White people often associate antiracism training with learning about and respecting the differences between white and non-white cultures, between Western culture and non-Western cultures. The goal behind this “cultural sensitivity” training is to ensure that white people do not unintentionally offend people of colour. I will refer to this type of training as human relations programming.
Essentially, for whites, the purpose of human relations programming is to minimize the possibility that people of colour would file a racial discrimination complaint against the company, or on the societal level, its purpose is to prevent a racial revolt or “race war”. Sometimes, a white person who feels guilty about racism attempts to be antiracist by being extra-nice to people of colour. In other cases, a white person who realizes that she did something racist to a person of colour will try to ameliorate the transgression by, again, being extra-nice. If the white person and the person of colour become on friendly terms, the white person may perceive that her racial transgression has been forgiven. If the white person believes that her racial transgression has been forgiven, it usually relieves her of her guilt and restores her self-identity as a “good person”.
However, the problem with this model is that racism is more than cultural misunderstandings between whites and non-whites; racism is more than just acts that offend people of colour. Racism is inequality, inequity, and injustice that are built into our society which values whites over non-whites. Racism is not “subjective”; it is “objective”. That is, racism is not perception; it is reality. There are real inconsistencies between how society treats whites and non-whites, and these inconsistencies are due to conscious and unconscious in-group/out-group categorization.
Racism is not just about personal relationship problems between white and non-white individuals due to racial differences. Racism is systemic. The problem is not difference; it is inequality. The solution to the problem is not to accept differences; the solution to the problem is to eliminate inequality.
White people use human relations programming to protect themselves from racial anger.
Some white people’s focus on and preoccupation with human relations programming appears to indicate a deep-seated, subconscious fear of an oncoming “race war”, in which people of colour will eventually revolt violently in response to centuries of white oppression. For white people who conflate antiracism with human relations programming, the worst outcome of systemic racial oppression is racial violence. In other words, white people who focus on human relations programming are concerned (subconsciously) with their own safety as a racial group, and their goal is to maintain social order. The current social order, of course, is the status quo that upholds white supremacy. Thus, to focus on human relations programming is to protect the white supremacist system from being overthrown, to placate people of colour with kind words and prevent them from rebelling.
White people’s conflation of antiracism with human relations programming explains why liberal/left-wing white people admire white people who speak about racism against people of colour, yet disapprove of people of colour who speak about racism against people of colour. A white person who speaks out against racism is seen by whites as placating people of colour and telling people of colour what they want to hear. If the goal is to prevent the “race war” scenario, then human relations programming works towards that goal, and a white antiracist symbolizes peace. However, a person of colour who speaks out against racism is seen by whites as antithetical to the human-relations-programming interpretation of antiracism, since this person of colour may incite other people of colour to riot and ignite the “race war” itself. Hence, white people generally perceive the person of colour who brings up racism as being “racist” and as a symbol of disharmony.
Here are two examples of whites who think that antiracism is human relations programming.
KellyDiane, a white person, made this comment about racial activism:
[R]acial activists preach unity, right? The unity of all people, hopefully.
Already, KellyDiane’s use of the word ‘unity’ indicates her misunderstanding of antiracism. Racial unity is not sufficient for racial equity. A social system can be unified and functioning well, but this does not indicate anything about equality. For example, a patriarchal family system with strict gender roles may be unified, and the men and women may be happy with their assigned roles (insofar as the women do not collectively revolt), but this does not mean that the women are not being undervalued and abused. Again, if white people focus on racial unity over racial justice, it suggests that they are more concerned with preventing racial violence (which would cause whites to suffer) than eliminating racism. Justice, not unity, is the real goal of antiracism.
Learning about race seems to require some generalization. I think this is especially true if a white person wants to stop saying things to POC, or doing things to them, that are racist.
And yet, if I’m reading your post right, you offer no guidelines for proper forms of generalization by whites about the racial experiences of people of color. If, for instance, one POC does not like it when a white person says this or that to them (e.g., “My, you’re so articulate!”), and then another member of that non-white racial group also doesn’t like that, and then another also doesn’t like it, shouldn’t the white person realize, at some point, that members of that non-white racial group don’t like it when white people say that thing to them? If so, that realization seems to require generalization, doesn’t it?
So I’m wondering, where and how do you think a white person CAN effectively generalize about POC, based on what POC say or write? (And of course, the goal of such learning, via informed generalization, is anti-racist: the cessation of racist behavior.)
Macon D’s absurd idea that that the racial experiences of people of colour can be generalized is highly problematic, and is discussed elsewhere. However, another serious problem with his comment is that he believes that ‘racism’ is defined as white behaviour that non-whites do not like. Macon D believes that racism can be explained in terms of the supposed collective social preferences of non-white people, whereas in actuality, racism is racial inequity. If a white person tries to ‘compliment’ a non-white person by calling her ‘articulate’, the problem is not that the white person is insensitive towards the non-white person’s cultural preferences. The problem is that the white person assumes that the non-white person is less intelligent and less educated because of her race. This is called ‘racism’.
This white person thinks that white antiracism is positive, and that black antiracism is negative.
A very interesting incident occurred recently on the blog Stuff White People Say, which I contribute to along with jwbe (white) and Nquest (black). A white reader and fan of Macon D’s Stuff White People Do—named gypsy rose—left comments on our blog, accusing us of being “clueless”, of having “a problem with macon d himself, for whatever reason, rather than with what he writes”, and telling us that we need to “get over it” and “get positive”. Along with calling us “trolls”, gypsy rose complained that we did not acknowledge in writing that Macon D’s post (forget the whiteness of the bomb) was “good”. After Nquest asked gypsy rose if she/he wanted a cookie from us to give to Macon D, Nquest posted a link to his comment on the forget the whiteness of the bomb post which acknowledged that Macon D’s post was good. Gypsy rose replied:
You call that a positive comment? You are such a troll.
This was the actual comment by Nquest that gypsy rose found negative, or at least non-positive and trollish (Macon D’s words in italics):
Because the Japanese were “non-white,” dropping The Bomb on them wasn’t as morally troubling as it could’ve been.
I guess that explains the unparalleled sympathy and affection for (the apparent ruling class of Jews in Israel and) the “150 nukes” state of Israel.
Logically, there is nothing about Nquest’s comment that is negative towards Macon D as a person or trollish in the context of the Stuff White People Do blog. However, I laughed at gypsy rose’s suggestion that Nquest’s comment was negative, and I replied:
Let me guess, you think that it was a “negative” comment because Nquest, who is black, is saying something negative about whites. If Macon D made the same point about whites, you would make sure we saw it so that we could acknowledge what a good (white) antiracist he is.
In other words, gypsy rose perceives Nquest’s comment about white racism as trollish and negative simply because Nquest is black. For gypsy rose, a black person that adds to and builds upon a white person’s thoughts on white racism is a “troll” and needs to “get positive”. If we accept the hypothesis that white people generally perceive people of colour speaking about racism as hindering the white-perceived goal of antiracism, i.e., racial unity and maintaining social order, then we have a framework for understanding gypsy rose’s double standards. Gypsy rose perceives Macon D and his blog as “good”, and she/he perceives Nquest as a “troll”, because she/he believes implicitly that a white person who speaks about racism is productive, and that a black person who speaks about racism is destructive.
When white people implement antiracism as human relations programming, it is self-serving and seeks to protect white people from the real or perceived anger of people of colour. White people need to learn that antiracism is not about “them”; it is not about white safety and protecting current society. However, very few white people who perceive themselves as ‘antiracists’ would be willing to risk a revolution that destroys the social hierarchy that is in place today, the social hierarchy which confers safety and privilege upon white bodies, and which whites want, subconsciously, to protect.
Related web pages:
- So You Think You’re an Anti-Racist? 6 Critical Paradigm Shifts for Well-Intentioned White Folks compiled by Paul Gorski for EdChange and the Multicultural Pavilion
- If no one’s offended… by The Laughing Linden Branch