Friday, May 16, 2008

work for the benefit of non-white people

The ways of white folks, I mean some white folks . . .

When I write on this blog about "stuff white people do," I hope it's clear that I'm always writing about stuff SOME white people do. Rather than making blanket statements about all white people, what I'm usually trying to point out is what I've come to understand as common white

As a white person, most of my own white ways were not evident to me until I had them pointed out by others. Those others have usually been non-white people, who often understand the ways of white folks better than white folks themselves do. When I recognize a common white tendency in myself now, I usually try to counteract it.

These days, white folks were all told as children that they should avoid broad generalizations about groups of other, non-white people. However, being categorized into any racial group does induce tendencies, and I think those can be addressed without constant qualifications about how one is not talking about
all members of the group.

Over at one of my favorite blogs, Too Sense, One Drop wrote a very helpful post on this topic, explaining in part:

There are times when I speak in broad generalities, when it seems as if I am accusing all American white people of being guilty of the acts that I am discussing. I'm not doing that. I know full well that there are an awful lot of white people who want no part of racism, and who are working to overcome racism within themselves and within our community. I try to be one of those people every day. But it's difficult to talk about large societal issues, and group behavior, without treating people who fall into a certain category as if they are part of some monolithic group. I don't always communicate in my writing what I am thinking subjectively, which is that of course not all of us in the white community do the harmful things I'm writing about.

Since I'm also writing this blog in an effort to promote understanding of the ways of (some--most?) white folks, I've been thinking lately about what
certain white people do. White anti-racist activists, that is. One thing that some white people do is work for the benefit of non-white people. I think of this blog itself as a form of anti-racist activism, but of course, white folks have many other options for fighting racism.

A friend of mine, for instance, seems to put her entire self into that fight, in part by working with children on an Indian/Native American reservation. I asked her recently how she thinks of her own whiteness while she does that work, and she sent me a letter in response.

I think my friend's letter does answer my question about her whiteness, and after asking her permission, I'm posting it here. It strikes me as an admirable expression of white self-awareness, and both of us invite any sort of response. (If you're so inclined, you could leave a comment, or write to me at ).

One other possible way to think about this letter--Resist Racism recently offered a provocatively entitled post, "Why I Hate White 'Anti-racists.'" I'm wondering if the author of that post would also hate my friend.

(In the interests of legibility, I'm posting this letter without the usual italics that I use for longer quotations.)


I am what some people call a “do-gooder.” I like to help people, to encourage them in some way to make the world around us a little better. My desire to help others is often expressed by volunteering with non-profit organizations that provide services for low-income, at-risk children, youth, and families. In my desire for social justice, I have volunteered and worked with faith-based organizations in the Philadelphia area, Chicago and northern Illinois, Mississippi, and most recently on an Indian Reservation in the upper Midwest. I am white, and most of the people I have worked with have been POC, primarily African-American and Native American.

When I first stared volunteering, almost twenty years ago, I admit I was condescending and patronizing, desiring to alleviate the “plight” of those poor people – a pretty typical white do-gooder. I began to realize that I was “white.” and that I had a lot to learn about being white. I began to see things from another perspective, to see myself as a white person.

Perhaps it was the sudden realization that the roles were reversed, and I was often the only white person – wondering what “they” thought of me: was I was welcome? what did they say about me after I left? I remember driving through my inner-city, predominately non-white neighborhood
the day after the Rodney King verdict, and going into a neighborhood store to get a bottle of iced tea to drink. I suddenly felt very aware of my whiteness and the privileges that go along with that whiteness.

I saw in myself the condescension, the paternalism, the assumptions that white was normal and right. It was not pretty to see the arrogance and ethnocentrism in the white world around me, and in myself. My motives were sincere and genuine, but I was blind to my attitudes of racial superiority and white privilege. I began to see myself as a learner and a receiver, instead of a teacher or the one with the solutions. This has been a long and often humbling journey of realizing that I have been and still am being trained to be white.

Recently, I was visiting friends and volunteering on the “rez” at a small Lakota-led parochial school. While I was there, I kept thinking about your post about white people being trained to be white. I observed two situations that illustrated this concept of white training.

As I was working in the office, a white retired real estate agent was visiting the school to help with acquiring some property for expansion. He commented, “I don’t sense that these people [meaning the Lakota residents] want any help. Do-gooders come here to help, yet it doesn’t seem that the people take advantage of it. What are do-gooders supposed to do when they don’t want help? What about you, why are you here? You’re a do-gooder.”

This man’s motive was sincere in that he truly wanted to help, but he could not see his own white assumptions and impositions. He seemed to assume, like many white people, that POC are incompetent, that poverty, alcoholism or drug abuse are their own fault – in other words, blaming the victims. White people often do not recognize or want to admit that white privilege and influence like their own created the systemic issues that continue to exacerbate the problems of low socioeconomic status and the accompanying isolation and exclusion.

In addition to helping with some office work, I also volunteered in the classroom, by helping Native American students with their schoolwork. The teacher there, a white woman in her mid-twenties, a para-educator, has no patience with the children, and can’t wait for school to be over. She is clueless that the actual source of her frustration is her expectation that the children act like white suburban children. Clearly, though, that’s an unfair expectation because these kids come to school weighed down with problems that would break many adults.

Over half of the kids have parents in jail and live with other family members. One 11-year old boy hasn’t seen his mom since he was three. He often says that it really doesn’t matter if he comes to school because he is just going to end up a drunk Indian anyway. A nine-year old girl is afraid when she goes home because her mom and uncles are always drunk.

This woman has lived here for over a year and a half, and she still looks at the children as an outsider, as a white outsider. She cannot put herself into their world – she cannot accept them as they are nor give them hope for the future. It’s heartbreaking to listen to her and watch her interact with the children. I wonder if this is what the old boarding schools were like – trying to make “white Indians”!

So – am I any different from these two white do-gooders? I hope so. My response to the white retired real estate agent’s question is that I try not to come as an outsider imposing my solutions to what I perceive as problems. I come as a learner, seeking to learn about the Lakota people and the challenges they face, hoping to better understand their world. When I come to the rez, I ask them what they want me to do to help them accomplish the vision they have for their own reservation. The poverty and alcoholism are overwhelming – I admit that I want to “fix” the problems of the rez. But, I also realize that as an outsider, a white outsider, I really do not understand and I really cannot just jump in and fix whatever is wrong.

The problems are the result of hundreds of years of injustice that cannot be quickly or easily solved. I do not have the solution, but I want to do something to help those on the inside who have more understanding and influence than outsiders do. I want to come along beside and be a partner, not the “great white hope” with all the answers. I do not volunteer out of guilt or shame for the centuries of past white injustice and their continuation into the present, but I do acknowledge and admit that it is wrong, very wrong, and that I have benefited from it. I volunteer not only to help, and to balance the scales of justice, but because I want to learn, to understand a little bit better, and become more culturally sensitive.

However, volunteering is only one small part of my process of growing in cultural awareness. The most important and most effective way for me to become more aware has been through relationships, through genuine friendships that are strong enough to talk honestly and openly about racial and ethnic issues. I appreciate my friends who are honest with me and can confront my whiteness, friends who I’m there to help but who are also my peers. I hope these are friendships based on mutual respect and appreciation.

I also hope I will continue to grow in recognizing my own whiteness and ethnocentrism. I hope I am growing in understanding. Although I began this process of recognizing my whiteness and how it affects my worldview some years ago, I realize that I have a long way to go, that it takes work and intentionality to become more aware and sensitive.


  1. Thanks lldr, interesting article. I'm tempted to say, I'll let you know what I think of it if you let us know what you think of my friend's letter, the topic of this post.

    I'd heard about the white Morehouse student before, and I'm glad he did it. I wish the article had spent more time exploring the resentment of some other students towards him; that one spokesman for that position is just left to say he wishes Packwood hadn't attended Morehouse, without being pushed to explain why. I disagree that white students should keep out of black colleges, but I also think there might be some validity to that resentment.

    As a side note, I also think it's interesting how Morehouse and other schools are called historically black colleges, but the many other colleges that have a history of being exclusively, intentionally white are not called historically white colleges. Why is that?

    What did you think of the article?

  2. The teacher there, a white woman in her mid-twenties, a para-educator, has no patience with the children, and can’t wait for school to be over. She is clueless that the actual source of her frustration is her expectation that the children act like white suburban children.

    So, I'm watching this documentary about philosophy when the narrator says the following about Seneca:

    "Seneca thought that the problem with rich people...was that their expectations were absurdly high.... The wealthier you are, the more expectations you tend to have. And it's when expectations are dashed that fury breaks out."

    Okay, so I'm not saying that this woman is rich and that she's about to go postal; but, when I first watched this documentary I thought about white people and white privilege. Re-work the quote a little, substituting the words white privilege/privilege for rich and wealth, and his idea might reflect the expectations of that white teacher. (Speaking of wealth, the language George Lipsitz uses in the title of his book--"The Possesive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit form Identity Politics," comes to mind. It's as if whiteness has a cash value.)

    Sorry, I got sidetracked. :-)

    Anyway, macon d, I notice that you use the term "non-white" and "POC". Personally, I prefer non-white (for the reasons Robert Jensen gives in his book "The Heart of Whiteness"). Do you have a preference, or are the terms interchangeable to you?

  3. Hi deb. An apt comparison to Lipsitz's book, I think. And it seems fair to say that the white teacher is richer than her students, in more ways than one.

    The two terms are not quite interchangeable for me. This blog focuses on whiteness, and as Jensen points out, the term "people of color" takes the focus off whiteness, and I think it also implies that whites don't have a "color," that is, a "race," when of course, they do.

    But I do slip into using the more comnon "people of color," sometimes by accident, but especially when the point I'm making at the moment is not focused on whiteness. At least, that's what I try to do--I probably slip-up sometimes.

    OTOH, I've heard it pointed out that the term "non-white" recenters whiteness, just when people of color are finally getting some widespread acknowledgment in America. I can see that point too, but again, as per Jensen, if the point is to keep focused on whiteness in order to better understand or argue against it, then in that context, I think it should be recentered.

    I hope that's clear. Both terms are problematic, but we're stuck with the faulty tools lent us by the overarching fiction of "race."

    Do you have a preference?

  4. Nice letter from your friend.
    My son is a profession labor organizer. He has gone through this process also as most of the people he works with are black and latino. The key for everyone, whether professional or citizen it to be, like your friend said, "a learner." You've got to listen to everyone and understand where EVERYONE fits into the big pie. It's not just about how one group treats another, it's about where each person is coming from, what makes them their whole, the good the bad and the ugly and the pretty.

  5. Regarding your friend letter. I really appereciate the fact she spoke with honesty and plus i loved the fact that she wanted to be a learner instead of being a racial critic.

    I remember telling some so-called anti-racist white friends back in college that "fighting racism is a life time struggle. And if you are in the fith just the 4 years in college, you will be disappointed, and if you are in it for 10 years, you will have racial burn out and you will be forever tempted to give up and go back to a life of normality or white-normality."

    That is what i get out of your friends letter of her wanting to learn and that is always the best step in the right direction. Plus, she recognized her white priviledges even though she is trying to help others in their struggle.

    Going to the link I posted on your blog. What bothered me about that article from CNN, is the fact that isn't there enough white successful stories and now there's one coming out of the historical black colleges like Morehouse. Black success is never really explored, instead black crime, disease, poverty are forever the themes in media.

    Though, I give the Joshua Packwood credit for pointing out the racial reality he experienced in his life and the friends he made along the way. But CNN like most news media are more interesting in pointing out the newly white struggle, reverse racism. Plus, I have to point out Packwood's quote, "I don't think ethnicity makes the difference; it's what's in his heart" which should be true. But he fails to notice his white priviledges and it seems as though white hearts are given more credit over black hearts or black success. Plus, with his valedictorian position, staticially him already being white, he will make more money than those black men who even earned their Ph.D

    Macon, I have shared with you my blogs about traveling and photography. As much as I enjoy the traveling lifestyle, I am forever bothered whenever I look through travel related magazines: Outside, Traveler's Condé, National Geographic Traveler, and the list goes on. What I see are white travelers writing their stories and non-white people in the background. Never I have seen a black traveler with white people in the background.

    In short, this article from CNN is another adventure story of a white person taking a daring-leap by putting themselves in non-white envirnoment and getting all the benefits. Sorry, but this is what I see.

  6. I prefer non-white but I can see how this can be problematic. Still, I like Jensen's take on the matter:

    "But politically, white is not just white, of course. White is power. And using the terms white/non-white reminds us of that. What do people of color have in common? That is, what makes the category 'people of color' make sense? The only commonality is that the people in that category are on the subordinated side of white supremacy. Nothing intrinsically links people of indigenous, African, Latino, and Asian descent in the United States except their common experience of being targeted, abused, and victimized--albeit in different ways at different times--by white supremacist society. Take that category away, and the category 'people of color' vanishes. The people, of course, don't vanish, nor does their color change. But nothing links them except the experience of oppression. And the group perpetrating the oppression is white, another socially created category defined by power.

    "So, I want to put 'white' at the center, but not in the sense of valorizing it or claiming it as a norm. Just the opposite. I want to frame the issue as white and non-white to highlight the depravity of whites supermacy and identify it as the target. In this sense I think 'white/non-white' more clearly marks the political nature of the struggle, whereas 'people of color' for many tends to shift the focus from white supremacy to the varied cultures of those non-white people."

  7. Yes, thanks for reprinting that, deb. As I said above, this is why if the point is to keep focused on whiteness in order to better understand or argue against it, then in that context, I think it should be recentered.

    LLDR, I'm glad you liked my friend's letter. I certainly agree with your assessment of her efforts.

    Yes, I enjoy your blogs about traveling and photography, and I'm saddened that you've NEVER seen a black traveler with white people in the background in those magazines. Just as the default image of an ordinary, "all-American" person is that of a white person, so is that of a "traveler." I'm glad you're out there, though, to counter and help correct that image with your mere presence.

    Your take on Joshua Packwood is also helpful (no need to be sorry for it!). I hadn't thought of him as another version of a white traveler, but that certainly makes sense. I hope that his attitude and his whiteness aren't as blithely unexamined and unself-aware as they appear to be in that CNN piece. Hopefully, that's more the way CNN portrayed him than he actually is. Let's hope that going to Morehouse changed him in some ways for the good.

  8. macon, I appreciate your posting this letter from your friend. She's better than a "white do-gooder," since that term has negative connotations (like those you spelled out in your review of, what was that? oh, Dangerous Minds, with that White Savior). Your friend is learning about herself! While she learns about and tries to help others. That seems to me like the big difference.

  9. @lldr:

    I felt uncomfortable with the CNN article too and never figured out why until now. Thanks.

  10. I read the CNN article that was mentioned here (a white student graduated from Moorehouse as valedictorian) but luckily I saw him interviewed by of all networks, FoxNews. I smiled the whole time watching it, and I'm happy for him and for the school. As a society, we need people from different races to break the barrier at schools that are predominantly black or white.

    Re: your article about whites helping disadvantaged minorities. There's an old social worker credo: start where the client is. How do they prioritize their problems and what issues are they willing to work on? Any helping professional or teacher (and parents, too) do well to keep this in mind, because the problems we identify may not be as important to the ones we seek to help. Or they may be, but they're too overwhelmed or intimidated to tackle the big elephant in the room.

    Lastly, I'm thankful for those who have who want to help the have nots. This goes beyond race and into class issues. Were it not for them, the world would be a much harder, sadder place.

  11. This was a great post. It actually mirrored some of my thoughts about white volunteers who work in majority black populated areas. As a person who dedicates her life to public servitude, I dislike those who feel holier-than-thou when and after they finish an hour or two volunteering. To me, that aura seems to seep from white people who volunteer in inner cities --as if they had to dodge bullets to get to a soup kitchen. It doesn't only make the people you should be working for resentful --it makes people who truly care for the success of a neighborhood/group/school angry because these faux workers believe they deserve the trust of people they do not even get to know.

    ...I had to get that off my chest. Great blog!

  12. Macon,

    Do you have insights you could share about the woman mentioned in one link in this post, Beth Rankin from Kent State (who wrote the "I am not a white bitch" article).

    She seems in some parameters to represent a lot of the issues of separation, she's a metaphor for me.

    Emotions and reactions popped up in me concerning her story, partly from having had somewhat similar experience to hers, in different slant and venue.

    Having your brain on this would help! You separate out the strands in each issue you address, painstakingly honestly.

    I find myself needing communion and dialogue on this issue, as much as any I've read here, because part of me sees Beth Rankin's points and part of me sees the BUS organization's points.

    Where do the two meet in commonality?

    The idea of people of similar hearts being the only categorization to live by, is an ideal one, but Beth goes to a black event where she's apparently not wanted, and doesn't see that people of color is a valid separation too... or is it, is that part of the crux of the controversy?


  13. Karen, I really want to address the topics you've raised, but this has been a crushingly busy week for me--I'll get to them soon. The topic of white naivete about why people of color seek non-white gatherings and spaces is actually something I've been trying to write a post about for a couple of weeks now (the post's working title is "feel left out"), but it's a complicated topic--too complicated and intricate so far to boil down to one blog post. But I'll keep trying! More soon . . .

  14. Macon wrote:

    "...why people of color seek non-white gatherings and spaces is actually something I've been trying to write a post about for a couple of weeks now (the post's working title is "feel left out"), but it's a complicated topic--too complicated and intricate so far to boil down to one blog post."

    Why not simply ask the POC readers of this blog to state their reasons why they seek non-white gatherings and spaces? You may receive some compelling, interesting and unexpected responses.

  15. related topics:
    stuff white people do (also in the name of anti-racism):
    interfering in Black organizations
    trying to dominate non-white organizations
    being a false ally
    expecting to be welcomed
    speaking for non-white people


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