Saturday, November 14, 2009

get fed up sometimes with their white liberal acquaintances

This is a guest post by Harriet Jacobs, who blogs at Fugitivus. She describes herself as "a mid-twenties white girl living in the Midwest. I work at a non-profit that assists families and deals with a lot of racial politics." Regarding her pseudonym, she writes, "My username is Harriet Jacobs, an homage to the author of an autobiography of a life in and escape from slavery. Harriet Jacobs was a helluva woman. . . . I’m not trying to build up a comparison, even metaphorically. I’m just trying to tell you that Harriet Jacobs is the shit."

This post is part of Harriet's "Daily Dose of Racism Series," which continues here.

A conversation with white, liberal, educated acquaintances took a turn into Conservative Talk Radio Land once the subject of Affirmative Action was breached. All these acquaintances have, in the past, even in the same conversation, complained about the total incompetence of many of their fellow white students, but those complaints never took the extra step of assuming these incompetent students attend school due to unfair advantages conferred upon them by their race.

As soon as race became a factor, all the liberal racism came pouring out, from the disclaimers about how certainly “they” and “those” and “inner city” people have had unfair advantages from the start, how some of them don’t even know how to raise their children, and racism is bad, y’all. I’ve come to consider this the white liberal way of saying “I’m not racist, but,” now that “I’m not racist, but” has become a more identifiably racist phrase. Now it’s “I have a tertiary, surface understanding of and sympathy for the buzzword social issues I generally hypothetically know racism is a part of, but black people sure are stupid.”

I acted out a little. When talking with liberal white racists, the kind who stumble like frightened rabbits over “AfricanAmerican black colored uh personofcolor I mean colorblindcolorblindcolorblind,” but can say quite clearly and without a fear-ridden speech impediment, “Some of these people don’t even know you’re not supposed to hit children,” I like to rephrase things more bluntly. Nine times out of ten, it just makes everybody too uncomfortable to go on. One time out of ten, it triggers a healthier, more honest and genuine discussion, now that the pent-up “is it okay that I say this?” is out of the bag. I said, “Programs like affirmative action are made to make whites feel better about being racist, because look, we threw all this money at the darkies and they’re still stupid drug addicts on welfare. Obviously we can’t do anything to fix these people.”

Unfortunately, this time, neither thing happened. There was just a general nodding of heads and, “Yeah, white racists, they’re bad,” before a segue into, “There’s this not-white kid in my class who is like soooooo dumb and seriously, you’ve got to figure that’s why he’s even there.”

Okay, so this is a racist thing, obviously, but it’s not the point of my post. Neither is affirmative action the point of my post, because I have a sort of complicated opinion about that. My point is, my white acquaintances presumed an awful lot on our shared ethnicity. They presumed that this was a safe social space to express their racist beliefs, and have them reassured as normal (white), rational, and logical (unracist) beliefs. They presumed that I would either agree, not care, or not disagree enough to argue. And they presumed all that because I am white.

That did not feel like a safe social space to me. As I started to disagree, I could feel the undercurrent of uncomfortable hostility begin to grow. When I went quiet, the hostility just grew in me instead. Which is maybe a little like what it’s like to be not-white. I didn’t feel comfortable making what was obviously a passing chit-chat — “Did you hear about the guy who threw his shoes at Bush? Oh, that’s funny. Yeah, the weather’s been bad. No, school’s okay, except black people are stupid. Hey, how’s your mom?” — into a centerpiece of awkward unexamined beliefs that trigger conflicted rage and guilt. That was not the casual evening I envisioned when I went out for a goddamn burger with some folks I knew.

I didn’t feel comfortable doing that because I knew it would have gone a whole lot of nowhere — liberal white racism is oftentimes as bulwark and unassailable as white power racism — and I would have ended up fuming for days, over people whom I have very little emotional investment in. And that also bothered me. These acquaintances are not the most important people in the world to me, not by far. They are nice enough. I was not seeing us becoming closer friends, but I wasn’t set against that happening. Except, now I am. Because that is not a safe social space for me. Because while, if the stars aligned, I may have been happy to put the effort and energy into forming a deeper, friendlier relationship with them, I am not willing to put the effort and energy into explaining to them that racism is bad, and also, by the way, that was some racist bullshit out of your mouth there. I don’t want to explain that any more than I want to explain to somebody that you don’t come into my house and shit on my rug — they’re adults and they should goddamn know.

This is what comes of being the “right” race in a racist society. You are an assumed depository for vile, racist conversations and opinions, and your assumed compatriots operate under the belief that this is not damaging, enraging, difficult, isolating, or painful to hear. I do not feel like an overtly radical person. On the spectrum of anti-racism, I consider myself a tick to the left of moderate. But even that perception is radical, because to get there, I’ve had to move my liberal white friends a whole football field to the right of moderate, into “I’m not racist racist, but I am better, smarter, and more rational than the hypothetical dark masses that exist in my brain” territory. But just by virtue of believing that incompetent black people have the right to be as proportionally represented in higher education as incompetent white people, I am too radical to be friends with most white people I know. Which, being white and only moderately anti-racist, just about everybody in my life are white people I can’t be friends with.


  1. As a white person, I am sympathetic to the feeling that you don't want to have to explain to other white liberals that the things that are coming out of their mouth stem from and help reinforce racism... However, as a white person who understands the existence of racism and has the tools and the vocabulary (and the ear of these individuals), it is your responsibility to speak up and explain to them what you think they should already understand. Otherwise, who is going to say something? People of Color? What role to white people have in the struggle against racism other than to take advantage of every opportunity to challenge other white people to examine their own thinking? I'd argue that nowhere is this more applicable than among white liberals who profess to be against racism.

  2. I'm with you. The difference is the people that get me fed up are both POCs. They are my roommates and both are self-identified liberals, yet I somehow got into an argument with one of them who was taking the side that black people were genetically more athletic.

    But still I have a dilemma. Because me and my roommates obviously spend a lot of time together, and they are both easy to live with, but it's not like I can cut them out of my life if I live with them.

    I completely understand what you are saying. It is incredibly frustrating when your roommates will say the N-word in front of you but will hold their tongue in front of a black person. Like, they know it is bad, but they assume that I don't mind because I am white. We all are very close with the same Hispanic girls, and they never say anything racially offensive in front of them, but then will say whatever they think when the girls aren't around.

    But yeah, I took a look at my friends recently, and besides my white childhood friends, I don't seem to have many white new friends. I don't think that is a coincidence, I think it has to do with the fact that I can't stand being assumed to be okay with racism. But as I've learned, white people aren't the only ones who think this either. In the end, I just get fed up sometimes with any fake liberal acquaintance.

  3. i've found it's very difficult to call someone out on their off-color remark or joke or whatever w/out sounding sanctimonius and self-righteous...especially if its someone you don't know that well. the thing is, they probably KNOW they're out of line-and if you tell them so straight up, well-it just kind of chills the atmosphere. no one knows what to say.

    and the perp may very well dislike or avoid you from then on because you made them feel really bad and stupid. this may or may not matter to you. there may or may not be actual financial costs for saying something. its a tough call.

    someone should develop a lighthearted way to say; 'hey, you sound racist!'

  4. I have to second Harriet's comments. It seems that especially in the Midwest, white people assume that just because you happen to look like them, you think like they do as well. In my conversations with other white people about race, I've been met with quiet disbelief instead of the hostility Harriet encounters. That may be due to most of the White people I've gotten into this situation with were conservative as opposed to liberal.

    People of Color have been handling racists and racism all their lives, and have no other choice. When white people like me, though, start to get a tiny notion of what that's like, we're no good at it. How people of color deal with all that crap without going off on someone? I don't think I could handle it.

  5. If you're going to fear the backlash for pointing out what you deem to be racist-then your anti-racist stance is going to be really difficult to maintain. Sooner or later there is going to be a time when you'll have to call it like you honestly see it. There is no way to sugar coat that moment.

    I have had that moment with other liberals. They are often stunned to learn what we deem as racist. I often find myself more annoyed with liberals on this subject than conservatives. I use to let their remarks just roll off of my back, but I found that it is not the best way for me to handle the situation. So I started pointing out the obvious to me. It caused friction and in some cases the individual was upset but that's okay. The point is to seed out that which is true and positive in anti-racist beliefs. While no one can make another person accept a different perspective, you never know what impact the exposure has on the other persons mindset.

  6. exclusive, just FYI, "Hispanic" is a really problematic word in many circles. It's not the word of choice of actual "hispanic" people (most, that is). Among other reasons, it links our histories back to Spain, which, granted, is where many mestiz@'s (mixed race peoples, which most Latino's are, a mixture of indigenous and European ancestries) can eventually link their family's history, but more immediately, we come from Mexico, El Salvador, Nicaragua, etc. etc. not Spain. "Latino" (often especially online you'll see Latin@ too, as the @ combines the "a" for women and "o" for men) is safer if you don't know the country of origin of someone or are speaking of an overall group of (mostly) Spanish speaking peoples from central or south America. You've probably also seen "Chicana" and "Chicano" this is mostly used by mestizo Mexican-Americans and is a more politically charged identity than Latino.

    Don't want to sidetrack from Harriet's thoughtful post, but especially given the post's content and ensuing discussion I thought I should not simply wince at but not mention this issue. :)

  7. It's amazing how many white liberals only live in near all white areas. They should try living in black areas.

  8. If the expression of your anti-racist stance depends on the quality of people around you, you're not really an anti-racist. If you see something, say something. Otherwise, you're just another white blogger who thinks you're doing some good by appropriating an anti-racist's identity.

  9. “I have a tertiary, surface understanding of and sympathy for the buzzword social issues I generally hypothetically know racism is a part of, but black people sure are stupid.”

    OMG. I've been sitting here trying to come up with something intelligent to write in response, but you just nailed it.

  10. exclusive again

    Whatsername, thanks. Yeah I know where all of them are originally from, and it spans from Mexico to Guatemala to Puerto Rico to El Salvador, but I did not want to write out the entire list, so I was looking for one general word, and I did not know Hispanic was problematic. But in the future I will use Latino, thanks.

  11. @Anonymous 11:34 am

    You might want to rethink calling people Latino. I work with some Mexican Americans who are offended by labels like Hispanic, Latino, and Chicano. They tell me that they don't understand why people won't take the time to find out where they're from so that we can properly describe them (i.e., Peruvian, Columbian, Brazilian, Mexican, Mexican-American).

  12. Recently I discovered a personal sort of phenomenon. I am in grad school, surrounded by supposedly liberal anti-racist, socially aware kinds of people. I realized recently that in the last few years I've learned to distance myself from my colleagues' actions. I've learned to not let myself be or feel offended at their actions and words that carry with it a racial bias.

    I've learned this because if I felt offended, I'd think less of them, and thinking less of my colleagues ends up being something damaging to my own career. It alienates me because a person of color complaining about racial biases among people who don't believe themselves racist just makes me an extremist. Being a woman who feel strongly about something and vocal about it just gives them more reason to tune me out. I'm a woman in a traditionally white male oriented field.

    I've done such a good job of blending in, of fading in, that this past summer, while sitting around a campfire discussing race and a friend brought up an article that discussed the issues of white people claiming their "cultural identity" as italian and polish and etc being a way to deny their white privilege. The group around the campfire immediately discussed how such claims of identity wasn't meant to presume knowledge of oppression or to sympathize with it, and that nobody would claim such a thing. They continued to discuss this for a while and I sat there, the only person of color in this group, wondering how comfortable they felt discussing this in front of me, while growing increasingly uncomfortable myself. I spoke up finally and I brought up that we were in an academic group and somewhat isolated social group and that I, a person of color, has been told, "well, I'm Irish. My family was discriminated against too." They ignored what I had to say and concluded by patting themselves on the back that they were all free of racial bias.

  13. GailS, speaking as a mestiza xicana myself, since exclusive says he was referring to a number of different individuals with ancestries that trace from what is called "Latin America," I doubt your co-workers would have a problem with the usage in this context.

    I cannot be positive, of course, but context does matter. Sometimes umbrella terms are useful. What annoys me, and sounds like it annoys them as well, is when people never bother to go beyond that umbrella term and actually find out about you individually.

  14. @tanglewood - I'm waiting for cited sources to back up your claim. In the meantime read Tim Wise, a white guy who did love in a poor black area and found a lot less crime/dysfunction than he did in white spaces.

    As far as this post goes, I'm surprised how often as an upper-middle class POC who moves in predomminantly white spaces whites see me as an "honorary white" and thus someone who can be expected to share their racist views of other POCs since they don't mean me.

    P.S.As far as the term Latino -- could someone please clarify for me? Why is linking back to the Roman Empire any more accurate than linking back to Spain?

  15. someone or other, being as there are multiple uses of "Latin" I suppose I can see the mistake, but...

    Latino refers to "Latin America" aka from: latinoamericano. So, it was taken from language Latinos used to refer to themselves, instead of a label placed upon them by others ("Hispanic") which refers back only to their colonizers (Spain). That's why, for many, it's a less problematic word. Not an UNproblematic word. But less so.

  16. Yeah, I actually was thinking this entry was going to lead me cheering this person on, but instead, I kind of was like "Wow, so you didn't say anything?" by the end.

    That's kind of invoking your white privilege - you could hide the fact that it made you uncomfortable because you're white. As a POC, I know I couldn't have let it go.

    I don't know what's worse - someone like you, who recognizes racism and then quietly lets it slide by by excusing the fact that these aren't people you really cared or knew very well (why not take the chance to correct them, then?), or the people you were with who made blatantly racist remarks.

    Racist white people will never listen to POCs about racism. Why would they? We have something to gain. But if they heard it being shunned by more white people, they would shape up.

    You lamented about those white liberals who believed they weren't racist, but I lament about people like you, who are intelligent enough to realize racism for what it is, but who eschew speaking up for what? The hollow comfort of a night's worth of superficial calm and peace? I mean, it mattered enough for you to write an entry here so it must have bothered you some, so why not just say something and be bothered in a better way, knowing you at least stood up for something you believed in?

  17. @someone

    I think you'll find this white liberal's story more typical.

  18. Yeah, this entry bothered me some too. Is being "slightly to the left of moderate" in terms of anti-racism really something to brag about? And to a lesser extent, you have a "complicated opinion" on affirmative action? Doesn't exactly fill me with hope.

  19. @whatshername

    On occasion I've heard Mexican-American adults use the term Hispanic, so I don't doubt that some use the label Latino. But I would still offer the same advice I gave to exclusive. If nothing else, it's better to be safe than sorry.

  20. I agree with Sonic and I'm white. Failing to call out racism then preaching (or rather whining) to the choir doesn't do anyone any good. I can understand not wanting to have a debate with these people who'll probably just gang up on you and try to make you feel ridiculous, but you can do like many POC do and call it out while exercising your right not to be ignorant white folks' anti-racism-101 teacher.

    A simple "That was racist and if you don't understand why, go think about it and research it yourself." would do, followed by "It's not my job to educate you." if they insist on trying to start a debate. The point is that these racists need to see a white person disapproving of their behavior. The disapproval is more important than the explanation, and in my opinion the disapproval carries even more weight if you make it clear that you're not just looking to practice sophistry.

  21. @someone or other
    "In the meantime read Tim Wise, a white guy who did [live] in a poor black area and found a lot less crime/dysfunction than he did in white spaces."

    Speaking of Tim Wise, he describes in his book White Like Me a slightly different tactic from the typical "I find that offensive or racist" response to racist jokes. To make a longer story short, he asked one such joker, "You must not think very much of white people, huh? . . . I mean you must think all whites are racists, and not just racists, but the kind of racists who like hearing racist jokes. . . . So tell me, why do you think so little of whites, to say nothing of your views toward blacks?" This kind of reversal can't as easily be dismissed with the usual "Can't take a joke" brush-off. Wise says that when he used this tactic, the joker actually ended up talking with him about the question.

  22. I have mixed feelings about this post. On the one hand, the author points out common tendencies of white liberals that I think a lot of us have encountered. And she seemed to get how frustrating it was to be caught between the rock and hard place of saying something and creating tension, or saying nothing and feeling inner resentment (a choice often faced by POC). But it seems like her response was to absolve herself of the responsibility of acting because she wasn't invested in these people and didn't think it was worth ruining her evening. Recognizing racism and white privilege is one thing; actively combating it is another. This author doesn't seem to have moved on to the latter.

  23. This rarely happens to me with people my age, but it happens often in my hometown, around my parents' acquaintances or the parents of my friends (not my own parents!). When it comes from older small-town people and I'm the only anti-racist in the room, it feels very hard to speak up (especially when there are no people of color present). When it's blatant, I say something. When it's not blatant, I sometimes do, sometimes don't. Sometimes when I do, they genuinely don't seem to understand or agree that what they're saying is racism, and even though I explain it to them, they don't budge.

    How do you deal with that?

  24. @azza frazza The plural of anecdote is not data -- and a single anecdote is nothing at all.

  25. What would possess a person to think they have a right to "correct" another's way of thinking? The irony here is the incredibly ARROGANT idea that you need to police someone elses thoughts and feelings in any given situation. Obviously in your world view, a POC needs defending. Heaven knows, they can't defend themselves. With that line of thinking, aren't YOU diminishing their humanity? I may not agree with someone else's racist ideas or yet another persons lack of them, but I have ABSOLUTELY NO RIGHT to force my views on either. I can start an open dialogue with someone whose ideas differ from my own in which we EXCHANGE our own thoughts about a given subject, but I should be able to respect their RIGHT to believe what they choose. It is not my place to EDUCATE them. I'm sure they feel as "correct" in their views as I do in mine.

    And that, ladies and gentleman, is a conservative's point of view.

  26. No, Red Meat, that is a bigot's point of view. Bystanders who tolerate hate speech enable hateful actions. And white people who stand up for POCs are not saviors but allies.

  27. You know what I personally hate about white liberals? They think that because they are "enlightened" they can laugh at "ironic" racism and they think that it's perfectly ok to laugh at jokes about POC if they're told *by* a POC. Sorry, no, it's NOT ok to laugh at black and Asian jokes because they're told by Carlos Mensia. But when you remind them of this, they bust out the tired old "Oh don't be so PC, it's just a joke!" line.

    I look white even though I'm a bit Korean and some days I just want to become a hermit. i can't tell you how many times I've been shocked to hear things about Asians (and other races) said to me because it's assumed that a) I'm white, and b) anti-racism is just a fake wink-wink,nudge-nudge act put on by whites. And when you reveal that you're biracial, they will argue with you until they're blue in the face about how you're not "really" what you say you are. You know, instead of just owning up to their mistake and changing their ways.

  28. Here is a link to an article by Dr. Joe Feagin discussing his book _Two Faced Racism_ that gives critical theory to the anecdotal evidence that Harriet Jacobs has provided us with.

    Feagin's Article

    I feel what you are saying, Harriet Jacobs. I too get fed up with my white "liberal" friends and find it difficult and aggravating not to have a safe social space where I can freely express myself and just be and not have to put up with racist crap. However, I think the pervasiveness importantly demonstrates how real, ongoing, and prevalent racism still is, despite claims of "post racial" America and "but Obama is the President!"

    To those claims, I say, go have a beer with a couple of white folks and see what happens when you bring up Affirmative Action or "illegal" immigration, Hurricaine Katrina, etc...

    Thanks for your post.

  29. I keep coming back to this post.
    My feelings are... complex.
    I don't really have any reason to share them except to offer the viewpoint.
    First of all (and I'm not sure this is even the right place to say this), there's more to this blog post; it's not really clear that what's shown here is only half. The rest is on a slightly different topic so I figure this is just the part Macon wanted to discuss, but I wish it were clearer that this is only half of the post. Because 1) the rest is really worth reading, and 2) compared to the rest of it, and all that I've now read a lot on Fugitivus (great forward, btw; bookmarked!), this excerpt isn't characteristic.

    I mention this because as a POC, this part of the post (especially in the context of SWPD, without any intro or commentary) hit me in a really unpleasant way. I had to read it and reread it, and re-reread it, before I could finally take it for what I think it's meant to be. But I'm sorry to say that just a little way into it, I had a distinct (and uncharacteristic) moment of "Cry me a river, white girl! Yeah, wow, being surrounded by casual racists totally sucks! Imagine that! I hear there's this balm that really takes out the sting called... wait, what is it again? oh yeah whiteness." Which, having read much more of Harriet, is now much tempered. But it struck me as an incredibly self-indulgent call-out made in search of cookies; basically "woe is me, I'm too enlightened for my everyone." I can't quite shake it, but having worked on it, I now see it as just an honestly exasperated rant stemming, ultimately, from real solidarity. In fact, I'm sympathetic, almost as if she were a POC ranting about this, which is novel! In a very real way, Harriet is consciously feeling something I consciously feel as a POC. These white people she's interacted with "presume an awful lot" (ie: what's okay to say; what she'll think of it) based on her ethnicity. And they do it sooo casually: "Yeah, the weather’s been bad. No, school’s okay, except black people are stupid. Hey, how’s your mom?” This is the kind of thing I, as a POC, am hearing all the time, in the most unexpected places, even though the words are usually slightly encoded. And that feeling of "I can't believe you just said that in front of me. In front of anyone. Where are you people not?" Been there. There's no way I can't empathize with that.

    Also, the second part of the post could very well have strayed into the unpleasant territory I describe above, but for whatever reason, it doesn't. The tone is different somehow; I took to it instantly. Enough that it won me over, which is impressive considering how I'd felt before. So I wonder why it was cut off here? [People: if you were turned off by Point #1, read Point #2! (Beg your pardon, Macon. It's just, it won me over so much I think I almost feel the need to... defend Harriet's rep?)]

    Anyway. Sorry for the overlong comment. I still have to process this oddly vicious reaction. But all of this led me to wonder, not for the first time, "exactly who is this written for?" I've wondered it here on SWPD (long since bookmarked!) from time to time, as well as in other anti-ism ally blogs. Most of the time it really doesn't matter, but this was so weird for me. I had such an unpleasant reaction to this post... which, as stated, I can't quite shake. Macon, what were you thinking about when you posted this? (That's not chastisement, just: what struck you about it?) Why just this part? I'm curious.

  30. karinova, I appreciate your thoughtful response, and your spirited promotion of Harriet -- I love her work too.

    To answer your questions about why I requested this repost, and why I reposted just this part -- first of all, I did indicate at the top of this repost that the item being reposted is part of a series. That full "post," as you call it, struck me instead as what Harriet labeled it on her blog, a series, and at the time it only had two items (I see that it still only has two). I didn't want to repost the entire series, because I was hoping that readers here would click on the link to Fugitivus, read the rest of the series, and thereby get acquainted as well with Harriet's work, if they weren't already.

    As for why I requested this particular part, the first item in the series -- I found it a very honest account of some common white feelings, feelings that I too have had. I think it depicts especially well the kind of white solidarity that many white people don't even realize is there (even though they practice it). A pressure to perform, as a white person.

    I also appreciate Harriet's description of her struggles with just how to deal with such people, and whether to keep them as "friends." I didn't anticipate responses that basically blame her for throwing in the towel in the fight against racism -- I don't really see that happening in her post. I think that's because, having read a lot of other writings by Harriet, I don't think she's a quitter. I see the internal moments she describes here as part of a struggle about just who to keep as friends, and about whether confronting them about their racism is really even going to work at all. But then, I probably shouldn't try to speak for Harriet -- I'm just trying to answer your questions, hope I did.

  31. I would love to read the rest of her series but I can't access it. I even signed up for a WordPress account, since it says I need to be logged in to read it. Still, no dice. Any help?

  32. Ach -- I didn't realize that she'd privatized her blog like that. Sorry, I don't know how to access it now.

    Anyone else?


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