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Beyond White Guilt: The Role of Allies in the Struggle for Racial Equality

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opednews.com Headlined to H2 9/1/09

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A week or so ago, Ludovic Blain, formerly of Stop Dog Whistle Racism (and now with the Closing the Racial Wealth Gap Initiative), asked us to comment on "why white liberals are unable to grasp and take action to expose, challenge and provide alternatives to the racism spouted from the right." We think it is an important question and one that we may not have squarely addressed in our weekly blog over the past three years, so we thought we would give it some attention.

First, it is important to be clear that we are limiting our discussion of what Blain referred to as "white liberals" to White folks who are progressive with respect to issues of race. Some of those folks may be politically conservative in other areas or would otherwise reject the label of "liberal" altogether. Still, we feel as if the root of the question is about Whites who 1) understand that there are significant problems with respect to racial inequality that are systemic and 2) are interested in seeing those problems addressed and eventually solved. There are many Whites, of course, who may be wonderful people in general, but are convinced that ending "racism" means getting folks to quit using the n-word or joining the Ku Klux Klan. These folks believe that we have progressed to the point where there is now equality among races in America and that the election of Barack Obama is further proof of such progress. We are not addressing those folks here; rather, we are addressing the role of what scholars refer to as "allies" in the ongoing struggle for racial equality.

Broadly speaking, allies are folks who have privilege in a given category but work alongside those who do not to bring about more equality. So an ally for LGBT rights would be heterosexual, for instance. Feminist men are allies. Able-bodied folks can be allies in the struggle to bring attention to and remedy discrimination against those with physical challenges. Whites are allies in the struggle for racial justice. (See Dr. John Raible's "Checklist for Allies Against Racism" for examples of what this might mean on a daily basis.)

It is important to remember that the word "privilege," when used in this context, does not mean absolute privilege. There are a lot of White folks, for example, who certainly could not be considered to be "privileged" because they are poor, were raised poor, had other disadvantages, etc. With respect to a similarly situated person of color, however, they are considered to "have privilege." In other words, having "privilege" means having an advantage, all other things being equal and is not the same as "being privileged." Like "racist," it refers to what we are, not who we are: "I am someone who has privilege, but I am not privileged; I am racist, but I am not a racist." Failing to appropriately define the concept invariably results in an unraveling of its meaning; after all, only a very small fraction of the population would be considered to be "privileged" in the broadest sense of the word (someone always has it better). Most of us have some degree of privilege in one context or another.

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Allies are important to social movements, but they find themselves in a complicated position in a number of ways. They are at once needed because they have disproportionate (though almost never absolute) access to the power structure that, by definition, those who are out of the privileged group do not have. On the other hand, as members of the privileged group, they must always be aware that no matter how well intended, they do not have the lived experience of someone who is in a disadvantaged group, and exerting their perspective can be (or can be perceived as) a further act of oppression, symbolic of the larger issue. In this sense, there is a very real irony present in these relationships.

We will use ourselves as an example. Charlton has the experience of being a Black man in America, which is something Stephen can seek to understand, but can never fully comprehend. Stephen can only know what is is like to be a person of color through the lived experiences of persons of color. One of the ways that this is illustrated is when he speaks publicly about racism. In fact, we often engage audience members in discussion about this issue during the Q&A portion of our public lectures, so we can relate what those folks have shared with us.

There is an inherent sense of legitimacy ascribed to Stephen from White audience members because he is perceived to not have a personal agenda in the matter. That is, if he is successful, White supremacy -- from which he has benefited and continues to benefit in ways that are largely unknowable -- will be dismantled, and he will therefore have less of an advantage. When Charlton speaks about the same issues, he is certainly viewed with a sense of legitimacy with respect to his understanding of how racism works, but there is always a sense amongst White audience members that he is less trustworthy because he is perceived to have a clear agenda; unlike Stephen, he is perceived to benefit directly (and disproportionately) if racism is lessened or eliminated.

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Furthermore, it is expected that people of color in academia (particularly in the social sciences and humanities) will be engaged in scholarly pursuits related to race and ethnicity. This, like many stereotypes, is an assumption rooted in reality. It is true that a vastly disproportionate number of scholars who work on these issues are of color, and it is true that a great number of scholars who are of color have as their research interest issues that involve race. But it is quite frustrating for scholars of color who are not interested in these issues to be presumed to be, much like it is frustrating for all tall persons to be constantly asked if they play basketball. And for Whites who have devoted their careers to exploring (in the case of scholars) or fighting (in the case of activists) racism, similar questions arise.

Whites ask them (sometimes quite openly), "Why do you do this? Do you feel guilty about being White?" People of color are sometimes (though, at least in Stephen's experience, not often openly) concerned about the possibility of intellectual colonialism. In other words, just like a man who teaches Women's Studies must be thoughtful about being patriarchal in his approach, Whites who are involved in these issues need to be constantly reflective about the potential to be (or even to appear to be) presumptuous about the proper way to do or think about things.

As Chris Matthews promoted his recent documentary about the Kennedy brothers (some of which, naturally, focused on their participation in the Civil Rights Movement) on The Colbert Report, Matthews claimed that the Kennedy brothers "created the Civil Rights Movement," to which Colbert brilliantly replied, "I loved Kennedy's 'I Have a Dream Speech.'" (Matthews appeared not to pick up on the jab). The comment is reminiscent of Hillary Clinton's remark during the Democratic primary contest in January 2008: "Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It took a president to get it done." The problem, of course, is that these statements give ultimate (rather than proportionate) credit to Whites for the progress made to bring about racial equality.

This notion is not unprecedented, and we would not argue that it is an intentional slight. In other words, it is reflective of the speakers' latent racism, not of any conscious bigotry. As another example, school children who were educated in the second half of the 20th century, unless they were part of an Afrocentric curriculum, likely learned that Rosa Parks was an elderly woman who was too tired from a hard day of work as a seamstress to get out of her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955. Though Rosa Parks did work the day she was arrested, she was not old (42), and while she was, indeed, tired, her real fatigue was from injustice and frustration that her work with the NAACP was not yielding enough publicity for the cause. Rosa Parks was an advocate for racial justice and was participating in an act of civil disobedience when she refused to give up her seat.

Why, then, did generations of children learn such a different story about Rosa Parks? While conspiracy theories are interesting (and often warranted), one need not believe in any conscious decision on the part of Whites to appreciate the cause and effect of this myth. (One compelling argument, for example, is that by not celebrating Parks's direct action, young folks were not taught to believe that civil disobedience was an acceptable or effective response to injustice.) It is more comfortable for Whites (who until very recently had the market cornered on writing history and History textbooks) to believe that it was the benevolence of Whites that remedied the past evils of slavery, Jim Crow and racism in general. It is comfortable for White folks to believe that while they may never have owned a slave or forced someone to a separate water fountain, they (and/or folks like them) took responsibility and corrected the wrongs of those earlier times.

To a certain extent, of course, this is correct. Whites did control almost all the power in those days (as they disproportionately still do), so Hillary Clinton and others were right in noting that "it took" Whites (not just LBJ but the U.S. Supreme Court, White members of Congress, etc.) to "get it done." But such a half-story undermines the courage and intelligence of African Americans who did much of the hard work and planning for years before Whites took notice on a large scale. Further, such skewed versions of history reinforce stereotypes of African Americans as helpless and needing Whites to come to the rescue.

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And this remains the primary complication of the contemporary White American who is concerned with and involved in understanding and/or solving the problem of racial inequality. These folks do not wish to be perceived as believing that they are coming to the rescue. They wish to work alongside people of color in the struggle, all the while knowing that it is at once not their struggle and at the same time -- since White supremacy ultimately hurts every member of society -- very much their struggle, too.

In addition to the millions of White Americans who are deeply committed to moving forward toward greater racial equality, there are a handful of White scholars and activists who are deeply engaged in these issues. You might have (should have) come across the work of Tim Wise or that of our friend and colleague Bob Jensen, for instance. Are they driven by guilt? Probably initially, but not ultimately.

When White folks realize the depth and complexity involved in racism (i.e., that it is more than simply disliking someone based on the color of his or her skin), there is an inevitable feeling of guilt because they understand that it is impossible to know how much of what they have achieved is the result of their own hard work and perseverance and how much can be attributed to their race. That is a confusing place to be, and it invariably leads to some feelings of guilt.

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Stephen Maynard Caliendo is associate professor of political science at North Central College. Charlton McIlwain is associate professor of media, culture and communication at New York University. They are co-authors of the forthcoming book "Race (more...)

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