Thursday, December 17, 2009

ask non-white people how to fight racism

Fightin' Whities mascot

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.


  1. This is really interesting, food for thought. Thanks!

  2. Good post!

    Thanks for quoting me and actually spelling my name right (you wouldn't believe how many people fail at doing that--it bugs).

    A problem with White people asking how to fight racism that wasn't specifically touched on is that the implied message is "Just tell me what you want me to do and I'll do it." Speaking from non-race issues related experience, people who like to take that sit back approach tend not to be eager worker bees ready to jump at a moment's notice, but rather they are the ones who are most likely to avoid the work. I feel like even if POC gave Whites some kind of "Anti-racism To-Do List", what would follow would be a big debate of what should/shouldn't be on the list, the ordering of the items, etc. Honestly, I think the reason people keep asking is because deep down they know, but really don't want to carry out, the simplest solution: confronting the racism of those closest to them.

  3. Honestly, I think the reason people keep asking is because deep down they know, but really don't want to carry out, the simplest solution: confronting the racism of those closest to them.

    Often as close as the nearest mirror.

  4. gotta dig in for the long haul too. There's no overnight solution. I feel like a lot of white people (and a lot of males) just want to do one task to try and make it all better ("Tell me what I have to do and I'll fix it!")

  5. I have a lot of respect for your blog and the ideas expressed here and please believe me when I say I am asking this 100% in earnest:

    Is it ever okay for a white person to question or disagree with a POC on any topic related to race?

  6. Is it ever okay for a white person to question or disagree with a POC on any topic related to race?

    Uh, not really.

  7. Im- Yes. When you hear racist comments about other PoC, not whites, it's perfectly ok to disagree. I wish more people would, because when you don't it just makes you part of the problem. Although, I somewhat hesitate to give this advice because some whites have warped ideas about what is and isn't racist.

    A friend of mine once told me a funny story about her old boss that I think illustrates what I mean. She (ex boss) was making Mexican food for dinner and trying to teach her kids about it. She told them "These are tortillas, these are what Dora and Diego eat" and her husband cut in with "You can't say that, that's racist!"

    Some white people are conditioned to think that other races are bad and therefore mentioning anything about race and cultural differences is bad. When in doubt, a non-accusatory "Hmm, what did you mean by that?" will help you understand what was said more. And though this is different when it comes to whites, if a PoC expresses a positive stereotype ("Asians are good at math.") please, just let it go. If you argue the positive stereotypes, you'll really only be doing two things, 1) making it look like you don't have positive opinions of PoC, and 2) making it look like you feel you need to teach us poor, ignorant PoC of our insensitive ways.

    Other people might feel differently, of course.

  8. Jasmin,
    I'm almost certain that I misspelled your name yesterday in a comment. My apologies. I know how annoying it is because people are always getting my name wrong, too.

    I'm writing a piece for another blog on being a white ally. Here's a bit (very much in draft form, people!) that speaks to your question:
    "If you really want to learn about racism, listen to the experts: people of color. And when you listen, really LISTEN. Focus on that person’s experience, not on your own, and accept that what this person is saying is what is TRUE FOR THEM. Respond by asking questions that help you understand THEIR EXPERIENCE better. Do not discount their experience or question its legitimacy. Do not attempt to change the subject from racism to something else by using common derailing techniques. Accept that the experience of people of color may be different than your own, but that their experience is no less legitimate."

  9. My advice for what WP can do to fight racism is set good examples for their children as well. Don't make them have to reinvent the wheel in fighting racism because you didn't bother to teach them what's not acceptable and how to treat people.

    - don't tell racist jokes
    - don't laugh at racist jokes
    - if someone does either of these things in front of you and your child(ren) use it as a teachable experience.
    - stand up to racism ESPECIALLY in front of your kids. Time to break the cycle.
    - don't just stand there!
    - don't tell them "it's not our problem" and "we shouldn't get involved."
    - when they're old enough, discuss actual concepts like what disrespect and demoralization is.
    - when they're even older, teach them about white privilege and what they need to be using theirs for (getting other white support to fight for the rights of POC - not for getting reservations at an upscale restaurant)
    - don't make sweeping statements about people of other races or ethnicities.
    - when your kids have friends of different races and ethnicities, take that as an opportunity to get to know that person NOT as a representative of their group, but as someone who *possibly* has different traditions and customs as you do, but appreciate them as EQUAL to your own, not "weird" or "different" but equal.
    - Follow along. If you move into an area highly populated by people of other ethnicities join in the community with them and your children without pushing your white ways on them. They are educated on whiteness every single day and don't need to hear about it unless they ask you.
    - Learn other languages, preferably ones that make communication with people in your area easier, with your kids so that English doesn't limit or inhibit your abilities to communicate - nor keep you in fear of the changing America.
    - Teach your kids to stick up for people who are being put down for ANY reason. And you do it too.
    - don't shy away from neighborhoods, schools, stores or any other places which don't typically have many white patrons or residents.
    - stop worrying about your child being "different" or "the only one". Your kid is a lot more resourceful than you give him credit for, and he'll be fine.

    Pretty much just teach your kids DIFFERENTLY than the way just about everyone else is teaching their kids to be. Let's lose the sense of entitlement shit that's so pervasive now. Your child isn't any more special than anyone else's, sorry. And all it does is help them later learn to appreciate their white privilege and not even know why. So stop hovering and telling them "it's not fair" when their teacher gives them a shitty assignment or pairs them with the dumbest kid in class for a project. Just roll with things without making such a fuss when it comes to your child. After a while YOUR sensibility about what's important and what's not important becomes skewed and you pass it on to your kids and they carry it out into society.

    And that's about it.

  10. >Is it ever okay for a white person to question or disagree with a POC on any topic related to race?

    Hmmm. I cannot quite pinpoint the reason just yet, but somehow that feels like an unfair question. For one thing, it feels way too broad. It also seems (and I'm guessing here) like it's coming from a place of frustration similar to those in previous posts who said they (mainly white people) feel like they're being silenced.

    That said, I would say yes there are times when you can disagree. For example, I was recently involved in an online spar with a black person who was talking about racism in Asia. While I get that there's racism in Asia, I felt as though they were positioning themself more as a '(superior) Westerner' than a black person. Thus in my view s/he came across as quite condescending and very hateful. (There was a sense of 'these backward people!' to hir argument.) This meant the arguments s/he used were often illogical. The gist of it would be the equivalent of me saying (in caricatured terms) "White people are the most racist people on the face of this earth and the worst scum of the universe!" and making it a personal grudge against all white people instead of trying to break down how whiteness works, and completely denying that any other race is capable of prejudice or racism. In that case, yeah, I disagreed with and questioned this person's interpretation of racism in Asia. Had s/he not positioned hirself as superior (Westerner), then I may not have disagreed or questioned them.

    This, I think, is similar (sort of) to how my Asian Australian friend called me out on overgeneralizing about white people during the periods when I was really struggling with feeling hateful.

    Would it be okay if a white friend called me out on the same thing? Depends on who. If it's someone I think really does 'get' racism, then yeah maybe. But if they really do 'get' racism, then most likely they won't say anything coz they understand where I'm coming from and they understand that what I need the most to get all that anger out of my system is for them to just listen. But most people don't really 'get' racism. I usually try not to talk about race with them.

    That's what I think, at least for now.

  11. This was an excellent, well-written post, Macon. I also really liked your suggestions Victoria. That sounds like a good way to raise a kid (speak and stand up against unfairness and injustice, etc) for a kid of any race.

  12. Great post. I've been that guy, and it's always good to have it reinforced why you shouldn't be that guy.

    I think it's worth mentioning outright that anti-racism is one of the few disciplines in which the fact that someone you know is an expert doesn't mean that you should ask them for expert opinions whenever you need them. I think there are white people whose fuckups in this realm are genuine attempts to recognize expertise: "If I have questions about biology, I'll ask my friends who are biologists, because they know a lot about biology. If I have questions about drugs, I'll ask my friends who are pharmacists/doctors/neuroscientists, for similar reasons. If I have questions about racism, I'll ask my black friends, because they know a lot about racism." In one way, this can be interpreted as a respect for their authority -- and it's important to explain why it's not appropriate.

    For one thing, there's a huge difference between asking someone what they think about something "as a biologist," or "as a pharmacist," than "as a POC."

    And more importantly, there's a huge difference between asking a biologist for their expertise in a genuinely respectful way, and asking them in a way that blames them for your lack of knowledge -- "if you would just tell me how to prevent HIV, I would, but if you haven't even told me, how am I supposed to know?"

  13. Only 12 comments even with the logo there? Where are the trolls? I bought all this booze for nothing. Tsk-tsk. Macon, you're losing your touch.

  14. *quoting the skinny dude with the shorts and the giant button in House Party*

    @ RVCBard,

    Yo' liver gon' shrivel up like a prune!

  15. When I first encountered anti-racism and the sociological definition of racism I got a lot of angry comments to Google and that it was all very simple and why should they educate me, etc. Unfortunately I found it very difficult to Google about anti-racism when I didn't even know the word "anti-racism" or the particular definitions that they were using. Just Googling "racism" doesn't immediately turn up any useful 101 stuff that would be easy to understand for a beginner.

    It wasn't until a friend of mine linked me to a racism 101 entry that I actually even had an idea of what was going on or what was being said, and what definitions were being used.

    So while I agree that POC's don't need to educate, a little direction on where to look would be useful I think. Even just "Google anti-racism or racism 101" would've been more useful than "Just Google it!" in my case.

  16. @Sez I:

    There's a world of difference between, "I'm looking for online and in-print resources about what White people can do about racism. Could you recommend some good sources?" and "I feel bad about racism. I don't know what to do. Tell me where to start."

    I have something I'd rather do than unravel why one works and the other doesn't right now. So if someone else would care to explain what they think it means, please feel free.

    BTW, this is what I got by simply tying in "What can white people do about racism" (without quotes).

  17. @ fromthetropics (also cloudy): Thank you for your thoughtful response. I know my question had that icky sound to it which is why I prefaced it w/all the "I swear I'm being earnest" caveatting. Really I'm not frustrated with the discourse on anti-racist blogs...just fascinated by it. I really did mean for that question to be taken at face value and I am grateful that you did so.

  18. @ Sez,

    "I'm confused. Could you maybe recommend a place where I could start off [meaning you are taking charge of and responsibility for your OWN racial education from now on], and I'll take it from there" is one thing. "Do my fuckin' work for me, darkie or else I'm taking my bat and ball and going home and devoting my time, money and pseudo-empathy to helping save the whales" is another. And most Whites mean the latter when they demand (and yes, they are DEMANDING not asking) education from PoC in ending racism. That's what all those "Well what do I do?" questions usually are.

  19. "I'm confused. Could you maybe recommend a place where I could start off [meaning you are taking charge of and responsibility for your OWN racial education from now on], and I'll take it from there" is one thing. "Do my fuckin' work for me, darkie or else I'm taking my bat and ball and going home and devoting my time, money and pseudo-empathy to helping save the whales" is another.

    Yup. And there's also "So far I tried XYZ, but I'm looking for something more ABC."

    Again, asking the question should not mean the POC winds up doing all the legwork while someone else waits for us to spoonfeed the results to them.

  20. You know what? From the POV of a poc who is sometimes in a privileged position vis-a-vis other pocs depending on which country I'm in, I can't picture myself asking the other pocs what I can do to stop the racism they are experiencing. It's just too weird and I'd feel too much like a hypocrite. Coz I mean, unless you're some sort of activist then what is there to do except, a) Stop being prejudiced yourself, b) Speak up when you see it happening?

    The only time I'd ask is if I was doing serious research backed by a university or some other organization, or if I was gonna go take some sort of legal action against some injustice that's happening. But if it's just about me dismantling my personal racial prejudices that I may have towards them or that of 'my own people' on an individual day to day basis, then it just sounds too weird/hypocritical to ask, 'How can I fight the racism that you're suffering?' Really weird.

    I think it's because if I do ask, then the very fact that I'm asking means that I'm too self-conscious about trying not to be racist which basically means I *am* racist. If I am a member of the group that is being racist and have been around them enough, then I should know what 'my people' think of 'their people' (note: apologies for the weird labeling. It's the easiest I can think of at this hour).

    But in other situations, I may not be aware of what's going on if I'm not a "full" member of the group that is in the privileged position. Then I think it's fair enough to ask (specific) questions like, 'Oh, what is the stereotype of black people in Japan that they'd treat you that way?' IF a black person initiates the conversation about race and IF knowing the stereotype is necessary for understanding what they've just shared about their experience coz otherwise I wouldn't have a clue what they're talking about since I have hardly lived in Japan even if I am ethnically part Japanese.

  21. 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.

    I just had to see that part again, because it's sometimes hard to remember these points. Anti-racist fightin' whities (heh heh) are also fighting for the restoration of their own suppressed, yes stifled, humanity. They can get some of themselves back.

  22. Oh god, I do this. Still. I know I should know better by now, but no, I still fall into this trap sometimes. Sometimes I ask because I genuinely am seeking more opinions (although I've decided that in the future I'm going to preface those questions with "I've read/researched XYZ", as RVCBard suggested, so people know that I'm not just asking them to wipe my ass for me), and I don't feel bad about those times. But sometimes I'm just being lazy, and that's totally not okay.

  23. guilty as charged! I do wonder. really.

  24. Racism is different from racial prejudice, hatred, or discrimination. Racism involves one group having the power to carry out systematic discrimination through the major institutions of society. By this definition, only White people can be racist, because in America only White people as a group have that power.

    Dismantle Institutional Racism and Take a BIGGER Bite Outta Crimes Despised By All Law Abiding Citizens.


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