You Don't Have to Be Racist to Benefit From White Privilege

In Austin, Texas, I had the privilege of attending an Undoing Racism workshop, given by organizers with The People's Institute for Survival and Beyond, an anti-racism social justice group.

When I went to the workshop, as a white progressive liberal woman born and raised in Seattle, I thought I had it covered. "I'm so not racist. I'm not even actually white!" I thought triumphantly. "My mom is Dutch-Indonesian! That's like, part-oppressed!" Nevermind that I benefit from being perceived as white every day, in every institution in the country.

I thought I could impress everyone with how evolved I was, how excellent of a grasp I had on racism. "I'm writing a book on education inequality! And race is a huge part of it! Yay, me!" Well, I didn't have an excellent grasp on it. As the facilitators told me I would, I walked away feeling really uncomfortable and aware of my privilege as a white woman. Because now I could see the ways that I was participating in a system designed to be invisible, with the purpose of keeping people of color down. All I had to do was stand aside and not look at it. And I had done that very well.

At one point during the workshop, I asked one of the facilitators: "How can white people be good allies?" Her answer, gently given, was this: "When you use the word 'ally,' it implies that you're doing it for us, that you feel sorry for us. You've got to do it for you." My first reaction was confusion. For me? How is racism hurting me?

It's hurting me because I don't even realize how it's hurting me. I walk through my life in blind privilege. It's hurting me because I don't feel loss at being segregated from people of color in schools, in neighborhoods, in my city. It's hurting me because I don't know how to talk to my kids about racism, and that makes me afraid for their future. It's hurting me because I'm participating in a system predicated on white dominance without even fully understanding how I'm doing it. It's something I'm still trying to learn.

The Undoing Racism workshop is one of the only times I have talked to people of color about race. The facilitators have been doing it for years, decades. They are very clued into the nuances and the ways people try to mitigate their awareness of participation in this system, which is designed to be invisible. They said: "Systemic racism works better when people are sleeping." It's The White Privilege Matrix.

I've received several comments from white liberal friends over after the protest in Seattle by Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists, as I broadcasted my agreement on social media with radical tactics used at the protest. My friends disagreed. They said:"Let's keep this in perspective! He's an ally!" They sent links to articles and videos to me, including some from members from the Black community who disagreed with the protest in Seattle. "Here's another perspective" and "You might be interested in seeing what a Black guy has to say about this." Or "SEE! They weren't even from BLM!" They think a YouTube video from a Black guy disagreeing with Black Lives Matter and an article by Charles Mudede criticizing BLM tactics means that radical protest is not called for?

Hoisting a black writer or YouTuber onto a platform as "proof" that the tactics of Black Lives Matter were bad is well, a little bit racist. It is akin to saying you have black friends in order to defend your opinions on race. There is a diversity of opinions within the black community, even when it comes to Black Lives Matter.

White liberals also keep asking: "WHY would they target someone who agrees with them?" If he agrees, why not invite them onstage and participate with them? Why wouldn't he welcome the opportunity? It would have been interesting to see what would happen if he had just said right away, "OK, you've got the floor. What's on your mind?" Show white liberal progressives what it looks like to listen to marginalized voices. Show your flexibility when faced with an opportunity. Model it for the rest of America.

And why does this protest arouse such anger from white liberals? Why are we not open and curious, instead of defensive, narcissistically wounded?

The answer is becoming clearer, as more white liberals chime in. It's because we don't like to be called out. It's foreign to us. It's confusing. It is at odds with how we see ourselves.

To Bernie Sanders' credit, he has made several positive changes since the BLM Seattle demonstration. He is responding directly to those events, and changing and growing as a politician in the area of racial justice.

Some people have said to me, "Oh, he would have done that anyway! It's not that big of an achievement." Still, it's interesting timing, that he would update his platform to specifically include racial justice and how he would approach it, hire Symone Sanders, a supporter of the BLM movement as his press secretary, and have BLM open for him at his Los Angeles rally. It raises the question: Well, then why didn't he do it earlier? If the demonstration wasn't the impetus, then what was?

When I was involved in radical queer rights activism back in the early 1990s, through Queer Nation, an offshoot of AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP) that used similar confrontational tactics, and Bigot Busters, a grassroots group fighting anti-gay initiatives in Washington State, one of the things I heard again and again was "This isn't the way to do it. You're shoving it in people's faces! Give everyone some time."

I don't see what alternative there is to shoving it in people's faces when everyone is turning away. It's an issue of survival. There isn't any time. Black people are dying. From infancy, they face higher mortality rates. Black men are incarcerated at about six times the rate of whites. Our public schools have been resegregated, with whites attending schools that have better resources, more experienced teachers, while black children are denied access to these resources. These numbers represent people. They are part of families, and the loss of their lives is keenly felt by those who love them.

Back when Reagan had not even said the word "AIDS" in public, members of ACT-UP stopped traffic in New York. They staged "die-ins." They interrupted mass, they interrupted news broadcasts. They shut down the FDA for a day. They were desperate and scared. Many people in ACT-UP had already lost more friends at a young age than we could even imagine now. Politicians and the public were bewildered. They wondered what on earth the big deal was. But after ACT-UP called out the FDA, the FDA started paying attention.

ACT-UP could have failed (and did sometimes), but that's also part of it. That's how activism works. It's cumulative. You never know what effect one demonstration will have.

Several people have suggested BLM protest Donald Trump instead. That would be more comfortable, wouldn't it? That way, white progressives could continue to ignore the movement by congratulating themselves and saying, "See? I knew it wasn't us! It's the Republicans!" It might not be JUST us, but it is us. We're part of this. And we're losing from this too. We have a responsibility to hear voices of black people. At the very least, just listen. If you listened to the BLM Seattle protest and could not hear the pain in Marissa Johnson's voice, you weren't listening.

If there was one small way for white progressives to educate themselves, what would that look like? Read about white privilege and white fragility and how it works, particularly how to unpack it. Read books by black authors: James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Toni Morrison. Listen to the interview on This Week in Blackness (TWIB) with Marissa Janae Johnson.

Intentionally put yourself in situations where you'll be around more people of color, including prioritizing diversity when choosing your child's school. Listen to people of color and resist the urge to defend your ego. Be willing to be humble, imperfect. Have real conversations with your kids about race, even if it's awkward for both of you. Get better at it. Join groups agitating for racial justice. Organize an Undoing Racism workshop for your neighborhood or your workplace.

Wake up.

Take the red pill.

I just took one myself, and I'm not sure what will happen. I don't really know what I'm doing. But there's the entrance to the rabbit hole. No one said it would be easy. Now let's undo this, together.