Calling All White People, Part 30: Roles to avoid

Calling All White People, Part 30

(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: Savior, profiteer and other things not to be  

[To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]

White people are many things to Black people and other people of color (POC), but too often not a good thing. I mean, the outright racist among our ranks are bad enough, whether they are verbally or physically assaulting POC or enacting legislation and policy that assault the very core of their lives and ability to be even vaguely content, much less prosper.

But then there are the white people, too, who aren’t so deliberate in their intentions or overt about their racist feelings. They are plenty racist in terms of how they view Black people and perhaps other POC but it’s all in the micro-aggressions and subtle comments and behaviors. Maybe they keep their racism mostly bottled up because they don’t want to be seen as racist. Maybe they have long-held perceptions that they haven’t bothered to try to unpack because there is no impetus to get them to let go of their bigotry or privilege. Maybe they don’t have the slightest clue that what they are doing is racist or problematic in some other way.

And it’s that last group I want to talk about because it’s not just about the people who were raised with racist preconceptions. It’s not just about people who are ignorant about the depth and extent of racism in society, systems and themselves. It’s about people who think they know better—and probably should know better—but who don’t.

And they are often white people who adopt roles that they feel are positive and helpful toward Black people or other POC who tend to endure a lot of racism. Let’s address some of those roles that you or white people you know may have adopted—and that may need to be shed.

The Savior: Certainly, there is a need for white people to help in the fight against racism. After all, our ancestors created the systems and infrastructure to enforce it and to benefit from it and most of us do plenty to maintain its smooth and continued operation. POC need allies (but more than that they need accomplices). But what they don’t need are white saviors. This has been perhaps one of the single greatest failings of “well meaning” white people throughout the centuries when it comes to POC, particularly Black and Indigenous people. They want to rush in as heroes with some big dramatic show of help, or they want to do something “significant” or they want to do something big and specific. We have all too many movies and books about these kinds of white people, and too many examples in real life too. It’s not that white savior types don’t ever help people or do good; the problem is that they don’t do any lasting or broad good. It tends to be about some singular super-focused issue or some specific person. Saviors, when it comes to white people and racism, don’t tend to look at the big picture or really attack systemic problems. So, you do something dramatic for a Black person (buy them a car so they don’t have to walk to work, for example) or you do something that changes your own life overall (adopting only children of color). It’s not that those things are bad. But are they impactful in a good way? After you buy the Black person the car, do you change anything about your workplace that makes it difficult for a person like that Black one to make a living wage or do you put any pressure on the city to improve access to mass transit? If you adopt children of color, are you doing it because it makes you feel good or because it’s easier to get them—and what are you going to do to honor their racial/ethnic heritage and connect them with people who aren’t white? Except when it comes to someone like Jesus, saviors tend to do things that feel good or make them look good. The don’t think long-term in most cases and nothing they do fixes any of the structural problems of racism.

The Profiteer: Lots of white people make a living off anti-racism work, and I’m not criticizing that because there is a lot of work to do, and white privilege doesn’t mean that most white people can do anti-racism work or related kinds of work full time without getting paid. However, that said, there are white people who are making lots of money off of the work. And that isn’t necessarily bad either, depending on the person or the work. However, there seem to be increasing numbers of white people who are making money or building reputations as experts or pundits or activists who really don’t have deep knowledge or impact. It’s that whole thing about lifting up white mediocrity. While plenty of POC are doing hard work and good work, they often get ignored in favor of elevating white people who are merely doing the basic stuff they ought to be doing (if that). As white people, we should be reluctant to prosper heavily from any work related to fighting a system that already benefits us. When we do profit heavily from it we need to remember to give back to communities of color, particularly Black and Indigenous ones, whether in terms of monetary support or physical presence in the ground-level unpaid work (like protesting and disrupting), etc. But wherever possible, if there are POC who are doing the work better than us or who would be more appropriate to the well-paying gig in question, we should be pointing the people who are paying to those POC. Look, if this whole Average White Guy thing I’m doing here at BGIM Media took off and got a lot of attention, I’m not going to be taking speaking engagements and going on tour and publishing book after book showing off my “knowledge” and “wokeness.” I’m going to be referring people to POC, deferring entirely or partnering with POC.

The Journalist: Lots of white people these days are recording racist occurrences, and certainly that can be important. But, and I’m gonna keep this one short and sweet—for God’s sake put down the phone if you can help. If you can intervene, assist or whatever else, put your hands and heart to that first and foremost. And if you can record and intervene at the same time, great. But if you have to choose between the two, help the person rather than simply record their pain and make it go viral online.

Those are the three biggies in my mind where we white people are playing the wrong roles, or doing the roles in the wrong way. To quote the well-known aphorism: “Don’t be part of the problem; be part of the solution.”

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