CSWAC Blog

White People Working It Out

October 1, 2012

My friend Jim Edler, who posted in June, is a pioneer.  In the early 1970s, Jim and colleagues were leading anti-racism trainings for white people in tandem with trainings for people of color.  Jim’s unpublished dissertation of January 1974, White on White: An Anti-Racism Manual for White Educators in the Process of Becoming explores what can be done about “our white problem.”

Nowadays, if people discuss the topic at all, we usually talk about “racism” or even “white supremacy.”  But at the time Jim and a few others such as Robert Terry  and Judith Katzwere breaking new ground, the common vernacular was “the black problem.”  If people of color were struggling, it was their fault and they would have to fix it.

European American pioneers who urged fellow whites to explore white privilege were listening to leaders of color.  Malcolm X wrote in his Autobiography  in 1964, “Let sincere white individuals find all other white people they can who feel as they do – and let them form their own all-white groups, to work trying to convert other white people who are thinking and acting so racist.”  Another example from the same time period is Stokely Carmichael’s statement,  “It must be offered that white people who desire change in this country should go where that problem (racism) is most manifest. The problem is not in the black community. The white people should go into white communities….”

In 1967, the Kerner Report, commissioned by Lyndon B. Johnson, stated in its summary, “What white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”  This finding was all the more surprising, coming as it did from elite white commissioners.

Decades later, white people still don’t understand we have a role and responsibility in ending racism.  The Center for the Study of White American Culture (CSWAC) has recently introduced a workshop entitled “What White People Can Do About Racism” and European Americans are staying away in droves!  In fact we heard from one source that some progressive white people are offended by the very idea.

Well, it’s certainly not news that racism is a very unpopular topic in most circles, especially white ones.  And it isn’t news that nobody likes to be blamed or shamed, which (I believe) is what many white people fear will happen to them in a workshop about whites and racism.  So why on earth would white people take such a workshop?

There are several great reasons.  It requires a certain amount of true grit to look some of them in the eye.

A top reason would be that white people benefit from racism through a system of white privilege.  Even if we try individually not to hurt or oppress others, institutional racism ensures we’ll get the most goodies.  That being the case, shouldn’t we be the ones to take up the work of ending this system?

Another reason is that our white privilege grants us the very power that can be used to help take down the system.  Should we stand blithely on the sidelines, privilege and power in hand, and watch idly while people of color struggle against horrific odds?

A third reason is that, because of privilege and the misguided strategy of colorblindness, most of us white people have extremely little knowledge or understanding of racism.  We really don’t know what happened and why, and what’s continuing to happen all around us.  We don’t have a clue about how we are implicated, and what we could do to change things.  The vast majority of us think we are nonracist and that’s good enough.  “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men [sic] to do nothing.”  A great deal of evil is happening on our watch.  The CSWAC workshop provides basic education – again, not shame or blame, but solid information – about the historical construction of racism, its modern manifestations, and tools available to white people for working to end it.

What we learn about the history of racism is that the system was, in fact, consciously and purposely designed by an European American elite.  Even though we weren’t there and maybe never would have acted the same way, it was our community who invented modern racism.  So who else but white people should participate in workshops and other ways of undoing racism?  Not because we are the bad guys, but on the contrary, because we are the good guys, who of course would seize the opportunity to set things right!

If you are unmoved by the argument that white people created racism, then consider that we currently perpetuate oppression.  Again, whether we white people wish it or not, we are complicit with white privilege and structural racism.  Add to that the internalized racial superiority we absorbed individually from our culture, and we are clearly purveyors of racism.  What a great reason to get to work undoing the evil.

One of the best reasons of all for fighting racism (and taking our workshop!) is that white people are profoundly damaged by racism (see Impacts of racism on white people).  We have our own humanity, happiness and wholeness to gain.

White people who participate in a white awareness workshop have to get past the wish/myth that racism is over and that white people ended it.  We have to get past the tragically failed strategy of colorblindness to admit that, yes, we are white people – and it matters that we are white.  We have to surmount both the historical notion that people of color alone should fight racism, and the idea that we must go to communities of color to oppose racism.  We get to turn to each other, sister and fellow whites, and figure out how to partner in the work.  This has to be done in a wider context of anti-racist  activism alongside and led by people of color.  People of color are welcome in What White People Can Do About Racism, but most participants are likely to be white.  Members, that is, of the community that bears responsibility for the construction and perpetuation of a white supremacist system.  Are we ready yet to step up and learn to create with people of color a new system of human justice and equality?