Good White Person

September 13, 2011 § 7 Comments

Yes, ol’ fashioned racism can and does get to me. Those racial slurs as I ride my bicycle, being the only one followed by the security guard, or the never-really-random airport search, but most days, if I had to choose my direct racist experience, I’d rather any of the above over encounters with a Good White Person.

If you’re a POC, you probably know at least one of these Good White People! If you’re white and reading my blog, maybe you are one; a well intentioned whitey. You’re ‘on my side’, right? You figured out racism is ‘bad’ so now you’ve joined the fight against racism! Maybe you work in a social enterprise, for a charity, with refugees, or Indigenous people, or in the multi-cultural arts. You’re proud of yourself for your many years of human rights work. You’ve claimed your anti-racist identity, you have friends and maybe even lovers who are people of colour, so how could you possibly be racist?

How could you NOT be racist? We have been raised in a white supremacy and we have all internalised racism. We are all racist.

I don’t have the emotional or political energy for friends and acquaintances who express that they are hurt and offended that I’ve inferred that they are racist by critiquing their behaviour or by simply withdrawing from their company. I know that it hurts to feel admonished or abandoned, but this is not comparable or relevant to the hurt and betrayal I feel by people who have tried to contextualise the racist behaviours I experience in terms of the person who has enacted racism’s ignorance, insecurities, or good intentions (which are factors in their behaviour, but don’t alter my experience of their behaviour as racism). This justification de-validates my experience, and though I remind myself that friends are well intentioned in trying to comfort me by convincing me that I needn’t feel bad because nobody meant any harm, they are silencing me as a person of colour, re-centering the experience around whiteness, and being complicit in white supremacy. In contrast, I emphasise how empowering it has been to share experiences of racism and have my anger and sense of alienation validated by others. This has been infinitely more ‘comforting’ than the friends who have had a ‘Don’t worry about it’ attitude. That’s their privilege not to worry about something that permeates all aspects of my daily, lived experience.

I do have white friends who ‘worry about it’. And I mean, beyond white guilt. White guilt doesn’t really help me in itself, it doesn’t help me have a less racist experience of the world. Articulation of white guilt re-centers discussion of racism around white experience, and it puts pressure on POCs to reassure white people’s feelings. I have been generous enough to articulately delineate to people that I care about, how they have enacted privilege on me and had them shut down, be paralysed by guilt that I want nothing to do with. If they use their guilt to be self-aware and conscious of their privilege, if it provides some ongoing motivation for them to critically reflect on and deconstruct their place in white supremacy and to critically engage in the future, then that isn’t bad, but they shouldn’t expect congratulations for it. They should be grateful I expended energy and emotionally risked myself to critique them, because there is less risk and more empowerment in sharing experiences and having them validated, than in educating white people, especially individually.

I operate with great suspicion around white people and white dominated collectives and spaces that claim anti-racist motivations. It so often seems that embracing diversity is seen as a magical recipe for equality when it’s no guarantee that everyone’s experience in the ‘diverse group’ will be an equal experience. It means there’s a complicated mix of power dynamics to do with race, class, gender, able-bodiedness, etc that need be acknowledged and constantly addressed. I’m not going to applaud them for their embracement of diversity, I’m going to wonder about how those dynamics play out and doubt that those from ‘marginalised groups’ feel empowered in the situation. Just because the doormat, the signage, the mission statement or they personally say ‘You’re welcome here’, does not mean that I have automatically been made to feel welcome, and when the racisms I critique are condoned or denied, that welcome means nothing.

Don’t assume because I’m in your establishment, party, group, band, bed, or friendship, that our experience of that situation is equal, when we didn’t even come to the situation from equal grounds. You asserting to me, especially in the face of me critiquing your privilege and your racisms, that you consider ‘all people equal’ and that you ‘treat all people the same’, denies my experience within, and affirms to me your complicity in, white supremacy. We do not have an equal experience of the world and so your supposed equal treatment can never be experienced equally. For example, a person (such as one of colour) who has had their body devalued, made both invisible and hyper-visible, who has been constantly other-ed, is not going to experience non-consensual touch in the same way as those subject to less consistent other-ing.

I’m speaking from my lived experience as a marginalized person who has been in situations that I was not forced into, putting in energy that was not asked of me, and consistently adapting though it was rarely literally demanded of me to do so. I realise, mostly in retrospect, how privilege has played into my relationships, collaborations and other experiences. And I try to understand why those who have enacted privilege on me do not understand my anger and sense of betrayal that is often catalysed when adaptation is consistently not reciprocated even in crucial times. Perhaps neither of us acknowledged the ongoing implicit power dynamics; my adaptation nor how that adaptation is part of a lifetime of my being conditioned to adapt, and their lifetime of having those without their privilege adapting to them. Of course, the dynamics are not just of race, but class, gender, sexuality and many other complexities. I know I have unwittingly enacted privilege on those I care about. I’m grateful to people who have pulled me up because it shouldn’t be up to them to challenge me, I need to be self-aware and initiate change in myself. And I’m thankful and inspired if they’re still in my life, because I know continued engagement with people who un-intentionally de-validate your experience is a generosity I haven’t lately been feeling capable of myself.

I would prefer not to operate on a high level of distrust towards most white people I encounter, but it seems a lot healthier than consistently feeling betrayed. You can’t just say ‘trust me’; you have to earn trust and keep it alive. As a person of colour, I know that first hand, as trust is not something given freely to people of colour by white supremacy. Yet I am constantly expected to offer my trust, without critique, to white people, and if I do not, then I am pitied, feared, despised or dismissed for my distrust, including by some other people of colour. It’s as if I should know, there are ‘bad’ racist people out there but there are white people who have nobly chosen to be saviours of people of colour, when they didn’t even have to be! That I should realize I need gratefully congratulate them for deciding to be a Good White Person.

So, here’s a certificate for all the Good White People out there, born out of an email exchange with Wai Ho of Mellow Yellow blog (thanks Wai!). So, Good White People, if you really want to fight racism and help people of colour then send $10 and I’ll send you an authentic, signed certificate in the post. All proceeds to People of Colour.

[photo description: certificate with fancy border. at top centre is a drawn logo of a white fist surrounded by a wreath of smaller various coloured hands. underneath reads "CONGRATULATIONS! You are a GOOD WHITE PERSON. You have done ___ months / years of human rights / anti-racist work and you have ___ friends from ___ different races / ethnicities. This document certifies that you can never do, think, say, feel anything racist / white-centric / self-obsessed ever again !!!! BRAVO! YIPPEE! WOOHOO! If anyone of colour ever accuses you of racism, just show them this certificate and you will be instantly absolved from any misunderstanding the coloured person* has had about you. Because, don't forget, good white person, It's ALL about YOU!" Below in bottom right corner is a line for a signature, under which reads "People of Colour Representative"]

*this certificate was made in collaboration with Wai Ho, based in Aotearoa (aka New Zealand) where the term ‘coloured person’ is a common term used by non-white people from many ethnicities to describe themselves. I realise the term has a loaded history in reference to black people in North America, and that this blog has a further reach than Aotearoa, and will be changing the text in future printings and online once my repetitive stress injury is a bit better

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