(or really, my letter progressive to progressive, as I go to college in a radical bubble. Yes, this letter has a specific audience — meaning white progressives steeped in antiracist discourse. I realize this is a very specific audience, but bear with me.)
Once, there was a paradise where white people coexisted equally in social justice groups. Then, two people wanted to know more and become better than anyone else. And a snake told them they were white and that they already had conquered the world. So they ate the fig. And they discovered their whiteness. And they were very ashamed and tried to say that they were actually people of color, that they had cookie cutter parents who oppressed them, and that they’re misunderstood. And they discovered the snake was an Arab, who is undoubtedly evil. But then they tried to be best friends with the snake. God placed a curse upon the white people:
Their babies will be born with the curse of whiteness unless they ritualistically participate in the sacraments, for which they will be forgiven and be liberal, so therefore more accepted among people of color such as Arabs. So thus became a fetishization of the snake. We are from dust and to dust they shall return.
Sound offensive? I’ve come to realize that white antiracist discourse readily available to white people mirrors aspects of Catholicism. I say this as a Catholic and a white person, so if you’re going to yell at me, yell at me for not elevating the role of the snake, but I know if I did that someone would harp on me for not writing about what I know. This is a valid critique because I wouldn’t want to be John Updike. I’d love to write about this from the perspective of many faiths, but again, someone will harp on me for daring to venture out of my personal spectrum. This is a valid critique, because you wouldn’t want to be John Updike. Still.
There are many white academics I’ve met who have “come into their whiteness,” much as second-wavers would “come into their feminism.” Being white is an awakening, the shit people have to unlearn is a phenomenon, a language to unlock to get into the People of Color Fan Club, to be cool. If I am really really sorry about being white and confess to People of Color about how white I am, I won’t be white anymore. These tears, confessions, processing, and militant WHITE ALLY SUMMIT/COALITION OF ANTIRACIST WHITES is guilt that projects onto others. When one is conscious that they are Terrible, Bad, Angry, Greedy, people, they spill all of their guilt onto the people they think they are helping. Granted, I am at a progressive college saying this to other progressives, so there is a slant here — a specific audience, if you will. I’m not saying to pick up the banner of white pride. But please, white antiracists, project less guilt!
Activism based on guilt is the least effective way to go about making people convinced that racism sucks. These are the people who might be entirely isolated from this essay because I pick apart the language of the white antiracist progressive — yet those are people who you might want to talk to sometime. Who knows, they might have more of a clue about those things than you do. But activism based on guilt creates acceptance only if you speak a specific language. And Because using guilt to make people more afraid that they should be ‘in the flock,’ this creates the need for atonement. Antiracial baptism and reconciliation is measured in the number of people of color you are able to make smile and nod. And through white atonement and restatement, we become less white and become: ALLIES. And allies are perfect white people. When they mispronounce names, it’s because they aren’t as good with names. This creates the need for a confessional circle of white people going “I’m white, and I’m sorry, I want to help as much as I can, but I’m whiteandi’mwhiteandi’mwhiteandi’mwhite,” which is basically a white-erotic circlejerk and I know that when I say this, you may just smile and nod and say, o.k., more things for me to work on while unlearning racism as if it’s something that can be unlearned. This alienates just as many people in my opinion as someone who says WHITE PRIDE and it’s my right to stomp on people. Guilt is passive-aggressive stomping. And again, this circlejerking is taking away from any actual conversations we might be able to have across non-progressive communities.
Among progressive, passive-agressive white people, it becomes a contest as to who can become less white — or more reclaimed in their whiteness. We progressive white people were trying to stomp out racism and white pride, but were invoking it in our confessional-style guilt trips. Now, I know y’all are probably just going to say, o.k., Theodora is invoking her triggers and if something is triggering for her, it may not be triggering for the rest of us, and she is projecting. And her white triggers invoke my triggers. And we all know confession trumps agency, as Gina Dent pointed out in “Missionary Position.” What I am saying is that when white people get together and talk about racism we still have the comfortableness that we’re all white and can just talk about how we want ‘diversity’ and ‘culture’ to be One. I am rather against One. It’s boring and it’s not going to happen and to say happy fuzzy hand-holding things just masks the actual problem. Which is why white antiracism masks the actual problem because more people are allowed to be apathetic ALLIES rather than own up to their lives and take active roles. Simply putting on a badge or talking in seminar or telling someone that you are “their ally,” most likely means you’re not, according to my snap friend. Not that antiracism is bad, but the idea in progressive circles that you should confess your sins to a person to be forgiven is toxic. You don’t get absolution for being white, you just move on and do better.
O.k. want another reason why it doesn’t work? It’s in the language of the academy. Not the world. I don’t speak this language when I leave my comfy liberal arts couch. (as evidenced by this essay, which is sooo catered to people in my comfy liberal arts couch). So, what to do with someone who hasn’t been indoctrinated into the faith? Bull-fucking-shit. Like feminists who have talked about how many feminists are feminists in practice rather than in name, many white people live this stuff in practice even if they’ve never participated in an anti-oppression workshop. They may even, say a friend pointed out, “use politically incorrect language.” AAAAAHHHH! Sooo scary.
Although it’s probably a sin not to face up to how much you hate other people and feel weird around them — without using the politically correct language that makes your racism still racism, but more “elite” and “disguised.” I’m not saying to start calling people slurs — please — but that the language of the academy is just as racist — even though there are big words involved and confessional is cool. But the catch is acknowledging and changing, not acknowledging and writing a poem about it. And when we realize how much and why we hate, we might actually get some shit done. It’s like any kind of work — there are no simple solutions — the hatred is too deep to smooth things over with language and confession of sins that puts others on pedestals, that invites a happy love picnic when everyone is not ready to make nice. I wish we could get there, but we have to roll up our sleeves first.
Also, this kind of liberal infighting — like I just did — but I am harping on myself here — picks apart words and phrases so we forget what the larger enemy is. Besides, like I’ve said before, alienating more people who need to be involved. It lessons social justice movements. Since there are other people doing this work and not using the lexicon, I would say the guilt and confession lessons social justice movements, too — but I’ll quit liberal infighting if you quit the circlejerks. And then we can be open to including more people in our conversations, even without the lexicon. And then we can gather our forces to conquer Darth Vader or something.