The Good White People: A Quick Tip on Countering Interpersonal Racism

A while back I posted Four Tips on Talking About Racism. Those tips were –

  1. avoid moral superiority, after all, this is about what is strategic for the “we,” not just what feels good to “me;”
  2. find common ground;
  3. don’t guilt people into changing their minds – change leveraged through guilt is rarely very durable; and
  4. don’t be a smarty-pants.

That last one is probably the toughest. I mean, who doesn’t want to make racist people feel ignorant, right? The problem is, making folks feel foolish just makes you look like a snob.

Now that the review is over, here’s another tip –

Help white folks be “good” white people.

Cringing yet? Don’t. It’s really not that tough, and, anyway, just laying a list of grievances on people makes potential allies feel guilty while putting off the less persuadable white folks. Since there are, at least in my experience, fewer easy allies than there are white people who react to anti-racist rants like they’re anti-them, the attack strategy too often polarizes folks with too few on our side.

So, rather than isolate yourself, appeal to the good in white people.

Here’s a case in point:

Back in the day (circa late 80s/early 90s), Portland, Oregon had a nasty problem with neo-Nazi skinheads. The group I was active with documented over 200 members of Nazi groups in Portland, and that was just the tip of the iceberg. The hangers-on and unregistered believers were far greater in number. Violence statistics soared, earning Portland the moniker “the Mississippi of the North” in the national media.

We needed to reach people at the projected base of support for neo-Nazi and other racist recruitment to counter the rise in violence. That projected base of support was, of course, white.

I know that sounds like a tough sell, but we believed that liberal whites would respond to expressions of extreme racism with shame. The most virulent racism lives as an echo of our own histories. Depending on which side of the color line you’re on, the meaning is different, but, it resonates in one way or another for all of us. For that reason, overt racist appeals make liberal whites uncomfortable in our supposedly post-racial society.

So we gave “good” white people an opportunity to express that discomfort. Moreover, we helped them to draw a line in the sand between “good” and “bad” white people by giving liberal whites a leadership role in the fight against hate groups.

Whites opened their homes. They participated in campaigns to paint out racist graffiti and welcomed us to neighborhood meetings. They marched with us, and put themselves between violent racists and their targets in candlelight vigils. Whites also made donations, brought needed expertise, helped us to organize Rock Against Racism concerts in venues that served as racist recruitment grounds.

And helping “good” white people to draw that line in the sand achieved two more goals. First, it created political space among whites for a discussion of systemic racism and its relationship to violent racist groups. Second, it got a lot of people on our side; something that mattered to us because when extreme, even violent racism goes unchecked, the effects on mainstream political culture are never good.

All of this was made possible by first accepting that everyone can change, and then looking for soft entry points. Because all organizing is ultimately about giving people the opportunity to claim acknowledgement, respect, and dignity, appealing to white people’s sense that violent racists defamed them got folks organized.

So the next time you’re confronted by racism, don’t just attack. Isolate the racist, not yourself. Their racist actions could just be an opening to get the “good” white folks organized.

By Scot Nakagawa

Scot is a community organizer, activist, cultural worker, and political writer. He has spent the last four decades exploring questions of racial injustice and racial formation and effective forms of resistance and strategies for change through community campaigns, cultural organizing, popular education, writing, and direct political advocacy.

Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against vigilante white supremacist groups, white nationalism, Nativism, and authoritarian evangelical political movements. In this work, he has served as a strategist, organizer, and social movement analyst. Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow and the Association of Asian American Studies 2017 Community Leader. He is busy at work on a number of projects, including writing a playbook for anti-fascists, and a primer on race and power. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition; Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence; and Eyes Right!: Challenging the Right Wing Backlash.

4 replies on “The Good White People: A Quick Tip on Countering Interpersonal Racism”

read The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail…”First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”

Thanks so much for sharing this quote. So much of this history has been marginalized along with the intellectual contributions of African American leaders of the Civil Rights and Black Power era in general. Much appreciated.

Thank you for the timely quote Susan. I’m sad that this is still so true today. I want to share that my father was a minister when this letter was written and was so struck by it that he went to Selma to march with Dr. King. The truth is powerful and Dr. King had an amazing way of expressing it.
That letter changed my father’s life, my family’s life and certainly mine.

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