I recently had a conversation with another white lady in which she claimed was no longer racist after her “revelation” about the state of racism that came from reading a few works by bell hooks and Cornel West. I found this claim to be a variation on the white racist staple of I-can’t-be-racist-because-I-have-black-friends, now modified to I’m-no-longer-racist-because-I-read-black-authored-works-on-racism. This statement startled me and, especially in light of yesterday’s significance and national stage for white privilege, imperialism, colonialism, and oppression, brought up issues concerning the concept of the white non-racist, white anti-racism, and the ever-popular indulgence of white guilt. Here are a few of thoughts in response to the conversation. I hope to hear others’ as well.
The White Non-Racist
White people cannot be non-racist. First, because racism involves institutionalized, systematic, and historical oppression on the basis of race, only white folks can be racist. As the poet Chrystos writes in the poem “Those Tears,”
Those tears of the straight woman
because we kicked out her boyfriend at the Lesbians only
poetry reading where no microphone was provided
& the room was much too small for all of us
shouting that we were imperialists
though I had spent 8 minutes trying to explain
to her that an oppressed people
cannot oppress their oppressor
Because of the institutionalized and systematic nature of racism, white people exercise white privilege/ racial oppression every day.* All societal institutions in which we operate are founded upon and continue to function and profit from racism. That means white people get constant benefits from utilizing and living within these systems. For example, the white lady who has read every piece that W.E.B. DuBois has ever written still exercises her white privilege/ racial oppression when she drives without being unconstitutionally stopped, when she fails to be searched by police, and when she receives a quote for a loan, when she files a complaint in court, when she goes to school, and millions and millions of other moments that make up her day-to-day. For this reason, there is no such thing as a white person who is not racist. (And for the inevitable follow up, no you can’t “give up” your white privilege by insisting to be sobriety-tested or volunteering for full body search at the airport. Indeed, to even conceptualize that such a thing would be possible painfully devalues the centuries of oppression and genocide committed against communities of color and is an ultimate exercise of white privilege/ racial oppression.)
*I use the terms “white privilege/ racial oppression” because I got the feeling from my conversation with this lady that the phrase “white privilege” had somehow transformed into a white-friendly academic phrase free from accountability and oppression. A nice way to say, “I am aware that because I am white I get certain things, but because I know this and because it’s not my fault I’m not racist.” White privilege always means racial oppression, and so I use both terms here.
The Win-Win Privilege
Following this conversation concerning the impossibility of a white non-racist, I received feedback that this concept creates a “lose-lose” situation in which white people are just screwed no matter what. First of all, the thought that white people are always damned completely dismisses the omnipresence of white privilege in this white supremacist society and perpetuates racial oppression. Second, upon asking what it would mean to “win,” the response was that “winning” would mean being able to eradicate racism from oneself and society. Aside from the fact that equating “win” with “being the white savior” is problematic on so many levels that it is a topic in and of itself, it is absolutely an exercise of white privilege/racial oppression to think that white people can always “win” AND define what “win” means. Finally, the idea that a white person has a right to “come out on top” of every situation is an exercise of white privilege/ racial oppression.
The Indulgence of White Guilt:
The conversation ended with accusation that I must hate myself for being white and hate white people, and that I am merely suffering from “white guilt.” What an indulgence to imagine that white folks can feel guilty for constantly benefitting in every institution in this society! Again, it is an ultimate exercise of white privilege/ racial oppression to embrace a concept that white people are “subject” to guilt (at the hands of whom?!) because they constantly benefit in all realms of society on the basis of a socially constructed concept of “whiteness” that is constantly redefined to keep “white” people in the position to benefit. What was referred to as “white guilt” in this conversation was simply my acknowledgement of the fact that I am white and that being white entitles me to institutional privilege while simultaneously working to oppress people of color. No more, no less. That’s the reality, and in no corner of that reality does that involve any hatred or oppression of white people.
Ultimately, although white people cannot be non-racist, white people can still engage in anti-racism work.** For example, white folks can actively work to support the abolition of prisons, one of the most racist and oppressive social institutions.
There are many dedicated organizations working towards prison abolition that also emphasize community-based, -led, and -accountable structures and that prioritize the needs of those who are most affected by the prison-industrial complex. These organizations range from Critical Resistance (see also a critique
to Black and Pink to the Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project. There are many more opportunities for involvement that become readily apparent with a little self-education and awareness of responsible activism.
**It is important to note that white involvement in promoting anti-racism should not include entitlement to be in a position of leadership or to garner praise or recognition or else perpetuate racial oppression. Check out Word to the Wise: Unpacking the White Privilege of Tim Wise”; and response “Tim Wise Takes on Critics of White Anti-Racists.”