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March 18, 2009

Three Things I’ve Learned from RaceFail About Being an Ally

Filed under: Uncategorized — thirdxlucky @ 7:31 am

1. There is no Right Way.

There are plenty of wrong ways, plenty of ways not to be an ally, but there is no Right Way to accrue all the brownie points, become a Good White Person, and Win at Racism. I already knew this – sort of. But I think, deep down, I believed it was theoretically possible – if only one read enough and listened enough and researched enough and carefully, conscientiously, oh-so-tentatively engaged in enough Right Action – just practically impossible because there were too many books and blogs and causes out there to ever understand in one lifetime. The upshot of this being that, while it may be impossible to Win at Racism, it is distinctly possible to Level Up. Or to NOT Level Up, because you fucked up big-time somewhere, broke a rule, blew all your experience points and should probably just give up and go home.

I can’t quite put my finger on it, because I think it’s a subconscious shift more than a conscious one, but something about the mass de-centered, multilayered, fluid, hypertextual, exploding, blossoming, echoing and reverberating nature of the discussions (and arguments, and shouting matches) around RaceFail has disabused me of that notion. There is no One Right Way or even One Right Path to being an ally. It’s not even realistically impossible to plug in all the variables and get the right answer, it’s metaphysically impossible; the variables are as infinite and ever-shifting as human experience, and there is no right answer. You just have to be an ally and, most importantly, keep being an ally. It’s important for me, as a white person, to sit down and shut up when POC are talking about their experiences with racism, but it’s also important not to stay silent when injustice is being done out of my fear of being wrong. This is not a license to go wading in, ignorance flailing, and start trying to “help” in places where you have little context and no idea what’s going on. It is a geas to quit consuming and participate.

2. The Blogosphere Does Not Exist for MY Edification

In my previous post, although I couched it in awkward caveats, I said some things implying that RaceFail was really a Good Thing because we had all Learned So Much. It’s true that I have learned a lot from RaceFail and from the discussions around cultural appropriation that preceded it. I know the same is true for other allies an hopefully even some white people who were not previously allies. I’m also overwhelmed and excited to have discovered some awesome new (to me) bloggers who I feel negligent for not being aware of before. (But that’s more egocentric Right Way stuff talking. What matters is that I’m reading them now.)

But by claiming that this was all worth it for the sake of edifying some ignorant white people (including myself), I trivialized the experiences of POC who were hurt in the process. I sorta thought I understood this thing too, but I didn’t really get it. This post brought it home to me:

[…] In the intense and almost singular focus on clueless white people in this discussion and the often repeated statement that this was an opportunity to dialogue, that there is solace in the fact that it has been worth all the pain and difficulty, that they are somehow *glad*, the underlying assumption is that:

* PoCs have emotional/intellectual catharsis after such discussions.

* PoC’s pain being part of an educational moment for clueless white people is worth it to PoCs because it’s worth it to white people.

* Anti-racism matters the same amount, in the same way to clueless white people, allies and PoC.

My own personal answer is, frankly no, I haven’t felt any kind of catharsis. I’m pretty sure that the sacrifice of my dignity and watching other PoC being denigrated without any remorse isn’t worth it so please stop talking for me and be more precise in your speech and own that you didn’t really think about whether my pain and humiliation is worth your enlightening moment.

The radical blogosphere, and the people blogging within it, do not exist to make me a better radical. If I become a better radical through my relationship with the blogosphere, that’s great – and how could I not, given the influences I’m surrounded by? But this is not a show being put on for my edutainment.

I think the internet – the blogosphere in particular – is an incredible, unprecedented and powerful forum for doing political work. In order for that work to get done this needs to be, as much as it can be, a safe space where we can work together on difficult issues in ways that respect our own and each others’ humanity. (Which is different from ways in which nobody ever gets angry.) As a participant in that work, educating myself is important but it’s not enough to do just that; it’s my responsibility to facilitate safety and respect. RaceFail has illustrated how having a bunch of perhaps well-meaning but otherwise needy, clueless whites running around can epically derail meaningful political work being done by PoC and their allies, and can make the spaces in which that work is/was happening feel uncomfortable, unsustainable, even dangerous.

I know, trust me, how tempting it is as an insecure baby-ally to hide out in the comfortable anonymity of lurkerdom and call it ‘self-educating’ – because that’s pretty much all I do. It’s easy, it’s free, it’s emotionally safe; it’s the path of least resistance. But that’s not a sufficient education because it is NOT THE JOB of PoC bloggers to educate their more clueless readers. (Although many of them do go out of their way to do so. This is something we should massively appreciate, but not something we should expect.) We need to be educating ourselves by doing our own research, going beyond the blogosphere and maybe even(!) outside the Internet. Maybe to consciousness raising groups in our local areas, or to people in our own communities or to, say, the fuckin’ library. Even though that might necessitate scary things like looking a person in the eye and saying, “I don’t know.”

3. ‘White Guilt’ is an Epithet.

This is tangential to RaceFail, but it’s an important thing I’ve learned in the past 48 hours. I have often, when trying to discuss racism with other white people, been accused of suffering from “white guilt.” The derogatory implication being that my interest in racial politics – rather than being based on any kind of valid argument, or real ethical or personal commitment – is just some kind of idiosyncratic character flaw, indicative of a weak and gullible constitution. I’ve been concern-trolled, online and in person, with the “just white guilt” line enough times to partly internalize it. I sometimes wonder if my activism is not really about a commitment to racial justice or a desire for my loved ones to be safe and flourish, but rather just a manifestation of some neurotic insecurity…

Today I read a post by Seeking Avalon’s Willow in which she said:

Allies (those who recognize white privilege – and who have sometimes been labelled race traitors and polluters. Or more recently; manipulated, emotionally fragile white people).

And suddenly two-and-two came together in my head. *click!* Within anti-racist movement, we talk about white guilt as a manifestation of privilege, one that white people need to overcome in order to engage meaningfully. But that’s NOT what non-radical white people mean when they say it. It’s no longer as effective to explicitly shame white people for being anti-racist, as with “race traitor” or “polluter.” So, instead, accusations of having “white guilt” are used to make us feel crazy for it, to cause us to doubt our own reasons, commitment and character.

Like most people raised in this messed up society, I do have a plethora of neuroses and insecurities. I can’t claim that they don’t impact my activism because they impact my whole life, of which my activism is a big part. And yes, I do feel white guilt sometimes. But it’s the kind that’s important to work through. It’s not the kind that, merely by existing, magically negates my real reasons for caring about racial justice. And finally understanding, thanks to Willow’s comment, that those two things are different allows me to say the latter with confidence.

Without the fear that one day my inexplicably (but obviously!) neurotic weird white guilt might unexpectedly and suddenly disappear, taking with it all my drive to keep fighting racism and turning me into a Strong ‘n’ Steady Normal White Person Who Can Easily Resist That Silly Reverse-Racist Dogma… Well, let’s just say I feel a lot more hopeful about confronting my actual white guilt and dealing with it in a constructive way.

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1 Comment »

  1. “It’s no longer as effective to explicitly shame white people for being anti-racist, as with “race traitor” or “polluter.” So, instead, accusations of having “white guilt” are used to make us feel crazy for it, to cause us to doubt our own reasons, commitment and character.”

    Thanks for that.

    Comment by brett — March 20, 2009 @ 1:54 am | Reply


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