Your Silence is deafening: white people in movements for racial justice

By Jesse Pfein

“The task for white subjects would be to stay implicated in what they critique, but in turning towards their role and responsibility in these histories of racism, as histories of this present, to turn away from themselves, and towards others.” –Sara Ahmed (Declarations of Whiteness: The Non-Performativity of Anti-Racism)

I don’t clearly remember how I first heard about Michael Brown’s shooting. Maybe my partner mentioned it or maybe I saw it on the news. What I do recall are the words, “a black teenager was shot by police with his hands up.” The fuzziness of this memory is interesting to me — that it is blurry is an indication that it didn’t stop me in my tracks. My next recollection is that about a week later, my friend and colleague Nia Austin-Edwards called white people out on Facebook, quoting Dr. Takiyah Nur Amin and asking white people, “Why aren’t you talking about Michael Brown? Your silence is deafening after hearing so much noise about the ALS Ice Bucket challenge.” Excuses that I knew were empty defenses ran through my mind: “It’s August. I’m on vacation. I’m unplugged!”

And then emerged my doubt… “what is my place as a white person to talk about violence against black and brown people?” It felt like it was not my rage to own or express. It’s not happening to me, to my community. I’m not under attack, I’m not afraid for my own survival. It was a moment that returned me to a fundamental truth of being white: I really don’t have to talk about race and certainly not racist violence. This could be summed up under the now ubiquitous term “white privilege,” the ability to not have to think about race or care about racism.

Yet I am married to a black person, my godchildren are black, I teach black students, and I’m going to say it — the horrible “yes, I have black friends” line. Why didn’t this love translate into more immediate concern and outrage? Is there something still illegible about black pain to me as a white person, in spite of these relationships? Does whiteness create a protective bubble around me that intimacy of all sorts does not completely pierce? These questions disturbed me.

As Nia’s call sparked me to work harder to find ways of responding to racist policing, I noticed within the #blacklivesmatter movement thus far a theme that strikes me as distinct, or at least more pronounced and announced, from other moments in the long movement for racial justice: repeated calls for white people to both “do something” AND to be reflective and thoughtful about what we are doing and how we do it Are we dominating the spaces where organizing is happening? How do we participate in protests? Does putting our hands up and saying “don’t shoot” make any sense at all since our whiteness protects us and gives us the benefit of the doubt? What are we chanting? How are the stakes of saying “fuck the police” at a protest different for white people? These critiques circulated in cyberspace, some popular pieces if you haven’t read them are: “12 Things White People Can Do Now Because Ferguson” by Janee Woods “Dear White Protesters” and “On White People, Solidarity and (Not) Marching for Mike Brown”.

These conversations raise the question of what white people’s role is in challenging white supremacy. They are connected to the past two decades of Whiteness Studies, an interdisciplinary field that calls for white people to put their attention on what it means to be white, and a growing grassroots of political organizing by white anti-racists. My involvement in this work began in 2006 when I attended the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond’s (PISAB) Understanding Undoing Racism™ + Community Organizing Workshop as part of professional development for my teaching job. PISAB’s workshop gave me a language to describe what I had slowly been noticing about race – that it was not about “difference” but about power and exclusion. The workshop named white power, white supremacy, and white privilege, and it gave tools for conscious, active anti-racist organizing at the organizational and community-level. Back at my job, I work with a multiracial group of teachers to develop relationships based in mutual vulnerability that enabled us to take strategic actions for racial justice within the school, not always successfully, but always learning from our mistakes together.

I feel it is important as a white person to challenge white supremacy not from a desire for our redemption or to reclaim a goodness that too often has always belonged to social constructions of whiteness as pure, innocent, and clean. I can participate best if and when I am motivated by ethics, a desire for justice. I often hear in white anti-racist circles that white supremacy “hurts white people too” and “we need to reclaim our humanity.” And I do agree that whiteness is harmful to white people even as we gain unearned advantages from it, for it’s a delusion about who and what we are, often breeding thin-skin that makes coping with disappointment and life’s challenges more difficult. I think whiteness can lead to addiction and mental health issues, that whiteness itself can be understood as an addiction to power. But I do not feel I do racial justice work primarily to restore my “humanity” for whiteness is what our society has used to define “human.”

White people don’t need more humanity, we need to question what is human and who is deemed to be human in the first place. Some white anti-racists think it’s motivational to focus on how racial justice brings “positive gains” to white people such as feeling more comfort in diverse settings or helping us build more “authentic” cross-racial relationships, learning to “use our privilege for good” and then feel good by patting ourselves on the back for it.

I suppose these things are nice and all, but I think white people also have to be willing to lose – our entire worldview for starters and the comfort that comes from ignoring racial inequity and suffering, but also our internalized superiority and sense of entitlement to being the center of attention. We might lose our friends who might reject us for being outspoken and “always talking about race…again,” our livelihoods from employers who might not appreciate our questions about racially equitable practices in the workplace, and even our lives. Yet even with all we stand to lose, I don’t think we can just re-write what whiteness means, all of a sudden escaping its confines or giving up the unearned advantages we receive as white people. I have to be willing to accept the limits to seeing and naming whiteness: it cannot be renounced just because I all of a sudden I am paying attention to it.

For me, the work of white people in challenging white supremacy has been a continuous balance of reflection and action as I stumble along in learning and unlearning so many things. I have to learn how to think critically about race because I have not had to think about it in order to survive, and I have been taught to suppress thinking about it, ironically in the name of trying to not be racially prejudiced by attempting to be “colorblind.” Working with other white people who are committed and engaged in anti-racist thought and practice has been crucial to this process, in order to not rely only on people of color to educate me about race. I feel I can lift some of that burden in dealing with whiteness by trying to confront it in collaboration with other white people. But this work with other white people must be balanced by genuine accountability to people of color, in my neighborhood, my workplace, other organizations I participate in, and in the collective movement for racial justice. I try to enact this accountability by asking what is needed instead of assuming I know what’s best, by being willing to fall back and not be in the spotlight, by letting go of my agenda and the need to always dictate what’s going to happen, by talking less and listening more, by being open to being called out (or called in) and not just cry in response or feel paralyzed by shame, and by being willing to be compassionate and loving towards other white people instead of putting myself on a pedestal above them for my anti-racism. There is no rest in this work – no vacation days off in August – I have to be will to unlearn over and over, again and again, with humility, every day.

Returning to Nia’s desire for her white friends to speak up, I ultimately felt I had to speak in a way that wasn’t about my emotions — not because at times I felt numb in my whiteness, but because I didn’t think they were the ones that mattered most. I didn’t want to use an expression of sadness or anger as a way to “prove” my anti-racism. What actions could I take that would be concrete solidarity?

So far my attempts to respond include sharing information about what was going on as the situation in Ferguson escalated and got more brutal towards protesters, donating money to grassroots organizations in Ferguson and encouraging others with financial means to do the same, planning with colleagues how to talk about the history and current context of police violence, asking my white friends and family to talk about it, supporting my students as they create artistic work about racism and connecting them to broader arts-activist communities, listening to and learning from people who have been to Ferguson, attending marches and protests together and spreading the word about other actions.

I have no real ending to this article because there is no ending to this. I hope more people of all forms of dominant groups recognize we can contribute to social movements challenging marginalization because we collectively are the systemic problem. There is important work to do for everyone, starting with remaining open to input and direction while being wildly imaginative about what our contributions can be. Thank you to Nia Austin-Edwards for feedback and edits.

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