Friday, October 26, 2012
Friend or Foe? White Allies Who Tell the "Truth" About White Privilege
We are in the home stretch before the election. Consequently, many members of the chattering classes are holding their fire and best shots until the middle and end of next week. In a marathon they say you need to save up some energy and push through the last lap. I am following that rule, and taking the intermission--the lull before the storm--to write about some things which I have been thinking about, but have not the opportunity to share. Election fatigue has set in; let us clear our minds by discussing semi-related matters.
As I like to say, here is something fun for a Friday.
In this piece on Mitt Romney's success in the face of failure, I discussed white privilege.
Said concept is one that many race men and race women have been analyzing for more than one hundred years. The language of "white privilege" has seeped into the public discourse through the work of good folks like Time Wise. And even he would admit that it was people of color like Du Bois, Ellison, and others who had arrived there long before white public intellectuals and activists even uttered the phrase. The reality of white privilege being what it is, the fact remains that many white folks will listen and respond to certain truths from other white people, while simultaneously remaining deaf to the same observations, when they come from a black or a brown person.
I would extend the same model to "straight" people, men, the middle class, and other groups who are defined as "normal" or "ideal" in this society as well.
While watching this interview, one in which a seemingly honest and vulnerable white elder reflects upon white racism, I am made to feel uncomfortable. This interview could do good work with the right audience; on the other hand it feels like a cheap parlor trick where someone conjures up a white person to tell the darker races, the oppressed, and people of color who have had to navigate the color line, exactly what we want to hear.
This interview is the great reveal in a poorly written mystery or heist film where all of the twists and the turns are explained to the audience during the last act. Alternatively, this interview, where the true mysteries of white racism and white privilege are deciphered, is the equivalent of Neo's dialogue with the Architect in the second Matrix film. I liked that scene as a viewer and a fan; in hindsight, it never resonated as a mirror for the real world. The Matrix franchise, despite the many books on the subject, is not offering up a life philosophy to its viewers.
Power is not sitting in a corner, twisting its mustache, moving you and me like chess pieces. Power works more effectively through rewards and incentives than it ever can through punitive moves, punishment, and disincentives. In all, the time that the less-empowered spend looking for its center of gravity, the more strength and resources Power is able to accrue and leverage to keep them in their place.
Secret riddles revealed through bad online documentaries about the Illuminati, or by "street knowledge" such as the Willie Lynch letter, are a fool's errand and a tired detour from the real field of battle: hegemonic power mocks such searchers. Likewise, if Power extends its hand and offers to share a secret riddle or truth, a person should be immediately suspect.
Coming full circle, how should we assess the sincerity of our white allies, and those others who are members of a dominant group, but are ethically and morally compelled to assist those who are subordinant and less powerful?
Most of the white folks who I later found out were true allies in the struggle against white supremacy were often quiet warriors who did the right thing, not because of a pat on the back, or a public interview, but because their conscience demanded it. Those "white allies," many of them "progressives" and "guilty white liberals" crowed the loudest about their accomplishments in helping people of color, but inevitably I discovered they were just racists of a different ideological hue and stripe.
Thus, I am immediately suspect when I see public credit claiming, or reveals about the "truth" of one's kin and clan's shortcomings. Perhaps, I am just jaded and cynical.
Ultimately, who is the exploited in this series of interviews where a white woman shares the "truth" about white racism with a black interlocutor? The older white woman who is telling the interviewer everything that she wants to hear, as she gives a cathartic (and in many ways pathetic) explanation of her complicity with white racism? Or is it the interviewer and the audience who are being played and exploited? Are they/we the real marks in the con?