Anti-racist awareness and denial within progressive spaces

Two very important posts on anti-oppression conversations that so often implode and intersectional goals that end up not being reached. I’m bookmarking these.

Afrodyke’s Secret Lair: on having That Conversation
Afrodyke has a great list of more recommended reading at the end of the post, including a link to a Hoyden post from a few years ago.

hepshiba at DailyKos: White Feminist Privilege in Organizations

I’ll start this essay with this comment: If you’re a white feminist and an anti-racist, I’m not talking about you (though I would be interested in talking with you). If you’re a white feminist and you don’t like how I’m talking about racist white feminists, that’s fine. But if you want to convince me that most white feminists aren’t also racists (conscious or unconscious), forget it because it won’t work. You’ll be doing the racists’ work for them, by distracting from a discussion about racism, and diverting to a lament about poor, misunderstood white feminists. Finally, if you’re a white, racist feminist and you know it, get a clue, or take a hike. Or show your ass. And if you’re not any sort of feminist at all, go bark up somebody else’s tree.

A woman with a walking staff, wearing a scarf on her head and a knapsack on her backDisability advocates, working class advocates, LGBTQI advocates etc all have their own version of That Conversation in spaces that self-identify as progressive, along with the inevitable diversionary laments about being misunderstood. Since it’s important not to divert attention from the focus of these two posts on the frequent failures of anti-racist idealism, let’s just take the instructive parallels as read, and have comments stick to discussing racism and anti-racist activism and ally-work.


Image Credit: thumbnail image of a woman wearing a visible knapsack is some clip-art found which reminded me of the classic anti-racist consciousness-raising article White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh



Categories: ethics & philosophy, social justice

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21 replies

  1. Kinda related article on Salon from Joan Walsh: When whites say, “What about me?”

    I wasn’t surprised to learn whites think anti-white bias is on the rise, but that they think it’s a bigger problem than anti-black racism is shocking, and alarming.

    There’s a sense that racism is a zero-sum game i.e. there have to be winners and losers. The very important ideal that when racism is diminished everybody wins does not appear to be filtering through.

  2. I find it so difficult to respond to topics about racism.
    Because it always seems to come back to a pissing match about who is more discriminated against. (With mostly the privileged white trying very hard to make a case that they are marginalised…usually citing PC gone mad as proof of this. *cue eye roll, angry face, head against a brick wall* )

    • Thanks for responding, Pirra. I find it hard to write about, too. I was pretty much raised to be one of those Nice White Ladies who expects gratitude for being Nice, but I’ve learnt better now.
      Another idea I find hard to deal with is one that any call to check one’s privilege is either an accusation that one doesn’t know the basics of how privilege works or a deliberate insult by dumbing down to 101. So everybody who learns about their levels of privilege at the 101-level have fully examined every single aspect of how it affects their interactions with others for ever and ever? There’s no beyond-101 discourse to be had about the nuances of how privilege operates for us even after we’re aware of it? I don’t think so.
      Even advanced kyriarchy blamers can still be operating off unexamined assumptions about cultures to which they have never belonged and/or have not yet got to know. In fact this happens all the time. That’s the trouble with normal human cognitive processes that operate below the level of active consciousness the vast majority of the time – we don’t know what’s festering away down there until something embarrassingly stinky bubbles up to the top. If we try to pretend that it didn’t just happen, if we don’t own these occasional eruptions as part of us, then we’re failing to be the courageous allies that we say we want to be.

  3. Oh my, the embarrassing sense of familiarity when reading that second article…that’s going to take some time to unpack.

  4. @Mindy, I hear you so hard. I’ve moved on a long way from unreflective NiceLady-dom, but I know I’ve still got a lot of unpacking to do.

  5. Also trying to reconcile “not treating you like my personal learning experience” with “not using your experiences to improve my understanding without saying thank you”.

  6. @tigtog: Discussions of privilege sometimes go south very quickly, in my experience. I have encountered the assertion that “discussions and requests about ‘checking/examining your privilege’ are just black puddings* wielded by minorities/less privileged folks against more privileged folks in an effort to shut them up” more than once.
    *Random Goodies reference, to guard against the facepalm.

  7. I get stuck in that no mans land that the privileged urbanised indigenous woman inhabits. Because I am an Indigenous woman, I am urbanised and I am a half cast. And that’s an identity that white people cannot accept, and though darker indigenous people accept my identity, I am far more privileged than they. (Though I would never dream of speaking for them anyway. I can only speak for me.)
    But it can be exhausting to always be caught in that cross-fire. I experience a very particular brand of racism. But I think that’s true for everyone.

  8. Pirra, my daughter had a friend in primary school of obviously indigenous descent (her dad was an Arnhem Lander) but it took me ages to twig that the friend’s mother was indigenous also, because she happened to have copped all the pale-skin genes in the family heritage, so she basically looked Irish.
    My various surprises in working out her blackfellaness and occasionally asking questions that I now wished I hadn’t (as if she owed me any explanation!) were a part of my growth process regarding realisation and acknowledgement of how unconscious racism works. I wish I’d just been able to be a more relaxed friend to her instead of putting her through those few tell-me-about-your-people conversations though.
    The girls ended up going to different high-schools in different directions from the primary school, so we haven’t seen the family for ages. Maybe one day I’ll work out how, if I see her again, I might apologise for all those Nice White Lady moments I put her through (without making her too self-conscious about it all). But maybe I’d be better to just shut up and treat her with more respect instead.

  9. TMI above. The whole point was, I have seen with my own eyes, and inadvertently participated in, some of the ways that the urbanised indigenous are made invisible in ordinary discourse in this country.
    We humans do love our comfortable stereotypes, don’t we?

  10. Tigtog, I actually don’t mind questions. Questions I can handle.
    Questions means you aren’t making assumptions. Yes, sometimes those questions seem plain ridiculous to us, at times a little offensive and usually just outright weird, but unless questions are asked you cannot even begin to know another persons world. And I would much rather answer awkward, offensive, weird questions than have some one assume they know my world. (Because the assumptions are usually very very wrong)
    It’s being told I am not who I say I am because I don’t conform to the stereotype in their head that bothers me. I become this strange cast of person, because they know I am ‘different’, but they refuse to acknowledge my difference and they refuse to acknowledge that what they’re saying/doing is still racism.

    • I become this strange cast of person, because they know I am ‘different’, but they refuse to acknowledge my difference and they refuse to acknowledge that what they’re saying/doing is still racism.

      That must be infuriating, and I imagine very wearying as well.

  11. Only when I am feeling extra sensitive about it.
    Usually I just ignore people who put me in that space. (They are in the minority these days. Thankfully) The Andrew Bolts of the world are out there (and they will just never get it), –The nice white lady moments, they aren’t so bad so don’t beat yourself up about them.
    I have a dear friend who simply cannot see her racism. (it’s a sticking point at times and we argue about it, we even get all shouty at each other. ) The thing is we challenge each others world view, often. I asked her once during an argument to think very carefully before answering, “Would she be sitting in my house, in my kitchen, sharing coffee and biscuits and conversation with ME, if my looks conformed to her perceptions of what an Indigenous Australian should look like.”
    The answer was No. I can’t change her mind and there are days I wish she was the “Nice white lady” type… but then she wouldn’t be her. There are days I could quite easily terminate my friendship with her because of her overt racism, but we’re friends for a lot of others reasons. That we challenge each other, often and can still spend days and nights in each others home, share a laugh and remain friends, tells me that even though we have extremely different world views, our friendship runs much deeper than that.
    And the reason for my TMI, is just to reassure you that, I wouldn’t worry too much about the Nice White Lady moments. At the risk of speaking for your friend (I am trying hard not impose my views here) but I would hazard a guess that if she found you annoying or offensive she would have told you just that. When you deal with unconscious racism your whole life, you tend to tell people in no uncertain terms when they’ve pushed the wrong button. It becomes a reflex almost.

    • Thanks Pirra for the reassurance, and I’m sorry that I ended up making this too much about me – I was just trying to be illustrative!
      I can see that Nice White Lady stuff is at least a lot easier to deal with than the alternative, although as you say about your friend, would you be having those challenging and fascinating conversations with her if she was stuck in NWL-dom? NWL-dom strikes me as a form of exoticisation which, while at least not overtly hateful, is still distinctly Othering, and that’s why it needs to be cast aside.
      Anyway, I’m sure now that I’d be best not to mention my struggles with this stuff to my friend if/when we meet again. It would be once again foregrounding the perceived differences between us, instead of focussing on what we have in common, which is so much more important.

  12. Ugh. Yes, I was thinking about the Andrew Bolt stuff when I was reading your comments Pirra. I was also thinking about an interaction when I was younger. I have two adopted Indigenous cousins. As a kid I thought nothing of this at all, they were (and are) simply my cousins. (Then someone pointed out that my family took part in the stolen generations and that’s a whole other story). Once, in shock when a boyfriend’s grandparents said something horrendous about “Aborigines” (I was really quite young so I hadn’t learned to get articulate and shouty in my rage) I just said in anger “I have two Aboriginal cousins!!’ because I knew they would feel embarrassed and shut up. Instantly they shifted gear, leaned forward and said in baby tones “And where do your people come from my dear?”. I just remember thinking ‘Dead set. This is what Indigenous people have to deal with every fucking day. The blatant racism which is what these people really mean, then the shift to ‘tell us about your people’!’. Infuriating.

  13. Tigtog, I was more worried I had hijacked this topic and made it about me! Oh but yes it’s very true that my friend and I challenge each other, although, nothing I say seems to make a difference. Our friendship is based on other things and luckily those things outweigh the clashing when it comes to all things racial. She seems incapable of empathising or trying on another skin.
    NWL is more likely to be open to hearing what I say and it is more likely to make a difference.
    FP, my mind is whirring, please tell me your family weren’t accused of stealing your cousins? My cousins and I all look similar though we all have varying skin tones. (Much like Caucasians really.) I don’t particularly like the “where do your people come from” question. As soon as you say an urbanised part of the country, it just validates to them that you can’t possibly have an indigenous heritage. (Most of them ignorant of the fact that although several tribes can inhabit the one region and be known collectively under a broad name, they can contain several different language groups and so aren’t all the same people.) Clear as mud right?
    But it’s certainly good to know that most people are generally not overtly racist and that if they are subconsciously, they try to stop doing that. And even minorities struggle with being racist. It’s a lesson we all need to contend with.

  14. Trying to break down how to answer it all Pirra…the guy who said it certainly threw it down as an accusation, and out of spite I would say as he did not have good politics. I think he wanted to laugh at my shock. I was dumbfounded at the time since you know, my reality (and the boys’ reality too at that point) was these kids were my family so the thought was completely alien to me.
    I did try to raise it with my aunt once: she showed me some documentation and letters. She adopted the boys from an ‘orphanage’ as young kids and had documentation that they had been removed for ‘neglect’. She never kept from them the fact of their adoption, or their background, and helped them try to find their parents. She also lived in an area with a very high Indigenous population and had a bit of an ‘open house’ for the kids in the neighbourhood. I think she absolutely believed that she was giving two boys a home who didn’t have one: I don’t think it occurred to her that they *would* have had a home had they not been removed as part of a systemic policy of control and eradication, or that the ‘neglect’ was often fudged as an excuse to confiscate children from Indigenous parents etc. Of course that doesn’t excuse the participation in such an incredibly poisonous and destructive system.
    So…not accused of directly removing the kids from their home, but definitely I would say of unquestioningly propping up a terrible system.
    No, I responded very badly to the ‘Where do your people come from’ question since it felt like that was the only way they could relate to me once they believed me to be Indigenous: I ceased to be the young woman their grandchild was dating and they started to examine me for ‘evidence’ of Aboriginality/to exoticise me (ie they’d have asked where my *family* lived if they’d continued to believe me to be Caucasion, rather than where *my people come from*). I have to say I didn’t feel that it was them trying to stop being racist so much as a continuation of it really, and as you say, if you reply that you are from an urban area then there is ‘confusion’ or lack of acceptance. Although I suppose in their limited way that was ‘better behaviour’ than before. Ugh.

  15. That really sucks FP. I had a hard time reconciling the issues that arose from the stolen generation within myself. That even though many were removed purely because they could be, there were still some children who really did need to be. It’s probably the only time bureaucracy didn’t fail the kids in need, it’s just such a horrible shame that it needlessly ripped apart so many other families and that even the kids in need may have ended up somewhere worse than what they were removed from. It’s heartening to know that some kids did make it into loving and compassionate families.
    The burden of responsibility rests on the shoulders of those who wrongfully removed children because they could. Not the families who adopted them. How were they to know?

  16. I have never loved you more than I do right now. Thanks.
    – arvan

  17. *waves at arvan* Nice to see you here.
    Another great link: lizzie cocker has a guest post from Ewuare Xola Osayande – The white privilege of white anti-racists (via GeekFeminism via Angry Black Woman)

    What this fascination fails to take into consideration is the fact that white people have been speaking out against racial oppression since the first slave ships docked in the colony of Virginia. We should be past such elementary appreciation. When we fail to hold whites who proclaim an anti-racist stance to a higher standard, all we end up with are whites talking about how bad racism is. Mouthing off against racism is not going to end racism, no matter how loud and boisterous the bombast becomes. We have to get beyond this almost worship-like praise for what, in the end, are but baby steps in the long march against white supremacy.
    Don’t get me wrong, I do not have a problem with white people speaking out against racism or Black people acknowledging white people working against racism. But when that acknowledgment precludes or is prioritized over and beyond our acknowledgment of ourselves, then we have a problem. That problem is called internalized oppression, a symptom of the very system we are working to defeat. Therefore, Black people giving uncritical praise or consideration to our white allies actually works toward our continued oppression. Remember how some of our people who were blinded by whiteness used to say: “The white man’s ice is colder”? Well, it seems these days that that same internalized oppression is at play in some who believe that the white man’s anti-racist analysis is more accurate than our own.

    He describes many aspects of this white privilege, but one really jumped out at me – how POC activists who have met with hostile/suspicious responses at annual speaking events on student campuses over many years have seen white anti-racism activists speak at the same events in subsequent years and get the red carpet rolled out by adminstration and glowing appreciation from the student body – while saying almost exactly the same things.

  18. It has even gotten to the point that nowadays it is not at all strange to see a white person giving the keynote speech for Black History Month.

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