In response to A. Smith's recent guest post about her frustration with passive white readers on the Internet, some commenters wrote about white people who would like to do what they can to fight racism, but have little idea how and where to start fighting. As I've come to understand in my own efforts to push back against racism, asking non-white people how to do so is not a good way to start. It's even worse to expect non-white people to provide such answers, and to get upset if and when they decline to do so.Worse yet is the terrible irony that sometimes occurs, when white people use anti-racist information generously provided by non-white people against them.
I think one of the first actions that such concerned white people should take is to ask themselves why they want to fight racism. If they're honest with themselves, some will realize that they're asking how to fight not because they're actually going to fight, but instead, simply because they don't want to seem like a "racist." Simply saying that you're a fighter can seem like a good way to avoid that label, and asking a non-white person how to fight racism can seem like a good way to say to the non-white person, "Hey there, aren't you glad I'm not a racist?"
That kind of motivation is really just another example of whitened individualism, an ironically selfish approach of the sort that's inspired everywhere by today's mainstreamed racial whiteness. As Jasmin noted in a comment here yesterday, some white people are merely looking for affirmation from non-white people that they themselves are not racists; what they really want is "to get their pats on the back for being 'hip' and 'enlightened' and 'not a redneck' (their word, not mine), but [they] don't really want to do the hard work, i.e., standing up to their friends, lovers, parents, grandparents, etc."
When white people really do want to act because they recognize that racism exists -- not only in the feelings, thoughts, and actions of white individuals, but also at larger systemic and institutional levels -- and when they recognize that racism enacted at both individual and institutional levels hurts non-white people and provides unearned, unfair advantages to white people -- well then, I think that's a better first step. That first step calls for some reading, some Googling. You know, just some relatively accessible helpful, "Racism 101" work.
However, even after doing such preliminary work, the next step in seeking ways to act against racism should not be asking non-white individuals for help with that. An apparently white commenter here named special cornflake did just that yesterday, asking a self-identified black woman who writes as Witchsistah:
I hate racism, and I hate that I benefit from it. So what do you want us to DO? What specific actions do you think would help?
I read here and learn about things I shouldn't "do." I appreciate that, and I know I'm less racist for it. But, yeah, what else should we who are white and care "do"?
This common white plea inspired a swift response from another commenter, RVCBard, who wrote in part,
Why do White people always ask POCs stuff like this? I just spent 30 minutes Googling "white allies" to find resources. Why the hell did I have to do that? Why does it never occur to White people to do that? Why is the onus always on POCs to make it easy for White people to learn to be less racist? Why do we always have to do the heavy lifting? Why is the footwork always left to us? Why are we always asking the hard questions? Why do we have to have it all figured out? Why is the burden always on us to go out of our way to make the world less racist?
I don't mean to hold up RCVBard, nor Witchsista, as typical black people who provide typical responses to such white requests for help. As RVCBard went on to say, "Each POC will give one or more very different answers because -- surprise, surprise! -- we're different! Our experiences of racism are different for a variety of psychological, social, economic, and political reasons." I'm quoting RVCBard's list of questions because it seems to me that on the whole, they make a great point in response to a common white plea for help: finding ways to fight racism is up to the oppressors, not the victims, and it's not really all that difficult to find answers on our own. White people are out of line when they ask non-white people how to fight racism, in part because it's work we should be doing ourselves.
At the same time, if a non-white person willingly offers advice and/or commentary on instances of racism, I suggest that we listen. Respectfully, that is, while trying to put aside the skepticism that white people commonly feel, and display, in such encounters. White people tend to think that when it comes to matters of race (and to other matters), white individuals are just that, individuals, and thus "unbiased." The flip-side of that is our tendency to think that members of non-white groups are biased, and all too ready to "play the race card," or too impassioned and "angry" and resentful to think straight, and so on. We should try to keep in mind that quite to the contrary, non-white people instead tend to be experts about racism, especially compared to most white people. It makes sense if you think about it -- who would better understand a form of oppression, by necessity, than its victims and survivors?
As I write this, most of what I'm saying seems fairly obvious, and yet, white people make such requests of non-white people frequently. What also seems obvious, but apparently isn't, is that asking for help can end up being the only action that a seemingly sincere, concerned white person undertakes in the fight racism. Again, the effort sometimes stops with the mere request, and some polite listening, because the white person only wants to seem sincere, and concerned, and, ultimately, "not racist."
Something worse can happen when the seemingly sincere white inquisitor does listen to willing non-white explainers patiently, and does make other Racism 101 efforts, but only in order to enhance their own credibility as "anti-racists." I've written before about the ills of "hipster racism," as an insincere, ultimately self-centered attempt to prove that you're not a racist by "ironically" acting like one.
But what about "hipster anti-racism"? Don't a lot of white people who pin the Badge of Anti-Racism on themselves merely do so as a sort of guilt-leavening adornment? As just another hip accessory?
And then, descending even further down the ladder toward truly destructive anti-racist insincerity, the proud Anti-Racism Badge wearer can actually end up using information against the non-white people he or she is supposedly fighting for. That happens, for instance, during discussions of racism, when the seemingly sincere white anti-racist counters non-white knowledge and testimony by playing the "But My Black Friend Says" card, or by citing Malcolm X or MLK, or by claiming that the real issues are larger and more abstract, or that they know more about the issue at hand because they've worked with this or that organization. (Actually, not to pull my own "Black Friend" card, but it was a black friend who alerted me to this additional rung on the anti-racism ladder, the one that stretches downward toward truly destructive anti-racist insincerity, but also upward, toward truly committed, counter-racist action.)
So basically, if you're wondering where to start fighting, and you're tempted to ask non-white people you know where they think you should start, then start instead by asking yourself just why you're tempted to ask them. If it's only because deep down, you want them and others to know that you don't have a racist bone in your body -- if it's really about you -- then you've got some self-work to do. There's some socially induced racist training implanted within you that you should work on, before you go out and fight other forms of racism. It's not that you're going to be able to solve or undo all of that internalized training, but it's very worthwhile to become aware of it, and of the racist thoughts and actions that it sometimes prompts you to commit.
Much of the Racism 101 material linked above (and widely available elsewhere) can teach you about both racism and your own whitened self. To quote RVCBard's commentary once more, "instead of asking random POCs what to do about racism, you [should] figure out how racism operates in your own life and how it affects the POCs you interact with, then work from there." I don't mean to make fighting racism sound too complicated, but doing it right takes some serious effort.
In the meantime, there are some basic actions you can take to fight racism right away. When you encounter clearly blatant racism from others anywhere -- in daily conversations, forwarded emails, TV shows and movies, and even on the Internet -- point it out to the perpetrators. Resist the urge you often feel to comply silently with ordinary acts of racism; instead, speak up and defend its victims. If something's still stopping you from doing that, think about what those forces are, and whether you really want to be the kind of person who obeys them.
Racial "whiteness" is many things, but one of its consistent qualities is power. As people granted unearned privileges by our own whiteness, and as people who have likely harmed non-white people with our own whiteness, it's our moral and ethical duty to find ways to combat racism. There's no good reason to expect its primary victims to tell us how to do that. But then, again, if they're willing to do so, we should be grateful and respectful, and we should also check our overdeveloped sense of skepticism.
Finally, here's another thing that whiteness is -- a pathology. Being raised as "white" is to be rendered delusional about the true order of things; a healthy dose of Racism 101 will reveal that to us. Fortunately, since combating racism effectively tends to clarify our vision, working to reduce the effects of racism on its victims does have a selfish component to it after all -- a good kind of selfishness. Fighting that good fight opens our eyes, and it also restores some of our stifled humanity.