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White Anti-Racism: No Hairshirt Necessary

Reflection as Repentence is Worse than Worthless

“it might be earnestly meant in some cases, but something about the whole “examine your privilege” deal ends up becoming a way to focus on one’s own hairshirt process as opposed to, y’know, what the other person actually needs.”

I wish I could find the original source of this blog comment. She certainly deserves credit for inspiring the title of this blog. (update: http://guerrillamamamedicine.wordpress.com/2009/03/17/we-dont-need-another-anti-racism-101/) Anyways, I think that she is correct to an extent; sometimes an examination of one’s white privilege and the subsequent guilt (felt sincerely or not) is tool for personal absolution nothing more. If the examination is hasty or cautious, no good will be contributed to society, and there is even the risk that the examiner herself will end up as a less mindful person. But, this needn’t be the case.

In this blog, I will examine my own white privilege (amongst other things) but not as a ‘hairshirt process.’ My examination of my white privilege will not be a posthumous (and entirely insufficient) repentance for the unjust actions of my ancestors. The racism of my ancestors and of almost every other white person’s ancestors, and the privilege they afforded themselves and each other are deeply ingrained into every aspect of our country’s history. Through a “racial contract” ( the very useful phrase coined by Charles W. Mills in his 1997 book ) whites agreed to privilege themselves and to rationalize racial inequality by completely denying the salience of whiteness throughout all of American history. This is despicable. Though I know I have reaped the benefits of being white, and though I know that is unfair, I am incapable of meaningfully repenting for the system of inequality upon which our country was built; my own repentance would make absolutely no difference, beyond satisfying me personally. But much more importantly, in repenting, one aims to be delivered from their sins such that they no longer need to pay attention to them. For a white person to repent (i.e. to consider white privilege only by lamenting their relation to it) and to feel that repentance was successful (i.e., that through their thoughts they have been delivered from the sins of past injustices) is tantamount to renewing the racial contract and to agreeing that racism and its effects are no longer relevant just because the injustice is acknowledge. Afterall, hasty and unprobing logic would suggest that if you think X is wrong, and have repented for X in the past, that you will not participate in X in the future.  But, whether or not you intentionally like it or are totally mortified by it, if you are white, you have been, still are and will continue to be the beneficiary of white privilege.

I’m a white woman from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. For years I have been grappling with the implications of my own whiteness on my own personal life. I haven’t much focused on my families’ history though. I don’t think my ancestors were any more or less oppressive than any other whites, though I do know that many on my father’s side were active members of the Quaker abolitionist efforts, most notably Lucretia Mott. While these few ancestors’ actions and attitudes are laudable, I’m sure I have other ancestors who either didn’t care about racial oppression or were unabashed beneficiaries of it. This likelihood makes me feel no worse, no more guilty, than does the history and construction of our entire country and society. The private reflections of white people on their race related privilege will never be enough to dismantle the racial inequalities of our country.

In this blog I will examine my own relation to race and share my reactions as a white anti-racist to whatever piques my interest, but not because I think that doing so will minimize the presence of white privilege, even by an infantismal degree. Instead, I intend to continue to ‘race’ my consciousness in hopes to become a more effective ally. As a white person, I have had the options to almost completely ignore the implications of my race, or to acknowledge that white people’s identities (my own included) are just as racially constructed as those of people of color. My decision to ‘race’ my consciousness is motivated by my hypothesis that if white anti-racists choose to acknowledge the salience of race within their day to day lives, that they will be more inclined to see the legitimate problems faced by POC and the necessity of resistance efforts–on all scales– already started by POC.

White privilege is a reality, one which has been concealed by distracting and flawed discourses for centuries. If white people such as myself are to be truly supportive of people of color, we must be willing  to prioritize the needs they identify as opposed to the agendas we see most fitting. And, we must recognize that our attempts to understand our own race are only useful as anti-racist methods to the extent that they enable us to better understand non-whites and to break the consensual silence that allows white privilege to continue unquestioned. More simply, if you, as a white person feel that you have taken the time to understand what it means to be white, and have taken the time to understand the varied manifestations of racism, and if you have come to these understandings because you dislike racism ( I grant, these are not all understandings achieved overnight), then it is time to focus on ways to be helpful to those we claim to care about.

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2 Responses

  1. mgummere says:

    Finally found the source of the leading quotation.
    It was originally a quote in response to Guerilla Mama Medicine’s “We don’t need another anti-racism 101.” I’ll also edit the original post to include link.
    GMM’s post is about to become the starting point for a next post. Stand by!

  2. Greg says:

    Love the premise, the rejection of a facile guilt-as-weekend-get-away.

    I finished the first post thinking of how I was racialized, again and again, in the USA and in Argentina.

    First experience: rural Connecticut and I’m all of 7 years old, playing in the front yard with the inner-tube of a bike tire I found draped on a stop sign down the road. Teenages bike by, see me, yell “That little Korean has our inner tube!” I go inside, “Mommy, what’s a Korean?”

    All I knew is that, evidently I was different. In Argentina my brown skin granted me free membership in the mestizo bloc, and the nick name “negro”. There are very, very few people of African descent in Argentina so the term is very different there, and having moved back to Argentina from the US made the experience extremely disorienting. Anyone with a perma-tan there gets that appellation, and are often presumed to be crude / ignorant / violent. The race-class conflation is definitely alive and monstrous in Latin America.

    Can’t really blame people for not guessing first generation Argentine of Columbian / semitic Ukrainian background, especially when I have none of the cultural traits of either bloc in any way that means much.

    Shifting gears, it’s interesting to question the optimal conditions for “dismantling” endemic systems of privilege. Racially homogeneous areas are steeped in a cultural “common-sense” orthodoxy that verges on true doxa, especially those with small populations in isolated places. What is white privilege in an all-white town? Surely it’s there. Is it more recalcitrant? Is it less pressing than the privilege which exists in racially heterogeneous spaces?

    Thanks for writing, enjoyed reading! More please!

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