Racial and Cultural

Calling all white people, part 11: Can’t be accountable to everyone

Calling All White People, Part 11

(A periodic attempt to mobilize white people for something other than supporting just other melanin-deficient folks and maintaining a status quo of a nation geared toward whiteness as the baseline and the norm)

By An Average White Guy

TODAY’S EPISODE: Accountability is essential…but it isn’t a simple, blanket concept
[To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]

There’s been a lot of talk lately in anti-racism/racial justice circles about accountability. Mostly right now, it seems to be a term attached to white-led, white-focused anti-racism groups (e.g., groups formed to educate, mobilize and support white people in dismantling white supremacy and educating their fellow white people about racial justice and racism) and criticisms that many of these groups are not acting in a way that is accountable to people of color. That is, they are simply centering white people in a new way and/or perpetuating white supremacy by making anti-racism efforts all about white-led movements.

I’m not saying that this isn’t something to be concerned about. It is. We white people have to constantly check our biases and examine our relative privileges vis-a-vis people of color because it’s so easy to slip into bad habits. We’ve been raised to be centered in this American culture because of our whiteness, and so we can make terrible missteps even when we try to do good or are sure that what we’re doing is right and just.

And I’m sure there are white-led groups focused on white people’s part in the anti-racism struggle that miss the mark and are doing more to make themselves feel good and/or try to steer the anti-racism ship with little or no input from people of color. And that is wrong-headed.

But my problem with accountability as the term is being thrown around a lot lately is with the vagueness that surrounds it. Some people have demanded that groups disband for not being accountable, sometimes when those groups are trying to reach out to figure out how they can be more accountable or when they are already engaged in efforts to figure out what they can do to be more accountable.

And in all this, I’ve seen very little specificity being offered by the people demanding that white anti-racism groups shut down as to what accountability looks like.

There are times when lack of accountability (or, more generally, lack of awareness/sensitivity around racial matters) is really, really clear and you will find probably no Black people or other people of color disagreeing with the assessment that the ball has been dropped by white folks unless those people of color have names like Ben Carson or Omarosa Manigault.

The recent furor over the Pepsi commercial with Kendall Jenner is a good example. Although many people shoved to the margins by people who love Trump have reason to be irritated with that commercial, I have to say that Black people were one of the most wronged, given how much risk has been involved with Black Lives Matter protests and similar activist actions around anti-Black racism and how that Pepsi commercial belittled those risks and the dedicated work of the people who endured those risks.

But then there are other times the waters are murkier. Right now, as I’ve already alluded to, there have been a fair amount of very vocal demands that chapters of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ)…or perhaps all of them and the national organization as well…should shut down because they are run by white people and overwhelmingly involve white people.

On the one side, you have Black people and other people of color who maintain that white-led anti-racism groups are inherently flawed because white people don’t get it and have traditionally messed things up. Some of the more vocal critics have even gone as far as to say anything led or designed primarily by white people is inherently trash. And so some SURJ chapters do seem to be shutting down under this criticism, with the message going out that white people need to individually educate themselves and their families and communities rather than organizing as a group to share questions, issues and support. Which to me feels like getting a degree via self-directed learning; most people can’t do it.

On the other hand, you have people of color who are all too aware that these groups sometimes mess up or misstep, but are glad to see large numbers of white people acknowledge white privilege and white supremacy and finally start making some kind of concerted effort to address those issues and fix them. They maintain that white supremacy and systemic racism were created by white people (who still hold most of the power and influence) and dismantling that mess without significant white effort would be nigh-impossible.

And there, for many white people who are concerned about racism and want to see racial equity arrive (if not in their lifetime, at least perhaps before we get to the next century), is the rub.

You can’t please everyone.

And to be brutally honest, you can’t be accountable to everyone.

As much as I hate to say this, if you’re in this work to try to cripple racism and other forms of social oppression, you are quite likely going to piss off someone in the group you are trying to support and spare from further bigotry at some point. In fact, with this post, I am likely to piss off a number of people who, for example, are in the adamantly anti-SURJ camp. It’s probably fairly clear in my tone and earlier comments that I don’t quite understand the logic of dissuading white people from having groups that will help educate them about racism (people of color often chafe at always having to educate us); that will provide them with strategies and tools to confront racism and try to chip away at it in their family, social and professional circles; and that will encourage and support them in their efforts as well as (theoretically) provide them with a place to check each other on biases they may still hold (which may indeed include centering whiteness too much and trying to control the anti-racism work too much). Having white people willing to organize in this way and gather in this way also seems appropriate given that a significant number of people of color are uncomfortable with large numbers of white people in their own anti-racism or racial-support gatherings.

As Teddy Burrage noted in a recent post here at BGIM, Black people are not monolithic, nor is any other group. Even when they are working on the same problem or issue and belong to the same marginalized group, people can disagree, sometimes sharply. And I think it’s a shock for many of us white people when we are supporting efforts like anti-racism when we see two Black people, for example, go head-to-head arguing over what is the right way to do something. Or whether, for example, SURJ is a good thing or a bad thing.

But in the end, anti-racism work, like any other complicated and messy work that involves dismantling oppressive systems, is a potential minefield for the people who work in that area. Especially for the people who belong to the group (or multiple groups) associated with dealing out that oppression.

We can’t be accountable to everyone, because everyone doesn’t agree. You certainly can’t be accountable to every individual Black person (or Latinx person, or Muslim person, or anyone else) because different people are going to have vastly different opinions. Different groups, too. You’ve heard the phrase “You can’t please everyone” and the fact is that you can’t.

I mean, you can be “accountable” in the sense that you need to respect and listen to people in marginalized groups and, when they say you’re doing something wrong, actually examine your actions and feelings closely to see if they’re right (and if it’s racism and you’re white and you’ve been told you’re doing something wrong, experience tells me the odds are that you probably did mess up). But you can’t be “accountable” in the sense of following one set of rules, because there isn’t one.

Bottom line: We as white people need to constantly check our privilege. We need to constantly self-diagnose ourselves as to whether or not we’re exhibiting unfair bias. We need to hear criticisms of our actions and attitudes by people in marginalized groups without getting defensive. We need to change what we do, say and think when it’s clear we’re hurting a group or a good cause. At the same time, we need to resist the urge to respond to the loudest, angriest voices all the time, because they aren’t always the right voices or even the majority opinion.

Unless and until there is a monolithic rulebook for every marginalized group (and there won’t ever be; I can promise that), you need to realize that in being accountable to one set of voices, you will almost certainly run afoul of another set of voices…and all of them trying to do the same work for, largely, the same fundamental outcome: freedom and equity.

That sucks. That makes the work harder. But fighting oppression is a fight; make no mistake. You’re going to get bruises, and they won’t all be from the enemy.
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Black People Are Not Monolithic

Today’s post is written by regular BGIM contributor Teddy Burrage, a Portland, Maine, native and local activist and organizer. When he’s not writing or working, you can usually find him exploring Maine’s vast interior and coastline.

“Black people are not monolithic.”

“Black people are not monolithic.”

“Black people are not monolithic.”

As I began to draft this post, I kept on saying that phrase in my head over and over. I began to realize how immense those five words are. To consider those words is to consider the full breadth of human experience.

The phrase says that Black people don’t move as one, but rather we move in all directions, towards and away from each other. It says that we are unique people endowed with the expected strengths and flaws inherent to human existence. It means that inside any given Black person lies an amalgamation of ideas, experiences, and values which shape each of our worldviews.

But despite our unique individuality, we are often crammed into boxes constructed by society. Even in our well-intended effort to identify with each other, we as Black people sometimes define and standardize Blackness to a fault.

Being from Maine (often referred to as “The Whitest State in the Nation”) my experience as a Black person who has one white parent is much different than a person who has two Black parents and lives somewhere like Washington, D.C., which has a Black population of 50 percent.

Much in the same way, the experiences of a Black person who grew up in View Park-Windsor Hills, California, (known as the Black Beverly Hills) is going to be different than the experiences of a Black person who grew up in the most impoverished parts of Milwaukee or Newark.

If Black people were monolithic, issues of sexuality and gender wouldn’t cause rifts in families and communities. Some pro-Black activists wouldn’t lift the message of intersectionality (highlighting the plight of transwomen of color, for example) while other pro-Black activists see it as their mission to uphold heteronormative ideals and gender roles, concerning themselves with the so-called feminization of the Black male.

If Black people were monolithic, we wouldn’t face conflicts among ourselves about politics and ideology. We wouldn’t argue about what it means to be Black or how best to express our frustrations with racism. It would be impossible for Dr. Ben Carson and Dr. Cornel West to simultaneously exist on the same planet.

These comparisons could go on forever to account for religion, politics, country of origin, skin tone, parental/guardianship caretakers, education, citizenship status, employment status, criminal record, sexuality, gender identity, etc., etc.

Despite society’s attempt to conceptualize Blackness in one dimension, reality shows that we are as diverse as any other race.

Our human minds want to create schema to sort through information better and create our own understanding of the world. And it’s not just white people who place guidelines on Blackness (or any other identity) in this way.

For example, I’ve been told numerous times in my life that I wasn’t Black enough by other Black people:

I’ve been told that because I speak “proper” means that I can’t be Black.

I’ve been told that because I’m light-skinned means that I can’t be Black.

I’ve been told that because I’m from Maine means that I can’t be Black.

After hearing these things, I caught myself trying to check off boxes in head:

  • “I get the jokes on Def Comedy Jam and Comic View”
  • “I like to do cookouts”
  • “I’ve lived in project housing”
  • “My parents listened to soul and gospel growing up”
  • “I got my butt whooped as a child”

These are all experiences which I had associated with mainstream American Blackness. And yet to my dismay, I was still not Black enough, despite my own self-identification.

The conflict of checking of boxes has also been a physical one on official documents, standardized test, and census reports. Do I check just Black? Do I check Black and white? Do I check other?

But after some internal deliberation, I rejected the idea that there were certain boxes I must check to be Black, or to be me. I found that if I do or feel something, it’s something a Black person does and feels–it’s something that Teddy does and feels.

But here I digress from my personal experiences.

Culturally, there are significant aspects Blackness we must thoughtfully consider. The Harlem Renaissance, soul music, the Black Church, the Black freedom struggle, hip hop, rap, and certain hair styles are all things which are inherently and undeniably Black.

Being Black in America means that you will surely encounter racial bias in social circles, employment, and governmental institutions.

I believe that it is through our effort to honor and recognize these rich and significant cultural realities that we fall down the rabbit hole of trying to categorize ourselves. But we must find ways to both honor and realize our experiences while allowing people to be Black in their own way.

In that same way, we must find ways to talk about the demographic and statistical realities of Black life without pandering to the detrimental stereotypes white supremacy places on us.

We must be gentle with ourselves and others when we try to define Blackness. We must look beyond the narrow scope of the systems of oppression we have internalized to make room for everyone to be themselves. This will not be easy or without conflict but we must make it our goal to allow people to be Black in their own way.

Black people are in fact not monolithic and to realize that is to realize our humanity.
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Calling all white people, part 10: Hating your whiteness won’t help anyone

Calling All White People, Part 10

(A periodic attempt to mobilize white people for something other than supporting just other melanin-deficient folks and maintaining a status quo of a nation geared toward whiteness as the baseline and the norm)

By An Average White Guy

TODAY’S EPISODE: If you hate yourself or your whiteness, you’re doing anti-racism wrong
[To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]

There is a somewhat trite, oft-misused and sometimes patronizing old Christian (mostly from evangelistic types) saying that goes: “I don’t hate the sinner, but I hate the sin.”

The sentiment is good, really. You can disapprove of actions without having to hate the person. You can see the bad things people do and still recognize their basic humanity. You can have some judgment (and who of us is free of that?) and still have kindness/mercy. I mean, it’s a shame that a lot of the folks who use that saying actually do hate the people they see as sinners, but the basic sentiment is sound.

I know, I know; where’s he going with this?

If you’re white and you’re interested in racial justice, anti-racism, racial equity and all that, and you hate your whiteness, you’re not doing anyone any favors. Especially if your hatred of whiteness (already problematic) becomes self-hatred, too. If your actions for balancing the racial playing field end up becoming the result of “white guilt.”

Don’t get me wrong. As white people, we have plenty of guilt historically speaking and right now in the present day. Plenty of blood on our hands, as it were. And even if we personally don’t do racist things (or very often) and even if our parents and maybe even grandparents didn’t (unlikely, but possible), we still benefit from a system and society framed around whiteness and we still have all kinds of privilege. We benefit from the sins of the past.

And so we get back to hating the sin but not the sinner. Sort of.

It’s OK to hate the large parts of our history (American history or otherwise) in which white people did terrible things to non-white people. It’s OK to hate that you get a ton benefits (often subtle and unspoken) that you wish your family, friends, acquaintances, co-workers and other fellow citizens of color also had (but usually don’t). It’s OK to see the wrongness in that and to work to change things so that they don’t operate based on the principle of more power and access the closer you are to white.

But self-hate, no. Hating your whiteness, no. There are things in life we can’t control; we should be able, therefore, to control any impulses toward self-hate while still working for justice and often letting people of color guide a lot of the process toward making society more equal.

Self-hate is self-defeating. For one thing, it’s injurious and draining. For another, it plays into the hands of white supremacist types and racism deniers. Think about it: How often and for how long have they accused white racial justice folks of hating themselves and hating whiteness? Of reverse-racism and other similarly ridiculous things.

So, don’t play into their hands by actually going down that steep and slippery slope. One of the things racist/bigoted folks almost never have going for them are facts, figures and science. The research and the numbers consistently show how racism plays out systemically as well as personally in our society. People on the far right have never been able to significantly or logically back up their claims of reverse racism or disprove racism with facts and figures unless they twist them massively or take them completely out of context.

However, if white people in large numbers start giving into the notion that they should do racial justice out of a sense of self-flagellation or begin to express hatred of their whiteness and fellow white people, then they make those racist asshats right for once. And the last thing we need to do is give them any foothold. They already ignore the real and undeniable numbers that show racism has effects over decades and centuries and has not gone away. God forbid we actually give them something numerically verifiable to back up their outlandish claims that racial justice work is only an act of senseless guilt and ultimately is “genocidal” to the white race.

In short, do racial justice (or support it heavily) because it’s the right and humane and loving thing to do, not because you are trying to work off the sins of previous generations or your own past racial sins.

Hate the racism; don’t hate your race.
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If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

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