White People in Racial Justice Work

[In the spirit of ongoing dialogue, this was edited on 4/13 to reflect important feedback.]

There is, in some of my circles, an essay making the rounds which critiques just about every majority-white anti-racism group of which I am aware. The gist of the criticism, as I read it, is that white folks can’t be trusted to do this work well without the supervision of People of Color, and that we are generally pretty bad at setting up and sustaining meaningful structures for such accountability. The consequences of stepping into this work without these structures range from not-enough to harmful. As I understand the author, these negative consequences include an over-investment in giving white people safe places to learn about racism and their (our) role in it, and a deflection of resources from activists of color to these white groups. Also that gaps in our understanding and a human preference for comfort over discomfort lead us away from the emotional, intellectual, and material sacrifices necessary to engage in the ways this work requires of us. And these consequences harm POC.

In the spirit of transparency and growth, I have to own that my initial response to this essay was a predictable sputtering defensiveness. Since I have learned that this sort of reaction usually points to something I need to look at, I’ve been unpacking it with trusted friends since the essay came out. The core of my irritation seems to be with the implication that whites rarely get it right, can’t be trusted, and should at no point be alone with this material. (So, still keeping it about us, not the harm the author was trying to get us to look at.)

There’s a joke I like… “My cousin thinks she’s a chicken.” “Why don’t you take her to the doctor?” “We need the eggs.” I like the joke because it reflects some of the absurdity of how we get along in face of deeply rooted contradictions and challenges, such as the one about how (if) people with entrenched unearned privilege can participate in the process of dismantling that privilege. For better or for worse, right now white anti-racists think (hope) we’re chickens. And we (collectively) really need the eggs. So where from here?

This question wove into some thinking I’ve been doing about the long-term trajectory of my focus in this work. So far, I have mostly tried to learn about and then educate other white people about the history that created our position, the systems that hold it in place, the way these systems create murderous imbalances, and how we participate in and profit from these imbalances. Pending new insights, I continue to believe that this work is necessary and that there are practical reasons to have these conversations in majority-white groups led or co-led by white people who frequently check their understanding with people of color[i]. However/And…. the next question coming into focus for me is how to apply this knowledge to contribute to change: As I wrote a few months ago, “… it isn’t enough to simply help white people see barriers set up against others but not them. It’s time, I think, to turn my attention to taking those barriers down.”

As to what this means about working in majority-white anti-racism groups … I’m not sure. The truth is that I’d rather do the work imperfectly—knowing there will always be corrections to make—than not at all.  The next step is to check accountability in groups I’m part of, including believing that we sometimes hurt others so we can apologize and learn from the experience. Hopefully we’ll get some eggs out of it.

[A note on language: Race is a constructed concept that sets intellectual traps if accepted. The term Racial identity, which bases the distinctions on social and psychological labels rather than inherent traits, serves to remind us that humans made this illusion. I use “Black” and “white” for convenience, as we need some language to talk about the issues we are seeking to address. I do not mean by this that I think our racial identities are fixed and determinative.]

 

[i] (1) White people are more likely to unpack embarrassing material about racial identity if we’re not being listened to by the people the crap is about and we have to unpack it before we can move into the clearer understanding that supports action; (2) There are things about whiteness that only white people know (just like any in/out group dynamic). We can use this knowledge to reach into the thicket and show people some paths out of it. Though we aren’t the center of the collective story, there is a need to sometimes center the conversation on how we do what we do; and (3) there are more white people who need this basic training than there are people of color with this work as their calling. I’d rather have leadership of color giving me outlines and checking me from time to time (if they want), but doing the bulk of their liberation work in the thickets I can’t enter. And, yes, I do write checks for this. And, no, I don’t want any cookies for trying to help correct the balance.

Author: Aron DiBacco

Aron thinks about conflict, communication, and how to help move the world in the direction of inclusive equity. She does these things through teaching, facilitating dialogue, social science research, and writing.

7 thoughts on “White People in Racial Justice Work”

  1. I particularly agree with you on unpacking the nasty stuff without causing further pain to POC who already have had to suffer living in our racist society. What kind of martyr really would want to hear more of this?

    And I like the chicken!

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    1. I don’t think POC are looking for more chances to hear more of the nasty stuff. I think it might be a question of trust, that they should be able to listen in to check what we’re doing. That I understand. Our track record isn’t great.

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    2. Hi. What I am saying is that these spaces still cause POC harm.

      I have literally named my harm and all folks can muster is… “Well I personally didn’t do this… or “not MY anti-racism group.”

      I have no idea what precedence defensiveness takes over an apology.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I believe you. I assume I and my groups sometimes cause harm. I am sorry for these actions.

        I made a few changes to the post reflecting the points I think you want us to see.

        A.

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  2. All i have to say is im white i grew up in hawaii and nobody wants to be the white kid… especially on “beat up haole (white/Caucasian) day”at public schools… lol though we all get along mostly their is a racism towards all white people and a negative stigma in most areas even if u wete born here grew up local it doesnt count. U spend ur life proving u fit in without realizing it… sure ive never actually had a problem and i blended in just fine but people in general will treat u difcerent and say derogatory things about the “haole style” of behavior etc. In essance my kids who are mixed fit in sort of… but not completely with their hoale friends or local cousins/friends it seems they dont like to see their whiye friends being descriminated and picked on because of their race!!! They had no idea about racism to them it was rediculous just because someone looks like mom or dad … but unfortunately its true. But if youre white local in hawaii and/or have a white sounding name and apply for a frontdesk job you will get it and be paid top dollar in some areas so it works n balances eventually

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    1. It’s not simple, all this. I’m sorry for the way you felt like an outsider sometimes. Do you think part of it was resentment about that part where a white name gets you a better job?

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