I've been hearing from several sources about another common white tendency that's cropped up lately, in response to requests for aid to Haiti. It seems to be a kind of weird, shifty excuse for refusing to contribute.
One emailer put it this way --
Following the horrifying storm Katrina, many were moved and mobilized to help nationwide. In fact, international assistance arrived for the Katrina refugees. In the wake of the disastrously executed FEMA response, I dealt with many white people that grumbled that they weren't going to send money to Katrina victims, when there were needy in their own neighborhoods.
Today on a social networking site I had a dispute with another white person that said that:
GUESS WHAT? People in YOUR community need your help. Call your local food pantry, homeless shelter, Victims Intervention Program, and Disabled Veterans...they are among the forgotten causes the Hollyweird crowd never thinks to hold telethons for...but they quietly work in your area helping those in need. They need you...r help as much as Haiti; maybe more, as nobody's on TV tugging at your purse strings for THEM.
The only problem? Any other time they are complaining about the same folks in the community as being lazy ne'er do wells that only want a hand out. And that they shouldn't be beholden to help people that make poor choices. They weren't concerned with their "homegrown" (read: American/White) needy...until money and resources were gathered to assist Haiti.
The same could be said about some white people before Katrina. They saw no need to mitigate the suffering within their neighborhoods/cities/states...particularly if the assistance was for people of color that they deemed lazy ne'er-do-wells.
Over at Blackfolks, pradagirl writes in a similar vein,
Lately I've noticed a disproportionate amount of white folk complaining about the humanitarian aide being sent to Haiti. Their main gripe is that there's enough poverty, homelessness etc in this country that we should be helping ourselves as a nation instead of helping the people in Haiti.
Hearing stuff like this really angers me and the more they try to defend this position the more my anger grows. Yes, we do have a lot of issues that we need to deal with as a nation but isn't it our responsibility to help our fellow human beings when such a catastrophic tragedy befalls them?
And one more example, from a comment thread at Abagond about Haiti, where leigh204 writes,
I organized a bake sale with baked goodies costing $3 a pop. We managed to raise over a grand. I heard a co-worker remark how fast the baked goods sold. (We could barely keep up.) Then she remarked that it was sad people only opened their wallets when there was a national disaster and that people should be helping their own first. I replied, “What do you mean by helping our own? We’re helping those who need our help.” She replied, “There are poor, homeless people suffering here, too. You don’t see others opening their wallets for them, do you?” I agreed with her that charity begins at home, but Haitians needed immediate help. She shook her head and said she would rather help the people at home first (Canada). Unbelievable.
So just what is this apparently common white tendency? And what causes it?
I think it's all too easy to dismiss this kind of response to requests for donations to Haiti as a mere excuse from people who won't help out no matter what the disaster. It may be merely that for some people, but I suspect that for most of these "Clean up your own backyard!" types, something else is going on here -- racism.
I think this common white response can be a way of excusing oneself for not doing anything to help poor, specifically black people. In that kind of white mind, troubles that black people have are always their own fault, and that means that no matter what those troubles are, "I myself as a white person shouldn't feel a need to do anything about it." Again, it's an ultimately racist response, because it ignores the larger, ongoing context of de facto white supremacy. Motivations for this response might also go as deep, and as unacknowledged in the white mind, as not wanting to do anything about widespread black problems because that would mean admitting that blacks DON'T bring all their problems on themselves.
"And if that's true," the common white thinking, or maybe feeling, seems to go, "if it's true, that is, that we still live in a racist society, then my being white might mean that I have some connection to black people's problems -- maybe even some responsibility for having helped to cause them. Which would then mean that I have some responsibility for helping to fix them."
All of which is too much for most white people to deal with, especially about themselves, and about their own place within a racist social order. It's so much easier to ignore and forget our vague awareness that black people still don't get an even chance in society, and furthermore, that as a direct consequence of that, we get more than an even chance. Just because we're white. That's the kind of stuff that white people are basically, subtly told they should ignore and forget.
And of course, another part of the white mind that I think is at work here, another common white perception, is something that commenters have repeatedly pointed out on this blog lately -- black and other non-white lives just aren't as valued by white minds and hearts as white lives are. The evidence of that elsewhere is almost endless, from the continued popularity among white people of a racist death penalty, to the Missing White Girl Syndrome, from white indifference to racially disproportionate sentencing and incarceration rates, to the white-framed media's tendency to linger voyeuristically over dead black bodies (which contrasts with its respectful refusal to do so in most cases of dead white bodies).
"But then," some part of the average white mind would say, "Valuing black lives less than white ones? That's a terrible thing to believe! That's RACIST! And I certainly am not a racist! So no, I don't believe that. Of course I value all human lives the same. I'm well aware, thank you, that non-white people are just that, 'people.'"
You'll very rarely get a white person to admit, or even realize, that they value black lives less than white ones. But usually, at some level, they do. As I was trying to get at in this post, white people have been trained to do that. And so, when some part of them doesn't feel that all that money and other forms of aid should be going to help black people in Haiti, they find excuses for not contributing, including this particular "your own backyard" one, about people nearby needing it instead.
Again, I doubt that most white people even realize that they're being racist when they they think and feel that way. They're used to telling black people that their problems are their own fault, and that they need to help themselves and "their own kind." Suddenly being asked to help black people, here or abroad, just doesn't seem right, in part because it doesn't fit with what they've been led by a racist society to generally think and feel about black people.
And so, expressing sudden concern about "the poverty at home" can seem like a legitimate way of refusing to send help over there.
I may be missing something, but I think that's basically why a lot of white people resort to this excuse by way of explaining their refusal to contribute toward aid for Haitians.
What do you think explains it?
I also recognize that on the other hand, white Americans do often care about, and contribute toward alleviating, poverty in "Africa." Are any of those people the same ones who would use the above excuse, and/or others, by way of refusing to contribute toward earthquake relief in Haiti? If so, what's the difference for them, between contributing to "Africans" and contributing to Haitians?