Why I am Skeptical of White Liberals in the Black Lives Matter Movement
I don’t believe in good people. I am often told that I am “good people,” (it’s the usual response when someone finds out I am a hospice volunteer, for instance) but I can assure you that I’m not a good person. The reason I do hospice volunteer work is because it benefits me. I am afraid of dying, and I want to face that fear before my death is imminent. I want to learn how to live life fully through accepting the truth of mortality.
Which isn’t to say that my hospice volunteer work doesn’t benefit other people — I very much hope it does. I hope that the people I spend time with are comforted by my presence. I hope that I can ultimately develop the wisdom to help the people I care about through their difficult moments. But, pure altruism is rarely enough to motivate people toward difficult work.
Some people find my belief that altruism is ultimately self motivated very cynical, but I don’t see it that way. I view it, actually, as a beautiful expression of the interconnectedness of humanity. The fact that sometimes the best thing you can do to help yourself is help someone else is a deep truth that may eventually save us from blowing this planet up.
But, when I talk to a lot of “white allies,” they seem very disconnected from how racial activist work benefits them. Their usual justification for race activist work is that they believe the oppression of people of color is “wrong” and they they want to help fix it. You know, be on the right side of history and all that. And I get it. It seems downright shameful as a white person who has inherited so much privilege on the oppression of others to admit you are now getting additional benefit from helping to fix the oppression. But, it’s true whether we want to admit it or not. It’s true whether we are conscious of it or not.
And, I think many white people involved in race activist work are unconscious of their deeper motivations, and I think this is dangerous. It is not a coincidence that many white allies come from the more privileged sections of society. Consider at the extreme case Mark Zuckerberg. The internet practically ejaculated when he expressed support for Black Lives Matter. But how far do you think that support goes? Do you think he’s be willing to hand over facebook to someone who is not a white man? Do you think he’s actually willing to relinquish any of his personal power to abstractly support these activist goals?
As a woman in liberal, male dominated sections of society, I’ve seen this play out many times before with respect to gender. When I first joined my high school wrestling team, the initial response was “awesome, a girl on the wrestling team!” Everyone was so supportive, and enthusiastic and kind. People really went out of their way to make me feel welcome.
Unless they thought I might actually beat them in a match.
My female presence was highly enjoyed by men who did not have to endure the humiliation of losing to me. The boys who did lose matches to me fucking hated me.
A similar thing happened with the glass ceiling I hit in tech. When I entered the field as an intern people were psyched to have me around, and very much wanted what was best for me and my career. As soon as I became more experienced and started taking on more leadership roles, things became harder. I found code reviewing more junior members of the team very painful. Often, they would resist my suggestions and sometimes seemed to resent the work I assigned them. I assumed the problem was mine. I took classes in non-violent communication, studied management techniques, and worked on becoming a better communicator.
Then, I founded an all female development consultancy, and realized that female programmers didn’t have the same problems with my management style that male programmers did. It wasn’t humiliating for them to be the underlings of a female developer. On the contrary, it gave them hope for their future in the field. I came to believe that men want women in tech, but they don’t want to be subordinate to women in tech.
So. When I look at Black Lives Matter, and I see all these well to do white liberals supporting the movement, I get my skepticism on. These particular white people are not in immediate danger of having their position in society usurped by the types of power black people are currently trying to grab, so they’re willing to go with it. Heavily white police forces, on the other hand, are likely to have a significant number of their privileges curtailed so they’re going to fight Black Lives Matter. They’re the ones who are going to lose this wrestling match, and their resentment is palatable.
But I have a question for you; if black people make serious inroads into gaining power so that bougie white people have to submit to black leadership, do you think there are going to be so many white allies? Do you think ideological dedication to the equality of all races is going to motivate white people to voluntarily give up their privileged position in society?
If white privilege functions like male privilege, I suspect not.
But wait! Not everything is hopeless shit, hold on. There are genuine white allies, like there are genuine male feminist allies, but they have to be deeply in touch the ways their privilege hurts them. Some of the strongest male feminists I’ve met are effeminate gay men because they are highly conscious of the pain of toxic masculinity has caused them. They deeply feel how masculine expectations have caused them to suffer, even while granting privilege. So they are incentivized to equalize femininity. Men who are less aware of the pain of masculinity are less likely to be feminist.
If you are a white ally, but are not aware of the pain of whiteness, when push comes to shove you will crumble. Because racial equality isn’t going to look like having a statistically acceptable number of black CEOs. Racial equality isn’t your life now, except with more POC friends. Racial equality will require a deep restructuring of a society that is founded on slavery. Gender equality will require a deep restructuring of a society that is founded on patriarchy. Society is currently set up to grant privilege to those who are able to do the tasks white men are good at; a more equitable society will value different tasks.
The unstated underlying assumption of so much white allyship is essentially the condescending belief that white culture is better. “Us kind white people are going to help people of color have the nice things we have, because the things our culture produces are the best things.” Unaware white liberals are perverse modern missionaries, whose underlying goal is to export their way of life to other races. White liberals are incentivized to keep the existing power structures (which they benefit from) in place, but stick a few more brown people in them. I suspect part of the subconscious motivation behind a lot of white allyship is to appease the danger they see present in current racial conflicts while maintaining the structures that keep their societal position secure.
However, if you are a brown person, especially if you are a brown person raised in a community of other brown people, being placed as a diversity token will be painful because you will be alone. There is a reason that people of color only spaces are frightening, and when we get institutions that are primarily composed of people of color that have real power in American society, I expect many white people (liberal or otherwise) will become even more afraid. It is much more comfortable to have racial diversity distributed evenly throughout every institution because it keeps people of color isolated from each other, as perpetual minorities forced to sever ties to their own cultures. It forces people of color to adopt the wider more mainstream cultural values which may not benefit them.
Which, incidentally, is something white people have already done. Have you ever noticed how people say things like “there is no white culture” or “white culture is mainstream culture?” Well, it’s true. But, it’s true because European Americans have cut ties with their ancestral roots. The cost of white privilege is cultural homogenization, which is why we have lumped such a large number of diverse people from different countries under the heading “white.” Each of these countries had their own traditions, all of which have now been lost. And, cut off from our past but unaware of the source of an inarticulable pain, white people blunder about like headless ghosts trying to heal themselves but destroying others in the process. Aya de Leon wrote a beautifully sympathetic piece on the colonization of the Day of the Dead:
[T]he urge to colonization is born when your own land and resources have been taken over by the greedy and your cultures have been bankrupted. Halloween has a rich history as an indigenous European holiday that celebrated many of the same themes as Day of the Dead, but you have let it be taken over by Wal-Mart. Now it’s about plastic decorations and cheap polyester costumes and young women having permission to wear sexy clothes without being slut-shamed and kids bingeing on candy. November first finds piles of plastic and synthetic junk headed to the landfill to litter the earth. You have abandoned Halloween, left it laying in the street like a trampled fright wig from the dollar store. Take back your holiday. Take back your own indigenous culture. Fight to reclaim your own spirituality.
The same forces that create racial oppression are the same forces that locked white people in a cold prison of our own making. And it is shameful, it is shameful because our own culture had caused us to suffer. Our culture causes us to work 70 hour weeks instead of spending time with our families. Our culture causes us to desecrate the environment. Our culture prevents us from connecting deeply with others, opting instead for the objectification of other people for what material benefit they provide us. Our culture disconnects us from our own emotions, so we can never sate our true desires because we are unaware of them.
Should white people be involved with Black Lives Matter? Absolutely. But we should do it with full awareness of the pain whiteness has caused us. Otherwise, we will subconsciously perpetuate the structures of oppression even as we are trying to fix them. As long as we think we are “being good people” whose primary goal in racial movements is to “help others”, we are buying into the mistaken belief that how we live life is better than how other people live life. We are buying into the mistaken belief that white cultural values are better than other cultural values. And, on that front, we are wrong. We haven’t just failed to care for the earth, we have failed to care for ourselves.
We can’t heal the damage we caused other people without first acknowledging the damage we have caused ourselves.