Social Media and Anti-Racism 101 (For White People)

I’ve recently started noticing an unnerving trend on my social media accounts: articles and videos about white people being the victims of racism. It reflects an incorrect understanding of anti-racism that places racial bias outside of the historical forces that shape today’s racial constructs. The people who post these links are not particularly political, but their online actions are. They imply that instances of individual racial hostility are somehow equal to the systematic and institutionalized effects of white supremacy. It is a reminder that addressing racism without confronting white privilege is a perilous path.

The first video I saw go viral was a seemingly innocent clip from the long running show “What Would You Do?” WWYD is a reality show that tests real people’s reactions to a staged situation. When I saw a video pop up on my news feed with the title “White Male Haircutter Faces Racism at Black Barbershop” I was concerned.

Judging from the number of hits and discussions on blogs, this was an effective attempt to portray white people as the victims of “reverse racism.” The takeaway is that anyone can be a victim of racism, and that we should be on the lookout for individual acts of racial prejudice. This is the standard discourse in white America about racism. It is a convenient narrative for whites to adopt, because it denies our responsibility to challenge the unearned wages of whiteness, but it is oppressively incomplete. While it may seem like a good idea to share examples of racial bias, it is in fact damaging unless whiteness itself is the enemy.

There is an element of fear in white people’s psyches about being called racist that keeps us from having real discussions about racism and our own complicity in it. White people are expected to be against “discrimination.” Like Germans who grew up after World War II, we are told about historical injustices, and encouraged to oppose racism, but without an accurate definition of it.

Andrea Smith, renowned author and educator, recently posted an article called “Sympathy, Outrage, and White Humanity” that helps to illuminate this problem of watered down racial language and politics. In it, she questions who is allotted humanity in conversations about justice. She explains that white people are shielded from outrage, and any deviation from this requires immediate recourse from civil society. In contrast, the everyday dehumanization of people of color is normalized.

This is why the social test in the Black barbershop is so appealing to white people: it provides an easy and accessible way to discuss racism without having to deal with white privilege. It is one example of a common phenomenon. White people often enter discussions about racism from the wrong place, by ignoring whiteness and treating racism as simple “hatred” regardless of larger power dynamics. But the tensions that erupted in the Black barbershop didn’t just materialize magically; they were set in motion hundreds of years before, in the early British colonies of America. Racism is a historically rooted social, economic, and political system that benefits white people.

Whiteness itself was invented to cement the color line between those who could be enslaved in America, and those who could not. As Theodore Allen writes in The Invention of the White Race:

“When the first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619, there were no ‘white’ people there; nor, according to the colonial records, would there be for another sixty years.”

Thus, it is not enough to be against good old-fashioned bigotry – that’s easy. To be for racial justice, we must work proactively and powerfully to understand and correct the historical and systematic oppression of people of color. The way forward is to fully acknowledge the true racial nature of U.S. history, so we can finally begin to reconcile our communities around an ethic of trust and justice. The only way for white people to be a part of this equation is if we acknowledge the benefits we experience everyday because of our whiteness. This means admitting some uncomfortable things, but it is a critical step towards reclaiming our humanity. And then, it is our job to articulate and explore what solidarity looks like, and to side with people of color in their campaigns for justice.

I hope I see more of us out there in the confusing void of social media (alongside the cute videos of cats), holding the line against racism and white privilege. A few of my favorite sources of racial justice news and analysis include ColorLines, RaceFiles (you’re reading it now!), and Black Girl Dangerous. In closing, here is a hopeful and hilarious video that also went viral about the same time as the barbershop one.

 

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8 Responses to Social Media and Anti-Racism 101 (For White People)

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  1. lisa albrecht January 8, 2014 at 5:02 pm #

    Thank you. I also suggest SURJ – Showing up for racial justice. As a white person, it is SO important for us white peeps to educate ourselves and not ask people of color to keep teaching us. 500 years of racism / white supremacy and we white people have gotta step up.

    • Brady McGarry
      Brady McGarry January 8, 2014 at 6:12 pm #

      No, thank you haha! I agree about our role as white people, and I appreciate the suggestion of SURJ (which is located at: http://www.showingupforracialjustice.org/ for anyone wondering). If people have other good sources of information about race they like, please post as a comment here!

  2. lolauren January 8, 2014 at 5:16 pm #

    Any good tips on how to convince white people that white privilege is a real thing that they benefit from? Many white people have bought in completely to the concept that we live in a post-racial society and that everyone face hardship and it’s just about bootstraps, etc. It’s really hard to get through to people like that on a level where they don’t just explode in anger and/or self-pity.

    • Brady McGarry
      Brady McGarry January 8, 2014 at 10:16 pm #

      Wonderful question, and I wish I could give you a definitive answer, but those probably don’t exist. I think there are probably some principles to adhere to, in order to be effective though. For example, Scot Nakagawa wrote a piece called “Why Are White People So Touchy About Being Called Racist?” which I think explains some of the barriers white people have with addressing their privilege. In my own experience, I can admit now that it was not an overnight affair, and took many candid and patient conversations with friends to begin the process. I don’t think it’s a zero sum proposition, thankfully. I think that perhaps instead of trying to attack people (as I once upon a time did) it should be more of a dialogue. Oftentimes in these types of discussions, people feel defensive and on edge. I’ve found it’s useful to keep the discussion less focused on who is right, and more focused on acknowledging people’s experiences. The truth will eventually culminate if you can honestly communicate with people. I don’t try and frame the discussion as a “I’m going to convince you of something” type moment, and more of a casual exchange. I think people keep an open mind that way. Just my two cents…

      The article I mentioned above is located on Race Files here:
      http://www.racefiles.com/2013/07/03/why-are-white-people-so-touchy-about-being-called-racist/

      • LDD January 9, 2014 at 12:58 am #

        Lolauren, that is a great question. I wrote this response to a friends post on facebook and I thought I might repost it here. I’ll try and condense it so that it is a little more concise, and Brady you are on the right track (Skip to last paragraph for a proactive way to talk to a white person about race).

        I think this article is totally right on in the underlying problems with the race discussions. Many times white privilege isn’t addressed, and the structural violence and long standing cultural constructs are not addressed. Where I have a bit of push back is that I feel the author hasn’t gone far enough (which you are starting to in the comments above). Many discussions about discrimination and prejudice in various forms fall short in that they make race and the ‘other’ the main focus. Racism is not the root of the problem. The root of the problem is Oppression. Racism was constructed by power to justify oppressing the other. I find it difficult to discuss race with many people in the US because the US has this strange semi-binary view of race, either you are white and in power, or you are a minority and out of power. This is just as dangerous as not recognizing privilege and the historical context of racism. Neocolonialism, structural racism, and the privilege of light skin color are global problems, not just a US phenomenon. Skin color is a spectrum and while people may look different all over the world, racism perpetuates itself in the same way everywhere. Colonial powers have used it to maintain their power for centuries, and neo-colonial polices create structures that re-inforce it all the time. Racism is a tool of oppression, if those in power can keep people of different skin colors concentrated on fighting about pigment and keeping the “other” out, then they are free to continue oppressing (Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire has a great discourse on this)

        The concept of a ‘unified white America’ in the US is relatively new (60 to 70 years). john a. powell from Berkeley gave a great talk at the beginning of the an exhibit on race, talking about the genesis of unified whiteness in the states. Pre 1940′s in the US, when you asked someone with light skin what their race or ethnicity was, you would get a range of answers. Irish, German, Italian, Norwegian, Dutch, Jewish etc. There were German, Norwegian, and Italian News papers. There was massive discrimination against Irish immigrants from the genesis of the US, (Irish immigrants were forced to enlist and used primarily as canon fodder by the Union army during the Civil war). Immigrants that came later didn’t have access to the seats of power because of structural barriers against them and so they created their own in the form of organized crime, like the Italian Mafia or the Russian Mob. The KKK and white supremacy existed before this, but it is important to note that they discriminated against most foreigners light skinned or dark. WWII was the catalyst for a unified white America, while Southern plantation owners and slavery had created massive structural barriers based on race, those things were re-inforced and cemented when legislation like the GI bill sent returning soldiers (95% white) to college, without also offering scholarships to minorities to join them. The government also decided that the only work it would recognize as formal (meaning tax breaks and subsidies) were places where white people already held power. Leaving manual labor in the agricultural sector, domestic help, and other ‘informal professions’ (primarily held by minorities) unsupported by grants and opportunities to get an education. Other formal legislation helped white families buy affordable homes in the suburbs and led to continuing segregation and a middle class dominated by a white majority. We don’t live in a post racial America, we live in an America where a man of African and caucasian descent has taken the most powerful seat in the US government and in-advertantly challenged white power and white identity (and massive racial anxiety, hence the most obstructionist congress in history).

        The social construct of Race is the labeling of other based on skin color (there is no scientific basis for race, ie there is no genetic difference between people of different skin color other than differing expression of a phenotype) This is primarily done on a subconscious level and re-inforced by existing structures. Oppressive power takes advantage of this difference to capitalize and create an unequal environment where it can pit one people group against another, essentially destabilizing both in order to maintain it’s power. Both of the groups have power (every individual has power) focused on each other, and as long as they do, they do not realize that those pulling the strings are actually the real oppressors.

        Don’t get me wrong discrimination based on race is a horrible thing, and it should be eradicated, I’m not justifying it or excusing white people for being ignorant of their privilege. But no one people group has a monopoly on power, or a monopoly on racism. It is akin to the commonly mis-used equation racism=power+prejudice. Many people take an extremely narrow interpretation of how power plays into racism, a red herring, perpetuating disempowerment and a single interpretation of racism that re-inforces the notion of “otherness.” It suggests that there is only one kind of power (political). In reality there are many different forms of power. Someone with a gun to someone else’s head has power regardless of his race. An angry group of twenty people have power over a group of two scared people. A voting group of 20,000 minorities has power over a voting group of 10,000 of the national majority. There may be structures that prevent them from utilizing the full potential of their power, but they still have power, and if they utilize it effectively they can change those structures. (ie. if everyone had that narrow view of power, the civil rights movement would never have happened) Nelson Mandela knew this, and used the power of social justice and the righteousness of his cause to persevere and change the world while fighting against structures and oppressors with what must have seemed to have infinite power. He made it a global issue, and global pressure helped to tip the balance to overturn apartheid.

        My main point is that prejudice, like Racism, Sexism, Ageism, etc., is a tool of oppression. A tool that divides, a tool that media outlets like Fox News will have you and white people focused on until the bankers and international elite pad their wallets with dollars generated by the blood, sweat, and sacrifice of the common man. It is important to fight prejudice of all kinds, but if we really want to erase racism, we have to challenge the structures that oppress and perpetuate it. That promote inequality and the de-humanization of every people group. Not argue about who can or can’t be racist. When a white person tries to engage someone in a talk about racism or reverse-racism, realize that at least they are trying, and that is an invitation to go deeper, to discuss the root causes of racism and oppression. Give them a little grace, and you can create a valuable ally. If you trivialize their experience or say that it isn’t valid because of their skin color and legacy of power, then you have missed a golden opportunity, cause them to go on the defensive and stop the conversation. Share with them a perspective that they may never have heard or experienced before. And their moments of perceived reverse-racism might be the window into opening up their understanding of white-privelege and the structural violence that minorities face everyday, all over the world.

    • Brady McGarry January 11, 2014 at 7:34 pm #

      I ran across this article, thought this might be helpful: http://thefeministbreeder.com/explaining-white-privilege-broke-white-person/

  3. Rumy January 9, 2014 at 7:55 pm #

    Dear Brady,

    I enjoyed your article. Very nice work. You are right that personal actions and systemic ones are not the same thing, and that historical context cannot be overlooked when were are discussing issues of race in America.However, there is a danger of harping too much on the point that whites should not describe their negative encounters with non-whites as “racist.” We should be mindful not to end up dismissive of a person’s pain, because he or she poorly articulates the reasons for it. For example, when a white person says, I was fired… because of “reverse racism”… Too often the conversation becomes one about the application of the phrase “reverse racism” and the fact he was harmed gets lost in the mix. There is a time a place to educate, and a time a place to listen with sympathy and compassion. Which gets us to the point some of these frustrated white folks are making online. Perhaps they have not taken enough time to understand the details and facts of the history of American racism as you eloquently set forth in your blog, it does not mean they have not felt harm or have been hurt “just because” they are white. I think they would like to tell their stories and deserve to be heard.

    We all have a long way to go on racial issues, but for the conversation to be meaningful, it cannot always be about wrongs stemming from whites and a historical lecture. Contemporary issues matter as well. The rights and wrongs of non-whites matter immensely. Giving a “microwave” solution (fast and not what you really want for dinner), I offer that we all need to give a little more ground and listen better. We need to be careful when talking about macros and work harder about not sounding self-righteous. Whether I punch you in the face Brady, because you are white or because I hate your glasses, you still got punched. Hurting another person is wrong. Even less helpful is if I told you about the time I got punched, which of course was much worse than your bruise. Such claims to no help matters and end up being dismissive, even if well intended.

    Best.

    Rumy

  4. Kelli January 23, 2014 at 6:35 pm #

    If I wasn’t already married, I’d ask you to marry me. Thanks for your work and your commitment to dismantling racism as it is not as we want it to be.

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