Your anti-racist Black friend is not your personal race-barometer: on being a good white

So, last week, I found this video of a Phil Donohue discussion on race and racism which aired on PBS in America, about 22 years ago. I found it rather astonishing that this conversation is being had, today, on the same terms as it was then. Interestingly, one of Phil’s guests says exactly the same in 1992.

I’m especially taken by Sister Souljah’s flow when she breaks it down to these people what it means for her and most (if not all) of us to be in this Black body (albeit) in white America in 1992. I find myself incredibly despondent that she, so eruditely, gives the same and fitting meaning to what it means for me to be in this body, in South Africa in 2014.

“You’re making a moral appeal to a country that doesn’t have a moral conscience. The question becomes: when white people feel  serious and angry enough about abortion, they come out in the thousands up to the millions to say this is what we believe about abortion. Where is the white outcry against white-racism that murders African people all around this entire globe? It doesn’t exist. So who are these good white people? I want to see them. I want to meet them.” – Sister Souljah at 32:48

 

And what should happen to me that same day, because the universe is funny and has no sense of irony? This little piece of #whiteterrorism captured for all posterity in the following screengrabs, proving Sister Souljah’s point. Because whites don’t believe they have a stake in an anti-racist politics (and also because white privilege is too nice), Black bodies find themselves having to explain the same things over and over, to the extent that they find themselves distracted from getting on with dismantling the white supremacy by being put in a position where they have to play teacher teacher to even the white people they actually like.

 

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Now, don’t get me wrong, I quite like Amy. I think she’s doing something important for herself in interrogating the whiteness in her and her society. I just find myself disappointed by what appears to be a non-position on the matter in her initial post referring to this buzzfeed post on white privilege. I also found myself somewhat annoyed by how I felt used as a race-barometer for how she should feel about something she should decide on herself. The clincher for me was her disavowal of any position (implied or otherwise) on the listicle’s analysis when taken to task by her friend Mark – the paragon of who it is that white supremacy operates to benefit: wealthy white males.

Of course,  some obvious complexities are indexed in this exchange. I’ll run through some of the most obvious ones with responses:

  1. People who want to be white-allies are often unsure of themselves and their role in the anti-racism project. Especially in the face of constant critiques of their whiteness and demands that they stay in their own lane from the Blacks whom the project is actually about and actually seeks to free (along with white people).

    Your anti-racist Black friend is not your personal race-barometer, or there to make your opinion for you so you can cut out the hard work of reflecting on your conduct, beliefs and role in the reproduction of white supremacy. If anything, this is a form of Black exploitation. And if you’re going to be a white-ally, you need to be self-reflexive and circumspect enough to acknowledge your race-based exploitation and stop it.

  2. It’s really hard for people who want to be white-allies to consistently challenge white-supremacy and white privilege everywhere they see it. Especially when it comes to family and close friends. “They’re not racist, they’re just really good people who can be closed-minded, sometimes.”

    If you’re going to be a white-ally, when your family and close friends say or do a white-racist thing then it’s your duty to call them out on it right there and then. And break-it-down to them why it’s wrong for them as white people (and not just how it offends the poor Blacks). You can be hard on them, or gentle and compassionate. But you must do it. Resiliently and relentlessly. It’s hard, and it can will probably wear you down. You’ll be unpopular, get called irrational and even a self-hating libtard. They might not even invite you around to Sunday braais anymore. It’s swak, but we find ways to make do. We’ve been doing this for 400+ years.

    Freedom co
    mes at a personal and political cost. If you’re not paying, you’re not trying, and all you’re doing is navel-gazing.* Remember, you have everything to gain and nothing to lose by remaining silent. Your disavowal of anti-racism makes you complicit in sustaining white-racism, which is designed specifically to benefit you, white-ally. If you want to do something about white-racism, do this one thing, or do nothing at all.Now, ask yourself this one question: are you more invested in justice or being invited to that all-white braai, next week?

  3. This one is an extension of point 2, but is so important, it bears standing alone. People who want to be white-allies have good and compassionate people in their lives who aren’t white-racists, although some of the things they say and do can come off as such.

    If it comes off as a little white-racist, it probably is.White-allies know that racism isn’t only that thing that those verkrampte boere in Orania do, but a system of race-based group privilege by those who have a disproportionate share of society’s power, prestige, property, and privilege. To downplay your white friend or family member’s white-racist conduct or utterances as “not racist” but “a little ignorant” is actually a form of violence on the Black body and negates your Black friends violent experience.Your commitment to being a white-ally means listening to (and not trying to disprove) your Black anti-racist friend’s totalising experience of white-racism, and doing whatever it takes to preventing it from happening again without making excuses for yourself or anyone.

If you think of yourself as a good white, and want to be a white ally, these are just three things you can do to get yourself well on your way. It’s hard, and most times, means sacrifice. But this is the nature of justice. She’s not easy to find. And she comes at a great cost.

*With thanks to Kel Mak.

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