Drinking the Kool-Aid

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Aug 04 2012

Being White

As a white lady who has recently decided her life’s calling is racial justice work, I spend a lot of time thinking about how my knowledge of race issues, necessarily, comes second-hand. I spend a lot of time wondering whether I, as a white person, am the right sort of person to be inserting my voice into something I don’t have real experience with, whether I shouldn’t just leave all the racism talk to those who know these issues first-hand instead of from books and college courses. Some folks have told me as much, saying Critical Race Theory is just another way for white people to self-righteously act like they know what’s best for people of color.

It’s not enough to say that whites have more power and capital, and therefore the anti-racist cause needs white people working on it in order to be successful. That belittles the power people of color do have, and makes it seem like the role of white anti-racists is to speak on behalf of people of color—as if the goal is to silence their voices further by completely replacing them with our own.

So on the one hand, I don’t want to speak on anyone’s behalf, and on the other hand, I’m wary of falling into “white guilt” and just doing nothing. In the middle is this place where I can work my ass off for justice and be proud and secure in who I am and what I’m doing. That’s what I’m working to find.

I think it lies in acknowledging fully what it means to be white—something white people aren’t forced to think about, but is crucial to fully understanding exactly where my place is in this work.

Being white means never having to apologize.

It means getting to blame people of color for their own predicament.

It means believing in, and usually defining yourself by, a pretend meritocracy.

Being white means having to learn, in school usually, to see things that others feel viscerally from as early as they can remember.

That’s the thing. Being white doesn’t make me less qualified to fight racism. Isn’t racism a white problem? Taking classes on race issues doesn’t mean I know more than people of color—it means I now understand that to expect people of color to solve racism is to ask them to fix white peoples’ problem. The problems of never feeling like you have to apologize, of having to go to school to discover, in your twenties, the very basis on which our society operates, the problem of blaming people of color for their own predicament—these are white people’s problems. Something we have the responsibility to fix. When people of color devote themselves to this problem, it’s a generous, valuable choice and a crucial contribution. But for whites to expect that of every person of color, or to bow out of conversations because we don’t know first-hand the experiences of people of color, is to take advantage of the agency they do have and expect them to put it all to use to fix our own pathologies.

In short, being white means having the responsibility to redefine what being white means.

6 Responses

  1. Jennifer

    This is very good. I struggle a great deal during DCA sessions, etc. because I rarely feel understood by other white people. Thanks for understanding and expressing so eloquently what few others can accurately describe.

  2. Jaraka

    This is a wonderful perspective. I’ve never thought of it that way but you’re absolutely right! Thank you for opening my eyes!!

  3. Wess

    It’s an indication of my novice status that I didn’t realize Tim Wise says basically the same thing in his FAQs:

    “Although there may be an inherent tension between fighting white privilege and receiving it — as I do, for instance, by often being taken more seriously than people of color when they offer the same types of arguments — the alternative (to not speak out) would only further the deafening white silence on these issues, and allow other whites to believe that the only people who oppose racism and white supremacy are people of color. This belief, directly or indirectly, contributes to white ambivalence and white racism, by seeming to vest whites with a personal stake in the maintenance of the system, rather than getting them to think how we would all be better off were that system to fall. Furthermore, to remain silent so as to defer to the voices of people of color, perpetuates the imbalance whereby people of color are responsible for doing all the heavy lifting against white supremacy. How is that an example of solidarity or allyship? Certainly it cannot help the antiracist struggle to say, in effect, “No really, you do all the work, and I’ll just watch, thanks. Because, ya know, I wouldn’t want to draw attention to myself!””


    • People like to hang a lot of words on the topic, but my view is basically that the people who are benefiting from an injustice have a responsibility to work to stop that injustice, otherwise they are complicit. White people definitely ought to be involved in anti-racism work. That said, some folks definitely need to start opening their ears before they open their mouths.

  4. So I was going to comment on this post asking for some thoughts from you, but then I realized it might be even better to ask the whole community. I turned my comment into a blog post instead… could you read what I just posted and maybe write me back about it? It was your thoughts that I wanted originally!

  5. S

    I appreciate this – just joined staff at TFA and I hit a wall when I was asked to define “white ally” at New Hire Orientation because I could not think of a single example from my personal life. At all. This helps.

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