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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