This blog does a pretty good job of opening discussions about "the ways of white folks, i mean, some white folks," basically by talking about stupid shit (fairly well-intentioned or not) that white people do in everyday life. That sort of discussion is necessary, but I believe that "some white folks" deserve particular consideration -- those straight, white males who participate in social justice efforts.
I’d like to make one thing very clear to these white people: you should not use swpd and other social justice spaces as a source of self-validation. If you want to participate here, ask yourself why you want to be in a space that should really serve people of color (PoC) and some white women (WW). This is especially not a space to relate your experiences and sob stories about being ignored in these spaces.
I have a very good friend, and for the sake of this post, I'll name him Ecirb. He’s in his upper-thirties, and he self-identifies as a white heterosexual male. How he grew up is important to who he is and his current situation, but that doesn't matter in the context of this discussion because he looks like a white guy. Ecirb is an Ethnic Studies Major and I am glad to say that he’s a social justice advocate (not that I'm the end-all to determining who is and isn't an advocate).
He and I talk about many things, but recently our discussion has been centered on the perception of white people in general social justice spaces. Just a warning, this is a multi-layered, complex situation to deconstruct, but I am going to try. In addition, I'm not saying that Ecirb's situation applies to all white hetero males in social justice, but I think there are very important lessons to be drawn from his experience.
Here’s a small sampling of some of his experiences, as best as I can recall them, and since Ecrib claims that these are “facts,” I will try to be as objective as possible. These experiences should be helpful in clarifying the proper role of white hetero men in social justice efforts:
- Ecrib and I use a lobby area for Ethnic Studies students. With a couch and some public computers, it’s a wonderful space to congregate and talk about social justice issues and our classes. Ecirb tells me that when he is alone with one of his friends (in this case it happens to be a woman of color), she is open and very interested in what he has to say. But when other's walk in, she becomes aloof, almost as if she doesn't know him.
- One time, he walks into the room with a friend of his who appears to be a black hetero male, and the room suddenly goes quiet. Ecrib's friend points to him and says, "He's cool."
- Ecrib feels ignored in class, and when he’s not, most of his comments are met with resistance or quick dismissal.
- He’s very up-front with his opinions. If you’re being a bigot, he’ll say so to your face, because that's how he deals with it.
There is one thing that I make clear to Ecrib every time he complains about these things. No matter who he is, the fact that he appears to be a white male makes it difficult for him to operate in a social justice environment. I constantly tell him that his phenotype conjures up for most PoC an entire lifetime of negative experiences, and that is something he cannot help and must overcome. I think he gets that, but it’s also easy for him to forget the privilege he has to walk around and not have to worry about how his physical appearance itself is enough to incite painful experiences.
The consequence is that he must prove himself. He has to work harder to be taken as legit, and to make friends in this department. Now, Ecrib has no issue with the fact that he has to work harder, and neither do I. This is the consequence of centuries of oppression: that excellent people such as Ecirb must work hard to become basic friends with excellent people such as the PoC in our Ethnic Studies Department.
However, a problem I see is that some PoC and some WW don’t give him a chance to prove himself. I understand that it's safer to assume the worst with white people. It's a safety mechanism, and I do it too. But to shut out people like Ecirb, to suppress/ignore what he has to say because of who he is, is detrimental to everyone.
In fact, not giving Ecrib a chance goes against what we’re fighting for. Ending the isms will take every individual, and it’s counter-productive and ignorant to exclude anyone on the basis of what they look like. Take the hint people! He's majoring in Ethnic Studies in his late 30's. Maybe he knows more about bigotry then you do just from how much longer he's been alive? Maybe so, maybe not, but it’s difficult for me to ignore the wisdom of age.
This situation requires a careful balancing by everyone. It took me a long time to realize that I have to give white people a chance to prove themselves, and white people also have to understand that it’s an uphill battle to prove themselves. And just like some white people aren't worth talking to because they're so stupid and racist, some PoC and WW aren’t worth talking to either. You do not have to prove yourself to these people because there is nothing you could say or do to change their mind.
I don't tell Ecrib this often enough, but he needs to stay humble. No one is asking him to lead us out to the promise land. In fact, he can’t be a dominant leader in a social justice movement because of his identity. This space is for PoC and to some extent WW. He can support, but he can't lead. That invokes the White Savior Complex. White male arrogance can easily ruin his credibility and get him thrown off the boat.
In addition, people like Ecrib need to realize that their real work isn't with a community of PoC; their responsibility is among white people, men, and straight people. He has the advantage in those spaces, so that’s where his privilege of assumed credibility can be used to his/our advantage. These are spaces where he can effectively be a leader.
There is much work to be done by both groups. The social justice movement needs to get its shit together just as much as white people do. We all have room to learn and grow.
Again, I want to emphasize that even though I’m writing about people like Ecrib on swpd, and even though this conversation needs to include everyone involved, this is not a space for white people to tell PoC that they need to be more accepting of white people. A discussion of how dominant identities can better fit into the space of social justice would be more pertinent.
At the same time, what can we as PoC’s and women do to balance staying safe and giving dominant identities a chance?