“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Lilla Watson
This spring I told a class full of graduating seniors that history would remember this time period. Some stared at me with screwed-up faces, others shook their heads in agreement, others looked shocked. I believe I told the truth more and more every day. The Black Lives Matter movement is demanding a change of consciousness. This is difficult for liberal “white” people to recognize. Instead of embracing a paradigm shift we tend to call for respect and an adherence to certain protocols and sensibilities. We view ourselves as good people. We even openly say we support Black Lives Matter, as Ben Cohen did yesterday on HuffPost Live. But when it comes down to acting in accordance with this rhetoric we succumb to what feels comfortable, what we know, the path of least resistance: whiteness. The result is sadly predictable, and terrifyingly deadly. Whiteness does what it always does: centers itself and then divides and conquers. Now folks who positioned themselves as “allies” are openly hostile and defensive. We demand that “all the facts be considered.” Or, we tell the country that “Bernie is better than anybody else.” Or, we simply become disgusted at two Black women taking over the microphone at an “event that wasn’t even theirs!” Because the role of whiteness still largely escapes interrogation we are unable to see how this worldview springs from white supremacy and, more importantly, we cannot identify our own self-interest in dismantling whiteness and shifting our knowledge system. We end up identifying with the very systems those we are attempting to stand shoulder to shoulder with are attacking. Jamie Utt outlined this, along with other crucial points, in this article earlier this week.
It doesn’t need to be this way. There is a path to true solidarity and genuine engagement with movements aimed at dismantling white supremacy. However, this is a process, and there is work that needs to be done to understand and combat whiteness before the work can be authentic. Mainly, studying Whiteness.
The most important part of the work for those of us who are perceived to be white is to study what that means. Whiteness has served as a tool for the elite and propertied class to maintain their domination. It actually has little to do with skin color, and much more to do with a certain level (although that varies depending on other factors) of acceptance into the dominant culture. Every single institution and system in this country has this dynamic at its foundation. It is why immigrants Anglicized their names. It is why first generation immigrants often abandoned their native tongue and mandated English be spoken by their children. It is behind the wealth gap, the education debt, the climate debt, etc. Whiteness is foundational to America, and we must confront that truth. When we do we will see that Professor Roediger is right when he says “whiteness is not only false and oppressive, it is nothing but false and oppressive.” This is ultimately what Black Lives Matter is demanding of those of us perceived as white: switch paradigms. As James Baldwin taught us “as long as you think you’re white, there’s no hope for you. ‘Cause as long as you think you’re white, I’m going to forced to think I’m Black!” In other words, for racism to end, for white supremacy to truly be dismantled, whiteness must be abolished. But, this requires nuance. Whiteness demands it be centered, and in some ways and spaces – for its dismantling – it should be. But, what ends up happening too often is white liberals — who haven’t engaged in any serious manner with the way whiteness shapes how we see the world — end up centering themselves, and therefore whiteness, in really violent ways. In real life this looks one of two ways 1) I support Black Lives Matter and the movement should do X, Y, Z or 2) Black Lives Matter is for Black people and I cannot engage at all. The former approach lacks an understanding of how whiteness must always be in charge. The former misunderstands the liberatory power for so called whites in the Black Lives Matter movement. It is possible to support Black Lives Matter and not have to be seen or heard. Thankfully these are not the only options available. It is possible to do internal work, the work of make knowledge applicable to ourselves, without having to be the center of attention. This is the paradigm shift. This is deconstructing whiteness.
Once we confront whiteness it becomes clear that our self-interest, as European-Americans, is to stand in solidarity with communities of color and demand a shift in consciousness. Instead of shouting for Bernie we need to be harmonizing with the Black Lives Matter chants that are piercing the armor of whiteness from coast to coast.