On the Failings of White People

(Posted by Karen)

Note: I capitalize “White” to acknowledge White as a racial category; I use “people of color” refer to all non-White people.

I’m late coming to this work of fighting for racial justice. Embarrassingly late considering my age and life experience. I fall squarely into the category of lazy White, female, liberal American. Or at least I did for most of my life. I have benefitted from White privilege at every turn of my life, and only in the past few years have I taken a hard look at what that means.

Working for racial justice can be overwhelming, especially when it comes to recognizing how pervasive the system of White privilege is in our society and acknowledging our role in preserving it. But the only way to move towards racial justice is to dismantle White privilege; so this work must be done, and it must be done by White people.

Since the election, I have seen several open letters to White people/women/liberals that outline our weaknesses, ignorance, and well-intended though empty efforts. A common thread in these letters is the observation that White people are lazy, and have a tendency of calling upon people of color to answer their questions about race and racism, and provide guidance on how to end the system(s) of oppression. I’ll be honest: a year ago I did not grasp the inappropriateness of White people asking non-White people for help in our fight for racial justice.

I remember participating in one of my first meetings with a group of activists passionate about fighting for racial justice. They were experienced and had devoted their professional and personal lives to this work - they had been at it for decades. Though equally passionate, I was a newcomer and knew very little about the expectations for White people. As we discussed what action we could take to engage people in our local community to stand up for racial justice, I realized there are implicit rules. Two of these rules are:

  1. Do not be a group of White people doing this work without the input from people of color. Grave mistakes have been made in this way – mistakes that misrepresent the work that needs to be done and cause more harm than forward movement.
  2. Do not ask people of color for help with this work.

For months I could not reconcile these two rules. Having heard all the pitfalls and errors that White people tend to make, I was too afraid to take action. I felt paralyzed by the seemingly contradictory rules: do not do this work without the input from people of color, but do not ask people of color for help.

I took a step back and took on the role of learner rather than activist. Although I have barely made a dent in the work I believe I need to do, I am beginning to understand those two rules. The system of White privilege is our system – we created it and we maintain it. In our position of privilege, we have the power to dismantle it. To do so, we have to take the time and initiative to learn the history of our own country and understand how past and current laws continue to support our White privilege. We have to figure out how to change the system.

We are not to ask people of color to do this work for us. But if we do even the smallest amount of listening, we’ll see that their help is everywhere. Hundreds of years of voices and stories – ideas, guidance, support, strength, direction – it is all already out there. We’ve just been ignoring it, oblivious to the voices that are not our own… for hundreds of years.

The open letters to White people/women/liberals that outline our weaknesses, our ignorance, our well-intended though empty efforts are exactly right. They call us out on our laziness and tendency to ignore the wealth of knowledge that has always been available to us. We are to do the work with input from people of color. The input is already available to us. To ask what it is or where to find it is lazy and obnoxious.

The open letters may be difficult to read, but they are so important. These letters are not intended to shut us down; they provide much needed constructive criticism from experts who know what needs to be done. The messages should be taken in deeply with the intent of turning it into meaningful, effective action. If we feel our defenses going up or feel inclined towards hurt feelings, we need to listen even harder – the words that have made us feel that way must be filled with the wisdom we need to hear. That wisdom is what White people need in order to break down the oppressive system of White privilege.

As I work to educate myself, I will share along the way, in hopes of encouraging others to engage as well. Please, join me.

Here are two excellent reads, both of which address the failings of White people/women/liberals: An Open Letter to White Liberal Feminists and Somewhere in Between. I also strongly recommend On Safety Pins, Advocacy, Whiteness, and our field, which outlines the expectations for White people engaging in this work.