let it go and keep moving. Because folks who don’t have the privilege that you do need you to move past yourself, and move past your hand-wringing, and move past worrying about the state of your soul, and get to work trying to change things, to stand up for your colleagues and friends, your students or teachers, your coworkers and neighbors, who are subject to all manner of violence: physical, spiritual, economic, and conceptual.
White antiracists: I’m here to say today that we have to stop making it about us. That means not only recognizing the ways that it has unjustly been about us for a very long time, but then moving on from that fact in order to try – with all our might – to change things in a structural way, so that whiteness will stop being a thing, and so that we will no longer have anything to confess.
And, in the unjust meantime (until we have brought about a day where whiteness no longer exists) we ought to refuse to comply with any efforts that seek to oppress those in our communities – local, national, and international – who lack the privilege or power that whiteness confers.
But, very locally here on St. Mary’s campus, I’m here to say that if they – if anyone – comes for vulnerable members of our community – for black or brown, for Muslim or Jewish, members of St. Mary’s College – white antiracists ought to refuse to comply, to stand up against them and say no: you cannot have them, you cannot do that to them, because we are here, we stand with them, and we won’t let you.